Most parents’ worst travel nightmare? Check.

deltaIt’s painfully fitting that Joe and I flew too close to the sun, metaphorically speaking, and flapped our waxen, melting (parenting) wings for dear life, while sitting on an airplane.

Yes, we recently experienced every parent’s worst nightmare while trapped in a claustrophobic, man-made aluminum bird, and felt the discomfort and disapproval of a couple of hundred people that suddenly fell dead silent.

Better yet, my mother- and father-in-law were seated just a few rows back.

Ohhhhhh, yes. It happened, people. And – fortunately? unfortunately? – I lived to tell the tale.

Maybe we should have seen it coming. We’d planned a quick, one-day trip to St. Louis for a family Bar Mitzvah, flying in Friday evening and flying back Saturday afternoon. This is a quick turnaround if you’re an adult, but imagine being on the cusp of 5, or 2. You drive to the airport; they strip away your lovey – a stuffed doggie named, of course, “Doggie” – in order to roll it through the x-ray machine; you get on a plane, where you’re supposed to sit for 90 minutes; you walk to baggage claim and the rental car shuttle; you get fastened into a weird car seat that’s not your own; your parents get lost in the pouring rain while trying to find the hotel; and then they try to put you in the hotel’s portable crib.

Please. It’s a lot to process. You’d probably revolt, too.

The next day, you’re carted around for photos and a ceremony, then to a relative’s house, and then AGAIN with the weird car seat and the shuttle – well, OK, the shuttle’s pretty fun once your parents start singing “The Wheels on the Bus” with hand motions – and then another plane. Weren’t we just doing this?

Yes. But even so, all had gone relatively smoothly during the bulk of the flight back to Detroit. Lily watched a movie on Joe’s iPad, while Neve watched a few minutes of something on my laptop, and beverages and pretzels were distributed to all. Huzzah.

Joe and I were feeling so comfortable with our situation in the moment, in fact, that we got a little cocky. Because the rows were three seats each, I sat on the aisle seat with the girls for much of the flight while Joe got a bit of a break on the other side of the aisle. In a moment of family calm, Joe offhandedly said, “You want to switch?”

Because the girls were ensconced, my job wasn’t too tough at the moment; but at the same time, the laptop Neve was watching was on my tray table, and I thought it would be nice to grab my Kindle and read for a few minutes. So, like a putz, I said, “Sure.”

Oh, the consequences of little decisions.

Everything was fine for a while. I probably got 10 or 15 really pleasant minutes of time with my current book, and I remember thinking, “This is really nice, to even get this little bit of time.”

But then the announcement was made to turn off all electronic devices for the plane’s descent, and though we’ve now done this without hassle on several flights with Lily, on this particular day, she got aggravated.

So she started crying and whining and saying she wanted Mommy.

Joe told her that everyone had to stay in their seats until the plane landed and got to the gate.

“I want Mommy!” Lily wailed, repeatedly, all the way down.

Not surprisingly, Neve picked up on this and, as she often does, followed her sister’s lead. “Mommy!” she cried over and over again, suddenly trying to lunge at me from the center seat. Joe held on to her as her face grew red with tears and her arms reached out for me.

Sweet Jesus. “Descent” seemed a more-apt-than-usual term for this part of the trip.

At first, Joe and I exchanged collegial, “wow, this couldn’t get worse” looks across the aisle, shrugging and acknowledging the utter absurdity of my children going bonkers about needing me when I was no more than a few feet away from them.

But as my daughters’ dual, seemingly synchronized cries for Mommy wore on, and the plane seemed to take the longest route possible to our gate, I arrived at a point when I couldn’t take it any more. I reached over the aisle and plucked Neve from Joe’s arms, pulling her to me. Neve’s grew silent immediately, but Lily, in response, ratcheted up the volume and intensity.

“Really? That’s your answer?” Joe said to me, exasperated. “And now what exactly do I tell Lily? It’s not fair to her.”

I’m pretty sure we were the only movie on this flight at this point, so everyone was tuned in, whether they wanted to be or not.

Lily came ever closer to a nervous breakdown, and Joe looked at me with an expression that said, “See? Do you see what you’ve done? And I can’t even blame her!”

I scoured my brain for a solution, but I kept running into the same unappealing conclusion: whether I’d grabbed Neve or I hadn’t in this situation, we were screwed. We were just plain, old, “No Exit” screwed.

“Lily,” I said in a teeth-clenched, steely tone, since she seemed to me to be pouring on the drama more than being genuinely wretched. “Stop this right now. Do you want to go to dance class this week?”

