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.

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