“If you are not going to Cleveland or wish to disembark for any reason, this is your final opportunity,” the flight attendant said over the loudspeaker. The crying girl seated next to me obviously did not want to go to Cleveland, but she knew that disembarking wasn’t an option.
I had watched the girl crying on her father’s lap in the pre-boarding area. I knew there was no part of her that wanted to get on that plane, but nine- or ten-year-olds don’t get a say in such matters.
I helped her with her seatbelt, and the girl politely asked my name and gave me hers, all while continuing to cry quietly. When the flight attendant hugged her, she only cried harder and asked if she could FaceTime her Dad—the parent she had left five minutes ago at the end of the jetway.
I didn’t tell her that I had once been an unaccompanied minor crying in my seat between parents. This was one of the worst things that ever happened to her, and I allowed her the dignity of thinking no one else had ever gone through anything similar. One thing was for sure—she didn’t want to be told that “it wasn’t that bad.” In her world, it was exactly that bad. I wasn’t going to minimize it.
What I wanted to say was:
Look kid, this is your life. You didn’t get to choose it, and that sucks, but you have the kind of parents who put their kid on an airline to travel back and forth for school break. You’re doing the first thing, which is staying in your seat, being polite, and crying quietly. That’s a fine first step. But I know some things you don’t.
I know that you will stop crying before the plane lands, and when you see your other parent at least a part of you will be glad you made this trip. It may be only a tiny part of you, but there’s love for both parents somewhere inside you still, and it’s okay to love two parents who don’t love each other. It’s not disloyal to your dad to have fun with your mom.
Also, there’s a pride in living through terrible things, and while part of you will always be jealous of your friends who have both parents in the same house, know that living through adversity will give you strength. If both of your parents are decent people and love you enough, you can still turn out okay.
But there’s more.
There will be times when you’ll be happy to escape one house for the other. Having that ability to choose will come in handy when you are a teenager—though not always in positive ways. By fifteen, you’ll learn to play them off each other, no matter how good at co-parenting they think they are. Now, I’m not saying that is healthy, but it can be fun.
There is one more thing—childhood is a small percentage of your life. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know that it feels like forever right now. But in less time than you have been alive so far, you will be free of these people and able to go anywhere and do anything you want, and this trip will have made you less afraid to do so. You are learning to be independent and unafraid of travel before you are even old enough to drive.
You will grow up to be someone who navigates airports with ease, and that will serve you well in life. I know you don’t want any part of this trip, but the fact that you are flying 432 miles all by yourself is something that you will be proud of someday, something that you will brag about in the continual childhood quest to be more grown-up than your friends. You will secretly look down on people who are afraid to fly, because flying won’t be anything scary to you.
Instead I said, “Do you want a piece of gum?” and held out an open pack. She declined. I figured I’d wait until the plane took off, and see how chatty she became once she stopped crying, but the flight attendant came back and moved her up to first class. When I saw her again, she was on the ground in Cleveland, talking to her mother. She had survived and was no longer crying.
I know that shared parenting isn’t ideal, particularly when your parents don’t live within driving distance. But I am both a child of divorce and a divorced parent myself. Sometimes the best choice you can make as a parent is one that results in your children having a less than ideal childhood. It’s not that you don’t love your children, or put them first. It’s that some differences are truly irreconcilable. And sometimes people move away.
I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t scar children—of course it does. But so does living with parents that hate each other. Sometimes there are no good answers. But if this girl is anything like I was, and if she continues to fly back and forth between her parents, she’ll learn to rule the airports. She’ll hop on planes like other people hail cabs. It might not be worth it to her, but it will still be something that defines her.