Admit it: you’ve been that person sitting on the plane when some harried parent or parents step (or stumble) onto the plane with a baby in hand. You’ve looked at them and immediately started scanning the rows, trying to do the quick math to figure out where they were sitting. Would they be in front of you or behind? Please God, don’t let them sit here next to me.
I used to be that person. If ever I get to travel on my own again, I can’t promise I won’t be again. But what I can tell you for sure is that, whatever you think, it is worse for that parent.
I am that parent (one of them anyway.)
Your glance isn’t furtive; your thoughts aren’t exactly hidden. Any parent that has stepped on to a plane that already has others sitting on it sees you staring at them and knows exactly what you’re thinking.
The youngest of The Four Children have already had the opportunity to fly from Boston to Atlanta (and back), Boston to Orlando (and back), and all the way from Boston to the west coast (and, yes, back.)
Before we even get into that moment when we step on the plane, let’s get into what goes on well before that. It’s not like an adult when they travel. You can’t just get up that morning, throw some clothes in a bag, head to the airport, and grab whatever seat you get assigned that day. Traveling with one toddler, much less two of them and two older kids, takes a degree of planning and choreography rivaled only by Presidential inaugurations and Broadway productions.
It all starts with the buying of tickets. We need to make sure that, with the twins still being younger than two and therefore getting to fly for free (but on our laps), that our seating is set up just so. We go with a window and a middle for each of us. Amy takes one twin and one older kid and I do the same. We make sure to get seats in the same row and that, of course, means there are people sitting on the aisle between us. We’ll get back to them in a moment.
There’s the packing. Not the packing of clothes and all that stuff. That goes in the checked bags. (And if you’re travelling with kids, you’re checking bags, no matter the charge.) In the carry-on, you need to come up with just the right mixture of things to keep toddlers either engaged (quietly) or asleep (even more quietly.) We had stacking cups and books, stuffed animals and toy cars, and an iPad filled with movies. We bought each kid a nice pair of animal-themed headphones to use either for our own electronics or the handy satellite television provided, at least during the trip to and from California, by our friends at JetBlue.
There were variety of different snacks, all packaged in individual baggies for ease of distribution and consumption. There were animal crackers, rainbow Goldfish, fruit bars, Cheerios, Cheetos, and any number of other little tidbits. The TSA has thrown in its own wrinkle in that we can’t bring milk across the border of The Land of Security. This means we need to drop big bucks on the duty-free equivalent of white gold from dealers like Starbucks. No matter the cost, though, trying to fly without milk is like trying to drive without a windshield – you could do it, in theory, but who would want to?
Once we’ve dropped enough cash to buy a small house on just a couple bottles of milk, we’re ready to settle in at the gate. This is when timing becomes so key. You can give the little ones the bottles too early – you’ll miss any chance of putting them to sleep. But you also don’t want anyone to get too worked up before we even get on the plane.
During our most recent trip (the one to California) we had this down to almost a science. On the trip out, though, we weren’t quite early enough for early boarding and, in fact, were just about the last people on. Imagine for a moment the looks on peoples’ faces when two adults, two kids, and, oh holy hell, two toddlers (!) came walking on to the plane.
There it is, the math, the scanning, where are there empty seats? For two people how the realization must have come – dear sweet Jesus – I’m surrounded by a whole row of one, two, three, oh no!, FOUR SEATS!
Maybe they exchanged the helpless glance of the doomed, I can’t say. I was trying to make my way the length of the airplane with one kid in my arms and bags hanging off both sides whacking passengers in the face. Of course, they probably were happy to take a backpack to the face in exchange for watching us walk by and, bit by bit, further away from them.
We fell into our seats, Maggie, Oliver, and I in the center and window seat to one side, Amy, Theo, and Henry to the same on the other. We hadn’t been there for much more than a minute when the young man sitting next to me waved down a flight attendant. His little television, apparently, was not working.
She took a look at it and agreed that it wasn’t, in fact, working. Someone had apparently poked it to death with a ballpoint pen. He quickly got up and scurried to the last empty seat in the plane, ballpoint pen in hand.
Almost as unshocking as that was, the woman who quickly plopped herself down in his place was equally shocking. She even punctuated her arrival with an energetic “now I get to sit with this fine gentleman.”
She was referring to Oliver, I presume, and not I.
Once the shifting was done (the fella sitting next to Amy had nowhere to go, it seemed, nor a pen to disable anything at his seat) we began the settling in process of unpacking amusements and snacks and distributing them into “the seat pocket in front of you”, under the seat, and into the waiting hands or mouths of children. Because we were a bit on the late side of boarding this particular flight, it wasn’t a perfect set-up.
The upshot was the periodic passing of things across our two new friends. My lady was more than happy to take part; Amy’s row mate much less so. The hours passed, more or less uneventfully. Oliver slept for a bit, but just that. I did at one point lay him down on the floor at Maggie’s and my feet, but he was up again soon, back on my lap.
Somewhere over Kansas, Amy made a trip to the bathroom for a Theo diaper change and offered the same for Ollie. He was asleep, though, and I didn’t want to stop that so I declined. Big mistake.
