Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Reflections on Air Travel as a Mother of Young Children

Just got the news our Visas are approved for Perth, Australia! So, in anticipation of the packing and hauling of young children from yet one continent to another, in search of the elusive 'rest and relaxation' (kind of feel like we are looking in earnest for the Fountain of Youth, or the City of Gold), I offer up this oldie but goody reflection of travel from the eyes of a jaded maternal expat:

I have always felt safe in airports. No matter where you are in the world, if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all. Happy to have more security now, I do miss the days before September 11, when I was able to talk myself on to a plane using a Costco card with a grainy black and white picture as my sole form of ID. These days, you need to have your passport locked and loaded as you meander down the terminal, since they check it at every bend in the hallway. It’s as if they are afraid you entered as Dr. Jekyll, but now have turned into Mr. Hyde.

As for x-ray machines and security, now days I’m afraid I’ll forget to stop undressing once I get started. First the coat, then the shoes, then the belt; sometimes I’m so distracted with kids, computers and cell phones, I’m afraid I’ll just take my pants off and fold them neatly in the tray before anyone can stop me.

I am thankful that during the early years of my working motherhood, while I was nursing an infant, the security measures weren’t quite as stringent as they are now. In this day and age, not only would I have had to prove that the laptop computer I was carrying worked, but also the breast pump slung over my other shoulder. Why bother camouflaging it in a black simulated leather carrier if I’m just going to have to demonstrate it in front of one hundred of my closest friends in the middle of the terminal? Back in the day, I only had to utter the phrase ‘breast pump’ to the teenage boy disguised as a security guard when asked what type of equipment I was packing. He would come close to passing out thinking about the whole ordeal and wave me through. I could have been carrying a bazooka in the other hand for all he cared, he just wanted me out of there.

The joys of early motherhood and air travel never cease. When my first son was an infant, I would travel from Northern to Southern California for a day every week as part of my job. Trying to be a good mom, I was set on nursing, even after the first time my husband walked in on me pumping at our house and suggested something about being in a dairy. In order to perform this dignified task on the road, I purchased a cigarette lighter adapter for the car so I could pump in the relative privacy of my rental cars in between racing from airport to office and back again. Unfortunately, people are naturally curious. Why did it seem when I parked to pump in an empty lot, that particular bush next to the car was the one the gardener needed to trim at that moment? How many times had I parked in a field next to the airport to pump, only to attract other drivers who were wondering what I was looking at? Casing new office buildings and exhibit halls for bathroom stalls with access to an electric outlet for the pump became second nature, just as I’m sure CIA staff feel when they check building perimeters for points of entry.

As my kid, and subsequent kids got older, I started hauling children with me across the United States, and then between continents. We usually lucked out with bulkhead seating, where I would unload fifty pounds of snacks, books, puzzles and toys and like the pied piper of Northwest Airlines, attract every other child under the age of three to my ad hoc in flight babysitting service.

I’ve had friends who have successfully fed their children various medicines promising drowsiness to make for an enjoyable flight. I held out for a long time, relying on a new toy, piece of candy or promise of all the juice they wanted on the plane to keep my kids in line. Then I had to fly by myself from Cairo, Egypt to Seattle, Washington with a three year old, a one year old and the suspicious feeling I was pregnant again.

A friend gave me a few sea sickness pills that had conked her kid out for eight hours straight. I tried it on the one year as soon as I entered the first plane back to the good ol’ U.S. While I could have served drinks off his head he was so asleep, it only lasted one hour; not even enough to get us to Amsterdam. I gave up. I paced the airplanes for twelve hours straight, trying to keep a very active little boy occupied. I read stories, played with playdo, threw imaginary baseballs to pretend homerun hitters in an attempt to distract him from the X-Men movie playing on the screen right in front of our bulkhead seats. Wouldn’t you know that 45 minutes before landing on American soil, both the baby and the preschooler passed out, leaving me to heft two babies, one stroller, two carseats and various bags like some sort of alpaca off the plane.

For all the flying I have done, however, I feel I’ve survived everything those in the aviation business cared to throw at me. Man who only speaks Farsi having a seizure on the plane? Been there. Three hours from landing with only wine and Coke left to drink while I was six months pregnant? Yep. Security guards in small Egyptian airport decided they’d been working enough and shut off metal detector before everyone had gone through? Oh yeah. Lifting too many heavy bags at security that it put me into premature labor? Also, yes. Watching the stewardess give up when she couldn’t figure out how to secure a door during take off? Uh huh. Survived my three year old lugging a cap gun in his back pack through U.S. security when the guards drew their real guns and alarms went off? Oh wait, that was my husband.

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