On the way home from spring break, I sat in the back of a certified “completely full flight” surrounded by my husband and three kids, ages 11 to 16 (my husband is 47, just to be clear). Behind me sat a cute mom and two super cute, albeit plump, blonde kids with adorable freckles. A boy and a girl.
During the flight, one of the kids kicked my seat as if determined to drill a hole in my tailbone. I dealt with it gracefully, exuding the wisdom of senior motherhood. Plus I was so exhausted from skiing and sunning that I slept deeply and passionately, grateful that my kids were too old to bother me on long flights anymore.
I cogitated about flying with and without children as I read the recent New York Times article “Keeping the Peace in Coach” citing the various creative, thoughtful ways airlines are trying to simultaneously appease business travelers and families flying with young children. My favorite story: when a businessman complained about sitting next to a 10-year-old on a flight from Dublin to the United States, the airline bumped the kid and his mom to first class.
That’s my kind of solution. Using your child to wrangle an upgrade! Woo hoo!
But on my flight, there was no room in first class. So I sat listening to Cute Mom talk to her cute kids. She giggled an amazing amount.
I listened to her say “Darling, no, you are not chubby, you are perfect. Perfect!”
When one child grew frustrated with his coloring book, she trilled, “No darling, you are brilliant, brilliant!”
When she got up to take the children to the restroom, I noticed that she looked unusually trim about the waist. She had no cellulite on her deliciously smooth and pale arms. (Okay, I’m a horrible person. I admit I do look at these things, especially in the competition.) In her understandable moments of frustration, after five hours of being prodded and having sticky soda and pretzel crumbs spilled on her, she said in a lovely and completely sincere sing-song voice,
“Dear, I love you so very much, more than life itself, but could you stop poking me just for the next five minutes?”
Then she giggled delightfully, true joy in her laugh.
There was no husband/father nearby. I know this because I checked the surrounding seats carefully to see if I could hate him, since I was having so much trouble finding a single flaw in her.
As the plane began its descent, I reviewed the flights I’ve been on with my three kids over the past 16 years. The times I hissed angrily that I was going to kill them if they didn’t shut up. Dug my fingernails into their forearms. The time I cried and threatened to leave them during a changeover. The angry texts I sent my husband damning him for being on a business trip instead of on the plane with THEM.
Then I started feeling bad about my cellulite and the small flap of belly fat hanging over my jeans under the seat belt. I couldn’t forgive myself for not washing my hair before the flight. When had I last really looked in the mirror, and been happy with what I saw there?
You know what came next: that awful inner-mom voice started in on the terrible person I was compared to Cute Mom. My kids would be better off with her clever, kind, self-esteem-building, civilizing and gentle reprimands. That woman could write a parenting manual, the voice said. And she could pose for the cover.
How had I ever thought I was a good parent?
Then, just as my intestines started to twist in food-poisoning knots of guilt and self-hatred, I heard an exquisite sound, like a nightingale singing before sunrise. If one listened closely, Cute Mom had a delicious hint of a British accent. Totally unlike the all-American freckled kids.
I peered over my shoulder, through the seats, with my glasses on this time. Cute Mom looked a little too young to be a mother. In fact, she looked nothing like her kids!
Then, after we landed, blissful confirmation. She powered up her cell phone and dialed a mystery number. Afterwards, she told the children, “Sillies, just a few more minutes, and the lovely driver your mummy and father hired will meet us at baggage claim.”
Thank the Lord. She wasn’t their MOTHER!
She was a pricey professional nanny, imported from the UK no less, a modern day Mary Poppins. No wonder she had no cellulite! Of course she was sweet. She probably earned over $100,000 a year for being patient and understanding.
It was her JOB to be a positive-reinforcement machine. She could afford to be beatifically nice. She got off work in a few hours!
The best part: I wasn’t a bad mom anymore. I had been comparing myself against an impossible standard, like standing next to Heidi Klum at McDonald’s. I wasn’t despicable, I was NORMAL. Phew. A happy ending to spring break with my kids. I could go back to accepting my imperfect self.