In my early 20s I traveled so much I had Gold Elite status on Continental Airlines (oh how I miss you, Continental!). I was flying from New York to Oregon every other month to participate in a clinical trial for my chronic leukemia. I also flew some for work and traveled the country (and to Europe) to share my story and raise awareness for research and patient advocacy. Cancer diagnosis aside, I loved that time of my life. Especially because clocking all those miles meant I was automatically upgraded for free to first class almost every time I flew. Shameless, I know, but riding in the front of the plane is pretty fabulous—particularly when it’s not something you would normally do. This was also before baggage fees, shoe removal, and wifi at 30,000 feet. Airline travel wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t the cluster$%!@ it seems to be today. Adding to that cluster$%[email protected]: I now have three children. To say I travel with baggage (and not just carry-on) is putting it mildly.
I’ve flown a few times with the kids since Molly, our third, was born but yesterday was the first time all five of us (my husband, seven-year-old, four-year-old and 10-month-old) were on a plane together. It wasn’t a nightmare by any stretch (everyone received a solid B+ as a matter of fact) but as I sat there shh, shh, shhushing into the baby’s ear to get her to fall asleep while giving the do-not-kick-the-seat glare and fielding nonstop questions about barf bags and water landings, I couldn’t help but laugh. I flashed back to the good old gold elite days of solo travel and thought my, how the mighty has fallen. The highlights of that time came flooding back to me with the differences between then and now illuminated—and comical. Here’s what I mean:
1. When flying first class, you get to cut the security line. When flying with kids, you weave through the endless maze like everyone else. At least one of your kids will tell you they have to pee sobadandnotheycan’tholdit. You tell people to keep going ahead because you know how long it’s going to take to get all your shit onto the conveyer belt while wrangling excited kids and you don’t need an audience but eventually you have to step up and unload. It isn’t pretty but you have your system and you’re doing your thing. People look at you one of two ways: annoyance or pity. You want to punch them all.
2. When flying first class you have two carry-ons and one of them is an iced coffee. You are never forced to check anything because there’s plenty of overhead space for first classers. When flying with kids you are a pack mule. The stroller has so much crap piled on that the baby doesn’t even fit and if you take your hands off the handle, it tips. You are a walking cliché. You check the stroller at the gate and are then forced to wait on the jetway for what seems like two hours post-flight to retrieve it. It will be damaged in some way.
3. When flying first class, other passengers walk past your giant, spacious seat and look a little jealous. When flying with kids, other passengers walk past you and look terrified. And pray their seat is far, far away.
4. When flying first class, you get a drink before you even take off. And the drinks keep coming. And they are alcoholic. When flying with kids, your drink finally arrives halfway through the flight. It’s a small cup of water that is inevitably spilled on someone’s lap. Oh, and the drink cart bumps into your arm at least a dozen times. Maybe the baby’s head if you’re really lucky.
5. When flying first class, you get warm nuts with that drink. When flying with kids, they do not serve nuts because your son has a peanut allergy and therefore everyone has to subsist on eight tiny pretzels. You hear groans when fellow passengers ask for peanuts and are denied and part of you wants to tell them to grow up and part of you wants to groan with them. Because peanuts are awesome and you miss them, too.
6. When you’re flying first class, you switch between reading a great book and watching the in-flight movie. Which is still in theaters! When you’re in the back with your kids, you switch between stickers, snack, coloring, bathroom runs, nose blowing, refereeing, Minecraft, untangling headphones, watching Ratatouille for the 85th time and a whole lot of bribery. If you were delusional enough to bring a book onboard, you will read the same line 16 times before tucking it into the seat. You will probably forget it there.
7. When you walk off the plane after flying first class, you feel rested, relaxed and quite possibly buzzed. When you walk off after flying with kids, you feel exhausted, frazzled and desperate for a drink.
But here’s the silver lining: Once you’ve flown with kids, flying solo—even if you’re in the last row by the bathroom, even if the guy next to you is snoring while eating a tuna sandwich—can feel downright posh. Not that I do much solo traveling these days but it has happened and it will happen again. And since my gold status days are way behind me and actually purchasing a first-class ticket is not in my budget, I only have the memories of that fabulous time to sustain me. I still love flying and feel lucky that I get to do it with my family—no matter where we sit—but it’s different. Very different. And so I embrace this new phase of my life with a sense of humor, patience and the knowledge that there is always light at the end of the jetway. And by light I mean wine.