“You’re threatening her now?” Joe said, incredulously. His highly developed sense of justice had been pricked when I’d grabbed my screaming toddler. (His choice of profession as an attorney is no accident.)

So with that, I stopped right there and gave myself over to the awfulness. We were just going to have to ride this out until this f-ing plane finally, finally got to the f-ing gate.

Which it finally did. Lily rushed at me standing in the aisle, gripping onto my leg, while I hoisted Neve onto my hip. What a disaster. I could feel the wave of annoyance and judgment emanating from every passenger on that plane, and I tried hard not to think about my in-laws bearing witness to this whole humiliating, terrible incident, watching one of our all-time worst parenting moments play out.

And that whole “waiting forever while the thirty seven rows of people in front of you get their stuff from the overhead bin and make their way off the plane” thing is WAY more awkward when your children just made everyone miserable. I’m just here to tell you.

Frustrated, I said, “I feel like going home and throwing out every phone, every TV, the iPad – all of it.”

“It wasn’t the iPad,” Joe growled.

“Turning the movie off was what started this whole thing.”

“But it got way worse when you grabbed Neve.”

“I thought one child crying would be better than two,” I said with a shrug. And then I thought I shouldn’t proceed with this any further. What was done was done. So I shook my head, as if to clear it of all the self-justifications, and said, “I’m not going to argue about this.”

“It’s nice for you that you have that luxury,” Joe said through clenched teeth.

He’d had the worse end of things, I knew, having to physically hold the girls in their seats as they fought him. But I wasn’t going to argue. This plane-load of unfortunates had had to hear enough from us already.

So, as we both stewed and de-boarded, looking as beaten down as we felt, we distractedly started heading in the opposite direction from baggage claim; resignedly took the escalator to the monorail; and stood joylessly, wordlessly in baggage claim, waiting for our things.

Though the girls had quickly bounced back, of course, giggling and playing with each other, we exchanged minimal words on the drive home. After a nearly silent dinner of delivery pizza, Neve indicated that she wanted to go on our trampoline, and so I walked back with her. She got on, stumbled to the far side, and then just stood there. Not jumping, not running in circles – she just stood there, looking at me blankly. I wondered if my anxiety was infecting her in some negative way, on top of everything else. And that’s when I started crying.

After a minute, she walked toward me and asked to come down. We walked back into the house, I wiped my eyes, and I tried to be done with it. To put it all behind me. The plane incident had been a no-win situation, no matter how we handled it, I told myself.

But Joe’s clear belief that I’d handled it all wrong fed the raging doubt I’d had in my mind long before I had Lily. That niggling suspicion that the REASON that I’d never wanted kids during the 35 years that preceded my decision to have one after all is because I knew, with some innate, bone certainty, that I just didn’t have the right tools to be a good parent. That I lacked a certain quality that’s needed, or the appropriate degree of selflessness and good judgment and crisis management.

The thought kept me up during much of the night following that awful flight home, and it haunted me throughout the next day.

Gradually, Joe and I got past this funk, as we resumed our more normal lives and routines. I saw a play for review on Sunday afternoon, and I talked about it with Joe over our family dinner, and things started to feel more familiar.

But my anxiety, in my worst parenting moments, always goes right back to this elemental doubt, which sticks in some pocket of my brain like a barnacle.

6 thoughts on “Most parents’ worst travel nightmare? Check.

  1. x10shunofme says:

    You know, I read this and cried. I am crying right now as I write this. What a beautiful and honest piece. No sugar coating and an all too familiar scenario. The fact is Jenn, you did the right thing as a mom. You will always do the right thing, because you are their mother. These are your circumstances nobody else’s. Other’s be damned!
    I have so much to say on this subject. Coffee sometime maybe?
    Thanks for your honest beautiful writing, always.

  2. blogobeth says:

    You’re only a good mother if you think you are doing it wrong. It is when you think you’ve got it all figured out that you are probably screwing it up. And if you want to compare horrible parent moments I think I’ve got you beat. My MIL has a degree in early childhood development and her favorite phrase is “children grow to be the love they know”. At the end of the day the only thing your kids need is your love. If they’ve got that the rest will take care of itself.

  3. piorapen says:

    I took our 8 month old on a flight last year to South Carolina because my parents begged me to. It was a nightmare both flights when she was screaming – yes, screaming. I’m thankful that the man sitting next to me on the first flight had kids and even helped me keep her calm. The flight back, a woman with an ipad helped me with her until my daughter conked out. Thankful for nice strangers who don’t judge! – Vanessa

  4. Elli says:

    Oh, Jenn, I’m so sorry about this! And, as always, blown away by your powerful writing!

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