The last time I did a cross-country flight alone with Elan, it involved: 7 diaper changes; 3 episodes of explosive diarrhea (his); 1 destroyed airplane blanket (thankfully only the blanket, not the seat); 2 cases of raging pink eye and associated Nastiest Virus of the Winter (both of us); 1 episode of begging wipes from the other family on the plane; and 2 interactions with unsympathetic flight attendants that must have sufficiently labeled me mom on the edge that they ignored the fact that my computer was playing an Elmo DVD as we landed in San Francisco.
It’s taken me ten months, but I believe I have sufficiently recovered from that experience to attempt it again.
Enter the Epic Back East trip, beginning in T minus 2 days. Our itinerary is ambitious: 3 nights in Boston, 2 nights in Baltimore, 3 nights in New York City, 3 nights in New Jersey, culminating on the last day with a huge family reunion and party for my grandfather Popa Al’s 100th birthday. Twelve days, four cities, one mama and one almost-3-year-old. Elan and I will be traveling alone for two flights and two train trips. Mikhail will meet up with us in New Jersey for the party and accompany us home on the last flight.
I am a traveling mama. This is not a huge surprise, given my penchant for travel in my life pre-child. And, though my friends are always asking, “Where are you going this time?” for a long time I thought that because most of our travel is for the purpose of visiting friends and family and none of it has been international, it didn’t count. Most of the time when I travel with Elan, it’s quick trips back and forth to southern California. But we’ve also done several trips to the East Coast, and while usually I have a fair amount of family support on those trips, I do most of my southern California runs flying alone with him. And oh, what I’ve learned.
As moms in our daily life, we tend to think that we’ve got to have it all together. We try to manage feedings and snacks and naps and diaper bags to make our schedules and lives as comfortable and free of meltdowns as possible. But when you travel, to some extent you throw normal routines and schedules out the window. You’re in a new place; you don’t know where you’re going or what you will need when you get there. You’re more likely to encounter something that throws you or sends your child into a tailspin. When you travel, life becomes more uncertain. By its very nature, travel opens us up to the unpredictable. This can feel scary to new parents whose feeling of control is often on shaky ground as it is. But it can also teach us valuable lessons about how creative we can get, and how we can get through tough times.
One lesson that I learn time and time again when I travel with Elan is that people like to help. I don’t want to set myself up for impossible situations. But they can and do happen, and while some people will walk right by and ignore your plight, others get a big boost out of feeling useful. Given the norms of our society, people will not often offer – you generally do have to ask. But when you do, people can be surprisingly generous. If you find yourself without enough hands, look around for an able-bodied member of the general public who’s kind of looking at you. That’s your cue to give that person a big smile and ask them to take your suitcase down the escalator for you. If they bow out, don’t take it personally. The key is not to assume that you’re owed help simply because you have a child (people without children hate parents’ sense of entitlement!). When you do get help (and you will), be grateful. At the bottom of the escalator, give that person a huge thank you. Tell them they made your day. And sometimes, by reinforcing the communal nature of society (as opposed to the driving individualism we often embrace in our daily lives and when traveling alone), you can make that person’s day too.
Once, I was running late for a train that would take Elan (then six months old) and me from New Jersey to Baltimore. When I got to the train station, I jumped out of the car and asked a college-age guy waiting for the bus if he would do me the biggest favor ever. Not only did he run up several flights of stairs carrying my insanely heavy suitcase, he also helped me navigate the confusing ticket system. I made my train, and he got to feel like a big hero (and he was!).
A few tips about flying with a baby or toddler:
- Pack more diapers in your carry-on than you think you could possibly, under any circumstances, ever need for the duration of your flight.
- Overhead air blowers make excellent quick dryers for wet garments, especially when you lay them out on the seat back in front of you.
- Rows 12-18 are the dirtiest seats on Southwest – that’s where all the kids end up sitting with the new family boarding system.
- Diapers (even just wet ones) are not supposed to go in the trash bags the stewardesses carry down the aisles, and even though they rarely tell you this, they will sometimes make you pick yours out of the trash if they see it.
- If your baby is breast-fed, no one will notice if you change his diaper on your seat (just use a changing pad so if they do, you still look somewhat civilized).
- You can usually get away with keeping your baby in a soft carrier (Moby, Ergo) as you go through security. Just look confident and say “They always let me do it every time I fly” if you are questioned. If your baby is happy or asleep, try requesting a pat down rather than taking him out.
- You are not technically allowed to keep a baby in most carriers during take-off and landing even though that rule makes no sense at all. Try to get away with it, but be ready to undo at least a few straps and hold your child the flight attendant makes a fuss.
- If your baby cries on the plane, do not look around. Yes, people are looking at you, and no, that won’t help comfort the baby.
- If you are nursing without a cover, everyone who walks by will invariably look straight at your nipple. Don’t get upset about it – it’s an involuntary reaction.
- When an airplane does not have a changing table in the bathroom (and it's surprising how few do), just lay your changing pad down on the floor in the back galley and do it there. Act like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t (in fact, that goes for most of traveling with a baby or toddler).
- Most important thing to bring: your sense of humor. The good news is that if you forget it – and you most likely will at some point – you can pick one up again almost anywhere.