We thought long and hard about whether to fly to Orlando or drive. Under normal circumstances, it would probably take us about 14 hours one way to drive. That is not terrible to a family who regularly drives 8 hours for visits to my hometown and, until my MIL moved down near us, close to that to my husband's.
However, with an 18-month-old, that 14 hours would easily stretch to 18 and would need to be broken up across 2 days. We felt it was akin to torture to put this child in his carseat for so long. It also probably meant we would have to cut our actual vacation time short for travel days and that seemed silly as well.
So, as my family made the 24-hour trek from Michigan, through Kentucky and Tennessee and into the Deep South, we made for the airport and I told myself this was the most run-of-the-mill way to travel even as I knew my heart would pound at takeoff and every bump thereafter.
I've not always been a terrible flyer. We were not a family of flyers. Our summer vacations consisted of drives to Cincinnati to King's Island amusement park or to Maryland to visit my aunt. My first flight was to Washington, DC, on a class trip when I was 16. The next month, I flew to, ironically, Disney World. I also flew to France for a class trip; San Diego, Montana, New Hampshire, and Philadelphia for college-related things; Bath, England, ALONE for a 6-week summer abroad experience; and Hawaii, among various other trips. Grand Cayman on our honeymoon, etc.
I think a few things changed over the years.
- I have a harder time giving up control. Control is a big issue for me. Over the past, I would say, 5 years, the idea of control has caused me immense anxiety. I try to control other people's feelings and emotions and experiences (I'm a people pleaser). I feel like if I control my surroundings, I can cheat death. With motherhood, the control-induced anxiety bubbled over. Pregnancy was difficult for me--talk about the ultimate lack of control. Motherhood is a lesson in being totally out of control (really) of the thing that is most precious to you. I can do everything I can to keep Munch safe and happy; but, in the end, so much is up to chance and to HIS OWN choices. A plane is also the ultimate giving up of control. At least in a car, I have the illusion of control.
- I'm happy. I think my flying fears escalated after I met my husband. Suddenly, there was so much more to lose, so much more to miss out on.
- 9/11. I have no personal connection to 9/11, but I think the idea of hijacking needled right into my brain. After 9/11, planes seem that much more vulnerable.
- Hubs and I had a bad landing experience returning from Chicago. Wind shears, and all that. It wasn't good.
I spoke with my counselor months before the vacation about the imminent plane ride and we talked some strategies. For me, when I feel myself getting wound up over something, it helps for me to "think as a mother." As a mother, I wanted Munch to have the best travel experience, and, compared to driving, that was a plane. It was quick, convenient, and relatively inexpensive.
And, I felt Munch would distract me on the plane. With a toddler to entertain, I would have much less time and attention to focus on every little bump.
And, if I panicked, Munch would feel that and also be scared (thinking as a mother again).
My counselor also recommended that I keep repeating, despite my compulsion to knock on wood after doing so, "This is a safe mode of transportation." Eventually, some part of my brain would believe it.
Prepping for Takeoff
The thing Hubs and I worried most about was Munch's behavior in flight. This is a child who doesn't like to sit down on laps for any length of time. He likes to be held, but he likes for the holder to be standing and moving. Not an option on a plane. He also is too young to mind-numb him with a DVD player. It might distract him for a few moments, but it's not like we could pop in a movie and he'd be fine til we arrived. What about his ears? What about food? So many things to consider.
So, we gathered some new books and toys and put them aside for him to see for the first time on the plane. We packed empty bottles and filled them with milk purchased after security. We packed Goldfish. And, we prepared for 2.5 hours of screaming. We would try to sit surrounded by other families (this was a flight to Orlando, after all). It would be over comparatively quickly.
My child slept from takeoff to wheels down both flights (well, first flight he woke up 20 minutes out). As soon as the engine revved up for takeoff, his eyes fluttered closed and he collapsed against me. The effect of intense white noise? Did Southwest release some gaseous sedative? I couldn't tell you.
For the first flight, Munch was curled against my chest and I rubbed his head and sang to him as we took off and got going. I was afraid. I must say a clandestine tear was shed, as I buried my face in his hair. But, a strange thing happened. As I sang, I pictured myself in Munch's nursery, when I held him like this and sang/swayed him to sleep. It calmed me. Picturing myself in that dim room, the quiet night around us, safely on the ground, eased my fear. Apparently, Munch's nursery is my happy place.
I sat in the window seat, another thing I've avoided for years. But, when Munch woke up that first flight, all he wanted to do was look out at the ground. And I looked with him. He pointed at round bodies of water and tall buildings and I named everything for him. Seeing the tiny world through his new eyes helped me to see the wonder of it all as well.
The second flight, we were all exhausted. We'd been up at 3:45am to get transported for a 7:45am flight. Munch fell immediately to sleep, sprawled on his back across Hubs and my legs, and didn't wake up until we WOKE him up after we were landed and at the gate. And, the interesting thing is, I wasn't nearly as scared on this flight. I read my book. I dozed. I looked out the window when the pilot said you could see DC. I enjoyed looking at the tiny cars, the wooded landscape. Twice I grabbed Hubs' arm for reassurance at a bump. But my heart didn't pound and I didn't cry.
- Munch makes me stronger. I'm learning this over and over. Munch helps me as much as I help him. Being his mother makes me a braver person.
- Though I had my first flight at 16 (and Hubs had his at 19), Munch first flew the friendly skies at 18.5 months. That is a gift to him.
- I want Munch to see flying as an adventure, not something that induces terror. In order for him to see that, I have to model that.
- The thing you worry about most often turns out to be the thing that is easiest.