I get stressed when we travel because there is a ton of logistics. Basically, I feel like a roadie on a touring rock show. But instead of booze, drugs and green M&Ms, I'm trying to find organic milk, Annie's cheddar bunnies and fragrance-free wipes in rural Virginia. Instead of groupies, I'm juggling adoring grandparents, relatives and friends with whom we need to arrange meet-and-greets. And instead of the “band members” expecting gifts from everyone, demanding constant attention and being tantrum-prone . . . oh wait, that part is exactly the same.
I'll be perfectly honest: I did not want to go on our latest trip to the East Coast with both kids. I know it's terrible to say, isn't it? I just really wanted to take this year off because I knew that our son (13 months) was in that wonderful fast-crawling, early-walking, getting-into-everything-and-won't-sit-still stage. Then add an eight-hour transcontinental journey with a connection through bustling Chicago Midway, whilst trying to confine him to the tiny row we are allotted on a packed airplane. And all the while keeping an eye on his 4-year-old seasoned traveler of a sister who is mostly a champ until she gets bored — and then all bets are off.
"No," I said emphatically to my husband, "We are not going this year."
But he felt differently. It's his family out there, and he wants the kids to have a strong connection to them.
So he said, "That's OK, I'll take them by myself."
A spiteful little voice in my head whispered, Let him try it. What a woeful disaster that will be! Cue maniacal laughing.
He explained that he and the kids could fly ahead and then I could join them later. The idea of flying by myself with no one else to take care of, plus the ability to navigate an airport with just one bag, listen to podcasts uninterrupted and have an open cup of liquid on my tray table — oh the possibilities!
Then I came back to reality and thought, there is no way I could willingly subject my children (and ultimately my husband) to the trauma of having only one responsible adult shepherd them through Purgatory (a.k.a. “the airport”) when there is another option. A few fleeting hours of bliss for me would require months of therapy for them.
So I erased my line in the sand and begrudgingly readied for the journey.
But my nightmare came true: The worst experience I've ever had traveling since I've become a parent. It all happened on our return flight.
1. We left Virginia on a 5:35 p.m. flight, which you might think would seem like a good idea for sleeping and generally being calm in transit. But you would be wrong. With the three-hour time difference, everyone was perfectly primed to be excessively tired upon reaching Seattle. When wrangling kids, car seats and a heap of luggage, we desperately needed to cope well as parents, but instead we lost the ability to properly focus — a critical failure that would come to bite us in the behind right when we thought we’d made it through the worst.
2. We flew Southwest because we love their sassy in-flight announcing style and the price tag. However, they don't serve food, even food to buy. A cup of juice and a bag of cookies does not a meal make. That could have been an epic disaster, especially flying at dinnertime, but we were prepared this time. I was loaded down like a pack animal with two huge bags of snacks and liquids hoping I'd still make the carry-on quota. Luckily I did.
3. In flight, the baby wouldn't sit still or settle down for the entirety of our first leg. This was behavior we'd not seen during the initial flight out to the East Coast. He graced us with the classic stretchy, twisting, back-arching maneuver as he yelled/cried/laughed interchangeably. Was he tired, hungry, teething, claustrophobic? We plied him with food, toys, bouncing (when we were finally allowed to stand up) and letting him push the light button hundreds of times.
Nothing worked. For the first time, we got to be those people on the flight with the crying baby who everyone glares at. I glanced at my exasperated husband, who was trying to keep a hold of our son, and my mouth twitched for a moment in smug righteousness as I thought of him trying to do this all by himself. But then my stomach dropped, not because I felt a pang of solidarity, but because we were slammed into the roughest, scariest landing in recent memory. Welcome to Chicago Midway Airport.
4. I thought since we were not going through O'Hare that this would be a smaller, calmer place. But even on a non-holiday Monday night, it was as if we were flying during Thanksgiving. Wall-to-wall people everywhere, and while we had thought we could walk the kids out a little, we barely made it to the gate for the connection.
5. On this second leg bound for Seattle, we boarded between A & B slots. Southwest has unassigned seating so when you check in you get assigned a place in line. Once you are on the plane, you pick a seat. The only perk of traveling with children is getting to use the designated family loading time to get on the plane and not stress about your place in line. Because we needed seats together, we ended up toward the middle-back of the plane (where all the families end up sitting, in a block just behind the wing, because we board at the same time).
Not surprisingly, mid-flight many of the babies erupted into simultaneous crying. Babies tend to cry in sympathy with others, so who knows how many actually had something wrong. Miraculously, our son slept through it all. I watched other desperate parents trying to do anything and everything to get their kids to quiet down, and I just hugged my sweaty, passed out little boy, sending out feelings of empathy and wishing for a gust of tailwind to get us home sooner.
6. Forty minutes from landing in Seattle, I was feeling pretty good. The baby was still asleep, my husband has been able to work on his computer, and the 4-year-old has been zonked out in her seat for almost two hours. Of course, too good to be true.
The baby awoke and I peeled him out of the soft carrier and handed him to my husband. Suddenly we realized he'd peed through his diaper, and it was everywhere. I tucked him under my arm like a football and rushed to the restroom for a full change, frantically pushing fellow passengers out of my way. Disaster averted, we settled ourselves back in for landing.
Of course, the 4-year-old woke up immediately and started crying inconsolably. At which point we noticed she, too, had wet herself (duh, because we had forgotten to take her to the restroom before she fell asleep). I had her pajamas in the diaper bag but by that point we were no longer allowed to get up.
7. We deplaned at 10 p.m., but to our bodies it was 1 a.m. as we trudged into the terminal and beelined for a family restroom. The 4-year-old was now hysterical, cold, wet and tired. I tried to calmly change her as fast as I could, but my nerves were fraying as exhaustion and a squeak of resentment crept in. So I may or may not have snapped at my husband when he asked how I was doing.
With my love for efficiency, I came up with a grand idea for him to take the toddler car seat, ride the courtesy shuttle solo, and pick up the car at the offsite parking lot. He could then swing around on the airport arrival drive to get us and the heap of bags.
This is where our fatigue did us in.
Twenty minutes after taking off for the shuttle, he called to say that he’d forgotten to bring car keys so he had to come all the way back to us in baggage claim. I sighed heavily, wondering if things could get more ridiculous.
Yes, yes they could.
When he appeared to get the keys, I noticed something was missing.
"Where's the car seat?" I asked roughly.
In his exhaustion, he had left our car seat on the shuttle. The car seat we needed to ride home.
After some frantic minutes and a call to the parking place, it was located, and the shuttle people said they’d hold it at the cashier office.
Eventually we got on the road. At midnight (3 a.m. for us), we finally stumbled through our front door. I've never been so happy to be home.
A lot is written about making air travel go smoothly with small children. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Even when you think you know what you're doing, it's still hard.
But kids don't get to be seasoned travelers without practice. So despite it all, we’ll eventually have to pack our bags once again.
Kali Sakai’s two young children will rack up more air miles by Kindergarten than she did by college. But Kali and her husband plan to stay put in their Seattle home for now.