I've always been pretty Zen when it comes to flying. In the past, I generally have had a moment just before boarding when I reflect on my life and find it to be satisfactory enough that if I were to go down in a fiery ball of furious screeching metal that I wouldn't be altogether devastated by my premature demise.
That was naturally, before I became a mother and thus lost all capability of achieving a Zen state.
As we came to the culmination of the several months of planning required to travel by plane with a one- and two-year-old, I began to realize the full extent of my newly achieved anxiety.
My typically award-winning procrastination efforts were totally thwarted by the undeniable need to figure out the logistics of transporting or acquiring necessary baby accessories including car seats, booster chairs, and a Pack n Play (to name just a few) well in advance of our departure. The whole exhausting effort involved multiple lists, emails, and a lot of time on Amazon.com and really busted me out of my usual comfortable go-with-the-flow, deal-with-it-tomorrow attitude. It was not altogether unpleasant, but definitely monkeyed around with the usual boundaries of my comfort zone.
As we boarded the plane, after holding up an increasingly hostile group of travelers due to some misinformation about stroller checking procedures, I struggled to find my Zen-ness (it's a word, I promise) and quickly realized I was downright not okay with the vague possibility of going down in flames.
The passengers on this particular aircraft included my boys, my husband, my parents, and a tiny person, barely the size of a plum, buried deep in my uterus. No way was I letting the universe take us all down. So long blasé single traveler in sweatpants and earbuds, hello fierce mama lion hyper-alert and determined to get her cubs to their family reunion totally unscathed by any means necessary.
Of course I also had the usual parental anxieties about how my boys might behave while trapped in a metal cylinder traveling at 30,000 feet with a hundred or so strangers. We packed a heap of silent but amusing books and toys as well as enough crackers, Cheerios, and tablets to occupy an entire pre-school for at least a day.
And on the flight out, things went pretty well. There were some occasional protests and baby squawks that cut through the normal light chatter and usual white noise of air travel. But a man with a full sleeve tattoo sitting across the isle slept the entire flight with his head flat on his lap tray and the business looking man behind us just laughed when we apologized for any disruptions, telling us he had four children at home and didn't think anything of it.
The flight would have been considered an all out victory if I hadn't missed my chance to use the lady's room before we boarded and was tragically (though almost comedically) confined to my seat by the seatbelt sign and turbulence for the first twenty or thirty minutes of the flight. Add to that a 17-pound child squirming around on my pregnant bladder and things were pretty desperate. Finally, I was sure my bladder would either burst inward and drown the baby in urine (a physiologically impossible event) or I would just piss myself and be forced to dig out my emergency carryon clothes to avoid arriving in Florida smelling like a urinal. So in complete disregard to the both the turbulence and pilot's orders to stay seated, I finally swiftly passed the baby to my husband and fled to the restroom at the back of the plane. I didn't even bother worrying about the fact that a male flight attendant was only one isle up taking drink orders.
My husband dutifully played the pregnancy card for me in my absence to which the flight attendant good-naturedly responded that he'd never tackled a passenger for insubordinance in the past and wasn't going to start with a pregnant one. He even joked with me about it when I was headed back to the bathroom for a second visit just before landing (ah, the joys of pregnancy).
During our 10-day stay in Florida, two things happened that amped up my anxiety levels for the flight home:
1. Malaysian Flight 17 tragically went down with it's 298 passengers.
2. The Huffington Post published a blog piece written by an irritated daddy blogger (whom I've read before and typically enjoy) about flying with children.
Sure, the MH17 story made me a little nervous about air travel (and more so about the apparently increasingly unstable state of international affairs) but since the flight from Florida to St Louis doesn't include Ukranian airspace, I figured we were relatively safe.
It was the blog post that made me nervous. If you didn't read it, I'll summarize: daddy blogger Mike Julianelle (Dad and Buried) believes that parents shouldn't feel the need to apologize for their desire to travel with infants or young children. He writes about the fairly recent phenomenon of traveling parents compiling 'goody bags' for fellow passengers as a preemptive strike against the potential backlash against their children's possible disruptive behavior during a flight. His version of the goodie bag includes a handheld mirror 'to take a good look at yourself and consider what kind of person gets pissed off at parents traveling with a toddler' and the world's smallest violin for passengers to play 'while being whisked through the air at astonishing speeds to someplace far away while watching TV and listening to music through headphones that block out any noise from the toddler a few rows back.'
The piece is doused in sarcasm and could definitely be interpreted as unfriendly. As a blogger who embraces sarcasm and frequently leaps onto her own personal soapbox with an axe to grind, I can definitely relate. However, I suppose I could also understand why some folks might finish reading his words and come out feeling somewhat defensive.
