By Gwen Rockwood, columnist and mama of 3
The night before our trip I spent hours packing our bags and carry-on luggage. I thought of every possible in-flight scenario and packed the appropriate diversion to manage it. But there was one thing missing from my bag – the one thing I needed most to fly with three kids under the age of 7 – and that was courageous nerves of steel.
I wouldn’t have been so skittish if Tom had been with us, but a business trip had taken him across the country days before our family trip. So he arranged to fly from L.A. to Minneapolis, accompanied only by a well-mannered briefcase and laptop, while I arranged to fly from home to Minneapolis accompanied by three excitable kids ages 6, 4 and 1. Our plan was to meet at the Minneapolis airport and regroup.
With a handheld video game and a few snacks, I knew the boys would be fine during the two-hour trip. Their little sister, on the other hand, was the wild card. This was to be her maiden voyage in the friendly skies, and one never knows how a toddler will react to being whisked off the ground by a loud, zooming aircraft. So I packed all the flying-with-toddler essentials in my diaper bag: pacifier, snacks, juice box, small toys and a portable dose of sleepy time Benadryl, in case the other stuff failed.
On the morning of our flight, I checked us in and herded my crew through security, getting four pairs of shoes off and on without holding up the line too much. As we began our walk down the jetway, I got plenty of “Poor woman” stares from people who looked as if I was walking the plank. There were even more nervous looks from my fellow passengers when I got on the plane and inched down the skinny aisle with bags and kids in tow. It’s the kind of look that’s polite on the outside but thinly veils a distinct look of “Oh, God please don’t let them sit by me.”
When we settled into our seats, the flight attendant performed her safety song and dance about the emergency exits while people mostly ignored her. But their ears perked up when she announced that the flight had empty seats available therefore people could spread out, if they liked. People in front, behind and beside us scattered like marbles on the kitchen floor. I didn’t take it personally. If the kids weren’t mine I might have done the same thing.
Take-off went smoothly and the first 20 minutes of the flight were uneventful. Perhaps I’d worried for nothing. Then Jack took the iPod out of my bag and popped in his headphones. Twenty-month-old Kate saw him and immediately decided the headphones must be hers so she snatched them away. Jack tried to take them back again which caused Kate to emit a high-pitched, angry shriek that only dogs and people on planes can hear.
In any other setting, I would have defended Jack’s right to the headphones and made his sister learn to wait her turn, no matter what kind of fit she threw in protest. Toughing out a temper tantrum while you pretend to be unaffected is one thing in the privacy of your own home. When you try to do it at 10,000 feet with a plane full of innocent passengers, it’s just cruel. So I did the only thing a decent, compassionate traveler could do. I took the headphones away from Jack and gave them to the squeaky wheel which stopped her in mid-shriek. Peace was restored.
Then I had to quietly explain to Jack that, although he had the toy first and it was technically his turn, the world is basically an unfair place, particularly when you’re on a plane with a toddler. While Jack was shocked at my hasty move, his sister was intrigued. When she shrieked and got what she wanted, I could see the realization in her baby blue eyes – a true, “ah-ha” moment. In an instant, she knew she owned me for the duration of the flight.
Soon she abandoned Jack’s headphones in favor of new, more interesting things: latching and unlatching the tray table, the metal seatbelts, and the way the window shade shoved up and down and made that interesting “thunk” sound when it hit the top or bottom. I did my best to keep things quiet, and I think we got through it without causing too many eyes to roll.
When her ears starting hurting during the last 30 minutes of the flight, the only thing that kept Kate entertained was to let her put goldfish crackers into my mouth. If I liked the little orange, fish-shaped crackers, it would have been a lovely way to end the flight. But I do not like goldfish crackers. I do not like them in the rain. I do not like them on a plane. But I will eat them all the same when I am forced to on a plane.
Finally we touched down and left the plane behind. After a ride on three escalators, two elevators and one airport tram, we made it to baggage claim where Tom scooped the kids into his arms and pieced together what was left of my nerves – crumbled somewhere at the bottom of a goldfish cracker bag.