When I flew alone with my two children last week, we made two trips to the airport before we actually got on a plane — our flight was delayed, so we went home for a nap and then back — and when we finally reached Chicago, the baby's car seat had not. Hmm. No one offered me a loaner (something I didn't know to ask for), so I held the toddler in a carrier in a (slow-moving!) cab to our destination.
We were filthy and tired and thirsty. All I wanted was to bathe them both and rinse myself off and have a beer. There were chewed-up crackers stuck to me. The kids had black marks and other debris on their clothes, having spent their time at the airport crawling under the rows of seats in the waiting area and handing me discarded pieces of gum. Both kids are so mobile now; you can't stop them both at once. You kind of have to save your energy. Facing a 90-minute flight, I figured they might as well move. And move they did, all over the airport. I chose not to bring a stroller, thinking I couldn't both push it and collect luggage, which may have been a mistake, since I spent much of the time physically redirecting the toddler from countless interactions with strangers. My kid-holding arm hurt.
Then I proceeded to restrain her on the flight after being told I couldn't have her in the Ergo carrier. She was desperately tired, and unable to settle, and kept squirming off, trying to escape into that long aisle. So I put her in the Ergo, stood up, and she napped the last 30 minutes. I like to think that most people on flights, staff included, are happiest when you break that no-carrier rule. Anything for a sleeping kid. We are treated so well, so kindly, on planes by staff and strangers. But there is a moment on every flight, no matter how short it is, that I wonder, how am I going to get through the next 20 minutes? I can't make it! In a few years, my children will probably be effortless travelers. But until then, I think, what experience with kids could be worse? Oh yeah, vacation.
This trip, I was newly reminded of how different some things are with small ones. I thought I had moved beyond the stage in which the challenge of navigating public space with children intimidates me. I thought I was mostly over thinking about my life in its simpler, more pristine stage — before kids. Like with grocery shopping and eating out, flying and vacations change dramatically when you parent through them.
To me, flying alone is now the holy grail of pleasures — in which you can wander anonymously through the airport, treat yourself to a drink or a quiet meal, and stare at a magazine or otherwise zone out. Before kids, this all just seemed like normal life. With children, the airport becomes a circus, and you are the main show. I've never felt more watched as a parent than in an airport.
Being without my husband, this was the first time I was fearful I might just lose a kid. Or someone would fall in a toilet. With your partner, these things your kids do are just a tad less eventful, because you can share a laugh, hand the kid back and forth, or blame your partner, of course. This time, though, the peopled chaos of the airport was scary; a missing kid would be on me. I was confident my older child would be a big helper. And she was. But not without giving me some grief about how I spend all my time focused on her sister. Her refrain of "not fairs" as I bought her candy and let her play on my iPhone felt like a hollow reward. At least she was sitting down.
The rest of our trip was uneventful and perfectly fun, except by midweek everyone had a virus, including the grandparents we were visiting, and so we got to bear and suffer the plague together. This is vacation with kids. I must have gone to Walgreens twice a day, and what I thought was the toddler's endless cold turned out, after some rough nights, to be a double-ear infection. Vacation with kids can be surprisingly wacky. Even when they don't get sick, sleep and naps morph into something you don't recognize, until everyone is unpredictable and tired. Your busy kid is somehow bored, and your easygoing kid is sad and clingy. You thought you'd spend your visit taking easy walks and playing with the grandparents and you know, resting. Reading a book, maybe. But even tired kids have relentless energy. In a different household, my only real containment strategy was the bathtub. Why, I wonder, is it so hard to relax on the road with young children? Most of our vacations with kids, over the past five years, have ended well short of respite. They are exciting, full, fun, silly, and we enjoy real time with family or friends — just with extra little doses of sleeplessness. Except after bedtime hours, we do not relax.
Both my husband and I have very strong memories of family travel as kids, and so we continue to travel, knowing we can only get better at it. But for now, it all seems to be an exercise in appreciating the art of return. Everyone in their own bed, and hope for recovery.