Have Twins, Will Travel

Airplanes, Babies & the Kindness of Strangers

Moscow, Russia – The last time we flew to Moscow, the twins were just shy of one year old. I carefully planned our itinerary so we would have a long overnight trip, direct from New York to Moscow with no layover in Europe, knowing that my boys would sleep the whole way. Hmm.

What actually occurred was 10 hours of pain and misery. Twin S just could not fall asleep on the airplane and he let everyone know about it. Every passenger on that flight probably should have received a full refund upon arrival.
The saving grace was a young Russian father, who was missing his own baby back in Moscow, and redirected his thoughtful attention to Twin S. Somehow he managed to distract and calm the distraught child for an hour or two of respite. The miracle here was not just the kindness of this young man or his ability to settle my son, but also his ability to penetrate my wall of “self-sufficiency” so that I would actually let him help.
I was remembering this incident yesterday as I sat on the airplane, listening to babies crying and appreciating my sleeping children. (Now that they are almost four, this actually happens sometimes.) I could remember many other instances–on and off the airplane–when strangers offered a helping hand. But often, I was unable or unwilling to receive this blessing because I was too caught up in my own preconceptions–that I was not in control of the situation like I should be, that something was wrong with my kids,  that I was being judged.
When my kids melted down in the middle of a busy cafe in Charlestown, I was angry and embarrassed and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I totally blocked this woman–probably another mother–who asked if we wanted the food boxed, who watched the screaming stroller outside while I went back and paid the bill, who reminded me to take a deep breath. I wanted her to leave me alone. I wanted her to stop meddling and stop judging. In retrospect, I appreciate that she was not meddling or judging, but just helping, probably empathizing. But at the time, because of my own shame, I could barely accept her kindness. In fact, I resented it.
But what if I had been able to graciously receive this blessing? What if I had recognized it as it was intended–not an act of judgement, but an act of empathy? Our exit from the cafe may or may not have gone more smoothly. But certainly–and more importantly–I would have been reminded that meltdowns happen to all parents. I would have made a small connection with another mother who understands. I would have felt less anger at my children and less shame toward myself.
When my babies used to cry on the airplane, I felt anger and shame. Now, when I hear other babies crying on the airplane, I feel nothing but compassion. Really, I was never able to muster these feelings for my own children under these circumstances, but this is what I feel for other people’s children.
We were recently talking about this unfortunate contradiction, and my friend had a brilliant idea that people (other parents, grandparents or anybody, really) who are feeling compassionate and loving toward those crying babies, should be in charge of them on the airplane. The volunteers could sign up at the beginning of the flight, and the flight attendants could just pass the children around the plane, tapping into the infinite loving kindness of other passengers and giving the parents a break.
But in order for this to work (and just for the record, this is more of a metaphor than an actual proposal for an airplane travel program), we–as parents–would have to give up the sham of self-sufficiency. We would have to accept that children sometimes behave in inconvenient ways, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with them (or us). We would have to accept that things get messy and loud and out-of-control, and it’s okay. We would have to accept other people’s help as acts of empathy, not judgement. In short, we would have to receive the blessing.
So… did I go relieve some exhausted parent from their crying baby on the airplane? Um, no, I did not. I went to sleep. (Like I said, it’s really more of a metaphor than an actual airplane travel program.) But my heart was full of compassion for those families and I sent some loving kindness their way. It happens to everyone, my friends, and it is okay. In three or four years, you will be sleeping too.