Last week I flew from Chicago to Arizona, just me and my kid, and I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the trip. A few well-meaning friends assumed I was worried about exposing my kid to COVID. NO! How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not worried about kids and COVID! I know the risks are not nil, but they are spectacularly low, and I let my kid do all sorts of things that are far riskier. (Oh calm down; I’m talking about things like riding in a car and swimming in a pool, not smoking cigarettes and cliff-diving.) Far more worrisome to me than the minuscule odds of my kid contracting serious illness from COVID was the sheer amount of time we were going to have to kill en route to our destination. Almost two hours in eternally gnarly Chicago traffic. Two plus hours in the airport. Four hours on the plane. Another hour at the airport collecting our bags. Forty-five minutes of blessedly traffic-free but still far freeway driving to my parents’ house. Seeing as we weren’t leaving the house until after 5:00 PM and my child has never slept on a plane for more than a few minutes at a time, I predicted that both of us would spend a good portion of this trip in some degree of misery.
No matter that I’ve been bragging about my kid being a “good traveler” since she was a baby. I was lying! Now that I’ve emerged more or less unscathed from the haze of early childhood parenting, I can admit that. Some people earn their mama merit badges by being boymoms and popping out four under four and running themselves ragged after their spirited child. The rest of us do what parents have been doing since the beginning of time: picking a thing and pretending our kids are better at it than everybody else’s. Whatever image I tried to pass off when my daughter was little, it’s obvious now that she was not exactly a natural born traveler. That’s not meant to be a slight, by the way. Sure, children are portable, but the fact that you can stuff them in a sling and take them wherever you go does not make them especially well-suited to more modern modes of travel. I mean, it would be weird if a child loved the sensation of her ears popping or being confined to a car seat for hours at a time.
Back to my kid’s traveling bona fides. When she was an infant, she stretched a four hour drive to St. Louis into six because it’s illegal to nurse on the highway and she couldn’t tolerate two hours between meals. Our first time flying, I spent a solid hour wiping up the worst sort of liquid from every inch of the baby, car seat, and stroller in an airport bathroom because that shit spreads. And I can’t even count the number of times she screamed herself sick on airplanes. On one of those flights, a man sitting next to me practically pulled my daughter onto his own lap (“I’m a grandpa!”) and had the audacity to act confused and disappointed when she crawled right back onto mine. On another flight, the lady sitting next to me thrust her iPad into my hands with a cartoon all cued up and seemed shocked when it did nothing to pacify a baby who was too young to have formed a relationship with a screen.
Thanks to remote learning, my daughter has since learned to navigate her way around a tablet, a fact I remembered about thirty minutes before we were supposed to leave for the airport. I rustled up the old Kindle that we let her play games on and checked the battery: 1%. Shit. I plugged it in, knowing there was no way it would hit 5% before we had to go. Oh well. I stuck it back in the pile of school crap I was hoping my husband would clean up while we were out of town and prayed the backpack full of books and toys she’d packed would get us through the night.
The drive to the airport was worse than expected, just excruciatingly slow. Also, my husband is a stop and go driver and my daughter wanted me to turn around and look at something every five minutes, so I was about ready to puke before we were halfway there. At the airport, my husband missed the on-ramp for departures four times, necessitating four wide u-turns on Cicero Avenue during rush hour. When he finally pulled up in front of the terminal, I made my daughter don a mask before we got out of the car. My husband unloaded our bags and hugged and kissed us goodbye. Our daughter sobbed. She hasn’t spent a night away from him I don’t even know how many years. Her mask was soaked through before we set foot inside the airport.
One of the things I worried about was actually navigating the airport with two bags to check, four carry-ons, and an eight-year-old who takes her damn time getting, well, anywhere. That part ended up being simple. She’s old enough to carry her things now! She cried her way through the airport carrying a heavy suitcase behind her, a heavy backpack on her back, a tamagotchi around her wrist, and a crunchy pillow made to look like a package of Top Ramen clutched to her chest. The pillow, as you might imagine, drew amused comments from airport employees and fellow travelers alike. As I tapped my way through the screen to check-in and print out labels for our checked bags, she grabbed an extra bag tag for the tamagotchi.
After we checked our bags (but not the tamagotchi, which stayed on her wrist with its tag for the rest of the trip), we felt foot loose and fancy free! Until we got to the escalator, that is. I stepped on the escalator that takes you from the check-in counters down to security while my daughter, not having seen an escalator in the last eighteen months, froze at the top. I tried to reassure her it was safe while watching her get smaller and smaller until finally she stepped on–feet precariously positioned on non-adjacent steps, of course–and watched in horror as her legs spread out into the splits. By the time I got my phone out for a picture, she’d adjusted herself and was ready for the “big step!” at the bottom. I high-fived her for facing her fears.
