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Thoughts from summer break + the 1 travel mistake you probably don’t want to make (or do you?)

Friends, it’s been a minute or two.

Directly after confidently announcing the blog would not die, I sort of … let it. Or let it lie fallow, anyhow.

But here I am now, popping in at the beginning of July with a 19 week belly and all the confidence in the world that now that summer is well underway and our “schedule” (of Instagram fame) is humming along pretty smoothly, I can dip a toe back in.

Some thoughts from my unintentional sabbatical: 

Blog writing is really my favorite kind of writing. Or at least, it’s the easiest for me. Feature writing and teaching style posts will never beat the long form essay, for me; both for ease of craft and also rather unconsciously taking shape in my mind. No doubt from years of practice, the blog writing grooves run deep in my brain.

We just got home from a family vacation, the first of its kind for our clan. We flew with all 5 kids (and one now-obvious bump) to San Diego where we spent a week combing the beaches and eating lots of junk food. It was not all glamourous, but it was unbelievably and almost unrecognizably fun, even if loads of work were involved. Thanks to generous friends who had a house to spare and a backlog of Southwest points, we were able to do it all on a budget, and now back at home with our suntanned faces and piles of dirty laundry, it feels a bit like it was a dream.

Speaking of dreams, can I tell you a story that reads a bit more like a nightmare?

It begins in an airport terminal, as nightmares are often want to do. 

Our boarding time for our return flight to Denver was 8:20 am – both Dave and I heard the gate agent as she reminded us while tagging our stroller at the counter.

Patting ourselves on the back for being so efficient and responsible and waking up at 5 am, we strolled to the other side of the small, crowded, hub-shaped terminal and found a swath of open seats. We rested there comfortably, breakfasting on $8 dollar yogurt parfaits topped with wilted fruit and a side of potato chips, and took multiple runs to the bathroom to ensure in flight bladder compliance.

It was during one of those bathroom runs while Dave had the male crew in the restroom that I could have sworn I heard an announcement calling out “last call for Denver flight 7393” and I was like, weird, two flights to Denver within 20 minutes of each other? Guess it’s a popular route.

Friends, it is not that popular of a route.

My higher level cognition clicked in belatedly and I began cramming garbage, potato chips, diapers, babies, etc. into the stroller and booking it across the terminal while frantically scrabbling in my filthy purse for my phone. 

Sweating profusely, I stopped at the counter for our gate and dropped a load of kid crap that landed on the floor in a Peanuts-esque haze of sand and garbage and panted out my predicament to the bemused looking gate agent who deadpanned “we were surprised we lost your family”. 

I finally located my phone in a tangle of broken seashells and earbud cords and dialed Dave, who had the wherewithal to answer from his captaincy of the men’s room trip.

“We’re about to miss our flight. GET TO THE GATE!”

Dropping my phone back into the sand coating the bottom of my purse without bothering to end the call, I set to dismantling our beast of a stroller and saddling myself with the backpacks and carryon items of the entire family while herding Zelie and Evie towards the already-closed door to our aircraft. Dave rolled in on my heels, trailing three wild eyed boys behind him.


We clustered around the not-amused ticket guy standing at the door and panted our sorry excuse for a story, causing him to roll his eyes and wearily point out that our boarding passes had “a departure time 8:20” clearly printed on them.

But we’d never looked at our boarding passes, guy without kids. We are like robot sheep in the airport, following the disembodied voices of computer announcements and, in a dire pinch, occasionally lifting our eyes to consult the glowing screens overhead. We never thought to look at the pieces of paper stuffed in our back pockets.

If his eyes could have rolled harder or further back into his head, he would have dislocated something, but after announcing that all flights to Denver that day were F-U-L-L, he opened the door and shooed us onto the airplane with a deadpanned “good luck.”

Now anyone who has ever flown Southwest (which, incidentally, we love and only fly domestically, as much as we can control it) knows that the best part is that it’s open seating! 

You get to choose your seat! The 24 hour checkin window opening the day before your trip is the lottery of the unwashed masses, the great equalizer. 

Want to sit in business class? Set your phone alarm and get in there like gangbusters at the 24 hour mark and check in.

Or have kids. Because family boarding takes place smack dab between the A and B groups and results in effortlessly arranging your offspring in a series of comfortable rows populated by you and yours. 

I’m sure you see where this is going, yes?

Imagine the pleased faces and winsome smiles greeting us when we limped onto that plane, 2 adults, 4 kids and a mewling lap baby in need of seats, 3 minutes after the flight was supposed to have left the gate.

Oh, we were popular. 

I scanned the impassive rows of travelers with the eyes of a hunted animal, wondering where in God’s good name was I going to park my recently un-potty-trained 3 year old for a solo flight across the western United States? 

We ended up dropping Joey in row 2, squeezed between a pair of kindly businessmen, no doubt thrilled to have a small seatmate occupying the space between them rather than their laptop bags. John Paul landed in about row 12, next to a hulking, tattooed giant of a man who I prayed was more NFL player than serial killer. (spoiler alert: he was kind). 

Now the hard part, Evie and Luke who, at 5 and 3, were the worst behavior offenders on our flight out to California. 

I locked eyes with another mom flying solo with her own three kids, who resolutely lifted her lap baby from the lucky “open seat” and plopped him back into her lap, indicating that the aisle seat could go to Evie. I begged her forgiveness and dropped an extra child in her row, fleeing further into the bowels of the airplane. 

