It was the best of times… It was the worst of times.
Scrap that. This ordeal takes the prize for the worst of times. It is right up there with childbirth, minus the joy and relief of meeting a new baby.
I have just returned from a long-haul flight with my 20-month-old son and four-year-old daughter and my experiences have left me with a yearning desire to put pen to paper – if only to relieve the burden on my soul.
Let’s start at the beginning.
I’m not one of those doomsday parents who envisages the worst about everything and anything. I’m generally optimistic. I do minimal research before embarking on our roughly 20 hour (three legs) flight, and I go in there with relative optimism. “Just don’t think about it and get through it,” I tell myself. There we are at the airport, my eldest daughter rolling her cute little hand luggage full of all sorts of goodies like scented textas and crayons. The kids are happy and things are going generally well.
On the plane, we manage to take off with minimal drama. Daughter is happily distracted with all the on-board entertainment – a God-send for kids her age. At one point, we excitedly bring her attention to the scenery below us through the window, to which she smiles and says, “Can I look away now?”
Whatever makes you happy, kid.
Airlines generally put children at the front of the plane so parents can use bassinets. Herein lies danger number one: our proximity to business and first class. I cannot tell you how many times I lunge at my running toddler just before the curtain that separates the privileged from economy class is unceremoniously pulled open and the well-rested inhabitants beyond are exposed.
The hours roll on. We don’t have a seat for our son, and so he shares with us. Son starts to get agitated. The thing about kids is, if you change their routine, they become either hyperactive, grumpy or both. Saying things like, “Come on, sleep!” doesn’t mean much to their little heads. Neither does walking up and down the aisle with a dummy jammed into their mouth. What little kids really want to do is move. Travelling on a plane essentially means they can’t. This is a recipe for disaster.
Next comes the tiredness and another major hurdle: how on Earth do we put my son to bed? I look around and see all the nice, clean and tidy passengers settling down to sleep. I don’t feel bad for myself. I feel bad for them, knowing what they are about to be subjected to. For the next hour or so, my husband and I would take turns in trying to calm down our manic and overly tired son, bopping around the cabin like fools. There are screams and tears, and deep within me would grow a general hatred for all the pretty things in the world. There are many trips made to the bathroom. There are many lullabies sung in vain and, in a last ditch effort to control the screaming, lots of bribery in the form of sugary things. Judge me; I don’t care.
Finally, we give up trying and that’s usually when kids do too. He sleeps. We place him in the bassinet ever so carefully and slowly, moving in a fashion not unlike a suited up astronaut. We practically stop breathing in an effort to get him in, strapped and sleeping. Finally; success.
But no. It can’t be that easy. “Babies must be removed from bassinets when the seat belt sign is on,” we hear in the security presentation. “Surely not…” I think to myself.
I am wrong. The dreaded sign of death (that is, the seat belt sign) switches on and we are ordered to remove the sleeping baby. All hopes of drinking a cup of tea, browsing through the on-board entertainment or even going to the toilet like a normal, civilised human are quashed. Back to holding the baby.
As a movie fan, I love seeing what’s on offer on the inflight entertainment. It makes the time go faster and could also appease a bored toddler. Not this time, though. Watch a movie from start to finish? I’d be lucky to get away with watching the opening credits. My son’s feet are not only all over the screen – they also take great pleasure in poking at it and resetting anything I begin playing. Peppa Pig never stood a chance. And look, I agree, kids are cute. But seeing Hugh Jackman’s face from in between my son’s chubby toes doesn’t hold a lot of appeal.
I used to like flying. I really did. But this experience has scarred me. You start to ask yourself, is it really worth it? No longer can you casually request a beverage and actually drink it before it gets cold or stains your shirt. No longer can you go to the bathroom and freshen up. These become a luxury painfully beyond your reach now. If you go to the toilet, it’s with a screaming and/or soiled kid in hand. If you thought those cubicles were small, try being in there with another human being. Just think about it. How do you wash your hands? One-handed, that’s how.
You look in the mirror and pity the pale, dishevelled face looking back. “What did I do to deserve this?” you ask, before leaving back up the Aisle of Doom. But even then you can’t walk back normally, for there’s a blasted food and drinks cart blocking the passage. Great, you’re stuck and can’t be bothered negotiating with the flight attendant to let you through. Overwhelmed and in a tired stupor, you slouch against the walls and look around. The lights are off and all you see is an army of entangled limbs, heads skewed backwards on the head rests, mouths open and snoring. Some are watching TV and some are awake just like you. You look at them, and are met back with a look that could only be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.
You might happen to come across another set of hapless parents. You hear their child screaming and all you can do is exchange a look that roughly translates to “I know”.
Stumbling back to your seat, having changed your child for the 12th time, including their clothes (because nappies somehow find a way of not working when in a flying metal tube over the ocean), you realise it’s time to eat. Airline food at the best of times doesn’t have the best of reputations, but spare a thought for travellers like me. “Chicken or vegetarian?” I hear other passengers being asked. Smiling flight attendant hands tray over to smiling passenger. Drinks are then dutifully served and more pleasantries exchanged before the passenger is left to eat their meal in peace.
I’ll tell you how it goes down for me. Food is handed to you. You place it on your tray. Toddler tries to grab food, you inch it away from him, all the while trying to distract him with things like bread rolls. He throws said rolls on the floor, joining the sea of wrappers, socks, pencils, crackers and blankets that is already down there. Daughter is managing to cherry pick the ‘good’ stuff out of her meal, but that’s the least of my concerns. “I can do this,” I think to myself.
Husband looks over in faux concern at my situation, but I allow him to eat his meal in peace. I shuffle Son over to the side and prepare the cutlery. Finally settled, I scan the food before me. “Hmm,” I muse. “This looks interesting. It’s a chickpea salad with marinated capsi–” BAM. Chickpeas are suddenly all over my shirt, lap and seat. That’s that. No meal for me.
Hearing the announcement that the plane has started its final descent brings feelings of immense relief. The last thought that goes through your mind upon landing is, “Thank goodness. Now get me off this plane!”
My parting advice for those travelling with kids: don’t. But if you must, be prepared for pain. Oh, and take a car seat – something I wish someone had told me prior to my trip. And a message for those travelling without kids – we’re all in this together. Give us a smile. It’ll make our horribly painful trip marginally better.
By May Fahmi
May is a 30-something working mum who loves to try cuisines from all over the globe, but still thinks her mama’s cooking is the best.