Here’s the scene: I am sitting in an aisle seat, the usual lack of leg room a given. My 21-month-old son John is screaming at the top of his lungs because I won’t let him toddle past my legs into the aisle (the “fasten seatbelt” sign refuses to budge). Luckily, the middle seat is empty, which gives him about 5 square inches to squirm in, but the entertainment provided by the nice businessman in the window seat (tossing John’s plush duck up in the air and onto his head, very giggle-inducing) is starting to become repetitive. He wants out, to toddle up and down the aisles, poke people’s laptops, and steal their spectacles while they’re sleeping.
You’ve heard this before, yes? Of course, since you read my last essay about airlines torturing people who travel with children. The trip back from California wasn’t much better. Although it comprised two shorter flights rather than one six-hour one, they were also full of screaming and frustration that punctuated hours of hardcore full-on entertainment. By me, Mummy, Inc.
It would be so easy to dress my writing in a chirpy tone of voice and pretend that if you bring “some favorite toys!” “tasty snacks!” and “an upbeat attitude!” then traveling with your child will be a delight, a pleasant memory you’ll take with you until you become a senile addict of microwaved spinach soufflés.
When I write with exclamation points, I know I’m being false, like smiling for the camera when I’m pissed off. Here’s what I will remember up until the day I get dementia: holding John in my lap as he sorted piles of crackers on the tray table, piling them into a plastic cup, looking up at me, pleased, and dumping them back out again to start over (cracker pieces, crushed cracker, cracker crumbs everyfuckingwhere), all the while thinking, “Okay, he’s entertained, please let me not go insane for the next 15 minutes.” It’s a long way to spend 6 hours, counting out 15-minute increments of trying not to lose my mind. I was hoping he’d sleep for 2 hours, but only got 1. I spent a lot of time looking jealously at all the people engrossed in books.
This lack of patience, this failure of ability to be completely focused on my child’s every need, is not something I necessarily respect about myself, but at home I can deal with it. Maybe it’s because there’s more physical space, but in truth I think it’s because travel has always been my thing, an activity imbued with excitement, anticipation, challenge, and ritual. I’ve got my way of traveling, and it doesn’t include the needs of someone entirely dependent on me. In fact, my wanderlust preferably includes no people at all.
I would prefer not to travel with my son, at least until he’s, say, a precocious 15-year-old who’s read all the books I have and learned to say “please” in 10 languages. No matter how enriching it is for him, it’s not how I want to do it. When you travel with children, wherever you go becomes much more about keeping them occupied and fed and properly rested – within reasonable limits – than about the place itself, and the place is what matters to me.
This failure to adapt is, again, not something I respect about myself, and it’s not just because there are about a zillion people out there just waiting to pounce with “selfish! bad mommy!” accusations. It’s because I can be very critical of others’ inability to adapt while traveling. Jeffrey Taylor, an excellent and well-known travel writer, intelligent and widely published, has irritated me to no end in no less than three books. Why? Because in each one, at some point, he got annoyed at his guide for trying to change the schedule, or for disappearing; or refused to stay for the full length of a rare tribal festival because he had to meet a river on a certain date. I wanted to slap him upside the head: you’re a travel writer! Who cares if your schedule’s screwed up? This is about the place, the people, the experience, not about whether you’re going to meet the right boat on time.
And then I go off counting 15-minute intervals of not-quite-insanity rather than letting the experience envelop me and take me where it will.
On my way back to the Hudson Valley, I noticed something. While I was stressing about John’s crying, and his consistent diet of Late July organic saltines and random chocolate chip cookies, and his kicking of the seat in front of us, and stealing people’s water bottles, and punching laptop keys with lightning-quick fingers, … while I let these perfectly normal toddler activities wind me into twisted little knots, nobody else on the plane did. Most people looked wistfully at John, and told me about their own grandkids, their habits and antics. Most people smiled as he walked up and down the aisle, and up and down again, and again – many people craving the shining, no-holds-barred smile of my little social butterfly to be turned back to them as if he were a movie star. Most people didn’t hear his screams, or wanted to help distract him.
The stress of flying with a child came from me, not from John, and not from other people. Yet another lesson of parenting. It seems we learn the same one over and over, to embrace the chaos that comes into our lives with a brand-new growing, thriving human.
I regret my former traveling life. I crave the ability to spend three frozen hours walking around a Russian village in below-zero temperatures, probably not recommended with kids. I can’t get lost in where I am anymore because someone is depending on me to pay attention. This is all a new horizon for me, unexplored territory. And I refuse to give up thriving on travel just because it feels more difficult.
Just don’t expect the chirpy exclamation points.