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I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life. I’ve lived in 4 countries, visited countless others and spent the last 5 years as a touring stand-up comedian, telling jokes in a different town more than 45 weeks of every year. As you can imagine, I have a lot of travel horror stories. There was the snowstorm in Williston, North Dakota; or the time I was almost run over by my own car in a Walgreens parking lot (note to self: set your parking brake, you drive a stick shift). But nothing can prepare you for traveling with a baby.
Sure, some of the time it’s merely super annoying, with maybe a small blowout or non-stop crying during a 4-hour car ride. Rest assured, every new parent who thinks, like I did, “but my kid will be different,” there will come an experience so mortifying that it will make you consider quitting on the spot: quitting traveling, parenting, and perhaps life outside of your home altogether.
My experience came on a solo trip to Orlando with my then 10-month-old baby boy, Max. Max had spent the morning flirting with everyone in LaGuardia, playing peek-a-boo was his latest trick and he was on fire. Sweet grandpas, young pretty women, grouchy teens, busy flight attendants- if they looked his way, they were in on his game. I fed him breakfast before we boarded, and remember thinking as I gave him a bite of the pumpkin bread my husband had made that morning and a handful of blueberries that I was proud of what an adventurous eater he’d become (I think this is what they call foreshadowing?).
This was full on, frat-boy after a kegger vomit.
The plane sat on the runway for 30 minutes, as we waited for our turn in the long queue of planes. When I thought we were about to take off, I fed him a bottle to ward against his ears popping, diligently following the advice of the modern parent’s bible: The Local Facebook Parenting Group (praise be to the parent hive-mind). Max finished the bottle just as the captain announced we were ninth in line for take-off. Not wanting to defy the all-powerful Facebook Group, as the plane finally started to lift into the air, I dutifully put on the horrifyingly named Hooter Hider nursing cover and breastfed Max. Just as I was starting to feel pretty darn smug about protecting my precious spawn’s ears, Max looked up at me from under the cover, panic on his little face, and vomited all over everything.
When I say vomit, I don’t mean spit-up. Spit up is adorable, spit-up is inevitable, spit-up is what still covers the majority of the furniture in my house. This was full on, frat-boy after a kegger vomit. Tinted orange from the pumpkin bread, it covered both of us from the shoulders down, went in between the seats, stuck in the seatbelt cover. I saw whole blueberries rolling off and under my seat. It seemed like it would never stop. But then it did and Max smiled at me.
“Crap,” I thought, “I must have overfed him.” I may also have been blaming my husband, who was comfortably at home, for making what was obviously a poisonous pumpkin bread. Luckily, Max was still under the nursing cover, so without anyone knowing, I cleaned us and the surrounding area as discretely as I could, using over half a container of wipes, and then sealed everything in a Ziploc bag. Things were calm for the next few minutes while I waited for the plane to reach an altitude where we could get up and use the restroom. Max played peekaboo with a French lady behind us as I plotted how to grab a change of clothes from our carry-on.
As soon as I spotted a woman get up to go to the bathroom, I sprung into action. The diaper bag already over my shoulder, I reached up to grab my carry-on from the overhead bin, Max balanced on my hip (not an easy feat; he is a giant chunk of a baby).
The flight attendant approached us, saying, in his most bored flight attendant tone, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to sit down, there is someone else waiting for the restroom and you’ll need to wait your turn.”
“Oh,” I said, “He just…”
“Vomited” was what I was going to say, but before the word could leave my lips, Max decided to illustrate my point by leaning over and puking all down my back and all down the aisle. Then, just for emphasis, he then turned his head towards me and threw up down the front of my shirt. If I hadn’t been frozen from fear for Max’s health and the shock and shame that I was now THAT parent on the plane, I would have high-fived my baby for his excellent comedic timing. For a split second, I considered handing Max to the nice French lady behind me who surely knew would know better than I did how to take care of him and making my way to the nearest Exit Row.
To his credit, seeing tears welling in my eyes, the flight attendant swung from snotty superiority to helpful pity so quickly I snapped out of my panic. Getting my bag from the overhead, he whispered, “I’ve seen worse.”
“Really?” I asked, hopeful, spying 2 whole blueberries in my shirt pocket.
“Oh sure.” He said, unconvincingly. In that moment, I decided I needed to believe him more than I needed him to be telling the truth. I left the flight attendant cleaning the mess while I hurried Max and me into the tiny bathroom stall to change our clothes (of course, I’d grabbed a pair of too small pajamas, so had the extra challenge of getting the zipper up over his meaty baby thighs).
Despite being sausaged in spaceman PJs, Max, thoroughly exhausted, settled into my lap for a long nap, giving me time to think about what had just happened. I suddenly had a clear memory of a play date we’d had 3 days earlier where I’d offered the mom coffee and she’d refused, saying “my stomach is feeling a little off.” I knew then that Max had the dreaded stomach virus that’d been sweeping through New York City (and, within 4 days spread to me, my husband, my mom, brother, our nanny and her boyfriend, and probably the dozens of kids on that plane to Orlando just in time for Christmas). Weirdly, I was relieved. At least I knew the cause of this horror show.
But nothing can prepare you for traveling with a baby.
We made it through the rest of the flight with only a few additional minor purges, which I was now prepared for with a towel I’d tied around Max’s neck as if he was a hungry man gearing up for a messy lobster feast. It wasn’t until I passed a mirror as we made our way through the terminal to my mom’s car that I saw my backside was still completely covered. I started laughing like a crazy person, which made Max start laughing.
We stood there, him dangling in front of me in his carrier, Hangover-style, tears streaming down my face, looking at the mess reflected back at us in the mirror. Of all the things I’d worried about when I’d left for the airport that morning; getting through TSA in one piece, annoying fellow passengers with crying or squirming or general baby-ness, coating the plane with my baby’s breakfast wasn’t on my list.
But now it had happened; I’d had my singularly horrifying travel experience and I hadn’t quit (despite really, really wanting to). In that moment I felt like a super-parent. I’ve had a kid just long enough to know that any kind of confidence in your parenting is a rare and fleeting feeling and I was going to hold onto it for whatever the next humiliation parenthood has in store for me. And I did. I held on it long enough to look down at Max, filled with love for this tiny person, and for him to gaze back up at me and then grunt, pooping straight through his diaper and onto the only clean patch of shirt I had left. We may never leave the house again.
Sally Brooks is a writer and nationally touring stand-up comedian who lives in New York City with her patient husband and chunky toddler. She recorded her debut comedy album “Brooks Was Here” on the same night she got pregnant, making the tracks about never wanting children all the more funny in retrospect. Check out her website www.sallybrooks.com.