Flying Solo

There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and while many say the outcome makes all the difference, I am not so sure. Deciding to fly solo with a “lap toddler” from St. Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Maine, sounded romantic, fun even, when I purchased the frugal, non-refundable plane ticket earlier in the summer. But come early November, the reality of a squirming, mobile child on my lap for non-direct flights with layovers in Detroit and LaGuardia round-trip set in. Holy hell, I realized, this was a fool’s journey, a flight I would make by myself with our 19-month-old daughter Lucinda. What had I been thinking?

A week before our departure, I Googled “flying solo with a toddler” in hopes that those brave souls before me had practical advice and happily-ever-after survival stories.

Online consensus advised to bring all the snacks imaginable (and then some), screen time galore (even if you loathe it), new toys and distractions, dressing my child and me as nicely as possible so as to project an “air of togetherness” that would, perhaps, give other passengers the confidence I had my shit together as a parent, and engendering no-strings-attached goodwill with gate agents by kindly asking if there were any empty seats we might be seated next to.

While I had traveled solo by both car and train with Luci, I had never flown with her by myself until Portland. My husband had been a huge help earlier in the year when we first flew to Washington, D.C., in April and then Tampa, Florida, in June. He was not always happy about traveling with a toddler, but he was incredibly patient and never failed to tote and collapse the umbrella stroller, schlep the diaper bag, and make Luci laugh when she was feeling cranky. This time, though, I would be the sole stroller-carrier, diaper-backpacker, and Luci-distractor extraordinaire. I had seen parents traveling with small children before, but it had not dawned on me what a feat of accomplishment that really was.

“You’re not setting out on the Oregon Trail,” I told myself. “You’re on an airplane with modern amenities and snacks galore, not a covered wagon.”

And while I would love to identify as a Zen-inspired, live-and-let-live parent, I am an anxious planner-type who finds comfort in arriving at airports hours early and doing my best to persist, even in the face of adversity and bucketloads of sweat. It is very hard for me to ask for help, even when I so obviously need it. While becoming a parent has helped me slowly chip away at my hubris, especially when asking for assistance from my family and friends, with strangers I have never been of the same mind as Blanche DuBois. I do believe most people, when given the opportunity, will extend a helping hand, but I did not want to expect such goodwill as a given. I wanted to show the world that I was a competent and loving mother, who does, in fact, have her shit together.

I am so thankful, however, to be schooled in the absolute necessity of the village. Winnie, the desk clerk in St. Louis, did not hear me ask for an extra seat from Detroit to Portland, but she intuited that such a blessing would be most appreciated by the sweet girl waving and blowing kisses at her and said girl’s mother. Andie, the attendant on the flight from Detroit to Portland, plied us with as many cookies and snack packs we could stuff into Luci’s small ladybug backpack. Andie refilled Luci’s Peppa the Pig water bottle, and for that favor, Luci was forever enamored of Andie, constantly straining to see her new friend or signal for “more” time with Andie.

Or Jeannine and Kayla, the patient and kind stewards on a delayed-on-the-tarmac flight from LaGuardia to St. Louis—at one point the dreaded and ear-shattering wail that silences a plane, makes people curse “breeders” and wish for adult-only airlines, came out of my overtired child. In an act of solidarity and a swift bargain to preserve the peace for the other passengers on Flight 5435, Jeannine let Luci play with the air mask most of us ignore while we thumb through in-flight magazines and smartphones. Fun fact: The hose on the attendant’s instructional air mask is solid plastic with no feasible route for inflation. Kayla, a former daycare worker, loved giving Luci high fives and Luci loved hugging this friendly adult who crouched to her level in the aisle of the plane. I know all of these amazing women were doing their jobs, but they were also helping a mother and child get through their own hero’s journey.

With this solo flight under my belt and a few days afterward to pause and reflect, I am grateful for the many opportunities to admit I need all the help I can get. Most of us need help. The ones who do not ask for help are often the ones who especially need support and grace in the face of stubborn resolve. My patron saints of solo flying—Winnie, Andie, Jeannine, and Kayla—may never know how much I appreciated their helping hands, but perhaps that is the whole point of the village. We remember and honor those who smoothed our jagged edges, or at least made us laugh through the process.