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OP-ED: The perils of Christmas travel with young kids

Cynthia M. Allen
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TNS)
Children checking their flight at information board in international airport terminal. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Every year, I tell myself this is the last time.

I am not doing it again. I am not flying across the country with my (now) three children — all of whom are younger than 5 — over the holidays.

And every year, I find myself white-knuckling the last 30 minutes in flight, digging through my purse for snacks and reciting “Hail Marys” as I try to keep my excited but travel-weary children seated, satiated and quiet until landing.

Please, no one scream. Please, no one stand up. Please, no one throw-up.

And please, Lord. Let us not be that family.

(If you fly during the holidays, you know exactly the family to which I am referring. The one that everyone keeps staring at. The one that no one wants to sit near on the plane.)

Sometimes, that’s us.

Merry Christmas, fellow passengers. And my profound apologies.

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A friend reminded me recently of something that usually slips my mind somewhere between airport security and baggage claim: Christmas (or Advent) is a penitential season.

It’s a time of repentance; it’s a time of sanctification.

And nothing is quite as chastening and humbling as peeling an exhausted toddler off the terminal floor, while her sister frantically yanks your arm crying for a bathroom, her hungry infant brother screams in the carrier, and you awkwardly struggle to get the three over-filled backpacks (and their respective children) on and off the plane.

All this while trying to suppress a string of four-letter words from escaping your lips.

All this while maintaining some small degree of personal dignity.

Traveling is stressful, especially around the holidays and always where children are concerned. But like so much of parenting, it’s also character-building and chock full of lessons for life.

It reminds us that life is lived best when we are tolerant, restrained, generous and gracious — with ourselves and with others.

And in many circumstances, those graces are visited back on us.

Every time I’ve flown with my children, I’ve been stunned at the remarkable kindness exhibited by total strangers.

The woman who offers to hold my baby while I help my toddler put her shoes back on.

The teenager who carries our third backpack to our seats so I can keep my children from tearing down the aisle.

The man several rows back who entertains my fussy infant with his silly faces.

Whether it’s out of sympathy or pity, there’s always someone who wants to be of service. Some offer emotional support. There are knowing smiles and respectful nods.

There are words of encouragement: You’re doing a great job. Your kids are so well-behaved (probably a lie). What a beautiful family.

For an exasperated mom, any comment that isn’t a criticism of my parenting skills makes all the difference in the world.

Of course, not all fellow flyers are understanding. Some are less than thrilled that your screaming infant is within earshot; some couldn’t care less that their suitcase is blocking your child’s path to the bathroom.

Not everyone is going to find your drooling baby adorable. Not everyone is going to appreciate just how hard it is to keep three children happy on a three-hour flight.

That’s OK. There are lessons in that, too.

When facing adversity, maintaining grace is important. Apologizing, even when it’s unwarranted, can be virtuous.

Showing others respect, even when it’s not returned, is never a mistake.

And forgiving yourself when things don’t go as planned — when your kids aren’t the perfect angels they are at home — is necessary.

Because years from now, when my kids are grown and I’m flying solo, I will smile at a mom and her kids, offer to hold her baby while she wrangles her toddler, and miss these chaotic years.

A few days ago, I opened a still childless friend’s Christmas card which featured photos of her and her husband scaling ocean bluffs and cavorting around Europe. The card boasted: “Because one adventure is never enough…”

I thought: Oh, honey, you haven’t been on an adventure until you’ve flown with kids. Just you wait.

— Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.