I write this from up in the air, where I am flying for the first time alone, without my son or my husband. We’ve flown, the three of us, across the country to California three times to see family and friends and down to Florida even more frequently to visit my parents.
For the last three years, every trip I’ve taken by air has involved wearing a baby carrier, pushing an umbrella stroller, hurling a diaper bag over my shoulder, frantically cleaning a puked-upon car seat, and awkward diaper changes at inopportune times and in odd-smelling, confined spaces.
Over the past year, these trips have involved lengthy bathroom negotiations that mostly involve me promising I will DEFINITELY not let my toddler fall in, and, in general, the sublimation of my own comfort for the sake of a sort of peaceful ride.
The possibility of work trips have often been dangled in front of me, both ominously and tantalizingly, but none have come to fruition yet. So, here I am, three years into being a parent, and alone on a plane at last.
There is no one to account for on either side of me. I can pee whenever. I do not need to yank a snack or sticker book from my bag every 10 minutes, unless of course I feel like it. When I got off the AirTrain and saw that the moving sidewalks to my terminal had been almost entirely shut down, I was not seized with dread over how exhausted I would feel so early on in my journey. Walking several miles with only a backpack and a tote is akin to strolling on a warm beach compared with my other flying experiences of late.
This is so great, I thought, as I printed my boarding pass and eased into the security line, no luggage to check, no small person to corral. I zoned out, at intervals, because I did not need to be paying attention to anything at all.
Before I went to the gate to find a sole empty chair, I stopped for something to tide me over. I walked past rows of brightly packaged snacks and a doughnut store and a pizza counter and refrigerators filled with every kind of juice and smoothie. But no one’s eyes lit up. No one pulled me toward the shelf of things with sprinkles or took off on his own to procure something he couldn’t even eat, like a nut bar.
There were no food allergies to account for and nothing to say no to, and I suddenly got sad. My own listless walk through this bazaar of consumables felt so inconsequential. I’d gotten so used to managing and, perhaps oddly, experiencing my travels through my son and my husband, too, that I hardly knew what to do with myself in an airport solo.
This feels particularly silly to say because my son goes to school most days. I love working, spending the day doing my own thing, and I’ve never been the sort of person who minds being alone. But I’d gotten out of practice being on my own at the airport – a place that might, it turns out, actually only be fun with all-consuming distractions, like a child who has to pee or wants a cookie.
Whatever it was that lifted me out of my blissful childless reverie, I was reminded of how easy it is to get addicted to taking care of someone. As tiresome as it can be, it is also a guarantee of purpose. I am needed, I think, either subconsciously or overtly, and when I am not, it can feel like flying, utterly groundless.
An hour after I made a few hugely uninspired snack purchases and forgot to go to the bathroom, I was in my seat and the plane was lifting off the ground. A jolt of panic shot through my stomach. There was no one to hold my hand! I hadn’t flown without having a nearby hand to hold for three years. And for many years before that (before I spent my 20s on many a flight alone), my entire family held hands for good luck on all our flights.
I considered, for half a second, asking the sleeping man next to me if he would oblige a strange request, but we had a four-hour flight ahead of us to Austin, and though its city motto is to keep things weird, I worried I’d be taking it too far.
What I did instead was something my son does when he crosses the street and doesn’t want to be hampered by the patronizing grip of a grown-up. “No, Mommy,” he says, intertwining his fingers together as he barrels forward, “I’ll hold my own hand.”
It was turbulent going up, but I closed my eyes and held my own hand. By the time I pulled my laptop out to write this, we were above the clouds.