I swore I wasn’t going to be that mother: the one with the screaming toddler who whined and cried during the entire flight. And yet there I was, with a shrieking nearly-3-year-old yelling, “I want to go home. I want Daddy!”
We’d prepared for this trip: We’d read books about flying on planes, and we’d talked for weeks beforehand about the stages of the trip. We’d even bought my son his own Spider-Man backpack, which he helped pack with toys and activities for the plane.
Everything went smoothly at first. My son was interested in everything we saw as we walked through the airport to get our boarding pass. My husband, who was dropping us off, saw us to the security checkpoint, and my little guy was cheerfully kissing him bye-bye when my husband observed, “He has a diaper.”
As we backtracked to the bathrooms, our son began to object. He insisted he wanted Daddy to change his diaper, but my husband didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the men’s room, since the little guy is now too big to change on the changing tables, and my husband wasn’t as comfortable changing him on the floor as I was.
So over his objections, I pulled my son into the women’s room, while he was shouting, “I want Daddy! I want Daddy to change me!” I worried I’d be confused for a kidnapper, so I talked gently to him the whole time, assuring him that Daddy was waiting outside but that I had to change his diaper first.
Then, my son freshly changed, we returned to the security checkpoint, said our “bye-byes” without tears, and proceeded through security. But my son cried again when I took off his light-up Spider-Man shoes, until a TSA agent dashed over and told us that children under 12 could keep their shoes on. If only I’d thought to check on that ahead of time.
If I had it to do over, I’d also think twice about what we did next. It seemed like a blessing: an Aviation Play Center where little ones could blow off steam before boarding their flights. There should have been a warning: May be addictive to toddlers. Within minutes, my outgoing boy had made friends with a slightly older boy, and they were following each other around the play area: alternately climbing the steps into the play control tower, sliding down, and then running across to the kid-sized plane — complete with passenger seats — to pretend to be co-pilots. The other boy wore Batman shoes, and I giggled at the instant bonding between two would-be superheroes.
He sure did seem to be having fun for a while. I’ve even got photographs to prove it, showing him sliding happily down the red plastic slide.
Fast-forward 15 or 20 minutes, and the scene was drastically different. First, his newfound friend left to board a plane with his family. Then, I told my son gently it was time to head towards ours. The whole time we were walking to the gate and the whole time we waited in line, he was caught up in the sort of crying he does whenever we leave someplace he associates with fun: whether it’s a swimming pool or a park or, in this case, an indoor playground. If I’d known that was coming, I would have skipped the playground and headed straight for the gates.
I also would have bought a bottle of water in one of the airport shops before we got on the plane. I didn’t realize at the time that, while you can’t take liquids through security, they will gladly allow you to carry on a water bottle purchased in one of the stores after clearing security. So after my son’s tears had dried, and we were boarding the plane, he asked me for a drink of water. But I could only tell him we’d have to wait a little. Waiting is not in an 3-year-old’s vocabulary.
As we squeezed by the other person in our row, a kindly older woman, I explained the reason behind my son’s renewed tears. Without hesitation, she offered me the unopened bottle she herself had brought onto the plane. Grateful beyond words, I opened the bottle and poured it into my son’s sippy cup, only to hear him complain that the water was too cold. I told him that it would warm up soon and that he needed to be grateful, because somebody had given him her water. He seemed about to cry again but then took another sip and quieted instead.
For most of the first leg of our journey to Detroit, he was relatively content, until he tired of the toys, books and stickers I’d brought to entertain him. I made another mistake, promising him train videos, after learning we could get Internet on the flight. This was before I realized how time-consuming it would be to actually deliver on such a promise.
First, I had to ask our very accommodating seatmate to stand up so that I could grab my laptop from the overhead compartment. Then I had to start the computer and seek out the information I needed to sign on. I had just completed the credit card payment and was waiting for the computer to connect when the announcement came over the PA, telling us we had to power down all of our electronic devices. And while I don’t think the resulting disappointment is why my son threw up on the way back down, it certainly didn’t help that he was crying bitterly and gulping so much air.
I was immediately grateful for the fact that he had rejected all efforts that day to feed him, sticking entirely to water. Coming back up, it was practically the same, just a little warmer. As I clutched my crying boy to me, he and I were soon soaked. Only after we’d landed, and I could be sure he was done, I did a quick change on the seat, putting him into the emergency change of clothes tucked into my diaper bag. This meant, of course, we stopped at the first store selling T-shirts to buy something clean, just in case we needed another backup shirt (I’d brought two pairs of emergency pants in my carry-on, but only one emergency shirt). That is why, on this October afternoon so many months later, he is wearing that Navy blue Detroit T-shirt as we bump along sidewalks, heading home from the park.
The trip, or at least that first leg of it, was a real learning experience. I thought that, after having endured the “baby boot camp” of our first few weeks with a newborn, that after helping him learn to walk and pick up things, that after teaching him language so that he could express his desires, that things would suddenly get easier. This experience taught me you can never sit back, never relax, because there’s always going to be new challenges.
I also learned that, no matter how much time you spend looking up information on how to plan a trip with a toddler; no matter how many people you ask for advice; and no matter how many people offer unsolicited advice, you will always run into challenges you could not anticipate. You will always have to make decisions on the fly. And they will not always be wise decisions or well-thought-out. A lot of times, they will be emotional and wrong. And then, you’ll have to find a way to turn things around.
Ultimately, that is a mother’s job: to make the hard decisions, to suck up disappointment and embarrassment like a used sponge, to keep pushing forward, whether covered in your child’s stomach contents or simply trying to shush him in a crowded airport. And if, like me, you are writer raised by a family of storytellers, you have one consolation: at least you’ll have a story to tell.