On a crowded airplane with a toddler
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After a recent, traumatic flight with my toddler, it seems like I see posts about child tantrums and seat change battles on flights way too often.

Sadly, these stories that I used to be able to pucker and cluck my tongue at, even just a month ago, are no longer someone else’s tragedy. An unforeseeable, unimaginable series of events from out of the blue found me sitting on a plane, next to my own wailing and thrashing son, unable to believe what was happening in front of my eyes.

Let me briefly introduce myself. I am that mom with a type A personality and a slightly too high anxiety level that makes me over-prepare for everything.

Naturally, for my son’s first flight, I prepared everything that was in my power to control, way ahead of time.

  • I carefully selected nutritional snacks that were still yummy enough to eliminate any doubt that he would reach for them if he got hungry.
  • I checked with our pediatrician and prepared motion sickness and allergy medications.
  • I researched and purchased toys and activities based on his interests, which were sure to excite him and occupy his time.
  • I packed his comfort blanket and neck pillow to help him soothe himself to sleep.
  • I dressed him in a comfortable outfit instead of a cute one, and I packed extra changes of clothes in case of any accidents.
  • In addition, due to the circumstances of the Covid-19 situation, we practiced wearing masks ahead of time.

These were the things that I could control, but there were things that I had no control over, such as sudden changes in the flight schedule due to overly booked flights, which led to our seat selections being completely erased. Hours on the phone for days on end did not solve those problems or lessen my panic, as I imagined my child having to sit between two strangers a few rows away from me. Luckily, getting to the airport way ahead of time and requesting new seat assignments finally resolved that particular issue.

But the one thing that I couldn’t prepare enough for—and had even less control over than I imagined — was my son. Honestly, I completely overlooked the potential for disaster, him being the child who never really seemed to need scolding or yelling at. Yes, he was that kind of child who makes parents think, “thank god, this one will give me some slack.”

It all started well. He was excited about the unusual environment and going to new places. I was feeling pretty confident, well-prepared and ready for anything.

But it wasn’t long before things started to go south. The first leg of our voyage, which was expected to last just over an hour, was delayed due to luggage problems. The plane sat on the tarmac for close to an hour, and my son was already starting to feel trapped and wanted to get out of his seat. I somehow managed to keep him engaged, pulling out some activities to occupy him.

Eventually, the plane took off and it felt like everything was going to be okay — until it wasn’t.

The mandatory mask was too much for him after an hour, and remaining seated as the engine roared in the background was starting to irritate him. The headphones that I had prepared turned out to be just too heavy on his small head, on top of the mask that was already obstructing his airway, and the seat that was too high, blocking his view. And then came the turbulence that made the seatbelt sign turn on, confining him to his seat indefinitely, just before he began requesting to go to the toilet.

As I rummaged through the snacks, activities, and toys that I had so carefully prepared, feeling his irritation level rising, he suddenly lost what was left of his patience — all at once. He started to scream at the top of his lungs, asking me to let him out of the plane. The plane meanwhile continued shaking and rattling with the turbulence, as the seatbelt sign kept ringing and the lady seated in front of us kept asking me not to let my son kick her seat.

As I struggled to communicate with him, asking whether he wanted this toy or that, his favourite snacks, or a comfort blanket, my son was busy thrashing about like the child in the Exorcist movie, as though he was having a seizure.

I was desperate. I was sweating and panicking. As I made eye contact with one of the other passengers, who gave me a look as though he had never seen such a demonic child in his life, I felt like telling him, “Me neither — until now”.

My voice dropped to a whisper as I continued suggesting all of the things he might be interested in, but no words could get through to him. I held him in my arms, blocking his legs so he couldn’t kick the seat in front, which he took as me trying to restrain him.

And in that moment, I made my first mistake.

I allowed myself to be preoccupied with the glares and whispers of others before my own son. I scolded him that he should calm down and shouldn’t kick the seat. No matter how firm I was or how stern my voice was, it didn’t register with him.