About an hour later I felt some moisture in my lap and quickly deduced young O had gone ahead and exceeded the moisture load of his Elmo-decorated Pampers. The lady next to me excused herself and I decided it was as good a moment as any to make the change. I sat Oliver down in her seat while I gathered the materials I would need. When she came back down the aisle I picked him up and headed for the bathroom. I realized only too late he had left her seat a bit moister than she left it.
I cleaned him up in the bathroom and made our way back to our spot and she was still standing. I asked if she had sat down since we left and when she said no, I put Oliver down in my seat and sat squarely down in hers. As I moved myself around I explained that I was drying her seat for her. She looked equal parts grateful and grossed out.
I finished up the rest of the flight looking as though I had wet myself through and through. Nice.
We eventually landed in San Francisco and spent the next few days wandering around the Monterrey Peninsula, driving down along the coast and through the mountains of central California, and ending up in Anaheim with a trip to Disneyland.
It was off to LAX for the return trip and the set-up was much the same only now we had learned from a few of our mistakes on the way out.
We were able to board the plane early as part of the “family travelling with small kids” group. This gave us the opportunity to first walk by all the people bustling about for position to GET ON THE PLANE AS QUICK AS POSSIBLE (caps theirs, based on the feverish look in their eyes.)
We were able to settle into our seats before anyone else and, accordingly, organize things much better. We were completely ready to go by the time two stylish men in their late 20’s (or so I would guess) took the aisle seats that were the white cream in our Oreo cookie of an airplane row.
Just as on the way out, I can’t speak intelligently to what Amy’s neighbor had to say. I do know that we determined it made more sense to put the older kids in the center seat rather than ourselves to provide a bit more of a buffer between adults.
The guy in my row (we’ll call him, umm, Jerky) made no secret of his unhappiness at his plight for the next many hours.
“Don’t you have to have a seat for him,” he asked waving an accusing finger at the Big O.
“Nope.” I replied as brightly as I could, “Under two flies for free on my lap.”
“I’ve never heard of that before,” he offered as though he had done a lot of research on flying with babies, “I don’t know any other airlines that do that.”
“I can’t say for sure, but I think they all do.” I said still with a smile plastered on my face, “But, hey, they won’t be under two for long so I think this is our last trip this way.”
He turned away, clearly disgusted at this middle-aged man and his two annoying kids. Mind you, Maggie hadn’t even looked up from her book nor made a peep, Oliver was busy looking out the window and equally silent.
Still trying to lighten the mood and I suggested that he certainly hadn’t planned on sitting around all these kids.
“Yeah, no.” (now he’s a tinge angry) “I thought I was getting a window seat. I don’t even like the aisle.
“I usually just take a sleeping pill and pass out for the flight.”
“Well, maybe you should still consider taking that pill.” Still smiling, still bright.
“No, I can’t.” (Clearly disgusted now) “I’ll just have to get up to let you out.”
I decided to give Jerky one more try.
“Hey Maggie,” I said to her sitting between us, “how many times did we get up on the flight out here?”
“Huh?” said she, unaware of the conversation taking place literally and figuratively over her head, “I don’t know.”
“We managed to get up just one time,” I answered for her.
He turned away, not at all interested, having already decided this was going to be some sort of a nightmare.
Oliver’s contribution to all of this, incidentally, was peeing through his diaper before we even left the ground. No way I was getting up though, so I just put my jacket between his bum and my leg and we were off.
As we were starting our initial descent into Boston, Jerky piped up again having been awake but mostly silent for the entire trip.
“So do you live in Boston?”
Huh? Now he wants to chat?
So I engaged in the idle chit-chat of airline passengers though I can’t remember much of what he had to offer.
At the end, he grudgingly admitted that he was absolutely sure that this flight was going to be a nightmare. He now admitted how surprised he was at how well behaved all four kids were.
He marveled that Ollie had managed to sleep for about half the trip and that Maggie just watched her little JetBlue TV the whole time. He even said that, at one point, when he was watching South Park, that he was worried it was inappropriate for Maggie. I assured him it was fine and that I didn’t think she ever took her eyes off her own screen.
He was very nice at the very end, saying goodbye to everyone while his partner did the same.
I don’t know what the moral to this story is. I could get moralistic and tell you that’s it about being nice to parents travelling with kids. You should, don’t get me wrong, but I understand that you’d rather not sit with kids who aren’t yours. Frankly, I look forward to my next flight when even I won’t sit with my own kids as I am flying alone.
As I admitted up front, I not only know the worried stares of people on the plane, I understand and even empathize with them.
In the end I suppose you should just go in understanding that we’re all in this together. Parents have to do their part of planning to the best of their abilities and making sure their kids keep in their seats and as quiet as they can. The rest of the passengers have to understand that families get to fly too.
If I had any advice to offer it would be simply to be as happy and friendly as possible, whether you’re the one with the kids or the one without.
Also, if you’re flying with Oliver, bring an extra pair of pants.
(Post script: while hunting around for images I discovered a wonderful new term: “Gate Lice” This describes those people I reference who clutter the area around the gate of an airplane during the boarding process waiting for their rows to be called. They drive me crazy and the term is apt and wonderful. Gate lice! Indeed.)