The cabin of the plane was surprisingly dark considering it was midday. My hands were neatly folded in my lap. As we taxied along the runway, I tried to decide what to do with the next hour and a half of my time. Should I break out the laptop and try to write something coherent? Should I read and listen to music, which are two things I rarely get a chance to do at home? Or should I sit in my sardine-can of a seat and do absolutely nothing?
I chose the latter of the three. I stared blankly at the back of my seat for a while, daydreaming. After a few minutes I heard a familiar sound that brought me back down to earth, ironically at the same moment the plane was physically leaving the ground.
The very large sound was emanating from a very tiny person two rows behind me and across the aisle. The ear-piercing, bone-chilling, boob-aching screams were coming from a baby whose ears were protesting the admittedly rough take-off we’d all just experienced. Along with about half the plane, I turned to look at the angry little fellow and found a scene so familiar that I was immediately struck with an eerie sense of deja vu.
The baby had turned a lovely shade of purple by now and had tears, mixed with snot, mixed with some kind of dairy product, running down his face and onto his frazzled-looking mother’s shoulder. She was clearly traveling alone with her child, because the elderly gentleman sitting in the window seat beside her was doing his best to sit as far away from her as the tiny seat would allow. His whole body was leaning away, clinging to the window like a starfish.
Her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in a week, and was haphazardly thrown up into what was at one point a bun, until the baby had pulled entire chunks loose in his struggle to free himself from his mother’s grasp. Her clothes were covered in crumbs, yogurt, and drool. There was a diaper crammed in her seat back pocket and the baby’s onesie hadn’t been snapped properly.
As we reached our cruising altitude and the baby continued to wail, his mother’s eyes darted wildly around the plane. She had a look of horror underneath the red of her bloodshot eyes. She had become that mom on the flight. That mom whose bouncing, shushing, cuddling, pleading, and tears have no effect on the frustration and protests of the miniature human with operatic lungs who’d much rather be eating ancient peanuts off the floor than sitting safely and securely in her lap.
She had become that mom half the plane was looking at with thinly-veiled contempt and irritation, while the other half avoided eye contact lest they get somehow dragged into Hell right along with her. She was the unwilling center of attention, and the reading light above her was starting to feel like a spotlight. The combined heat from her flushed cheeks and the adorable bundle of red-hot fury that was squirming in her arms had started to make her sweat. As anyone who has ever been that mom knows, once you’ve reached rock bottom, what’s a little B.O.? It’s a drop in the barrel of your humiliation.
I started to turn toward her to offer my usual look of commiseration, that knowing smile that all mothers recognize. The one that says, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” We are like sorority sisters and this is our secret handshake. That Mom Club.
Only, when I made eye contact with her I didn’t see the relief and recognition I was expecting. Was I doing it wrong? Then I realized I was all wrong. I could feel the weight of my new earrings pulling on my ears and tickling the side of my neck as they dangled. There were no stains on my clothing, no rats in my hair, and no offspring hanging from my breasts. Well, except for the smudge of makeup that I’d accidentally dropped onto my chest while applying the foreign substance earlier in the day. There must be a learning curve for applying eye-shadow so it doesn’t flutter down onto the rest of your face or mar your clothing in pretty pink dust, but I’m not even on the chart.
I wasn’t that mom. I wasn’t a mom at all. I wasn’t me. I was some alien creature who rests her eyes and who can get up to pee whenever she feels like it without an entire procession following her into the airplane lavatory. I was that woman on the plane who looks like she dressed for the occasion. I know you’ve seen her; you probably hated her. I know I did. Those were the women in whose direction I had to consciously restrain myself from winging a dirty diaper, like one of those chimps in the zoo. Obviously, I’ve never done that, but I’ve thought about it.
To the mom’s credit, she didn’t even look tempted to fling feces in my face. She simply smiled awkwardly and apologetically and shifted the baby onto her other shoulder.
I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her that it gets easier. Ok, that’s a lie, but you do stop caring after a few years and a couple of kids. I wanted to walk back to her and offer to give her a break. After all, I have some mad shushing skills that were finely tuned and perfected through four international flights with my colicky firstborn. Part of me wanted to share in her misery, to take some of it away from her, even if just for a few minutes.
But I didn’t.
Because as much as I sympathized with that mom, I was also unbelievably grateful that it wasn’t me this time. It wasn’t my turn, but it will be again all too soon. Maybe next time it’s my turn in the mommy disaster rotation I will remember that the woman sitting a few rows ahead of me with the beautifully coiffed hair and three inch heels may not actually be an evil minion placed there to torment and judge me during my perils.
She might be a mom on her way to her first girls’ night out in four years. She might be dressed to impress because she’s nervous about meeting new friends and needed a little confidence boost. Maybe she’s going to a wedding or a high school reunion. Maybe that’s not really her I’m seeing. I will try to remember all these things when I am, once again, overwhelmed with the desire to point my air-sick toddler in her direction hoping for some gastrointestinal pyrotechnics. I will try.
But I can’t make any promises. After all, even that mom needs a laugh now and then.