The bizarre case of a dad traveling alone with a baby

The biggest challenge of flying with my daughter was the uncomfortable reactions we got from strangers

Topics: Real Families, Fatherhood, Parenting, aviation, Life stories, Flying, Parenthood, Editor's Picks,

The bizarre case of a dad traveling alone with a baby (Credit: bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock/Salon)

The week before I boarded a plane with my 1-year-old daughter I was routinely explaining to others, most often my wife, that I did not think it was a big deal.

Doubters weren’t so much concerned I was traveling with my daughter as they were concerned I was traveling without my wife.

It was just Gigi and me. And a sippy cup and another cup with a rubber top that allows her to reach the Happypuffs without, theoretically, spilling them all over the place; two pouches of formula; two bottles; 32 diapers; a changing pad and wet wipes; a stroller (doubling as car seat, so way too heavy); various toys, plush and electronic; and teething tabs — most of it in plastic bags dangling from the stroller. A few items made it into my bulging backpack where I managed to stuff all our clothes for five days. My computer bag was, presumably, somewhere in the mix.

My wife dropped us off curbside shortly after 8 in the morning, kissing Gigi until I convinced her it was time to go. And it wasn’t until she pulled away and I turned toward the revolving door that I panicked.

Just a little bit.

Until then, flying alone with Gigi had been an idea. But when it came to practicalities and logistics — whether the stroller, with its dangling bags, would fit through the revolving door, and how I would deconstruct the stroller to get through the X-ray machine — a certain reality set in.

But fate intervened: The smiling woman at TSA who checked my boarding pass against my ID awakened me to the perks of traveling with infant. And that is the exact phrase — “with infant” — on the boarding pass in extra small font that hadn’t yet caught my eye. The TSA employee redirected my smiling, waving baby (and me) to the special Pre√ security line, where I was not asked to remove my shoes or belt or computer, and another TSA employee kindly held Gigi’s hand as I fed her stroller through the machine.

And the world kept spinning our way: Gigi remained calm in her seat all the way through to the terminal. It wasn’t until we were at the gate — me in a chair, Gigi standing between my legs, leaning on my knee, gumming a croissant — that a certain discomfort set in.

Not for Gigi or for me but, seemingly, for those around us. First there was the 30-something woman two seats down from us. Her smiles for Gigi were unabated, but the two she threw at me were uneasy and restrained. Gigi kept trying to make friends with her, walking over to stare for 30 seconds at a time. Finally, after several minutes, the woman said to me, “Mom’s in the bathroom.” I suppose it was officially a question, but it just as easily read as a hopeful assumption.



“No,” I said.  ”Mom’s working and can’t make the trip.”

She nodded like she may or may not believe me.

Then it happened again, when we joined the cluster of passengers nearer the jet bridge, waiting to board. Another woman with a concerned expression asked, “Is she your daughter?” I confirmed that I was, in fact, the father of the child clinging to my leg, playfully waving the copy of Gigi’s birth certificate that I was carrying with me. The woman smiled, still with some reservation, and turned away. I wasn’t quite sure what possibility she might have been considering: Uncle? Brother with a massive age gap? Kidnapper?

Still, Gigi and I boarded without a hitch — in Group 2, of course, right after first and business class because we did, indeed, require extra time getting to our seat. Before ditching the stroller at the end of the jet bridge, I had to remove the three bags I had concealed in the stroller’s pouch in advance of getting my boarding pass scanned — the extra carry-ons surely would have earned me surcharges. The flight attendants on the plane did not have the gall to challenge me on the extra bags as I struggled down the aisle with babe in arms. Nor did they challenge me on my liberal use of the overhead compartment. Clearly I needed all the space I could get if I was going to ride it out in the middle seat — yes, the middle seat — with Gigi in my lap for two hours and 56 minutes.

Somehow that flying time from New York City to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport went unpredictably well. Naturally Gigi had serious bouts of squirming, but she fell asleep at all the right places — mainly takeoff and landing when, on a previous flight, breast-feeding was the only cure for her aching ears. We made it through the terminal and hopped into our rental, heading to the house of a couple old friends, David and Bill, who were eager to meet Gigi. The three of us watched my daughter blow off nearly three hours of steam — “getting her yah-yahs out,” as her mother would say — running in circles and zigzags in the backyard.

At one point, David made a confession: He was terrified in anticipation of our arrival because he assumed my marriage might be in trouble. When I asked why he thought this, he confessed it was because my wife did not make the trip with us. He had tried to put the thought out of his mind but, being a hair stylist, he shared his worry with several clients who, much to his horror, concurred that the situation seemed fishy.

I could tell David felt relief saying this — and even more relief that his assumption was wrong. I told him about the suspicious looks and questions I got at the airport, reassuring him he wasn’t alone in his perplexed reaction to a father traveling alone with his daughter. The image of a mother juggling documents and luggage with a kid — if not several — is not unfamiliar. Apparently a father traveling alone with his kid suggests a deeper narrative. But I had no back story. I was taking on a challenge of parenthood, a challenge not bound to motherhood or fatherhood.

* * *

After a week of introducing Gigi to cousins and aunts and uncles, we returned to the airport to head home, seasoned pros.

But of course the trip back was a disaster.

We were not sent to the TSA Pre√ line. Apparently it is not really the phrase “with infant” on my boarding pass that had worked magic on the outbound flight, as the stern man at the security station in Dallas let me know. I was, he underscored, lucky at my earlier security screening when I was sent to the special line. I asked why he considered the kindness of strangers luck, but that did not elicit an answer, much less a change of heart.

Gigi and I did, however, enjoy an unexpected moment of Zen when we finally made it to the X-ray machine: I set her on the ground and before releasing her from my grip I said, “Daddy really, really, really needs you to stay right there. Please.” I doubt any of the words beyond “daddy” registered, maybe “please,” but certainly she understood something in my desperate tone as she proceeded to do just as I asked, standing at my side, hands clasped together, smiling at anyone who made eye contact. Such a stationary moment had never been experienced and has not been experienced since.

Chaos resumed shortly thereafter when I sat on my coffee, sending ice-cold liquid both down my legs and up my back. I forgot that I’d hastily placed the coffee on my seat as I’d lunged for Gigi who lay sprawled out, fattened lip bleeding, silently filling her lungs, preparing for the ear-piercing screech that materialized just as I sat on the plastic cup. I managed to stop the bleeding with an ice cube fished from my coffee-soaked crotch. She managed to stop crying.

We both managed.

She held it together, despite vacillating wildly between intense bursts of energy and can’t-hold-my-head-up-anymore fatigue. And I held it together at the store across from our gate when I discovered Gigi 8 feet to my right, fat lip and all, with five bags of potato chips clasped in her tiny right hand, four in her left. We can debate the wisdom of placing potato chips on such a low shelf, but that point aside: in the instant it took to reach down and grab my daughter — a slow motion “noooooooo” rumbling out of me — she dropped the bags in her hand, swung her arm across the shelf to knock down 10 more, and stomped on everything as if completing a rain dance. And it worked because the skies opened with thunder and lightning, and our departure was delayed by an hour.

During that time, and again on the plane, more strange looks for me, the man with the baby, the man with something missing. Gigi cried for much of that flight — there’s one on every plane — and I could tell she wanted to see her mom. I did, too. But we managed. Her heavy head eventually settled for my shoulder.

DW Gibson is the author of "Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy." His next book, an oral history of gentrification, will be published in April of 2015.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...