And believe me, there were more than a few haters who came crawling out of their hate-lairs in response to this piece. I made the mistake of haphazardly clicking on the 'comments' responding to the article and was appalled at the level of maliciousness our Mr Julianelle stirred in the HuffPost readership.
Julianelle is called everything from a a twat to an asshat and parents and non-parents alike chime in with instructions for the author and each other, some of which include doing unspeakable things. Mostly, the consensus seems to be that if parents can't 'control' their children, they are considered unworthy of parenthood, air travel, and/or existence on this planet. It's ugly. Here's a sampling of the comments:
"While I don't need a goodie bag ... I also don't need to hear about how fucking miserable your children are making your life. So over people who think they need an award because they have kids*
"You chose to populate the already over-crowded planet with your mini-me versions so take responsibility like any normal parent. *My* mother never allowed me to misbehave..."
"Having children is a choice. YOUR choice. Thinking that everyone else should have to deal with your shitty kids is beyond ignorant. You had kids, you can deal with them. And if you don't get to travel because of it guess what? Not my problem. Flight isn't a right it's a privilege. Get a sitter or travel via car, but you don't have the right to force your kids on others"
Russian missiles aside, the hostility of what seems to be a sampling of my fellow travelers was terrifying.
Fast forward to our flight home. It was scheduled for departure at 830pm by ignorant fools who thought their children would sleep peacefully through the 2 hour flight.
The previous night was a rough one. Perhaps having hit his limit of late bedtimes, inconsistent naps, and a diet consisting of almost exclusively crackers and French fries, my precious one-year-old woke twice in the night and was wide awake at 530am, begging for attention. Because we were booted from our condo at 11am, we spent the day in the oppressive Florida heat visiting the zoo and stupidly attempted to nap in a Winn Dixie parking lot with the AC of our rented minivan blasting. The naps lasted approximately 17 minutes and we found ourselves arriving at our gate 3 hours early for a flight that had been delayed by almost an hour. When all was said and done, I found myself boarding our plane with clutching over-exhausted and already screaming child.
It was a nightmare.
His shrill cries and howls were probably highly annoying to nearby passengers, but to me, they were chipping pieces away at my heart and downright devastating. I literally wrestled with the poor little guy as he wailed uncontrollably. He would desperately grab and pull at my hair and my pearl necklace (which I had ignorantly assumed would make me appear to be a responsible and respectable parent but instead just gave my son a fancy noose with which to strangle me). He would fling his head violently backwards, often smashing me in the face and once, squarely and very painfully on an emerging pimple with a force that almost brought me to tears. Then I would swivel his tiny (but alarmingly strong) body around to grip him in a bear-hug and he would push and extend again, nearly causing me to lose my grip.
Occasionally, I would successfully land a bottle or cracker in his mouth and he would reluctantly chew or swallow for a moment of blissful silence but quickly he would resume his violent protesting and high-volume complaints. I sang in his ear and cooed and babbled and blew raspberries. I cuddled and snuggled and rocked and petted and pleaded. I covered him in kisses and told him how much I loved him. I begged him to just sleep already. I tried toys and books and even an iPad in a futile attempt to distract and calm him. A couple times, I passed him to my husband who fought a similar battle and was just as unsuccessful in finding the off-switch.
I couldn't even bear to sneak a peak at my fellow travelers. And frankly, I didn't even care about them after the first five minutes. I just wanted my poor little man's obvious suffering to end. It was miserable and I didn't even have time to worry about who might recant this event and bash my parenting while recounting how inconvenienced they were in the comments section of some blog someday.
The flight attendant came by twice for either drink orders or to make sure we weren't violently beating our child (which might have been a reasonable conclusion given the desperation level of the cries he was producing).
So finally, the really helpful thing that me and my hormones did was to also start crying. Shortly after blinking out the first few tears, I realized that my stress was only adding to his stress and this of course only made me cry harder.
It was a parenting fail of epic proportions. Luckily, my precious two-year-old who values his sleep more than anything in the world was snoozing soundly in the seat next to me shortly after take off, snuggled up with a stuffed monkey, frog blanket and his father and oblivious to his brother's misery.
Finally, after what could have been nothing short of an entire lifetime (but was probably more like 20 minutes), the little guy wore himself out. He was mid-chew with a (thankfully) dissolvable animal cracker in his mouth when exhaustion finally overcame him. I felt his body go mercifully limp before his eyes even closed completely and he was snoring in seconds.
My tears took a few more minutes to subside and I found myself flashing back to the delivery room when the agony of childbirth was over and all I could do was cry.
About six months ago, I witnessed a plane filled with hundreds of troops returning from Afghanistan, one of which was my amazing brother-in-law. I remember expecting to see elated smiles and exuberant behavior when they were dismissed into the crowd filled with their loved ones. What I saw was somber exhaustion winning out over enthusiasm. There were hugs and kisses and grins, of course. But mainly, they looked like they'd just woken up from a coma or landed on a foreign planet amid an extra-terrestrial species.
