"An Aerial Disaster" is an excerpt from Amy Wilson's book When Did I Get Like This? The Screamer, The Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer and Other Mothers I Swore I'd Never Be (amazon.com).
One evening last fall, my husband was packing for a weeklong business trip while I was in the kitchen watching our three kids eat wagon-wheel pasta with their fingers. Happily. It was one of those strange moments when I had, for an instant, nothing to do. When I picked up my cell phone absentmindedly, I saw a voicemail message from that morning.
"Amy, I have to leave the country," my babysitter, Jenny, said in her plummy British accent. "My mum is sick. I don't know for how long, I don't know what to tell you." Click.
I put down the phone and looked at my children -- Connor was 5, Seamus 4, Maggie barely a year. Of course I was concerned for Jenny. But I was more concerned with getting through the next week. David's business trip, Jenny's unexpected absence, and the preschool fall break were aligning just so, creating a six days' duration where I would be alone with my kids.
I was panicked. I could also see that was kind of pathetic. My mother had managed six of us when my CPA dad went underground for tax season. My grandmother herded eight without breaking stride. I should be able to handle my three all on my own for a week, right? If only to get back in touch with my masochistic side?
After David left for the airport the next morning, I gave the kids a speech on how there were three kids but only one mommy, and how everyone was going to have to step up his or her game. To my astonishment, they did. For the next five days, all three of them were troupers. And yet: It was I who was great. By telling myself I was sort of in an extended X Games mothering competition, I managed to avoid flipping out even once, even when all three children were crying at the same time. I breathed deeply while Connor sobbed, 15 minutes past bedtime, about how "not tired" he was. I remained calm when Seamus covered his palms with a uniform coat of his own orange poop, like a pore-tightening clay mask. I even kept it together when Maggie crawled in the shower with me at 5:45 a.m. and dumped out my makeup bag. My execution had been flawless, and so I decided to finish my performance with a double Axel -- triple Salchow combination sure to impress the mothering judges: I would fly from New York to Florida alone with all three children.
Admittedly, this challenge had been thrust upon me. Our tickets to go meet David for the weekend had been purchased long ago, and Jenny, who was supposed to travel with me, was not returning my increasingly urgent texts. But after how I'd performed all week, I felt ready. I'd actually flown alone with the kids once before, and had been amazed by the attention we received. "Oh, sweetheart, you have the best mother I've ever seen!" the TSA agent had said, chucking Maggie under the chin before returning to her usual surly self with the passengers behind us.
Fathers receive adulation like this all the time. If David has more than one of our children under his care for more than three minutes, people line up to tell him what an incredible father he is, even if I'm only in the restroom. Mothers, never. It's considered to be, merely, our job. But flying alone with three children? That gets you noticed. I was looking forward to it.
I was humming as I strapped the children into their car seats at 7:15 a.m. the next morning, the following items organized in our carry-ons:
- Six diapers, four bottles, and a change of clothes for Maggie
- A DVD player, an extra battery, and three sets of headphones
- A dizzying array of nut-free sandwiches and snacks
- Blankies and sweatshirts for all
- Ziploc bags (can never have too many) and my secret ingredient:
- A collection of junk from party-favor bags and fast-food restaurants, saved for just such an occasion.
As we breezed through security and strolled to the gate, Maggie in her sling, me pulling our carry-ons, my sons walking calmly alongside holding on to my belt loops, I drank in the admiring stares and thought: Damn. I am good at this. Maggie was a little fussy, but that was just because it was past her naptime.
I saw the panic in the eyes of the passengers seated near seats 4A, 4B, and 4C as we boarded. These people don't know me, I was thinking. When we land, they're going to stop by just to tell me how unbelievably well-behaved my children are. Connor and Seamus would not be heard from again once I turned on their in-flight TVs. Three hours of cartoon viewing, interrupted only by a nice lady inquiring whether they would like biscotti or Doritos Snack Mix? Elysium for any lad. All I had to do was coax Maggie asleep, and then there was an Us Weekly calling my name.
By now Maggie was way overdue for her nap; she cried all through takeoff and would not take her bottle. She was still whimpering when the seat-belt sign went off, so I got up to stroll the aisle with her in the sling. I jostled her up and down, which she usually enjoyed. "Huuuhhh," Maggie cried gutturally, and let loose a torrent of vomit that washed over her, me, and the sling that bound us.
The two flight attendants, chatting in their jump seats, looked at us, jaws agape. "Oh my God," one said. Smoothly, as if I had known this was coming, I stepped into the tiny bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and said, "Keep it together."
I cleaned the both of us off as best as I could and returned to our row, where I pulled out Maggie's spare outfit and a spare sling. I changed her and put the smelly clothes in one of the Ziploc bags. I turned my sweater inside out so the throw-up stains wouldn't be as obvious. The boys, although I had to climb right over them to do all this, never even looked up.
My God, I just handled this, I thought. And it wasn't even that big a deal! I am the Mother of the Year! Then Maggie retched again.
Now we were attracting some attention. The woman in 3A turned and glared at me through the crack in the seat. Why is this lady letting her baby throw up right behind me? she was clearly thinking. Stick her in the overhead compartment! Maggie, sweaty and pale, also seemed to be wondering why I didn't do something. I had to ring the call button in order for one of the flight attendants to approach, with her scarf over her face.
"Can I, um, have some paper towels?" I said. She just stared.
"I'd get them myself, but I have a puddle of vomit on my lap," I added.
She came back, threw a pile of gray single-ply napkins at me, performed a Lysol-spraying vogue in the aisle, and beat a hasty retreat.
Now, imagine this whole thing happening FOUR MORE TIMES.
The flight attendants were zero help. Obviously, they resented me for not bringing my own disinfectant, mop, and bucket. But there were, thankfully, two angels on board. The lady across the aisle, who had been enjoying two empty seats (one of them Jenny's) next to her, invited Connor and Seamus over to her side, even re-adjusting their headphones so that their Krypto the Superdog coma could continue unabated (although Connor did look up once and ask, "What is that smell?"). There was also the man behind us who tried to ease Maggie's misery by jingling his change. But she would have none of it. (It'd be two days or so before I deduced that Maggie was suffering from rotavirus, which is brought on by contact with fecal matter. Seamus's self-administered poop paraffin treatment? J'accuse.)
When we at last arrived in Florida, everyone stayed in their seats to let our family off first. This was less an act of chivalry than of self-preservation. The flight attendants looked pointedly away, eyes rolled heaven-ward and hands over noses as we passed. Maggie celebrated our arrival in the gate area by yakking once more. By this point I had abandoned all cleanup attempts: We both had barf on our shirts, in our hair, on our pants. As we rode the monorail to baggage claim, with Maggie and me and the boys on one end, and 65 other travelers sardined at the other, no one hailed my mothering skills. No one even made eye contact. I was Sissy Spacek in Carrie, untouchable, covered in gore, leaving behind the scorched earth of her senior prom.
Perhaps I deserved their scorn. What kind of mother would fly with a sick baby? Why hadn't I brought along eight extra outfits instead of just one? In my hubris, I'd thought I was ready for every conceivable event, and I was still left unprepared. But then I realized: Motherhood is like that. Again and again, it'll throw at me things for which I'll be completely unprepared. What matters is how I move through the door.
Once the monorail came to a stop, I exited with my head held high. I was not a mother failing. I was a mother valiantly succeeding, going boldly where no nonparent would go. That's right, I thought, taking in the stares at baggage claim. I survived.