My children fly by themselves now, but enough time has passed for this to be one of those stories “you’ll laugh about one day.” That day has come and I do.
Years ago, there was this movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, called “Snakes on a Plane.” In it, hundreds of deadly snakes were released in an airborne plane. It was idiotic, yet it resonated with me at the time. As a relatively new mother then, I saw that movie and thought “Pffft. Snakes? How about babies?” My movie would be “Babies on a Plane.”
The passengers would all be childless, laptop-carrying businessmen who break into a cold sweat over signal loss or the prospect of landing in a country without a Starbucks. Sharing airspace with people under the age of five is what executive nightmares are made of and my plane of terror would be crawling with infants.
Like the one where I’d recently flown from Chicago to Estonia, which is about a 14 hour trip all told. Unless you’re the one with the baby and those hours pass in black hole torpor. My under-five (18 months, actually) was the loudest, screamiest, writhing-est baby of them all. At that time, on that plane. Naturally.
You’ve probably heard people say, “If humans were meant to fly, we’d have wings.” Certainly this is true of babies, who, if meant to fly would have an on-off switch or, at the very least, a volume control. We could have turned mine to “mute,” and set about monitoring his furious little face for shades of purple not yet invented.
It’s not as though we’d embarked on that trip unprepared. I, for one, always over-pack, you know, for contingencies. Like carting a baby across the world.
The problem is that as a general rule, toddlers are programmed for constant movement. No amount of well-planned snacks, packed with love and nutritious intent can make up for eight hours of seat-belted restraint, interrupted only by the occasional visit to passengers within throwing distance to retrieve our toys, juice boxes and cheese cubes.
At one time, about four hours in, we even appealed for outside help. There are buttons on the seats that you can use to adjust the volume of the in-flight entertainment. There’s one for an overhead light. And another to signal a flight attendant. But neither Mommy or Daddy could find a button to summon an exorcist.
We couldn’t be certain without blood tests and whatnot, but it really did seem as though Satan had taken over the body of our son. He was so not about to be fobbed off with applesauce or Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Meanwhile, we were getting looks from people who, instead of being infinitely relieved that they were not us, were becoming annoyed by having to sit near our tireless, howling child.
At one point, emboldened by raw nerves and exasperation I mentally dared anyone to say anything. I’d not have hesitated to peel my son off of my neck and sit him in their lap. “Go on,” I’d challenge, “show me, oh Childless One, how to make it stop.” And then I’d lock myself in the toilet for the rest of the flight.
Unfortunately nobody provoked me enough to unload my 25 pounds of purple rage. Daddy couldn’t be of any help because my firstborn was in his “Mommy” phase, which meant, he would only scream in my ears, wipe snot on my cheek and tear fistfuls of hair from my head. Daddies, evidently, can simply not be trusted with this level of responsibility.
Either that, or babies have an innate understanding that Daddies, in the face of that kind of devotion, would simply stow them in an overhead bin and go back to sleep.
I have to hand it to the flight attendants, however. No, they weren’t in any way consoling or helpful, but once, when my little guy was coiled around my neck with the fingers of each hand clenched tight around my earlobes, his feet crushing what was left of my pelvic bone, she did ask if I wanted coffee or tea.
“Sure,” I said. “With milk and sugar, and can you just pour that in my lap?”
Before having my own child, there’d been times when, getting off a plane, I’d passed rows of seats that had been inhabited by babies and/or toddlers. These deserted demolition zones, finally silent, their souls broken, will tell you everything you need to know about the previous eight hours with more accuracy than a black box.
There’s the lingering odor of vomit; used napkins, baby wipes and cracker crumbs carpet the seats and the floor. The seats themselves, with belts hanging every which way, seat pockets crammed with trash, lay still – probably feigning death – in case the assault resumes.
Page-less magazines, empty pudding cups, a tiny white sock laying still – it will take years of therapy before they ever fly again.
As a childless passenger, literally without baggage, I could stride breezily, haughtily even, past the disaster zones and envision the anxious but happy family embarking on their trip. Clambering into their seats, the kids climbing around, peering over seat backs at the scalps of the passengers to the front; making googly eyes at the ones behind them. Mom, efficiently arranging toys and snacks in the order they’d likely be needed. Dad settling in for some catch-up reading.
And then – poor souls – the seat belt light would go on, followed by the captain’s announcement for take-off, and the cue for every last kid to commence screaming. Hell will have broken loose and both the parents and nearby passengers would then begin to wonder how anyone ever decided air travel with small children was a good idea.
At five second intervals for the next eight hours and 45 minutes, they’d all ask themselves the same question. There’s just no good answer.
Finally, ‘DING’ and the captain’s voice would announce landing in 10 minutes. The plane will have settled into an erie silence. All the babies had gone to sleep. Of course.
That day as a newish mom, but truly seasoned traveler – I had, after all, looked the flight attendant right in the eyes and asked to be moved to another seat – I no longer had to invoke my imagination to know what happened in seats D32-G3. Because I had starred in my own extended drama that began on take-off and ended minutes before we landed.
I worried then that it would get worse before it got better because soon my little guy would get angry AND be able to talk. Picturing future air travel, I was pretty sure the ‘the big smelly man’ in the next seat would not appreciate being told he’s big and smelly by someone who was himself small and often smelly.
As the mother of a toddler, “Snakes on a Plane” didn’t scare me. And, actually “Babies on a Plane” is not such a frightening idea, unless the loudest one is yours and that, was a harrowing ordeal. Now that I have teens, however, snakes and babies are looking pretty good.