16 January 2014

Learning from my Little One

It has come to my attention that, despite loads and loads of practice, I am not a very good flyer.

It's not that I'm afraid of flying. I used to be, right after September 11, when everything seemed so tenuous: I developed a strong conviction that if I didn't stay vigilant the whole time we were aloft, the laws of physics would cease to apply to the airplane and we would just drop out of the sky. I've gotten over that. I actually quite enjoy the "whee, we're up in the air and on our way!" part of flying.

I'm just absolutely sure that everything else is going to go wrong. Our flight will be delayed for hours, or will pull out from the gate and then sit on the runway for the length of a Peter Jackson movie. (This has happened to me before.) I will discover after the Fasten Seatbelt sign has been turned off that my seat, which in the "fully upright" position pushes me ever so slightly forward, cannot be reclined even into an actually upright position, and I'm just going to have to stay kind of doubled over for the entire seven hours to Boston. (Ditto.) The flight will go swimmingly and we will land on time, only to find chaos at our destination and watch as plane after plane takes off, while the one parked at the our gate remains stubbornly in place. (Yup, that too. Notice a theme here?) We will be two hours into a seven-hour flight and my kid will empty the contents of her stomach all over me. (This actually happened in a restaurant, where we could leave quickly and race home to the washing machine, but now I get to worry about it happening somewhere we can't escape easily.) We will deplane and get through immigration and watch all the other bags come off the carousel, only to discover that ours was somehow jettisoned over the Atlantic. (This has never happened to me - though they've lost our buggy a couple times, they've always found it again - but every time, man. Every time I'm convinced that this is the one flight our most-important bag just didn't make.)

My frequent flyer,
chillin' out with a snack and a soundless movie
My kid, on the other hand? My kid owns the air. She's been flying every couple of months since she was eight weeks old. However she feels about the rest of the world, which often seems to be begging her to run around in it, she knows planes, and she knows that she has to sit still sometimes and wait patiently sometimes and stay buckled pretty much all the time. It doesn't seem to occur to her that things won't go her way. She takes things in stride in general, and she loves rising to occasions, which gives her pretty much the perfect personality for long-haul travel. Flight attendants love her, and by the end of the flight, so do the people sitting around us, whose flights she hasn't made any more uncomfortable than they already were.

That doesn't mean there aren't things we do to make the whole experience easier on ourselves. When flying with a toddler, my certainty that everything is going to go horribly wrong pays off: I let all that dread spur me to action.

Inspired by a blog post I'd discovered on Pinterest and memories of many, many childhood road trips, I inaugurated my toddler into the long and honorable tradition of the Car Bag - or, in her case, the Plane Bag - full of new toys and books to keep her busy. (I went ahead and bought new toys and books, because there were things I had meant to get for her anyway but hadn't, and because, honestly, shopping for them was a good bit of fun. I have also heard the advice to hide some toys/books from the existing collection in the weeks before the trip, so that they're new and exciting again by the time the kid sees them on the plane.)

The Plane Bag
I really wish I'd taken a Before picture, because my approach to this bag was, if I do say so myself, a stroke of genius. Not only did I pack it full of a variety of activities - books! crayons! stickers! rubber stamps! - but - get this - I wrapped them. I wrapped each of those little pod-shaped rubber stamps. I wrapped the tiny bead coaster. I wrapped the "That's Not My Duck!" book and I wrapped the crayons, in sets of three. I wrapped each of the Peppa Pig Fairytale mini-books, which you can just barely see poking out from behind the backpack in the photo. (I didn't wrap the stickers, because let's not get crazy.) And voila! I added another 3-5 minutes of enjoyment to each activity. The toddler loved each new toy, and was (uncharacteristically) careful enough with them that I spent a lot less time than I'd expecting rescuing crayons and tiny rubber stamps from the floor of the airplane.

Let's be honest, there's another way we made this trip easy on ourselves: we didn't go out of our way to police screen time. The toddler made this easier on us by not seeming to care if she could actually listen to cartoons, as long as she could see them. So it didn't matter that they don't make headphones for one-year-olds; she was perfectly happy to watch the pictures of Ice Age 2 play for her while she listened to the hum of activity around us. That got us through mealtime and a few random cranky periods when she got bored with books and stickers.

As you can see in the picture, she also has her very own seat. Yeah, we could keep her in our arms for another six months, technically. Thank goodness for expat package travel allowances, because if we'd tried that this time I think we'd have spent the entire flight walking up and down the aisles. I could not find a CE or FAA-approved car seat for sale in Ireland, so we went with the CARES Harness, which is designed to work with the airplane seat belt. We notified Aer Lingus that we were bringing it, and the flight attendants were expecting us and very supportive of our newfangled contraption.

For our next long-haul flight, I'm going to try to emulate my 18-month-old daughter's approach to happy flying. There's no reason to assume everything's going to go pear-shaped, or that it'd be the end of the world if they did. I've lived through a ton of travel problems; it's not like I have to do some kind of hypothetical disaster plan to prepare myself for them. I already know to hit the newsstand for a huge bottle of water, the most powerful Nurofen available, and a couple bags of trailmix. I already know not to travel without change for the vending machine. I already know to stick a change of clothes in my carry-on - not just for the toddler, but for myself. Theoretically, I should be able to prepare for emergencies without getting caught up in thoughts of how awful it'll be if they happen.

Next time I fly, I'm going to trust the airline to get me where I'm going without undue trauma. If said trauma occurs, I'm going to trust myself to handle it. And if everything goes well - as it does about 80% of the time - I'm going to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride, toddler-style.

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