Somewhere in between Havana and Los Angeles — Not long after our flight took off, I reached into my backpack and realized I hadn’t packed any real food for my two kids. Earlier that morning, I’d remembered to bring a gallon-size zip-lock bag full of gummy bears, imitation pop rocks, ring pops, Sour Patch kids, and Pocky sticks. But I carried no real sustenance, save two small squeeze packets of apple sauce that my kids would suck down in less than a minute flat.
I was traveling alone with my two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and as far as I could see when we’d lined up to board the flight, my kids were the only two children on the plane, which is one of my biggest fears traveling as a parent. If one of my kids erupted in a sugar-induced temper tantrum mid-flight, everyone would know it was us.
As we boarded the plane, passengers who were already comfortably seated and childless smiled as us. “How cute!” someone remarked, watching my two little ones drag their Frozen and Lightening McQueen roller board suitcases behind them. I wondered whether they’d think the same of us in five hours.
When we reached our seats, I discovered that I’d forgotten to charge the iPad. My kids pointed to the back of their seats. “No TV’s, Mommy,” my daughter said. Just before we pushed back from the gate, I said, “Hold on a moment” and dashed to the bathroom at the very back of the plane before either of them (or the flight attendants) knew where I was going. For a few moments, they were not only without food or entertainment, but without parental supervision.
There seem to be endless challenges when it comes to travel with little kids. It begins with the packing. No matter if it’s an overnight or a monthlong sojourn, the packing always seems to be endless. Then it’s the travel itself, which is particularly trying if you’re doing it on your own. (My husband was meeting us later that week.) Then it’s the transition on the other side, which in our case often involves jet lag.
I’d been proud of myself for being prepared on this recent trip solo with the kids. I’d printed out the spreadsheet I used for trips, which listed everything we usually took in three columns. I’d thrown into our suitcases the clothes, the toiletries, the medication, the books, and the toys, including their precious stuffed Pooh bear and toy bunny. After I’d checked off everything on the list, I’d even remembered extra diapers for my two-year-old. Once, when my daughter was an infant and we’d boarded a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight, I realized that I’d put all of her extra diapers in our checked-in baggage. Thankfully, she didn’t poop on the flight, and I marveled at the absorbency of modern diapers. I could only hope a similar miracle would get us through this flight.
The check-in process went relatively smoothly as we sent our six overstuffed bags on their way. At security, though, we got stopped. I’d brought the kids’ water bottles, and I also remembered not to fill them with anything, as we had on a previous flight. But my mistake this time was that I’d let the kids pack whatever toys they wanted in each of their carry-on suitcases, something I’ll never do again. “Something’s funny with these bags,” said an official wearing rubber gloves as he rifled through my son’s Lightening McQueen suitcase. He fished out a big fire truck with a siren and a large Kylo Ren action figure with a sword. (That’s my daughter’s,” I’d wanted to proudly note.) We were detained for a good fifteen minutes, and my kids watched as I was frisked by a tall, intimidating woman.
The flight went smoothly, miraculously, even without decent sustenance or entertainment for my kids. As soon as we were airborne, the flight attendants came around with Disney-branded coloring books and crayons. They came back through the aisle soon after to rent us a tablet loaded with movies. After they came through with drinks, my kids’ water bottles were filled with apple juice, and they happily watched one of the sequels of Ice Age. I worried for a moment when the earbuds the airline provided didn’t fit into their little ears, but my kids were content to watch the movie without sound, making up plenty of their own noises to go with the action on the screen.
The real test was when the food cart with the usual dismal, expensive, kid-unfriendly options came around. I ordered an egg and bacon sandwich, and deconstructed it, parceling out the eggs to my son and the bacon to my daughter. (I was left with the bread.) When my daughter said she was still hungry, we pressed the attendant button and soon after, a fruit and cheese plate appeared on our tray. My kids, deprived of cheese and many types of fruit in Cuba, scarfed down the apples and grapes but rejected the cheddar cheese, since that’s basically alien to their diets. My daughter did however devour the triangles of parmargiano, a fixture of our household, no matter where we are.
At the end of the flight, as we waited for the passengers to file out of the plane, we got compliments all around. Barely a peep had come out of either child during the entire flight, even after all that candy, entertainment, and airplane food was consumed. Maybe they would even be ready for an even longer flight — a trans-Pacific flight we’d already planned for the summer.