Whoever developed the concept for Snakes on a Plane, the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson vehicle which is precisely as its title describes, did not know true fear. The real terror, as any frequent traveler can tell you, is babies on a plane. Screaming, writhing, red-in-the-face babies who can't listen to reason and are fully prepared to wail for hours.
If you find this prospect daunting as an ordinary passenger, I promise the parents of plane babies have it worse. There is an idea among the "ban babies from airplanes" crowd — a quite serious, if realistically tractionless, movement to prohibit small children from some or all flights — that parents who travel with babies are inconsiderate. That they have, somehow, not considered the effects of their actions. That they do not realize the auditory misery to which their distraught infants will subject everyone around them.
Let me attest, nothing could be further from the truth. For days in advance of this past weekend, when my husband and I made a 36-hour trip halfway across the country with our 3-month-old twins to attend a family wedding, I thought of little else.
I considered the goody bag option, in which parents bring small bags of candy or some other treat (like noise canceling headphones, if you are very rich) as a sort of bribe-apology combo for those sitting nearby. But aside from questions of practicality — we were carrying a lot of stuff already, and do people really want to eat candy from strangers? — goody bags ultimately struck me as a sweet and well-intended concession to fantasy, to a delusion that any of us can exist in public spaces in a state of absolute self-determination, utterly unencumbered by those around us.
This is not the case. Being in public means interacting with other people, affecting them and being affected in turn. Such interaction is the source of everything we like about society. It's the reason most of us have no interest in living in isolation for any length of time. It's also very much a mixed bag, and a mark of adulthood is handling a variety of public interactions with poise.
Babies, as it turns out, are people too, and sometimes they have places to go. Sometimes they cannot be left with a babysitter or their grandparents. Sometimes there is simply no option but to put them on a plane well before they are capable of being seen and not heard.
The obligation to bring babies on a plane does not, of course, absolve their parents of anything but the most diligent efforts to keep their children quiet and calm. On our first flight, early Saturday morning, when we were running on a fast food breakfast and three hours of sleep, our babies somehow kept themselves quiet. By a miracle of providence, I was next to the only empty seat on what was supposed to be a full flight, and our twins are still small enough that they could nap there, head to toe, for most of the two-hour trip. I saw the polite suppression of panic on the faces of our fellow travelers as we boarded, but on the way out they congratulated us: "I didn't hear your twins at all!"
The trip home was a different story. It was evening, the witching hour. The babies were tired and cranky, which they announced to the whole plane by howling throughout the boarding process. Stuck in our chairs by the seatbelt rule, our options were nil. Both boys love to be walked and bounced, but we couldn't get up. Both were hungry, but too upset to eat the bottles offered. I frantically broke my "no screen time" rule, playing a Disney movie on the seatback screen. "This is probably what hell is like," I thought. "You just spend eternity with the 'fasten seatbelt' sign on and a plane full of people judging you while your baby shrieks."
My despair was overblown. For one thing, the babies settled down as soon as we took off. Planes are enormous white noise machines, and they vibrate, too. This is exactly what our babies enjoy. We were again blessed with a spare seat, and soon both twins finished dinner and conked out for the remainder of the trip. The silence was a warm bath of relief.
But more importantly, several of our co-passengers were not of the "ban babies" ilk, and they went out of their way to let us know.
The thing about having twins is that everyone wants to talk to you. I am an introvert's introvert with a habitually forbidding public face — before these babies, strangers never initiated conversation with me in public. I don't get catcalled. Panhandlers don't bother. Now, that era of my life is over. The twins function as a universal invitation to anyone to start talking to me at any point. With women of a grandmotherly age, I swear there's a Bat-Signal. And I have not yet gotten used to this. Sometimes I find it irritating, as when I'm trying to make a quick grocery run or enjoy a walk around the neighborhood in peace.
On the plane, however, I felt an unrivaled gratitude toward these strangers. Their coos and questions, their volunteering of little tidbits from their own parenting experience, above all their offers to help if we needed a break — these were kindnesses of extraordinary proportions. Particularly generous was the retired nurse we met at the gate with both babies flailing and screeching. "Go ahead of me!" she said. "And take all the time you need. Don't let anyone hurry you. You're doing such a good job. And I'm in row 14. I used to hold babies in the NICU. If you need help, just bring them over, because I would love to hold your babies." Truly we have entertained angels unawares.
We didn't end up needing her hands, but we did need her words. Babies on a plane is terrifying for no one more than the baby-takers. If you encounter them, be assured they are exquisitely aware of the effect of their child's every peep and offer any grace you can.
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