Security was a breeze. There was not even a line! Luckily, I’d reminded my daughter in the car that a TSA agent would ask her name and that she would need to answer loudly and truthfully. She straight-up refused to answer once when she was little and it was not pretty; they thought I was for sure kidnapping her. To ward off any shenanigans, I warned her that the people working security don’t have a sense of humor. When it was our turn to show our boarding passes, the agent threw me off my asking me to lift my mask. I swear I thought he was fucking with me, until he repeated the instruction, this time with an edge in his voice. “I need to see your face, ma’am.” When he asked for my daughter’s name, she played it straight and gave him what he wanted. Without missing a beat, in perfect bureaucrat deadpan, he asked her to show her drivers’ license. Her eyes went wide and she didn’t crack a smile behind her mask. When he finally let us pass, she turned to me and said, “I thought you said the airport people don’t have a sense of humor.” After he cleared us, we dumped our things on the conveyor belt and flew through the metal detector. They don’t even use the millimeter wave scanners or grope you anymore–too COVID-y, I guess! .
Like I said, a breeze! The real shit show started on the other side of TSA when we started looking for a place to eat. At least half the restaurants were closed. I spied some good looking women eating some good looking fried chicken pretty quickly but our flight had already been delayed and we still had A LOT of time to kill, so I decided to walk the length of the terminal to suss out the very best of the culinary offerings of Chicago’s lesser-airport. After we finished our circuit, I was still stuck on the fried chicken but my daughter was of another mind: “I want a hot dog, mama!” Now, I was tempted to give my daughter some serious side eye and a lecture about questionable life choices, but the hot dog stand had a long line, so maybe she was onto something. Plus, we have a family policy of not yucking each other’s yums.
The line for hot dogs was not only jammed with people but also littered in trash, which told me that it had been hopping all day. I started to think these were going to be quality dogs, which was good, because the line was moving slowly and I was becoming increasingly paranoid that my daughter was going to drop her new pillow into the ketchup/soda swill that was pooling around our feet. I stuffed my hand in my pocket to stop myself from grabbing the pillow out of her hands.
It was almost our turn to order when we heard an employee utter the worst words you can hear when you’re desperately trying to exchange money for services: “System’s down.” The workers immediately started bickering, taking our emotions on a wild ride. “We can’t take any more orders, let’s just close” one of them said, making my heart stop in my chest. “I say we start passing out free hot dogs,” said another, making my daughter and I look at each other with thinly-veiled glee. “Uh, why don’t we just tell them it’s cash only,” said someone who I now hate but who clearly deserves a promotion. “CASH ONLY,” she screamed. The line evaporated around us. Worried they would close shop, I told the employees I was going to get cash and ducked over to the ATM machine about fifty yards away. When I came back, clutching $60 in my hand, the line had reformed and was even longer than before. As we drew close to the counter for the second time, I heard the employees muttering with concern. “There’s only seven left.” I looked down at my daughter, confused. “Did you hear that? What do they mean? Seven what? Seven hot dogs?” Frantically, we started counting people in front of us. My daughter was number six in line, which meant we were good unless anybody was ordering more than a single dog, which at airport prices seemed like a fairly unreasonable thing to do. When we inched close enough that I could peek over the counter I saw rows and rows of hot dogs on the grill, enough to make me say, “huh.” That’s when the employees turned up the volume on the next customer who tried to step in line. “We’re CLOSED, sir!” Ah. Seven minutes left to serve hot dogs, not seven hot dogs left to serve a mass of hungry people. Unfortunately, the folks at the back of the line didn’t get the message and kept joining the queue. From our front row vantage point, I could see that the employees were exasperated, but resigned to the fact that they would be making hot dogs into eternity. Finally, it was our turn to order. “One Chicago dog, please.” I held up one finger. The woman taking my order looked at me skeptically. “Is that for you or the baby?” I looked down at my daughter, wondering what she was getting at. “Um, it’s for the baby?” “Okay. Does she want all the toppings? Poppy seeds, peppers, relish?” My daughter nodded her assent. “Yeah, she wants all the toppings.” The woman making the dogs looked impressed. “Damn. That’s a real Chicago baby.”
It took another ten minutes for our order to be ready and, while we waited, a sinking feeling set in. If the hot dog place was “closed,” the chicken place surely was, too. I prayed their hours’ enforcement was as lax. When we finally got our bag of food, all my daughter wanted to do was sit down and eat, but I dragged her back to the chicken place where we’d started our adventure an hour earlier. There, we were met by a stern-faced man in a business suit who looked exactly, but exactly like Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. He stood with his arms crossed communicating that he had zero intention of letting me slip past to join the line of people who would soon be eating delicious-looking airport fried chicken. Damn. The hot dog people could stand to learn a thing or two about line management from the chicken people. I gestured to the hot dog bag, explaining that we’d wanted to come earlier but got held up in line, but he had no sympathy. “There are plenty of other restaurants that are still open, ma’am.” “I know, but you’re the beeeessst,” I whined back. He stared back, unmoved and it dawned on me that I was being annoying and entitled. “You’re right. It’s not your fault. We’ll find something.” I was irritated and disappointed, perhaps unreasonably so, but I didn’t want to pass up a chance to model resilience so we moved on. I grabbed two seats at the next open restaurant, which turned out to be a crowded bar, and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, which turned out to be a cold deli meat sandwich. I thought seriously about ordering a beer, but didn’t. Instead I presented my daughter with her hot dog, we both tore off our masks, and dove in. Mediocre food never tasted so good.