Instead of putting all of my focus on my son, who needed all the help he could get, I was having an inner dialogue with my own guilt and composing defensive responses to the darting glances of the other passengers — “My son is not a spoiled brat. He’s usually a really well-behaved child who never makes me raise my voice,” “No, I was on the phone for hours and showed up way ahead of time to get a better seat for my son,” “I do teach my child right from wrong — I’m actually on the stricter side, as a parent” — the dialogue kept going on in my head.

And then I made another mistake.

I tried to bribe him — a tactic I had almost never resorted to as a parent, which I pulled out now believing it would work without fail, because it was unexpected. I promised him that if he stopped screaming and kicking he could get any toy he wanted. But at that moment, Blippi could have walked up to him in person and it wouldn’t have meant anything to him. The only thing he wanted was to get out of that plane.

I pulled out activities, toys, his comfort blanket, and snacks — with shaky hands, begging him to calm down. Nothing caught his attention. By then I was sweating profusely, the muscles in my arm going into spasms as I struggled with my son. All I wanted to do at that point was get out of the plane with him and never think about flying ever again in my life.

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Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

And then a thought hit me hard.

How badly this little one must want to get out of this plane, fighting against his overwhelming stress and fear?

I unbuckled his seatbelt and put him on my lap, strapping both of us in my seatbelt, desperately glancing at the seatbelt sign to be off. I locked my child in my arms as a stream of tears spilled out of me, and my sobs began to escape.

As I held that tiny person — kicking and wailing to express his discomfort, his whole body was soaked in sweat — I could feel his suffering, and I was finally able to find the right words.

“Mommy’s so sorry, baby. I know you’re uncomfortable and you want to get out of this plane. I love you, baby. I’m so sorry that I can’t make you feel more comfortable. But mommy is here and I’ll help you and do whatever I can. I love you. I love you.”

And then I prayed to any amazing being listening out there, to help my child and I get through this time. To my amazement, my child somehow fell asleep in my arms, his tear-soaked face resting on my exhausted, twitching arm.

At that moment, looking down at my son’s sleeping face, I murmured, “What have I done?” What have I done to this little child, dragging him into this jam-packed, noisy flying machine and expecting him to be content and calm?

Imagine if my husband tried to drag me along on a surprise hike up a mountain (not my thing), pulling a surprise gift from his backpack to calm me down when I exploded. I would most likely scream in his face, “Good luck with your trip. I’m out of here”.

My story did not end with that moment of tranquility, of course — because there was another five-hour flight waiting for us right after that.

But the reason I’m sharing this story is to apologize on behalf of the parents, to any passengers who have been on a flight with a child throwing tantrums.

Admittedly, the selfish part of me wants to respond to anyone who has ground their teeth in resentment toward parents failing to calm their child down — sometimes our children can be out of our control, and it is beyond our power to change how they feel.

The type A side of me wants to dissect what went wrong and how. Was he just feeling claustrophobic? Didn’t I let him run around enough before boarding the plane? Was he feeling the elevated stress I had about the trip? The thoughts are endless.

But finally, I decided to let go of all my nagging doubts.

I tried to immerse myself in the moment, looking down at his exhausted body after all that exertion, finally relaxing in my arms, focussing on his smell, his soft hair brushing my chin, that blissful peace amidst the droning roar of the engine and the endless turbulence.

How vain it was to think that I could control my child’s feelings with all that preparation, all the lists and careful packing.

Thank you so much for hearing my side of the story, and if by some miraculous coincidence you were on that plane, I sincerely apologize for my child’s tantrum from the bottom of my heart.

So, when do I think our next flight will be? Maybe when my son turns 18.

But no matter what, this was an awakening experience as a parent and a humble realization of how vain it was to think that I could control my child’s feelings with all that preparation, all the lists and careful packing.

One thing for certain is that the only thing that reached my son during that chaotic moment was my love, not well-packed goodies. Whether or not there is another bumpy noisy flight in our near future, the one thing I know for sure is I will never again forget to let my child know I love him and that I am here for him.

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