Airplanes, Kids and Moms Stuck in the Middle

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You see a bedraggled, pinched-face mom struggling to placate small kids in an airport. What’s your immediate reaction?

You may have heard the United Airlines horror story of New Jersey mom Elit Kirschenbaum. I’ve known Elit for years. She is a generous, kind, smart, extremely dedicated mom — the kind of woman we all want to have as our PTA president or the leader of our synagogue or the mom of our daughter’s best friend. The type of woman you know is reasonable, fair, and nice the minute you meet her.

Elit has four kids ages 11, 8, 6 and 3.  Her three-year-old daughter, Ivy, is a stroke survivor and has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Ivy weighs less than 25 pounds and is the size of a two-year-old. She cannot sit by herself on a plane, a couch, or anywhere. So when Elit travels with her kids, she buys Ivy a seat, in accordance with airline regulations for children older than two. But her daughter sits on her mom’s lap due to her inability to sit up herself.

Does this seem like it should be a big deal? Isn’t travelling with children hard enough all by itself?

On December 30th, the six Kirschenbaums were flying home from the Dominican Republic. Three of the four flight attendants accepted the need for Ivy to sit on Elit’s lap. A fourth did not. She refused to allow the plane to be cleared for takeoff if Ivy weren’t buckled into her own seat – despite Elit’s explanation that this would be physically impossible.

Tears, arguments, a long delay for everyone, and an embarrassing situation for United Airlines ensued. Finally, after an hour’s debate, the pilot overruled the flight attendant. The plane took off with Ivy lying across her father’s lap, buckled in with his seat belt.

I have been that mom – minus the special medical needs. I travelled by car, train and airplane with my three young children, often when they were all under six years old. My husband travelled for business and usually met us separately, so the travel was all on me.

I developed great strategies for travelling solo with young kids. A purse full of entertaining props. Dressing them in neon colors so I could easily keep an eye on them. Figuring out how to squeeze four people and luggage into airport bathroom stalls.

But I never learned to deal with fellow travelers who simply didn’t understand how challenging it is for kids to abide by adult travel etiquette when they are young.

I remember the day my two-year-old son wouldn’t stop kicking the airplane seat in front of him. I took off his shoes. I asked him, ordered him, and begged him to stop. To no avail. Finally, the man in the seat (of course it was a man) turned around and yelled at me until I started crying.

“WHY CAN’T YOU MAKE HIM STOP KICKING MY SEAT?

YOU CHOSE TO HAVE THESE KIDS, SO WHY CAN’T YOU CONTROL THEM?

WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A TRAIN OR DRIVE INSTEAD?”

In the middle seat, I was holding and breastfeeding my infant daughter as the man turned red and vented demonically. My overwhelmed vulnerability (open shirt, boob exposed, daughter nursing) didn’t soften him one decibel level. His girlfriend finally begged him to shut up. He did, but it felt like a pyrrhic victory since I was already wrecked emotionally by his tirade.

And the plane hadn’t even taken off yet.

An experience like that changes you as a person.

So usually, unlike United Airlines flight attendant #4, when I see another parent travelling with little children, I smile. I offer to help with the stroller or luggage. I proclaim loudly how cute the kids are. When the baby screams, I laugh in sympathy. We all were kids once, and we probably didn’t behave so well in public either.

So here are my tips for travelling with young kids, especially a special needs child.

  • Get creative, in terms of entertaining and distracting your kids. Bring treats, games, books, cards, and self-contained projects.
  • Get creative, in terms of entertaining and distracting the obnoxious adults around you. This involves a lot of smiling and Namaste face.
  • If your child has special needs, get a letter of diagnosis and explanation from your pediatrician. Keep it in your suitcase. Funny how people respect that MD degree.
  • This is not the time or the place to discipline your children. Bribe and threaten them to behave using all those props you brought in your carry-on pouch.
  • Take care of yourself before, during and after the travel episode. Tell yourself repeatedly – write it on your hand if you need to – that you are a fine mother who is doing the best she can in a small, stressful space. You will survive this.
  • Accept that some people’s behavior lies outside your control. Don’t let it frazzle you. Give them the finger when no one is looking.
  • Ask (beg!) for help – from passengers, your older kids, the flight attendants, or even the pilot (as the Kirschenbaums had to do when the flight attendant dug in).
  • No matter what, stay calm. Tears and anger don’t help anyone. Like a hostage being tortured, you will feel worse – not better – if they break you.
  • No matter what, stay firm. No passenger has the right to make you or your child feel ashamed of being human. You and your children deserve to be treated with respect and compassion by all fellow travellers and airline personnel.

And then, if you get really tired of travelling with your kids, do what I eventually did: stop travelling with your kids. After ten years of heroic solo mom travel and earning my PhD in efficient suitcase packing, I decided to stay home and let our relatives and the world come to us instead.

At least until my three kids could sit in a row by themselves, and behave impeccably while I slept in my window seat by myself

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