This summer, my family and I took an overnight trip to Chicago that started out pleasant enough. We were well packed and tidy. Just before boarding our train, my husband took a few pictures of us, joking that this would begin our slow descent into madness.
Descent into madness. That turned out to be pretty accurate.
We have a long and storied history of not doing things like other people. Instead of driving in a nice air-conditioned car complete with DVD for entertaining our daughters, we boarded a crowded Amtrak train. Instead of hailing cabs, we opted for the subway. Instead of McDonald’s, we chose sustainable seafood at a busy downtown restaurant even though our daughters, 1 and 3, were on the verge of meltdown.
Walking across Millennium Park at the height of the mid-afternoon heat, we realized we had erred in judgment. And once again, we were all alone and very sweaty.
And when you’re very sweaty, it’s hard to act like a normal, mainstream family that isn’t followed around by security guards. We’re not homeless, I wanted to explain. We just love the environment.
Frankly, I’m tired of explaining myself.
With this green movement sweeping the country, it’s amazing to me that the parents I know aren’t more concerned with their unapologetically huge environmental footprint. They’re concerned about food allergies, whether Crocs will lead to certain death, and massive recalls on toys made in China. Actually, I’m worried about that last one too. There’s so much to worry about that you want to align your fears with others.
As most parents know, judging can be a sort of sport in suburbia. Knowing other people subscribe to your lifestyle helps validate whatever life you choose. And if they don’t subscribe to your lifestyle — well, moms are notoriously critical of each other.
I’m sick of feeling like the other moms at daycare — almost all of them minivan drivers — believe my reason for not driving stems from a recent DUI.
Even I, with all my moral superiority in caring about the future health and happiness of all children, catch myself playing this dangerous game. “Oh, you’re building a new house in the suburbs? You don’t make your own organic baby food? You bathe your children every day?”
Yes, the eco-craze has been slow to catch on in my circles. I’m always meeting really nice people at the playground, but outside of kid chitchat, there’s usually little left to say. And I’ve not once seen anybody visit my favorite place, the tiny nature preserve with wildflowers and at least one turtle.
I continue with the isolation, the sweatiness, and the inconvenience in the hope that my kids will learn they don’t need much to be happy, the same lesson I learned from my father. When he recently died, I was left with just a St. Christopher medal he received as a child, a box of old smoking pipes, a pocket knife, several jars of canned tomatoes from his garden, and the knowledge that it’s possible to have an impact on your children despite the teenage kicking and screaming for designer jeans.
My moments of hope come in small doses.
Not long ago, a new grocery store finally opened a mile from our house, adjacent to our community’s bike trail. This is a huge deal for me, because I’m finally able to complete every household errand without a car.
Giddy from the abundance of free samples at the grand opening, I met Melissa, a mom in the process of going down to one car. Her husband commutes by bike. She just bought her own bike and a kid trailer. She had read Chris Balish’s book How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, and was struck by the cost savings.
What a day. I can now run to the store for milk at a moment’s notice — and know that I’m not alone.
Even so, the transition from pariah to mainstream hasn’t quite arrived. The day before my family and I left for Chicago, I ran into a friend in a store parking lot. I told her about our trip and she asked what it was like to ride Amtrak with children. “I heard it can be a disaster,” she said. I quickly recalled a five-hour train delay we experienced last year that required a hotel stay. “Oh, it’s great,” I told her.
I lie like this whenever I think I might be able to convert someone. Just ask any mom who might have commented on my bike and kid trailer over the last five months. I enter into a 15-minute sales pitch.
“Oh the girls just love it, and it’s so easy to pull,” I start. “Look, it has UVA protection and a rain flap. And what a great way to get in shape!” As the mom backs away toward the parking lot, I begin my detailed explanation of how quickly I can get to Target.
But it wasn’t a complete lie about the train. I really do think it’s a fantastic way to travel. I can focus all my attention on my darling girls. I can read to them, color with them, and pull them down off the seat in front of us. If I have to endure the icy stares from the childless among you — especially the snoring college students sprawled out on the seats as if they owned Amtrak — that’s the way it’s got to be. Just because my children are small doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go to Chicago.
And I don’t think they should have to go by car.