A plane takes off sometime tomorrow and you’ll be in it with your baby on your lap. You stay up late doing last-minute laundry and counting the days you’ll be traveling and doubling – or tripling – that number in baby clothes, depending on if you’ll have easy enough access to a washer and dryer or not. You think, perhaps you obsess, over the checklist you’ve created. There are new things you have to be sure to bring with you now that you have a baby. Diapers. Diaper cream. Pacifiers. Pacifier clips. You don’t just check your list twice – you check it twice every hour and look at it suspiciously one final time before you leave the house, certain you’re forgetting something that is represented by a word that is staring right back at you, but you’re not seeing it because your eyes are burning. You’re not processing it because a lack of sleep disrupts cognitive functioning. A lack of sleep can cause early death. You’re already thinking through how a lack of sleep might be ruining your life and you’re not even in the car to the airport yet.
You’ll feel a strange and contradictory mix of emotions while surviving your way through checking luggage and security and finally moving your entourage of bags and human flesh into your one seat.
Stress, because this is hard work and you’re worried you’re inconveniencing other people.
Gratitude, because some people will see you struggling and not only offer to help, but know the exact way in which you need help in that instant.
Relief, because you’ll realize through all of these helpful strangers that they know how to help because they have been there and that sense of camaraderie will help you to take a slow breath.
Anger, because something probably will be significantly trying and you’ll be angry with yourself for not foreseeing it or dealing with it better or you might even be angry with someone else, maybe a stranger, for not being as conscientious as they should have been. At some point, you might be angry with your baby, even though it won’t make sense.
Now you’re in your seat. The game begins. You’ve read a dozen blogs on the topic and you’re equipped with the tricks. You have a new toy for your baby and you’re going to nurse the baby upon takeoff and touchdown. You brought a fleece blanket to act as a pillow for the tiny head and you wore the optimal outfit for breastfeeding and lounging, complete with a long and loose cardigan that you will wrap your baby up in while eating and sleeping. You purchased your baby’s favorite They Might Be Giants kids’ videos and they’re sitting there on your phone, ready to be played if there’s a meltdown. Your spare pacifiers are within easy reach as is your hand sanitizer.
In the end, you’ll know that even if you hit some bumps, it was good. You did well. Your baby did well. And you’ll realize the real trick to flying with a baby isn’t so elusive. You do need the things your baby needs, indeed. You need spare outfits and spare diapers. You need items your baby can play with in order to pass time in strange and cramped places (the vomit bags are great!). But mostly, above and beyond all else, while carrying your baby through the unfamiliar and loud planets that are airports and planes, you need to make yourself an epicenter of calm, from where your baby will draw her cues and level of comfort.
The real trick to flying with a baby is to know that your calm must be real – your baby will know the difference – but you can get to a real place of calm by faking it to begin with – you can fake it until you make it here. If the physical act of smiling can actually make us happier, as research suggests, many of us are more in control of how we feel than we’re initially inclined to assume. I have struggled with anxiety for many years, so I know how it feels to be beyond the point of Just Think Happy Thoughts And You’ll Feel Better! But I also know that much of the time, save for a full-on panic attack, I can make myself – and thus, my baby – feel at least a little better and calmer.
It must start with your breath and your heart rate and your focus and extend all the way out to the tone of voice you use when you talk to your baby. It must start with a choice to inhale deeply, bring yourself into the present moment, and find something – anything – to feel grateful for.
It’s in the way you react when a drink is spilled all over your baby – a whiskey drink. Laugh, I tell you. And then get the baby dry.
It’s in the flexibility you offer your baby when she needs closeness at a time when you thought you finally found a minute to eat. Pay the bill, take the food with you, and hunker down in a spot where you can nuzzle that babe and eat.
It’s in the trust you lend random flight attendants in the gate’s waiting area to watch your stroller and bags because your baby is covered in poop from the neck down and you simply can’t carry a baby smeared with poop to the bathroom for a change as well as all of your other things. Not unless you want to get poopy, too. You don’t.
It’s in the reassuring smile you give your baby when you hand her to a woman you don’t know, who smiled and politely offered to hold her for a moment at the gate so you could gather your things. Thank you, stranger.
It’s in the way you rub her back and press your cheek to hers when nothing seems to be working. This will not last forever, I promise.
Your pulse will set the time signature for you baby’s own beat, so keep it slow and steady as best as you can. And when you do speed up, and your baby speeds up in turn, gather your thoughts, find your breath, focus on the first beautiful thing you can think of, and take it all back down a notch as soon as that is available to you. You are the sun. You are the epicenter of calm.