Flying with Kids (and Without a ‘Chute)

Posted by mwallach on October 28, 2011 in Crazy Follows Me Everywhere |

Dear That’s Life,

No one wants to be the hated family on a flight. We’ve all been there. The flight when your baby screams for what seems to be a lifetime, with lung capacity rivaling that of opera singers. When everyone stares at you, wondering why you cannot get your child to be quiet, deciding you must be a terrible parent. The time when you discover, the hard way, that your toddler has a raging ear infection. Or, perhaps, when you learn that the Benedryl you gave your daughter to knock her out actually had the opposite effect. So much for being asleep in her seat – now she’s bouncing off the walls. Instead of a flying tin can, you wish for a white padded room, as do all of the people sitting around you.

Only once you have received the stares and jeers of total strangers on a plane can you appreciate the plight of others as their child turns into Damien. We have all shared similar experiences. How many times have you cleaned up vomit on an international flight? Now you never fly without a spare set of clothing for you and every member of your family. Have you ever thrown out soiled clothing on an airplane, having no interest in taking it home with you? I’ve been there, having recently thrown out an outfit in Roosevelt Field, after stripping my toddler down to her diaper in the middle of the mall. A bunch of wipes, a quick wardrobe change and a large dose of Purell later, we were good as new. As parents, we have to learn to go with the flow.

We all have our own in-flight horror stories, either as the parent with the unmanageable child or as the fellow passenger. When my nephew was younger, he became inconsolable, almost enraged, when he awoke mid-flight to find he had missed the dinner service. A boy who never skips a meal and loves his food, he screamed, called his mother a liar and carried on while the darkened cabin that had been filled with sleeping passengers was now waking to a preschooler’s tantrum. Even after he was given a snack and visited the on-board kitchen, he was still in despair, as the many around him can attest.

On our most recent flight, screaming babies seemed to have been carrying on in unison, a cacophonous choir from hell. My daughter had a solo. Bodies of nearby passengers stiffened as one, their weary eyes catching each other’s glances, wondering if this was to be their fate for the next twelve hours on an international flight. I looked around, saw their body language and announced that my daughter would certainly settle down. “Once she falls asleep,” I said, “she’ll be fine.” They did not believe me, not that I blamed them. You have to know your child, however, and we do. Once she calmed down, she slept for almost ten hours, including landing. We actually had to wake her to get her to disembark.

Our arrival on board had not gone unnoticed, as we filled two rows of seats. One woman could not hide her horrified face as we trudged through the aisle on our way to the assigned seats. She, however, had been sitting in the front of the plane as the custom of many airlines is to sit those with small children in the rear of the aircraft. “Don’t worry,” I said to her, “we’re sitting in the back.” The gentleman walking in front of me turned around and said, “Then I guess I should worry – I’m sitting in the back, too.” I raised my shoulders. “Guess so,” I said, knowing full well my kids are good flyers, but having no interest in letting him off the hook that easily.

“You don’t seem like a parent who is fazed by much of anything,” someone said to me recently, specifically about taking my family on a long flight. “No,” I confirmed. “I’m really not.” Neither is my husband. She, on the other hand, had just told her eldest that they went nowhere as a family until everyone was toilet trained. I appreciated that, knowing just how much fun it is to change a toddler on a moving aircraft at 30,000 feet using a changing table meant for Cabbage Patch Kids. In my case, however, if I waited for everyone to be toilet trained before we travelled, we would never leave the house.

A plane is like a moving city. Everything needed is available on board, and no one gets off until all get off. The result is a captive audience, or just captives. The reality is that passengers on a flight are all in it together. No one wants to have an unpleasant experience, and no one wants to be labeled a “bad parent.” It is what it is – and you just have to make the best of it.

After arriving home safely, I happened to meet someone in the supermarket who had been on our flight. “I guess you did not get any sleep,” he said. Confused, I said I had slept for a number of hours, only to realize what he had assumed. “The screaming child was not my daughter,” I said. A bit surprised, he said, “Really?” I smiled. Having had a very difficult flight, we empathized with the family of the screaming baby and the sick child who watched the minutes tick by, praying the flight would end quickly. He agreed, having been there himself as a parent, adding however that he’d take a screaming child on a plane over the problems faced by older kids any day. “Big kids, big problems,” I said, “little kids, little problems.” We smiled.

I felt for that family, but was honestly happy it was not me. He and I spoke for a couple minutes more, confusion cleared. “So, since she was not your kid,” he said, “man, did she have a set of lungs or what?!”

As Seen in the South Shore Standard Oct ’11

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