I’ve had the privilege (yeah, let’s call it that) of flying with my daughter six times in the first two years of her life. That’s six trips, twelve flights, more than twenty-four hours on an airplane. She was three months old the first time. I held her the whole flight in a window seat. When we stood up at the end, the guy on the aisle looked over and said, “Whoa! You’ve had a baby this whole time?!” Besides his lack of observational skills (and the odd insinuation that perhaps the baby had not actually been there the whole time), we thought this was a great compliment.
Fast-forward to toddler days. I don’t think anyone would make the same mistake now. It’s stressful to fly with a toddler on your lap, there’s no way around that. They’re loud, unpredictable, stubborn, active, and sometimes they move their limbs like those vintage mini-puppet toys where you push the bottom and their arms and legs collapse at awkward angles:
So flying with these little people is always an adventure. But one I’m more than willing to take on so Abigail can see grandparents and cousins and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles. Because my little child is a person and I want her to experience as much life as possible, even when she is not yet two years old.
We recently flew home from five glorious days of vacation in Texas. There was lots of sun, swimming, sweets, and very little sleep. Michael went home a day early so it was just the two of us. We got on the plane and spotted a window seat on the third row. Yes! The worst part of the flight is always those last ten minutes it takes to unload after the plane has landed. Your kid knows the flight is over and you should be getting off, but you’re not. It’s airplane purgatory. So the third row was a win!
We squeezed by our new friend on the row (I’ll call her “Aisle Seat”. She was probably in her 60’s, so maybe a grandma? Cross our fingers . . .) and we settled into our tiny, cramped home for the next two hours.
One by one everyone boards and keeps walking to find another open seat, even as the flight attendant announces that this is a full flight. I get it. I really do. I know how relaxing a flight can be when you don’t have a bouncing, laughing, poking, kicking toddler on your lap. I don’t blame you for walking past us. Not even a little bit. But then the door closed and the middle seat on our row was still empty (win again!) and “Aisle Seat” turned and said this: “Well, looks like you lucked out. I guess nobody wants to spend the next two hours next to a screaming baby.”
Like I said, I get it. An airplane is obviously not an ideal place for a toddler, but it’s necessary to let people travel back and forth to see loved ones. But just a few thoughts:
1. At this point, my child has not made a sound and has been quietly sitting in my lap looking out the window at the luggage carts and other planes and clouds. No screaming.
2. An airplane is a public place. Any time you venture into public, you run the risk of being inconvenienced. I have a responsibility in public to help my child act as much like a civilized human being as possible. I recently abandoned a half-full shopping cart in Target and carried my screaming child outside to the car under my arm like a sack of potatoes. But there’s no outside on a plane. There is just this tiny seat.
3. I will do my best to make this experience as pleasant as possible, I promise, but my child isn’t an electronic device that I can turn off or put into airplane mode. She is a person. She has a personality and feelings and right now she’s sad because she just said goodbye to her grandparents in the parking lot. But we’ll do our best.
I wasn’t rattled, like I said, I get it. So in an attempt to disarm “Aisle Seat” a little and ease the tension, I responded, “Well, she’s awfully cute, so I guess they’re all missing out.” “Aisle Seat” didn’t laugh.
Of the 130 minutes that we were in the air, Abigail cried for approximately 10 of them. Man, we tried so hard. We got out all the toys and all the books. We ate all the Cheerios, played all the games, and sang all the songs (quietly). There were a few minutes where I thought Abigail’s charms might win “Aisle Seat” over. But just when I thought we were gonna make it with a decent amount of dignity, “Aisle Seat” got up and walked to the front. And complained to the flight attendant.
I know this because the flight attendant (bless her) then came over and started banging cups in Abigail’s face to “entertain” her. Confused, Abigail took the cups, stacked them together, and put them down. The flight attendant cheerfully said, “Maybe that will help,” and walked away. Not to be deterred, “Aisle Seat” grabbed a cup and the bag of Cheerio’s (that I was holding), got a handful of Cheerio’s out of the bag, filled the cup, and started shaking it at Abigail. (At this point, I was just trying not to laugh.) “You’ve got to keep them distracted,” she said. Them? There’s only one of her. And she’s doing pretty good for a toddler on a plane, but she is having a rough day. Maybe you are too, since you’re now on your second Jack Daniels on a two-hour flight.
As the plane touched down, “Aisle Seat” said, “I hope you have someone coming to pick you up because I don’t think you can handle all that.” Oh, I think we’ll be ok. I will manage to gather all our belongings and we will go on to live our lives after this flight.
Just to be clear, I’m not bitter or mad at “Aisle Seat” and I’m recounting this experience mostly because it’s funny to me. I can’t say enough that I get it and I literally feel a burning wave of nausea every time we step on a plane because I don’t want to be a burden on anyone, ever. I feel eyes piercing into us as we walk down the aisle, but then I remember, hey, this is my little person that I get to travel with today and I like her, even on bad days. You might get to sit by her and get a few Cheerio’s in your lap or you might get to sit by the guy that busts out his Salmon Caesar Salad five minutes into the flight.
I told Abigail before we got on that flight that I was so glad she was with me. I always get sad leaving Texas and I was happy to have her company as we traveled home. And I meant it. I’ll put up with the awkward sorry-we-bumped-into-your-tray-table . . . again . . . because she’s a person and I enjoy being with her. An airplane with a toddler isn’t my ideal place to spend a Sunday afternoon either, but it’s still two hours that I get to spend with someone I love.
For all the things that children can be: loud, rude, unpredictable, annoying, selfish . . . oh wait, adults can be those things too . . . They are people. Feelings, emotions, good days, bad days, all of it. Little, whole people.