When we finished our food, we found seats near our gate and hunkered down with a book (Upside-Down Magic; the Disney movie is very meh, but the books are great), which I had to shout-read so that she could hear me through my mask and over the din of the obscenely crowded terminal. I made us go to the bathroom probably three times before boarding the plane and each time I marveled at the freedom that comes with having a child who is old enough to go into a stall by themselves (though I did have to commandeer the Ramen pillow so she didn’t drop it on the bathroom floor).
On the plane, I tried to get my daughter to lay down on my lap and go to sleep–it was already 9:45 PM, almost two hours past her bedtime!–but was too wired with excitement. Giving into the adventure, I let her get a 7 Up from the drink cart; baby’s first soda. She slurped it down, drew pictures on the magna doodle her dad got her for the plane, and devoured an entire chapter book (Daisy Dreamer). About two hours into the flight, she became so tremendously exhausted that she consented to putting her head down in my lap. I unbuckled her seat belt, spread a shawl over her like a blanket, and bent down to whisper into her ear that she could take her mask off while she slept. “No, I can’t mama, it’s not allowed.” “I know, but I don’t mind.” When I pulled her mask off, I saw that her ears were rubbed raw and starting to split open. I saw that she had a sore on her chin. We were tucked into the window and middle seats in the very last row and the lights were dim. Her hair and my shawl covered most of her face. I felt no impulse to rationalize my choices, either as a passenger or a parent.
We landed close to midnight, though it felt two hours later coming from Chicago. We grabbed our bags and made our way to passenger pickup and waited for my mom to pull up in an unfamiliar car. I watched while she parked and climbed out to open the trunk. When I pointed her out, my daughter dropped her bags and sprinted. Almost like it wasn’t the middle of the night. Almost like she wasn’t more tired than she’s ever been. Exactly like she’d been waiting eighteen months to fall into her grandma’s arms.
It took us another hour to get to my parents’ house, where everybody was still awake, and another hour after that to properly greet all of the people and dogs. We didn’t get to bed until 2:30 AM, 4:30 central. The trip was every bit as long as I’d dreaded but we spent not one minute of it in misery. Traveling with kids, it turns out, is a lot like raising them: not at all easy, but remarkably satisfying and surprisingly fun.
Eight days later, we were on our way back to the Phoenix airport in my mom’s car. What were you expecting? To hear about the parts of the trip between airport visits? Sorry, this is not that kind of travelogue. My daughter begged to stay from the backseat while I snapped pictures of the desert. When we got to the airport, she started crying. She cried as she hugged my mom goodbye. She cried as she donned a fresh mash. She cried dragging her rolly suitcase through the airport. She cried while I checked us in. She cried clutching her crunchy ramen pillow. She cried pressing buttons on bleeping tamagotchi. Thank god the tears cleared up before we made it to security and raised any red flags with TSA. The food situation at the Phoenix airport was a million times better than at Midway. I made a beeline for Cartel Coffee Lab and stocked up on beans and merch. Next door we found tacos, which we ate on the floor while watching baby animal videos from my dad. The flight back was easier too. There was an extra seat in our row, so I gave my daughter the window again and took the aisle for myself. She buckled herself in and flipped through the safety literature until the plane started moving and then glued herself to the view during takeoff. She stayed that way long after the Phoenix lights faded to black, and when I leaned in to see what she was seeing I realized she was sobbing quietly. When the lights went off in the cabin, she didn’t even feign interest in staying up for the whole flight. Instead she curled her legs up on the seat, put her head in my lap, and went to sleep.
The real shit show started when we got back to Chicago. First we rolled around on the tarmac for a while. Then we stopped twenty feet out from the jetway and just…sat there. Then when the plane finally docked, the door got stuck. We sat some more. Then the flight attendants told us that the door to the cargo hold was stuck, so our bags might be delayed. Then when we were off the plane and waiting for our bags, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that Midway had been in a state of emergency–apparently of it’s own making–all day, and our bags wouldn’t be out for at least another hour. By this point, I’d been camped out on the floor with my kid for an hour reading one of those obnoxious My Weird School books. I should have been irritated. I should have been at my wit’s end, on my last nerve, snipping and snapping or at least zoning out on my phone. Instead, I was getting really into the book, doing voices and laughing out loud at all the jokes and entertaining every one of my daughter’s questions. Almost like it wasn’t the middle of the night. Almost like I wasn’t exhausted. Exactly like there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
Traveling is only tough for those of us who can’t handle it when the chicken place is closed or the bags are late, which is to say, traveling is only tough for people who’ve grown accustomed to controlling their environment and having what they want when they want it. If anybody else had been on that trip, I probably would have dumped all my frustration and exhaustion onto them, or I would have had to catch their heat. But my daughter just wanted to hang out. That’s all she ever wants, really, and at the airport I had nothing at all to do but enjoy her company.