Dear Lady on the Plane,
We are just home from a little adventure down in the south of Italy. Maybe you are home now too. It was our first holiday abroad as a family of 5, and the very first time on a plane for our 3 year old twins; and that was where I met you, Lady on the Plane – on the flight over. You were sitting directly in front of one of my 3 year olds. I was sitting next to him, and the other two boys were sitting with daddy in the row behind me.
I thought we were doing ok, Lady on the Plane. The eldest boy, aged 5, was happily reading, and for the first part of the flight the littlest ones were flicking through books, magazines and sticker books. Then they started to get wriggly, and we had a tricky 15 minutes or so during which the 3 year olds both wanted to sit next to me. The boy sitting behind you, Lady on the Plane, got a bit carried away with his flip down table and window blind, and I was aware of his feet kicking into the back of your seat. Not deliberately kicking, but you know how you only get about 10cm of leg room on EasyJet – not ideal for a wriggly boy. I was conscious of it, though, and as we were gathering our things ready to get off the plane I was about to apologise. But then you turned around and said your piece:
I didn’t say anything at the time, but that was one of the worst flights I have ever had.
(“I’m so sorry”, I started to say, but you continued.)
And you need to know that you come across as really quite shouty – I think you should be aware of that.
Errrr, thank you?
We’ve all done it – I had three children, they would NEVER have behaved like that. I mean, you need to give them things to do, things to play with. I really think you ought to know all of this.
I don’t really remember what I said to all of that, Lady on the Plane. I couldn’t really think of any suitable response to your attack on my parenting, my children, and my voice in general. I think I must have muttered sorry, because I tend to apologise for everything; but all I wanted was to hide in a corner and have a good cry.
I was just so confused, Lady on the Plane, as to how you could have formed such strong opinions about me and my children when I didn’t even see your face until the end of the flight. I didn’t notice you looking round to see what we were all up to or what my children had to play with.
I must admit, I really didn’t think my terribly behaved children did too badly and I had wanted to leap to their defence until I realised that there was absolutely no point in having an argument on a plane. Did you have any idea, though, that my eldest boy did very little other than sit with a book and go to the toilet? And the three year old who sat with him didn’t do too badly either, apart from when he decided he wanted to sit next to mummy.
So when you said that none of your children would have behaved like my children, you actually meant that none of them would have behaved like the one child who happened to be sitting behind you and was tired and fussing and didn’t want to go to sleep.
How lovely that it all went so well for you and your children though – three as well, so obviously you know exactly what it’s like. Except I’m not sure you really do know what it’s like. Who knows how old your children were when you flew with them. Did you have multiples? I’m guessing not – firstly, because I think you would have been quick to mention it; and secondly, because I know that a multiple mum would have been more understanding and less judgmental in the same situation.
Multiples are a different matter, you see, Lady on the Plane. Do you have any idea what it is like having one child who always wants to do, hear and say exactly the same as his twin is doing, hearing and saying? Do you have any idea what it is like to never really be able to give either twin any proper attention because there is always another who needs something? I’m not sure you do have any idea, Lady on the Plane.
Thank you, though, for your helpful advice about how I could improve the behaviour of my children when on a flight. But when you said I should have brought more things for them to play with, I don’t think you understand how my 3 year olds play. They like to race around the house pretending to be people they know, or re-enacting their favourite C-Beebies shows. They like dressing up as pirates. They sing and leap and spin and then take a bow. They rarely sit down. I’m not saying they shouldn’t learn how to sit down – of course they should. But it’s not something that all 3 year olds find easy, particularly when they always have a twin on hand to distract them. So a plane, you see, just isn’t suited to their sort of ‘play’, regardless of how many toys I’d taken along for them.
Perhaps you were picturing them sitting down and colouring in or enjoying some Lego – I think, Lady on the Plane, I was actually doing you a favour by not bringing their entire collection of toys. You see, that is something else about my 3 year olds, or one of them in particular – whenever there are flip-down tables in sight, toys will be of little interest. Doors and light switches hold a similar fascination. This boy recently told me he’d like his next birthday cake to be a door. Or a light switch. More toys would just have meant more things falling off the flip-down table and subsequent hysterics about Lego on the floor. And believe me, that would have been even worse.
I will admit, though, that when planning for our holiday I probably didn’t give in-flight entertainment quite as much thought as I should have done. Partly because it was the first time we had flown with all three boys, and also because we were getting the house ready to be decorated while we were away. So there was a lot going on, you see, Lady on the Plane. They are always good boys in the car and I didn’t see that a plane would be much different. So yes, I should have thought it through more but even if I had, other than taking a couple of extra sticker books, I’m not too sure what else I would have done differently.
And as for my shouty voice, well I’m gutted to be honest. Because I know I can sometimes be a shouty mum – I hate it, and I’m the first to admit when it happens. Every night I go to bed wondering what I could have done better for my boys and how I could have reacted differently in certain situations. And up until you said your piece I had been feeling pleased with myself for remaining fairly calm. Yes, perhaps during the difficult 15 minutes when I had two 3 year olds climbing on me I could have been a fraction calmer, but otherwise I thought I’d done ok.
So, Lady on the Plane, I’m sorry we gave you such an uncomfortable journey. The fact is though, you left that plane irritated but otherwise feeling superior to me in every way. Because you turned it into a little contest – you had done it too, your children were much better behaved than mine (the implication being that this was down to you, of course). I’m sure you’ll be telling all your friends about the awful mum sitting behind you and how much better you coped when your children were small.
But you walked off that plane and left me feeling like the very worst mum in the world. I spent the next few days wondering exactly how badly behaved my children are. How many other people had wanted to say exactly the same thing to me in the past?
During our holiday, as my boys raced around squares and chomped their way through pizza, I wondered who else was looking at me and judging my boys and my parenting.
And then a few days into our trip we went on a tour of some caves – a two hour tour with three small boys. And they were GOOD BOYS, Lady on the Plane. They really were. You tried to make me doubt it, but in the end I decided not to believe you.
Our encounter did make me realise something, though; and it was this – that I never, ever want to make another mum feel as small and as utterly worthless as you made me feel at the end of that flight. That I will always remember how hard it is having small children, how there are some things that are difficult to control; and that reassuring, encouraging words not only help mums to feel better but also make us want to be better mums.
Sometimes it takes me a while to find my words, Lady on the Plane. But when I stood and nodded at you, muttering sorry and staring blankly; what I actually wanted to say was all of the above.