I could never equate my briefly unpleasant flight to being immersed in a war-torn county and witnessing unimaginable horror, but I found my brain wandering back to those faces as we landed at Lambert airport. I know I probably looked pretty miserable as the harsh white lights came up around me, with my makeup smeared and my hair totally disheveled. And naturally, the first thing that happened was that the little man woke up, blinked pathetically into the light, and resumed his shrill shrieks, thus bringing attention back to our sorry little clan.
As people stood and began collecting their belongings, a man two rows back loudly proclaimed that we should have brought something for the little guy to suck on because his cries were due to his popping ears (you know, the cries that started before we boarded?). Rather than hurdling the two seat backs between us and beating the man senseless, I turned in my seat, locked eyes with him viciously, and thrust the Tommie Tippie I was holding into the air asking in a voice filled with exhausted rage that surprised even me, 'Oh? Like this??' My boarder-line psychosis scared us both into silence and all he could do was bob his head stupidly and wave his hand in a gesture that might have been in agreement or might have meant, please don't kill me crazy lady.
We exited the plane in a flash of carryon luggage and screams with the enthusiasm of a Jewish family fleeing Nazi Germany. I was so thrilled to break into the vaulted ceilings and open spaces of a nearly empty terminal that I almost started crying again.
Over the past 10 months or so, I've learned that people often offer to help a woman juggling an infant and a toddler. However, as I bounced the still-sobbing little guy on my hip and struggled to restrain my curious 2-year-old next to the baggage carousel while my sister-in-law pulled suitcases off the belt and my husband retrieved the car, there were only pensive faces laced with either judgement or annoyance or mild fear (perhaps word of my likely instability had spread).
Whatever the reason, people were not interested in tangling with a questionably pregnant woman (Just barely into my second trimester, I am tragically either already 'showing' or I ate too many ice cream cones on vacation) as she simultaneously balances an overtired and squirming baby in one arm, hoists a 40 pound suitcase onto a cart with the other and blocks a two-year-old into his stroller with her foot. If it hadn't been so tragic, it would have been comical.
I have never been happier to climb into the cab of my husband's pickup. My sister-in-law mercifully worked her auntie magic on the little one as we pulled onto the interstate for the brief drive home and we enjoyed a ride free of shrieks and sobs. It was during this drive that I slipped into the maniacal phase of my growing lunacy and laughed like a banshee at my SIL's (not meant to be funny) stories of the border currently caring for her brother's cat. A day later, I can't even remember what was so funny. There was something about a cat named Harold whom I imagined wearing a fedora and playing bridge. As you can imagine, I derailed from there.
We are home now. Our bags are mostly unpacked and life is resuming some semblance of order and routine. The trip has left me feeling somehow baptized by fire into true motherhood. Like, I might have been a 'mom' before, but now through some sick hazing ritual, I had finally earned the merit badge that made it official.
At the end of college and into the first part of grad school, I would fly to Florida fairly regularly to visit my boyfriend who took an internship then a job there (Sidenote: it's very convenient that most of my exes now live in non-neighboring states). I would cram my clothes into a carryon sized bag, pop my earbuds in, slap a bored expression on my face, and settle in behind a good book to avoid contact with strangers. I would secretly people watch and daydream about their lives. There was something about traveling alone that made me feel somehow unrestrained and empowered; like I could board a plane going anywhere and just figure it all out when I got there. It was both liberating and thrilling.
That fearless and somewhat ignorant young woman is gone now. She's been reborn into an exhausted, pregnant mother of two who is feeling more world-weary by the day. My adventures aren't over though. They're just different now. They happen in my living room when my youngest claps along with 'patty cake' and my oldest proudly counts to ten using only six numbers. I suppose I am still a little bit fearless. See, now instead of dodging interactions with strangers on a plan,e I will apparently even willingly confront them with an angry gesture and overt hostility.
While boarding our planes, I don't experience that moment of satisfaction with my life or accept that it could end quietly without significant dismay on my end simply because there is too much to lose now. Others may find my little guy to be a disturbance, and "thinking everyone else should have to deal with [my] shitty kid" may be "beyond ignorant" but I'll be damned if that matters to me. I got to spend 10 days uninterrupted actually enjoying my boys during their fleeting early years: teaching them colors and shapes and counting, singing silly songs to them, reading them stories and wrestling with them, introducing them to the beach and sand and sea creatures, and watching them splash and explore and soak in this great big, curious world were we live. Spending real, quality time with her children is more precious than gold to a full-time working mom.
Sure, there were some snags, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.