Hi, Non-Parents on My Flight!
Well, here we go again, I'm afraid.
I see you over there, ready to board, checking your email with one hand, sipping your Venti Caramel Macchiato with the other, looking bored. My god, what I wouldn't give right now for a free hand at this moment... just ten seconds of a free hand to cup that magnificent, caffeinated deliciousness...
Oops! You've just noticed me leering at your beverage. That relaxed look of yours (lemme guess -- you've got an aisle seat, am I right?) is beginning to tighten. Your eyes are filled with concern now, taking stock of the situation.
Double stroller. Two toddlers. Me looking stressed, weighed down with enough mismatched bags that I look like I should be pushing an overladen shopping cart down the street, muttering to myself.
I play it cool, of course. I wipe the stress from my visage, smile serenely, zen-like, and feign complete control.
My face, I hope, conveys the kind of reassuring lies that we've grown so accustomed to as parents trying to stave off fear in others: That my toddlers are actually just life-like animatrons which I will be powering down upon take-off. That my double stroller has the ability to fold itself neatly and quickly into a briefcase at the end of the jet way, allowing for your unobstructed entry into the cabin. That each of my bags can be compressed down to the size of a small tree nut and fit comfortably into my pocket, leaving the overhead bins free for other passengers.
I try to pretend, in other words, that I am just like you, my non-parent friend. You've got nothing to fear! Not a thing in the wor-- no, Lucy! Don't eat that -- Lucy! What is that thing, anyway?... Oh, jeez... Where did you even find tha... Well. Never mind. Everything is going to be just fine. False alarm, my non-parent friend! False alarm!
But it's too late. I can already see the look on your face. It's the look of sudden disorientation, like when you're having a grand old time at the circus and you accidentally wander into the tent where the tattooed fellow is trying to swallow his own arm.
My non-parent friend, let me assure you of this: I get it. I understand.
This may come as a surprise, but for 35 years, I, too, was a non-parent. (Wait for gasp.) And having been on both sides now, let me assure you that as much as you are dreading this flight, it's nothing compared to how much I'm dreading it.
Consider this: If there was a way to magically whisk my children back to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, I would do it. I would magic the heck out of those kids. But my choices were limited to leaving them in California with the dog (who tends to prioritize eating trash) or driving three thousand miles.
That leaves us with air travel, alas.
So I am going to do my best to get seated and situated on the plane with my 1 1/2-year-old Lucy on my lap and my 3-year-old Finn next to my wife, and begin the marathon of keeping our children from disturbing others.
Okay, I can see you have just boarded the plane, non-parent friend -- you've just made a joke to the air hostess. She laughs. (How happy you look right now! Cherish this moment!) Maybe you're with your girlfriend or boyfriend. A lovely couple, you make! You lead the way, glancing down at the boarding pass and up at the seat numbers, chatting happily to eachother like the carefree lovers you are.
Then you see us, ten rows away.
You see Lucy on my lap, trying to see how many of my eye-lashes she can pluck out, and next to me is my wife and next to her is Finn.
You pause to check your boarding pass, more panicked this time. You look up. Your lips move and you make tiny nods as you count the seats ahead. Your eyes widen as you realize you are going to be sitting right in front of us. Out of the corner of your mouth you'll whisper something, and your girlfriend's head pops over your shoulder, looking at our family, fearful.
You'll store their bags above us, and then you'll hesitate, presumably to work out who will sit in front of me and Lucy. You'll do that couple communication, where no words are needed, just intense stares and a slight fluttering of the lips and a dart of the eyes. Then you, nice young woman, will take the seat in front of me, smiling at me nervously the way that Scooby Doo does when he's run into the Swamp Monster and all he wants is to back out of there without any trouble.
Lucy will notice you, and lift up her hands and say "Bap!" in greeting, and you'll force a smile as you take your seat. I'll immediately notice that a few strands of your hair are hanging over the chair, and I know that for the next five hours I will be obsessing about keeping Lucy from grabbing those strands. Seriously. Obsessing about it.
And while my attention is on your hair, I won't notice that Lucy has kicked your seat.
Trust me -- I know exactly how annoying that is, let alone on an airplane, where every encroachment into your personal space feels like a human rights violation.
I'll quickly shove my mouth between the seat and say "I'm so sorry!" which probably freaks you out more because you're trying to talk to your boyfriend and suddenly these lips pop out between the seats, and you jump, and I'll sit back and try another apology and a friendly wave, praying that Lucy gives you a sweet smile or something. Usually she does. Usually that helps. And I try to distract her by encouraging her to jab her fingernails into my eyeballs.
And that's pretty much how the huge majority of parents are, my non-parent friends.
Parents dread these flights -- not because we don't want to be with our children, mind you. And not because we can't eat or drink. (We are unable to lower our trays, and trying to hold an open drink with a toddler on your lap or next to you is about as reliable as giving a Diet Coke to a Jack-in-the-Box, gently placing it on the lid and hoping against hope that the puppet can somehow avoid spilling it when he emerges from his tin box).
No, we dread it because we hate the idea that on a five-hour flight with two little ones, chances are at some point they're going to do something that frustrates you. I dread the feeling of being judged, and of my children being judged as bad kids because they kick the seat or they start crying out of sheer frustration at not being able to move for five hours.
Thus, here is my pledge to you, my non-parent friends on this flight.
I will spend the entirety of the five hours trying to keep my children utterly happy and occupied. Please understand that while I am quite a strict disciplinarian at home, there are times when young children simply act out. Five hours of sitting in the same spot for a young child who is used to hurling herself around the house like she has springs instead of legs, well, that's a challenge. Finn tends to step up to the plate in these times and be a pretty good boy, but he is far from perfect and may get frustrated himself and act out.
The fact is that we are willing to give our children ANYTHING they ask for if it buys some quiet time. Want some candy bars? Take 'em! More TV? By all means! I'd shave my own head if it meant Lucy was entertained and quiet.
We parents are on the highest possible alert. Every ligament in our body is tensed. Every game is tried, every snack is offered, every bribe is on the table. We truly want nothing more than to get off this flight without a melt-down, without disturbing everybody else, without the mortifying embarrassment that is always just a moment away.
That's what's happening in the seat behind you.
And if I may be so bold -- perhaps someday you, too, will have children, my non-parent friend. And you, too, will understand that whatever happens on that flight, no matter how good your children were or how frustrating they were, that at the end of the day, you'll still love them more than life itself.
And then, when your own children grow up and fly home to visit you for Thanksgiving, you'll listen to their complaints on the way back to the car about the screaming children on the plane, and you'll stop and give them a big hug them and tell them that you know exactly what they're talking about.