Flying internationally can be rough. It’s a lot of hours to be cooped up in an oversized bus with 300 strangers, stale air, and chicken or beef. But flying internationally with children is not unlike the process of childbirth itself. Hours of torture followed by sleepless nights and only a fleeting sense of accomplishment.
It begins many months before. You buy your tickets knowing there will be some amount of discomfort involved though you figure, how hard could it be? People have been flying with their kids for at least half a century. But seasoned parents are frank with you. Get your sleep now. Don’t get too excited about your personal video player since you’ll be nursing your baby the entire flight. You nod but secretly you think it will be different for you.
The weeks leading up to your trip, you are pummeled by unsolicited advice from well-intentioned, well-traveled parents. Bring enough diapers on the plane for a week. Bring snacks. Buy little toys and wrap each one individually–that adds an extra two minutes to the exercise. Bring your car seat on board in case there’s an extra seat and then act like you’re entitled to it even though you didn’t pay for it. Be prepared to cry over that seat and make a scene. See if the airline offers epidurals.
The week before departure you spend your time running errands and packing to be sure you are prepared for absolutely every possible scenario. Shrieking? Check. Vomit? Check. Diarrhea? Check. Fever? Check. Unexpected delay on the tarmac? Check. Water-landing? Check.
On the big day you schlep your four suitcases, your portable crib, your stroller, your two car seats, your diaper bag, the extra bag with even more diapers, your kid carrier and the kids themselves to the airport. And even though airport security has insisted your baby remove her footwear like everyone else, you keep your comments to yourself and board the plane prepared for whatever lies ahead. Then you settle in for 24 hours of emotional and physical pain. Moments of intense stress. Moments of complete exhaustion. Moments of terror. Moments of uncertainty. You doubt you will survive. You blame your partner. It’s your home we’re flying to after all. We’re in this mess because of you. At some point you just surrender to the absolute nightmare of your predicament, the one you actually paid a lot of money to experience. You want to put gum in your sister’s hair while sitting under the seats during landing? That’s fine with mommy.
And then you land and you breathe a sigh of relief, overjoyed and empowered by how you handled the whole ordeal without (much) medication. It’s over. But it’s not over. There are after pains, too. You must collect yourself and all of your belongings and drag your children, now deliriously exhausted, through passport control and customs and baggage claim and the hour car ride to your in-laws. But you’re generally happy because you’re surrounded by people you love and the worst is behind you.
Most of it.
With a 10 hour time difference between where you came from and where you are, you can look forward to a week of sleepless nights with wide awake children wanting cereal at 2 a.m. And you think, nobody told me it would be like this. They lied to me. But they didn’t. They spelled it out. Some things you just have to experience for yourself to really understand.
And then two years later you forget how hard it all was. How your daughter threw up the whole way home and your son had three accidents even though he’s been potty trained for six months and how you had to sleep snuggled together on the floor of JFK waiting for your connecting flight. How you actually had a friend who really was in labor with her first child and you wished you were her. You forget all of that and you sign up for another ride because Grandma’s on one end of the planet and Saba and Savta are on the other end.
This past summer we made our sixth trip with children, the two big ones and the 1-year-old. And I did it solo. That’s like having the sixth baby at the supermarket, collecting the other five kids, grabbing the matzah ball soup mix and checking out. Clean up on aisle four. It’s definitely getting easier. The kids sleep. They watch videos. They do their coloring books and mazes. They pretend to call their friends with the individual video player remotes at each seat. They even eat the airline food, though we usually have enough of our own to feed the entire cabin.
And like childbirth, there is usually a happy ending. In our case we are traveling to see family in a far away place we still consider home. After all of the chaos of getting there we settle into our surroundings grateful that we survived labor and delivery. And, just like newly minted parents, we are a little disoriented, a little overwhelmed, a little sleepy but bursting with love.
For more tips on traveling with kids, read up on how to relax over a holiday weekend, 10 tips for surviving road trips with kids, 10 simple tips for flying with kids, and an open letter to the people who hate to be on airplanes with kids.