Meanwhile, Dave was negotiating a tense standoff with Luke who was understandably not gung ho to be left by Daddy in a seat with strangers. A kindly business traveler surrendered his own aisle seat so that Luke could sit and look back at Dave, who’d landed in a row about 3 behind him, next to another traveler who’d given up his aisle seat so he could keep Luke in eyesight. 

Placated with unlimited access to Daddy’s (airplane mode) iphone, Luke proceeded to spend the remainder of the 2 hour flight scrolling through years of family pictures and outtakes of the cat, stopping to show every single image to his longsuffering seatmate. 

I, meanwhile, staggered to the back of the plane where a single seat awaited me: last row, backing up to the bathroom, next to a very large woman who smiled gamely up at me and Z. 

“Want me to hold her while you get settled?” she kindly offered, unfazed by her current predicament.

Here is where I confess I was not excited to be sharing a seat with my lap baby, a pregnant belly, and a larger-than-average seatmate who was already occupying half my allocated space. Numbly, I handed the baby over and squeezed myself into the remaining spot. 

Guys, I’m not a small gal myself these days, so I’m ashamed for my initial unkindness – even if only internally – towards this woman. But she ended up being the nicest, most interesting seatmate I can remember having on any flight I’ve ever taken.

And Zelie? The same kid who screamed her way to San Diego only 7 days earlier? She fell asleep in my arms like a newborn kitten, impervious to the frantic howling of another baby seated the row ahead of ours and the continual slam/flush/bump of the bathroom traffic streaming past our smooshed perch on the end of the aisle.

As for the rest of the kids, well, they finally came around and starting talking again. 

Kidding! They did so great. When I inquired about their in-flight entertainment, Joey gamely said he  “played with 10 legos I found at the bottom of my backpack” while JP “stared straight ahead and ate crackers,” both of which struck me as fine, solid options for 2 hours alone at 40,000 feet.

As for Evie, the newly adopted 4th child of the harried solo mom traveler? I ran into that mom at baggage claim where she waved cheerfully to us, “Bye Genevieve, thank you so much for keeping (naughty 3 year old) entertained for the whole flight. It was our best trip ever!” 

The moral of this story is, I guess, be an absolute idiot and lose all track of time while travelling with small children, because you might inadvertently end up having your faith in humanity restored.

But also? You might get a crash course in Divine Providence. I marvelled at the kindness of strangers, the felicitous exhaustion that rendered my 18 month old unconscious on my chest for most of our flight time. The admiring comments by all the flight crew who could not believe “how well your kids handled being separated from you and one another,” or “how calm you stayed as parents” (lol if only they knew), and also, over and over again, the goodness of people who, at a basic level, do want to be kind and helpful or at the very least, simply decent.

It was a refreshing remedial lesson in basic human decency, and in the current cultural climate – cultivated largely on screens – of vitriol, hatred, and division, it was like balm to my soul.

Oh, and Dave and I joked afterwards that it might not be a bad idea to actually use the whole “leave you with strangers” plan as a strategy for future travel, because guess who has 4 thumbs and had the very best flight of their entire lives as parents? 

Cheers, it was us!

14 Comments

  • Ruth

    This is so stinking hilarious! What a wild flight! Love your writing and perspective. May the rest of your pregnancy be blessed!

  • jeanette

    So glad you popped in with a story…missed you! : )

    Also glad to hear you had a vacation with the kids…the best family times are on such trips. We never took our kids to San Diego until they were much older, high school aged. We met our son there when he came back from Iraq, too. We also liked San Diego enough to consider moving there for retirement, but opted for elsewhere.

    A word of caution about not sitting together…it works fine if everything is smooth sailing, but if there are any mechanical difficulties or other such emergency situations with the aircraft, you want you kids right with you. I would not have hesitated to enlist some volunteers to swap seats rather than wait for kindnesses to emerge. My husband was sick once and I had to do that, so it does work out. Most people are understanding, and some are just not nice no matter what. I’m kind of surprised the flight attendants didn’t assist for quick loading purposes to get off the ground quickly.

    We had to run to catch a flight once due to security taking my liquid medication and not appearing for a really long time (until the flight was ready to pull away from the gate). I was there quite early, so it was not what we expected. It’s best not to leave the gate are (we usually go one adult leaves while the other stays so at least someone is at the gate who can notify the other person). Just some tips (and likely you figured them out already).

  • Hannah Gokie

    When I inevitably have a much worse time trying to fly with our kids someday, I will look back in awe at how amazingly you handled this. “Stared straight ahead and ate crackers” had me LOL. Kids are ALWAYS surprising.

  • Katy J

    WOW. Just, wow. MY anxiety level was rising as I read along… but, you’re so right, God truly interceded here! You and your family are so blessed. And you’ve also validated that my worst fears of flying with young children can, in fact, come true, so thanks for THAT. Hahaha!

  • Mel

    Your post was definitely with the wait!! As I type, my husband and I are coming down with hand, foot, and mouth disease which we contracted from our 16mo daughter (annnnnd I’m 29 weeks preggo). Your story gave me a MUCH needed laugh, complete with tears streaming down my face. Thanks for making this sick mama smile! Keep blogging, writing is most certainly one of your gifts!!

  • Becky

    I’ve been checking your blog for a month waiting to see a new post and your great story did not disappoint! So glad you’re back. Don’t be away too long!

  • LAUREN MONTGOMERY

    Loved every minute of this post, Jenny. I felt you every step of the way, and remembered clearly similar situations I’ve been in. The sweat and anxiety, and all the deep breathing required to get through it all with some semblance of sanity! Good work, mama! Glad you were met with the kindness of strangers!

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