Getting Real with Megan Gregory

On the plane, before the meltdown

It’s happened to me twice: My kid had such an epic meltdown in public that a stranger felt compelled to comment.

Parenting in public is a strange phenomenon because people stare, people judge, but occasionally we get my favorite people – the encouraging people.  The encouraging people are the ones who only intervene to offer emotional support to the parent, and it seems to come at the most needed moments.

The first time it happened was last year. We took our son, who was two at the time, on his first plane ride. We were going to the east coast for about a week and decided to make it a family adventure. Now let me tell you, I am a rule follower. I made sure to read all of the rules about traveling with a toddler, called the airline to verify I understood what I was reading, and planned accordingly. What I read and then verified on the phone, was that it was mandatory to bring my son’s car seat on the plane – and use it.

I had never seen this done, and I genuinely thought it was a mistake.  I had never seen those already-overloaded parents also juggling a car seat through the airport, but I figured it must have been a new rule, and I wasn’t going to be denied entry onto the plane because of it. So, we hauled our many carry-on bags, a stroller, our restless toddler, and the massive car seat across the airport. We begged the boarding gate attendant to allow us to board early, since we had to strap in the car seat and, luckily, they obliged – even though early family boarding wasn’t in their policy.

After securing the car seat, jamming our bags into the overhead compartments and shoving them under the seats, and strapping our son into his car seat, we pulled out books and toys to distract him during take off (which we heard was the hardest part).  Take off went smoothly, both for the plane and our son, and the first half of the flight continued without incidence.

But that’s where the ease ended.

Our son had started getting cranky and it became evident we were hitting naptime territory. Our son pulls a real Jeckyl and Hyde when he starts getting tired. It’s obvious (to us) that getting him to sleep is the remedy.  But, on a plane, my normal options to get him to sleep were limited. He was furiously kicking the woman in the seat in front of him (to whom I profusely apologized) and beginning to scream. I talked to him, sang to him, read to him, and finally – miraculously – got him to sleep.

Unfortunately, our plane was piloted by a man who thought himself to be both hilarious and a tour guide.  Every few minutes he would do a very loud ‘DING’ throughout the entire plane and then, in his amplified voice (practically yelling), he would enthusiastically point out we were flying over. If you looked out the window to try to see what the pilot was referencing, you’d be met with clouds, so the yelling ‘tour’ was not only annoyingly unnecessary, but woke up our son every single time.  By the fourth or fifth ‘DING’, our son was inconsolably screaming and my face was red with terror.  The ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ light was on, and I kept looking at my husband for a new idea to try to calm our son down….He had none.

I finally looked at my husband and said, ‘”Fuck it.” I unbuckled our son, wrapped him in his blanket, and took him to the bathroom. I tried to talk to him, splashed some water on his face, but he just kept crying. Someone knocked on the door – probably someone who actually needed to use the facilities, and so I walked out mortified and terrified. There was still 30-45 minutes left in the flight – and I was the mom with the screaming kid on the plane that everybody hates. It’s not like I wanted him to be so upset, and it’s not like I was letting it happen without trying to console him, but nothing helped!

We did end up having a great vacation

So I nervously paced up and down the aisle, bouncing our son up and down, whispering in his ear, and eventually he fell back asleep in my arms.  When I realized he was asleep, I felt like there was a silent applause from the plane.  I did it.  The misery has ended.  But then the damn pilot came on…’DING’…and announced we would begin our descent.  I looked down at my son, whose eyes had slightly opened because of the ‘DING’, and I looked at my husband who was just as nervous as I was, and I said “I don’t care what the rules are, I am not putting him back in that car seat.”  So as the plane gradually descended lower and lower towards the ground, I held my boy tightly against my body praying he would remain calm…and he did.

When the plane got to the terminal and people began rising to grab their carry-on luggage, I, again, apologized to the woman my son had been kicking.  But, the surprising part was the older woman who had been sitting next to her.  She turned around, her grey hair perfectly done, and said, “I just want you to know, I thought what you were doing when the plane took off was really impressive.  And we’ve all been where you are.” 

My eyes actually started welling up.  I had been so stressed and nervous and scared about ruining this flight for so many other people, and my son had screamed and kicked for so long, but this woman made a point to let us know it was okay.  As we started walking off the plane another passenger said, “You did good.”  This was exactly what I needed to hear.  I did good.  Being a mom isn’t being perfect, and believe me I have made many mistakes, but it really does take a village to raise a human being and I needed the other women and mothers to acknowledge my efforts and let me know they were with me.

The other instance of a grand public meltdown with a kind, encouraging stranger was much less traumatic and much more common: We were at the grocery store and my now-three-year-old wanted a particular brand of yogurt that had a character on the package that he loved. I reminded him I had just bought him yogurt and it was in the refrigerator waiting for him. He yelled back at me, “I don’t want THAT yogurt, I want THIS yogurt.” Poor guy. I am not the kind of mom who gives in to tantrums, particularly in public, so I simply said, “No.” He sat down on the floor and refused to continue shopping with me.  So, I slowly walked away.

Now, let me clarify, I would never actually leave my child behind and I would never walk far enough away as to allow anything bad to happen to him. But we were in the store, there wasn’t that many people around, and I was still in close proximity. The mere act of me attempting to leave him was enough to jar him and he came crying hysterically towards me. I reminded him that throwing tantrums is not the way to get what he wants and the tantrum was over. But, as I had been threateningly walking away, a woman looked at me and said, “I’ve been there.  You’re doing the right thing.” A little relief flushed over me. Truth be told, even if she didn’t agree with my method of handling the situation, at least she took a moment to encourage me and make me feel better.

That’s what we mothers need to do: band together to raise our babies to be decent human beings. 

I do not remember every one of my son’s tantrums, but I do remember these two specific instances when someone took a moment to build me back up during a meltdown. And the best part, I don’t remember how I felt during the meltdown; I remember how I felt being encouraged.

Sometimes the difference between an awful day and a wonderful day is someone else taking a moment to remind you that you’re doing a good job, even if you feel like you’re falling apart.