You’re brave. What does that even mean? How do I begin to unpack that? Maybe by starting at the beginning.
My little people really hadn’t been that bad. In fact, I had thought they’d been rather good given the littlest two are just twenty months and three years. Granted, I have seen them on some of their darkest days, the days where I contemplate repeatedly if they are purposely plotting my demise, both physical and mental. But that day was not one of those days. Travel days are rarely one of those days. But I don’t think that sentiment was shared by everyone.
The morning was nearly average, other than the fact that we slept at my in-laws’ house, so we were minutes from the airport. But this certainly wasn’t the first time we’d done this. And because of this, our day hadn’t started too early, perhaps an hour or two before the little peoples’ usual sun’s up-we’re up wake up time. But it was one of those mornings where when I crept into their darkened room, I caught them in the deepest of sleeps. Where my middle little cried because he was sure there was something wrong with him because it hurt so much to open his eyes. That they were “stuck.” Beyond this, though, it was average.
As we got to the airport and we rolled our bags into the bag drop I was glowing with the ease of our movements. We had managed to pack lightly for the trip (this has been my new travel obsession: fewer things to drag around). We checked two average size bags. My husband and I each had a backpack with some essentials and our two oldest had small wheeled bags with their essentials (you know, lovies, headphones, prized snuggly stuffed animals, crayons, a change of clothes, and a few surprises that Mommy packed and they didn’t even know about). Not bad for a family of five. It was one of the lightest loads we’d ever taken on a flight before, and I took (scratch that, I mean “take”) pride in that fact. It actually made me strut through the crowds, rocking my mom clothes and mom hair like I was about to hit the town after 9pm. But I wasn’t. It was just a four hour flight to Dominican Republic. At 9am.
After the argument was settled regarding who would sit by Mommy (see, even my little people were feeling how cool I was that morning), my middle little took his seat between myself and the window and my biggest little sat in front of him, with her own window and her daddy for company. The tiniest contentedly sat on my lap poking at my face. Then, for the biggest it was headphones on. And I saw her for a few little hand grabs over the course of the next four hours and that was it for her. No stranger to flights, long or short, she handles a plane better than most adults.
The middle little? Well, he’s still excited about planes and flying, so he was exuberant to say the least. And anyone who has flown from JFK airport knows that just because you are safely buckled into that seat does not mean that you will be in the air anytime soon. But finally, after waiting long enough for the middle little to ask me 852 times if we were about to take off, we finally did. He and the tiniest little, comfortably situated on my lap, giggled little boy squeals of delight as we rose higher and higher.
And then we dug into our secret stash of fun things to do. First it was a little puzzle, then some window clings (which were a giant hit both the flight to and the flight home). Next, we settled in for some snacks and apple juice. Then we hit the wall. The I’m-on-a-moving-plane-that-has-so-much-white-noise-and-I-got-up-a-bit-early-and-now-am-so-freakin’-tired wall. I saw him slipping, the whites of his eyes flashing more than the green of his iris. And like that, without a peep, he slumped over and fell fast asleep on my arm. For the rest of the flight.
And the tiniest one? He hit that same wall, so I, happily, handed him over to his daddy. (I claimed that I couldn’t hold him well enough to get him to sleep because of how the middle little was leaning on my arm…tricky mom trick, right?) After a few minutes, he too slipped into a sweaty pile of sleep upon his daddy’s shirt. And that is how he spent almost the rest of the flight.
One watched TV and colored. Another played quietly and slept. The third played with his brother’s iPad and fell asleep. This is why the words of this stranger strike me as so odd.
Happily off the plane and giddy with the humid air and promise of pools and beaches, our family made our way to the back of the long line of families, couples, singles, and groups of all ages and sizes waiting to get their coveted passport stamps allowing entry into the tropical folds of the DR. My littles made a game of sneaking under the edge of the rope at every switchback, giggling as they slid in front of their daddy and then fell behind just to do it again. They gave high fives to another little boy further behind us in line every time we wound passed him.
