Flying with my toddler is easy

All I have to do is wrestle with 23 pounds of human id and maintain the alertness of a ninja for 12 hours

Published August 31, 2012 11:30PM (EDT)

          (<a href=''>arnoaltix</a> via <a href=''>iStockphoto</a>)
(arnoaltix via iStockphoto)

The sinks in this forgotten restroom at Heathrow have no water pressure, which is unfortunate, because vomit made of banana and blueberry smoothie doesn’t wash out of a toddler’s sweater as easily as one might hope. There are two 20-something women in this bathroom, all maxi dresses and sunglasses on head, shoulder bags stuffed with magazines, oozing the insouciant hedonism of single holidaymakers.

They stop their conversation to watch what I’m doing, like it’s gross, like it’s not their destiny. They’re at the stage of life when all their discussions revolve around coupling and the search for love. This is where it leads, I want to tell these girls. You have dinner in Chelsea one night with the cute groomsman from that wedding and four years later he’s pushing your kid on a luggage cart while you scrub her breakfast off a teddy bear. I’m the Ghost of Vacations Yet to Come, ladies. Enjoy Mallorca. See you back here in eight years.

The summer holiday travel season is drawing to a close, and my family is one of countless currently lining up at airports around the globe with the grim-faced fortitude of those about to board a plane with small children. We – my husband, our 18-month-old daughter and myself – are embarking on the second annual Tour de Grandparents, a cross-country extravaganza made international by the fact that we live in London.

Our daughter made her first transatlantic airplane voyage when we moved there from New York when she was 7 weeks old. We are about to embark on her 18thinternational flight. We’d be pros at this, if children weren’t such slippery little shape shifters. Their food, sleep, activity and toy requirements evolve constantly, and each flight requires new strategies, a new packing list, NORAD-like attention to detail.

I’m nervous about this flight. She’s a full-blown toddler now, 23 pounds of raw id and energy. She’s mobile, aware of her surroundings, expects multiple hours of unleashed outdoor time each day and is about as big as she can get without having her own seat (airlines require purchase of a separate seat for children at age 2). The only difference between toddlers and uncaged ferrets is that one is bigger and, astoundingly, allowed to roam untethered in the cabin of a passenger plane.

The trip does not begin well. She throws up in the taxi, which I would have felt worse about had the driver not fallen asleep and almost driven us into a truck before my husband grabbed the wheel. Unexpected body fluids are not a big deal, because of the extra clothes in her diaper bag. Extra clothes are a staple of the flight bag. The contents of the flight bag are vitally important and deserve more advance planning than your itinerary. Diapers. Wipes. Food. Books. Water. Monkey, which is to say the toy from which your child must not be separated at any cost. Teddy (lieutenant to Monkey). Extra toys your child has forgotten about and will be delighted to encounter midair. (What up, ugly woolen insect finger puppets?) Plastic bags to contain trash, dirty clothes and the gross thing you will inevitably be carrying before the flight is through. An iPad (a luxury I am beginning to consider a necessity – more on that later).

The rest of Heathrow has been buffed up for the Olympics. Terminal 4, however, retains its gritty ambiance. It’s the hairy-chested, open-jacketed, gold-chained cousin of the international terminals, harboring lower-end carriers to Russia, Dubai, Newark, N.J. I would wager good money that Prince Harry has never seen the inside of Terminal 4. We have two hours to kill here. After marveling at the fish in the decorative duty-free shop aquarium, multiple readings of “The Gruffalo” and an impromptu dance party in an empty corner, we board. It’s game time.

Flying with a tiny child is actually not that hard, as long as you do not relax for a second and maintain the alertness of a ninja for 12 hours straight. No one likes flying to begin with. Your kid would rather be chewing the paint on the slide at her favorite park. Your seatmates aren’t happy to see you. Your job as a parent in flight is to act as a human sponge for any distress than might otherwise spill onto your child or your fellow passengers, and to offer an endless series of distractions to draw her attention from boredom and discomfort. Hungry? Here’s a Cheerio. Thinking about punching that seat? Here, let’s play patty cake. Bored? You ever seen a seat belt go clickety-clack? Well, let me blow your mind.

We try not to make life miserable for anyone else on the plane. We don’t let her kick the seat or shriek for the fun of it; we limit diaper changes to the cupboard-size restroom provided. But no matter how much advance planning you do, how much one packs and repacks the bag of tricks, there is no way of knowing if today is your day for a Meltdown, a full-scale, full-body tantrum brought on by exhaustion or ear pain or the secret unknowable angst of toddlerhood. Meltdowns respond to no distraction or reason; there is nothing to do but hold your beautiful child as she dissolves into a snotty, tearful, shrieking Fury. A Meltdown is bad enough at the grocery store or in church. On a plane there is nowhere to go, no matter how detailed your fantasy of breaking through a window and parachuting to safety. It’s just you, Baby Medusa, 300 judgmental stares and the reminder that you aren’t a normal person anymore. You’re a parent, and maybe you should just stay home until high school.

She does well. It is a turbulent flight, which meant spending most of it in our seat buckled up, but between the snacks, assorted amusements, books, Monkey and a brief nap, she passes eight hours with nary a moan. Then our plane lands as scheduled at 1 p.m. – not in Newark, where a freak summer storm has closed the airport, but in Bangor, Maine, an international airport that somehow lacks the customs required for us to get off the plane. The flight attendants offer to do “whatever we can to make you more comfortable, folks,” then barricade themselves in the galley and close down all food and beverage service. We will sit here, indefinitely, until Newark reopens and we take our place somewhere in the line of diverted planes seeking to return.

Now a word about that iPad.

Toddlers are sensitive, and will interpret irritability around them as an invitation to the same. Surrounded by a small militia of crying babies and grumbling adults, my husband and I deploy the biggest gun in our arsenal – Peppa Pig.

My daughter loves Peppa Pig. The threat or promise of a change in her allotted Peppa viewing time can encourage virtually any behavior. At the sight of the rotund Pig family, the number of happy people on our airplane skyrocketed from zero to one. At home Peppa is restricted to two five-minute segments at a time; here, on this sweaty, crabby plane, we hit the repeat button like cracked-out lab rats looking for another fix. If she were able to remember such things, my daughter would tell you that Bangor International (but not really!) Airport is a magical place where rules evaporate and Peppa Pig frolics all day. She would take all our vacations there.

The plane leaves Bangor, eventually, after two hours on the runway and an extra half hour of circling Newark with other diverted planes. Then it lands. It always does. That’s the thing about these journeys – they end, in less time and with less ambiguity than other, greater challenges of parenting. As much as I wish these flights didn’t stand between us and our families, I know one day, perversely, I will miss them. I know the time will come when I will look back with nostalgia on a quainter, simpler time when problems could be solved with little more than Cheerios, a Monkey and a giggling, snorting pig.

By Corinne Purtill

Corinne Purtill is a journalist based in London.

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Air Travel Children Life Stories Motherhood Parenting Parenting Mistakes Real Families