Traveling anytime between mid-December to end of year is not on my list of favorite things to do. Being that I live in California and my hometown is in Massachusetts, holiday travel is something I grew very familiar with over the years. And although my son is just under 14 months old, he had already been on 6 plane rides back and forth on trips to Boston, DC, and Mexico City. So when the opportunity presented itself to travel to DC for work, I knew it was something I had to do even though it struck terror in my heart. Yes, we had traveled on planes before with the baby but I had my husband to help then- a second set of hands, eyes, and ears (and emotional support). But my husband's work is very demanding at the end of the year and expecting him to take time off to help me with this would be impossible. No, it was time to put on my big girl shoes and suck it up.
I spent the first half of December pretty much worrying incessantly about this trip. Rocky and I were scheduled to arrive in DC on a Monday and my parents would fly in on Tuesday to babysit while I was in the office. I was eager to get some face time with my colleagues. While I am grateful every day for the opportunity to work from home, it makes me appreciate the time I get to work side by side with others in an office setting. The day of our flight approached and my anxiety was peaking. I reached out to a few friends and my confidence was pumped up again. No matter how anxious I felt, I reminded myself that I had to be as calm and collected as possible to set the pace for my baby when traveling. Fake it till you make it!
We were slated to fly on a red eye, which I prefer because he's generally a good sleeper. My biggest concerns were getting through the airport with all my baby gear and other people acting like assholes. A very kind mom friend of mine offered for me to borrow her Doona which is this fancy transformer carseat/stroller. I always travel with a separate seat purchased on the plane for the baby when possible even though it's a financial pain. Although he sometimes refuses to stay in his car seat, in general it is nice to have an extra place to have him sit instead of on my lap and it makes me feel safer having the option. Per usual, I wore Rocky in his Lillebaby baby carrier to get through airport security. They will almost always let you wear the baby through the metal detector and then ask you to stand off to the side where they will swab your palms to test for explosives residue. It takes a few seconds and then you are on your merry way! I had a very impatient young woman behind us in the line and I could feel some of my anxiety building as she was breathing down my neck. Wearing the baby through security is easier than the alternative but you still have to get your shoes off, laptop/tablets/liquids out of the bag, carseat collapsed and turned upside down on the conveyor belt etc. As you can imagine, these things are easier without a 19 pound human strapped to the front of you when you are bending down. A family of four was ahead of me and after the father managed to handle all his family's gear through the security belt, he turned and asked if I needed help. Without hesitation, I said yes. He then proceeded to manage all of my luggage and gear for me. After we got through the metal detector, the same man got his family and their belongings gathered up and then proceeded to do the same for me. My gratitude was endless at that moment. The first stop after that was the bathroom. I always use the family restrooms when traveling with Rocky because there is more space for your gear plus a private place to manage diaper changes if needed. Peeing while wearing a toddler in a baby carrier should be an Olympic sport and I highly recommend wearing yoga pants to pull off this feat.
People were above and beyond nice while waiting at the gate. It is really good to remind yourself when traveling with a little one that many people around you either have/had children and/or grandchildren and want to see you succeed with this trip as much as you do. We were fortunate enough to sit next to a pregnant woman on our flight and she was an absolute angel when Rocky started crying and refusing to sit in his car seat. I spent the next five hours with a baby sleeping on me, trying to get my body as flat as possible in my seat, and dozing off every now and then myself. Once landing at Dulles, I was reminded of having to take both elevators and a train to get to our baggage. I know people hate LAX but Dulles is probably my least favorite airport of all. I met a nice French family on the elevator and although the father was the only one who spoke much English, we helped each other all get to our baggage claim and they gave me a big thank you before heading out. I called a Lyft for the two of us, got us and our luggage up the ramp to the exit, and we were on our way to the hotel.
The flight back was trickier and was not a red eye. The main reason I despise Dulles is the two insanely long security lines they manage for such a large airport. I had given us ample time but the holiday travelers and the security chaos proved troublesome for us. It was SO hot while waiting in line and I could feel the baby sweating against me in his carrier. Lunchtime was fast approaching with no end in sight to the lines so I fed Rocky a granola bar which he proceeded to spit out all over the floor and himself. I was picking up a clump of wet granola from the ground with a baby strapped to my chest and a backback in our stroller in front of me and an airport employee said "maam, please move" for me to inch up half a foot in the line and I snapped "I am doing the best I can!" Not my finest moment especially since she was just doing her job, but also, give me a break can't you see I have a pissed off sweaty kid attached to me and I am picking up his half chewed food from the floor? My cheeks were flushed and Rocky started crying and kicking his legs and I could feel myself wanting to give up and cry. Two nice men in the line next to me offered for us to go ahead of them since their line was shorter. I definitely fought back tears and accepted with thanks. The younger man of the two said "See? One person can make a difference" and I think I may always remember that moment. They helped me get all our gear on the security belt, we zipped through the metal detector, and then it became a mad dash to the elevator and train. Rocky was hungry and nonstop crying and by the time we made it to our gate, we had 20 minutes till boarding. The lines were long for food so I grabbed a Lunchables and some string cheese which my cranky son then ate up hungrily back at the gate. We pre-boarded when they called families with children under the age of 2 and when we got to our row, a young woman was sitting there already. She helped me get the car seat in to the row (car seats always need to be in the window seat and never in exit rows fyi) and she told me that she was a med student who had just finished her pediatric rotation. It was an absolute blessing. She played with my son, helped me pick up his messes (flashcards on a plane turned out to be a terrible idea as well as the moment when my baby decided he would throw the lunch I had bought us all over the floor). Sticking post its to the back of the seat in front of us proved to be a good activity and letting him stand in the aisle for a bit was helpful too. There was a toddler in front of us who really was putting her poor mom through the ringer so I offered her a granola bar which seemed to go over well. Rocky finally fell asleep on my lap and I transferred him to his car seat where he napped for an hour. I bought lunch for the med student angel to show my appreciation and told her she would be a great doctor. After 6 very long hours, we landed back in LA and I felt such extreme relief. I let the mom sitting in front of us know that she did a great job and she replied back the same to me. I hugged our med student friend and told her how much her help made this really difficult experience easier on me. She said something to me I will try to always remember: "Parenting isn't easy for anyone. If it ever feels too hard, remember that."
All that being said, here are my tried and true tips for traveling with a toddler:
1) baby carrier throughout the airport, especially security, is a lifesaver
2) use the stroller as a luggage cart for your carryon when wearing baby
3) things that worked to occupy time on the plane: post its, Peppa Pig and Sesame Street on the tablet, lots and lots of snacks
4) things that didn't work on the plane: flashcards, an awkward tray of airplane food
5) call the hotel the night before you arrive to request and secure an early check in
6) accept help when people offer it to you and don't be afraid to ask for it either
7) people probably will be nicer than you expect
8) remember during the shitshows and the meltdowns: this will be over soon
In the end, I learned that I spend a lot of my parenting on autopilot and don't really realize just how much I do every day as a mother. That I am stronger and more capable than I think. And most of all, that if I could do this, I can probably do anything!! Flying solo with a one year old during the holidays: Achievement Unlocked.