That’s when it happened.
She looked up from her phone. A young woman traveling alone. She stared at me and stated point blank, “You’re brave,” then nodded toward my beach-bound brood. My outside response was probably an awkward and forced smile (or grimace), but I can’t be certain. I only know the internal reaction: confusion. Gentle shock. As a lover of language, I understand the nuances of words. I know when to tell someone they’re determined when I really want to tell them they’re stubborn. And in that instant I took “brave” to mean “crazy,” “ignorant.” “Stupid” even.
As a traveling family my response, which I am not proud of, to these types of comments is always defensive. But, in my defense, we’ve met our fair share. There are the direct insults: as a family of four, we’ve climbed onto a plane only to have everyone around us ask to switch seats–before the plane door even shut. The glares. The actual strain-your-neck-so-you-can-stare glares. And then there are the insults masked as compliments: I’ve had countless taps on the shoulder after landing to have a stranger tell me that she had been so worried when she saw us board but my children were so well-behaved, beyond her expectations. I actually had a flight attendant tell me (after a flight from NYC to Sydney) that when I boarded the plane with my husband and one and half year old, she was dreading having us on board. But that my daughter ended up being a great flyer.
Oddly enough, it seems that the real insults always occur when my little people are being great travelers. It’s the anticipation of them falling apart and acting like the children they are that seems to anger people the most. Those moments of real meltdown (which thankfully usually occur just prior to them passing out from exhaustion) contain more pity than anger from strangers, at least when it is clear that, as a parent, I am working hard to contain the situation.
So, my gut instinct when told that I was “brave” for going on a trip with my children, was to feel defensive. What I wanted to say was that it wasn’t brave. There was nothing brave about it. My children, whether at home or traveling, don’t need a parent to be “brave” to be with them. They’re good kids. Great kids. The best. My mother bear wanted to come out. Claws. Fangs.
Thankfully, a man suddenly swept over to us as we hit another switchback in the winding line. He slid up the fabric rope keeping us all corralled and ushered my family through with a wave of his hand. He beckoned us to follow him and led us to the front of the room, to the front of the line of strangers, and bid us a friendly good bye. My husband’s eyes met my own as we both wondered how brave we seemed now. I wanted to walk back to her and ask her how it felt to still wait in line. A line that was now five people longer. This. This was karma. I was certain.
Or so I thought.
My biggest little, ever-listening (expect when I am asking her to put her shoes away or pick her clothes up), asked me why we were so upset by a woman telling us we were brave. I asked her if she knew what it meant to be brave. And, ever-wise, she told me that when you are afraid of something or doing something or think you can’t do something, you make yourself do it anyway, even when it’s scary or seems impossible.
And that’s when she set me straight. She told me I was being brave. That it isn’t that easy to take three little people on a plane. The middle little can get whiney and the tiniest can get wiggly. She can feel trapped and just want to move. And the hardest part is we can’t all sit together. But, she’d rather we split up into two rows than stay content and safe in our home.
She’d rather we split up to get there than stay safe in our home.
So I am brave. Even when I forget how scary it is to make these little travelers bent on knowing their place in the world rather than just their place in their own home.
I am brave. My little people are stretching beyond their limits. They are dipping toes in pools they’ve never dreamed of. I am brave. My little people are seeing a world that is as small as it is big. They are making friends in all the lines they stand in. I am brave. My little people are becoming people who will want to leave home. They are exploring new places. I am brave. My little people are understanding the possibilities that exist beyond themselves. They are starting to find their own way. I am brave. My little people are sitting on the plane with me today. But I am brave because I know this won’t always be so. And that this is one of the reasons we travel now. So they can be confident in themselves, in exploring, in leaving, and in coming back. I am brave because I know it will hurt, and I am still going to do it.
So that karma? I was wrong. It wasn’t bad. It was good. And it was mine.
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