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Fear of Flying… with Children!

“Please don’t let me be seated next to a baby! God, please don’t let me be seated next to a baby!” This was my silent mantra in my previous life as a carefree, single woman. Back then, a screaming baby on an airplane was the worst form of punishment, second only to an overnight stay in jail. After all, a nice flight was supposed to involve reading a John Grisham novel or flirting with an attractive gentleman seated next to me. Being seated next to a drooling cracker-basher was not my idea of a good time.

Post-Flight Traumatic Stress Recovery Program
Finally on the ground in Italy, Page and her two kids take a break outside the Vatican museum in Rome.

Today, I am no longer a single girl praying to avoid the punishment of being seated next to a baby. Nowadays, I am the punishment. As I stand at the boarding gate with a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old, facing a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight, I can see the abject panic in the eyes of my soon-to-be-fellow-passengers. They are not simply praying to God. They are bargaining with God:

“I’ll never forget my mother’s birthday again as long as I live. Just don’t make me sit next to the toddler for 10-hours straight!”

“I’ll never drink again as long as I don’t have to sit right next to poopy diaper changes all night.”

“Please God, don’t let them sit behind me and kick the seat for ten hours.”

I look around to see soon-to-be-fellow-passengers peering meekly from behind their Wall Street Journals or tour books. Everyone is captive, waiting for the draw of straws to see who has to sit next to the baby and toddler. Businessmen shift uncomfortably in their seats, either ignoring me or attempting a supportive smile. Hordes of hip teenagers, looking forward to their first overseas trip, show outright disdain. I, of course, am saying prayers of my own:

“Please God, let me be seated next to a Catholic nun who has taught kindergarten for 20 years.”

“Just get me through this without either of the kids getting airsick.”

“Please God, let this flight be nearly empty.”

Thankfully, none of my soon-to-be-fellow passengers know the awful truth about us. What they see is two parents and two small children, providing a comfortable one-to-one parent/child ratio. Little do they know that this ratio is a mere façade. The family before them is actually compiled of an exhausted mother (the only fully functioning adult), a toddler, a teething baby, and a father who will start drooling from the mouth the minute the plane is in the air.

Most people would think that having my husband along to help on this flight would be a blessing. For the normal husband, this would be true. Unfortunately, when on an airplane, my husband is not a normal man. He is jelly. Overcome by both airsickness and an abhorrent fear of flying, my normally responsive and participatory husband is diminished to a withering blob. He is neither his usual cooperative nor accommodating self. He admits it. He apologizes for it. He just can’t help it.

My husband is doing his best to put up a brave face in front of the children, lest they catch onto his pre-flight jitters, but I know he is awash in the bitter turmoil of a man facing certain death. At best, he will become a distant and tight-lipped man, waning in and out of a trance-like state. The Silas Marner of the friendly skies. At worst, he will become an armrest-clutching, cold-sweating, catatonic mute, who is throwing-up constantly. If my soon-to-be-fellow passengers only knew, they would surely book other flights.

We board the full flight with little incidence and then wait to see the poor prisoner who will sit next to us for ten hours of torture. A stuffy older businessman plops down next to my 9-month-old, resigned to his fate. I greet him politely. My baby whips a wet teething ring into his lap. I apologize. He hands back the sticky toy – and utters nary a word for the rest of the flight. Not that he would have been easily heard over the screaming that ensued for three hours.

Immediately after takeoff my husband is covered in a sheen of sweat and turns green. His shirt is soaked, and he goes into a stress-induced hypnotic state. I know that everything will be all right. As long as he doesn’t start throwing up.

My 9-month-old doesn’t like the situation as soon as we are airborne. For the next several hours, she either screams at the top of her lungs or insists on nursing profusely. The stoic businessman next to us is obviously uncomfortable with breastfeeding, twisting his body into a contorted position, lest he actually view a discreet lactation scene. He starts ordering LOTS of drinks.

Bell Tower, Verona
Think the flight was bad? Try climbing a bell tower with one kid in tow, and another strapped to your back!

Luckily, my 2-year-old is enthralled by everything on the airplane: flip-down trays, flight attendants, drink carts, radio headphones, overhead buttons that light up, and food served on trays in little boxes. The nifty airplane toilets are of endless fascination to the newly potty-trained. My daughter insists on using the toilet at least once an hour for the sheer adventure of the “flush.”

At a critical moment, I realize that the diaper bag has been stuffed under my husband’s seat, an ill-advised location. Somehow, I must wake him from his coma and prod him into action.

I nudge him gently. “Honey? Honey, could you please hand me a diaper out of the diaper bag?” My opening lob is met with a blank stare masking startled confusion.

“I NEED a diaper out of the diaper bag. Can you reach it?” The urgency of my voice gets his attention at this point, but he appears to be deciphering my words as if they were spoken hieroglyphics.

“GET ME A DIAPER!” hissed at him in a loud, angry voice registers a flicker of recognition. He mutely grants my request, all the while doing an impressive imitation of Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rainman.

Finally, we reach London-Gatwick, England, where we camp out for our brief seven-hour layover. Unfortunately, my husband is overwrought, exhausted, and addled. He yells at a chipper British cashier at McDonald’s for no good reason, and treats customs officials like they are enemy soldiers. Only the unwavering cheerfulness of the British public – and the fact that the airport police carry some pretty scary automatic weapons – save us from an international incident. As he stalks around with murder in his eyes, I make a mental note to do some research on post-traumatic-stress-disorder before our next overseas plane flight.

The final flight to Italy is fantastic. Happy and bright foreign flight attendants dote on my children. Plus the plane is nearly empty. Speeding blissfully toward Italy, I should have known it was too good to be true. Our landing in Venice is a descent into hell.

In a bizarre turn of events, my 2-year-old steadfastly refuses to suck on a lollipop as the plane begins to land. To those uninitiated in the ways of parenthood, this probably seems like no big deal. But without some sucking action during ascent and descent, small children do not clear their ears and are left with a raging earache. Sensing the panic in my voice, my husband springs to life and attempts to wrestle the lollipop into my daughter’s mouth. As passengers begin to stare at the scene, I imagine being greeted at the airport by the Italian version of Child Protective Services. Finally, my husband succeeds and sits down triumphant.

Unfortunately, even if you can get a lollipop into a toddler’s clenched mouth, you can’t make them suck. My toddler is in agony as soon as we touch the ground. She screams at the top of her lungs and writhes on the floor. I fear she has ruptured an eardrum. All the other passengers disembark post-haste. The foreign flight attendant politely informs us that people normally use drugs in such a situation. Did we have any? She takes the shocked look on my face as a “no”. The pilot orders us to kindly vacate the plane.

My toddler is unable to walk and we have too much luggage to carry her, so she is literally dragged, screaming down the stairs from the plane. We are greeted by a bus full of fellow-passengers who are none to happy that we have held the bus up on the tarmac. Scowls and dirty looks abound. I step on board the bus and shout out a bold “Howdy y’all!” in my best imitation of a Texas accent. It was my finest moment of the voyage.

In Venice, on the black, midnight water we are transformed. With a bracing January wind in our faces everyone becomes calm and happy, despite 24 hours of travel with little sleep. As a mother, I have reason to hope again. I no longer have a fear of flying with children. After all, I have already been through the worst.