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The Kindness of Strangers

I don’t normally play the pregnant card. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, and I’ve never been the kind of person to want special treatment for any reason, let alone a condition I chose myself. But because my past experiences on airplanes with E have been so harrowing, I’m putting my usual, “don’t-worry-I’ve-got-this” attitude aside for a few days.  Who deserves a little extra kindness from strangers than pregnant, toddler-wrestling, solo-flying me?

I’m eagerly anticipating doors being held open, luggage being carried, and sympathetic/admiring/benevolent glances being cast my way. So with this in mind, I’m putting on my only form-fitting item of maternity clothing (a skimpy ribbed tank top,) my cute new boyfriend jeans, and a double layer of mascara. For extra charm, I put ribbons in E’s hair. Airport, here we come.

We make it to security, where—thanks goodness—there’s a family line. I take a deep breath and stick my stomach out as far as it will go, waiting for pregnant-woman travel karma to wash over me and protect me from harm. Not so much. E’s car seat is confiscated, and while we wait for TSA to return it, E cries crocodile tears and moans that her seat has been “stoled.” She doesn’t want to take her shoes off, thinks the conveyor belt is eating them, then refuses to put them back on.

At the gate, even though we’re obscenely early, there isn’t a free seat in sight. I approach a man wearing headphones and ask if he needs the seat his backpack is sitting on. Yes, as a matter of fact—he does. I try to make eye contact with someone else, hoping I’ll look lost and frazzled enough to warrant a “Here, take mine” from another passenger on our flight. I wait five minutes. E is begging for the Starbucks muffin I’ve stashed in my bag. When her please become un-ignorable, I give up. We camp out on the floor and eat the muffin, getting crumbs everywhere and dirty looks from airport personnel.

 When we line up to board, I’m told we need to wait until our group is called. What happened to families travelling with small children going first? Apparently that custom went the way of airplane peanuts and complimentary blankets. We’re in group C, which is inexplicably both the last group to board AND the back of the plane. E’s car seat doesn’t fit down the aisle, and I’m forced to carry all sixty pounds of it OVER MY HEAD, plus our luggage, all the while encouraging E to take one teeny step at a time because I can’t carry her, too. 200+ passengers and multiple flight attendants watch me do this. No one looks me in the eye. No one offers to help. I swear I even hear a snicker or two.

What is going on here? Why isn’t my baby bump working its magic? Where are the concerned passengers rushing to my rescue? When I was pregnant with E, people couldn’t move fast enough to carry my groceries, open my car door or offer me their seat on the subway. And at the time I was too dumb to take advantage; I insisted I didn’t need the extra attention, mostly because being visibly pregnant always felt like a violation of my privacy. Strangers being nice to me just made me feel more self-conscious. Now, when I’m finally ready to embrace all that expectant-mama goodwill, it’s mysteriously disappeared.

So what gives? My conclusion is this: First-time pregnant women are cute. They’re wide-eyed and cuddly and a little awkward, like puppies. Everyone wants to pet them, pamper them, and offer them advice. Is it because they’re so lovably naïve, so unaware of what lies ahead? But a woman pregnant with her second child is like a thorn in society’s side. What? She’s having more? Well, she got herself into this situation—she should be able to fend for herself. Gone are the good-natured winks and the extended elbows. Gone are the offers to carry heavy items. It’s me and E against the world—and this time, I feel more self-conscious than ever, like I’m teenaged, barefoot and pregnant in an alley somewhere instead of 30-something, married and navigating through a major US airport.

Maybe the treatment I received was punishment for expecting anything in the first place. My ask-for-nothing attitude has served me well in the past—not only am I capable and self-reliant in almost any situation, but any gestures of kindness are always welcome and unanticipated surprises. Was I pushing too hard for sympathy, with the tank top and the extra makeup, when I should have been making sure I had the bases covered to take care of things myself?

I won’t get into to how much worse the flight got. Let’s just say I’m considering taking the bus for our 2,000+ mile return trip. E and I stumbled off the plane—dead last, smelling awful (E+milk+turbulence=disastrous airsickness,) and exhausted. Thanks to a middle seat and a less-than-gracious companion in the aisle, I wasn’t able to get up and stretch, so my ankles were so swollen I could barely walk. Then we met an angel in the unlikeliest of places.

 E, trudging ahead so I could once again lug the car seat over my head down the endless aircraft aisle, stopped dead when she encountered a dreaded enemy—the vacuum cleaner. She trembled with fear, tears rolling freely, and refused to take another step. So the orange-vested cleaning staffer turned off his vacuum, took E’s tiny hand in his, and escorted her off the plane, all the way down the jet way, and into the terminal, where he helped me settle her into her car seat. 

By the time he gave us a final salute, E was laughing and smiling again. And so was I. I don’t know if it was the mascara, or E’s ribbons, or maybe just a lucky encounter with someone who was a sucker for pregnant women, or little girls with tears in their eyes. Whatever it was, it made up for the couple hundred others who didn’t lend a hand that day. Thank you, kind stranger—we couldn’t have done it without you.