I’ve observed something that appears, in my limited research, to be universal when it comes to parents travelling in airports with young children. At first I thought it was sort of comical but, as I continued my covert airport watching operation, I began to see it as something much deeper.
The first time I noticed it, I had just arrived back to Canada after a 12-hour international flight. It was 6am local time and I was settled into an uncomfortable wooden chair with a hot coffee and my laptop. My eyes shifted to a woman walking by with two young children, each of her hands gripped tightly around theirs. The younger one whined of being tired; the older one (obviously the self-appointed mom helper) assured her they were almost there. The mom had a look most moms would recognize: somewhat of a mixture between tired, focused, trying to keep her shit together, hoping she’d get lucky and the kids would sleep the whole flight, and also imagining relaxing with the biggest drink possible when they arrived at their destination.
I wondered if the mom was bravely travelling alone with two children under the age of six at this horrendously early hour, but soon discovered there was a dad with them, though he was keeping his distance from the tired toddler and its tantrum threatening to explode at any moment. I was about to return my attention to my laptop when the tiny toddler’s legs gave out from under her and she promptly sat down, causing a slight domino effect thanks in part to the death grip the mom had on the child’s hand. Caught off guard by the sudden pulling down on her hand, the mom crashed into her older child, causing her to stumble and drop her cartoon covered suitcase. Both kids, of course, blamed their mother for the mess while the mom glared in the direction of the dad. He glanced back just in time to see his family huddled on the floor, the mom already exhausted after 30 seconds of attempting to console the child she stepped on while simultaneously scolding the one who actually caused the mini airport pile-up. I overheard a threat of not getting to go on the plane if the tired child didn’t quit her whining, and I’m not here to judge anyone’s parenting because this shit is harder than hard, but I winced with the knowledge that was an empty threat and wished for the mom’s sake she had chosen a more viable action to take if the toddler did not get up and continue walking. But I also know how difficult it is to be rational at 6am, never mind 6am in an airport with two little people unknowingly causing extra stress.
When the dad got to his family in a heap on the floor, he calmly stated they didn’t have time for meltdowns, picked up the toddler with the tired legs, and walked off with her in his arms. The mom and older daughter stood, dusted themselves off, and silently followed behind, hand-in-less-tightly-gripped-hand.
Not long after witnessing this scene, I noticed another young child travelling with his dad. This child looked to be about three or four, dragging a small suitcase behind him and wearing one of those cute little animal shaped backpacks. The dad walked ahead, reading every sign that would lead them to their gate while the little boy lagged, immersed in the adventure land of a toddler’s mind, chatting to himself as he kept one eye on his dad and stayed close enough to not lose him.
Later, another dad with two kids walked by, and although the ages and the suitcases were different, it was the same basic thing. The dad walked ahead looking for their gate, the kids trailed behind trying to keep up.
It seems typical that moms are the ones to make sure they have everyone with them, not letting go of their kid’s hands, handling the mini tantrums along the way while the dads focus on finding where they need to go. And as I contemplated this truth, I also wondered: why is that? Is it because moms worry more about the unknowns? Or because we feel a heavier sense of responsibility to our kids thanks to some serious society-imposed mom-guilt? Do moms just think we have to hold our kid’s hands and make sure they are fed and clothed in matching outfits and pack all 15 of their bathing suits before heading out on vacation but really none of that is necessary? And, whatever the reason, why do dads typically lack that same concern for hyper-travel planning?
For every airport I’ve been in since that day, I have seen the same thing over and over again. And each time I marvel at how the dads are able to just walk through an airport without constantly making sure their kids are keeping up; they seem to simply trust they will. And each time my heart goes out to the mom trying to keep her shit together, feeling under appreciated and probably (let’s be honest here) dreaming of vacationing alone.
Women often talk about how they take care of all the details. Schedules are set, lunches are packed, kids are fed, bathed, and gone to bed on time. Wait, did they have a bath today or yesterday? Did they eat breakfast? Did they brush their teeth? As the kids get older the questions change but it remains the mom asking them. Did they finish their homework before going out? Are they ready for the school dance? Who is picking them up from practice?
And, as the moms continue to ask the questions and pack the bags and handle the schedules the dads sit back with a cold beer and, in the most lovingly confused tone they can manage, ask, “Why do you care so much?”
Why do we care so much?
Is there something that happens between conception and giving birth that makes us feel we are the only ones capable of making sure our kids are fed and clean and getting enough sleep? If we stopped asking questions and over-preparing for things, would our kids figure things out on their own sooner? Or would they be wandering around the airport scared, alone, dirty, and unfed until someone found them and made an announcement for the bad mom who forgot to pack sunblock and left her child unattended to please come to the customer service desk?
In my own house, my kid has been very fortunate to have a dad who is equally involved in her life as her mom, even if I still keep track of everything and have to constantly remind both of them to look in the calendar themselves rather than ask me what time dance starts. And it’s true the dad involvement overall is certainly much higher than it was 50 years ago.
Maybe we need to start questioning why Airport Dad feels okay to walk ahead of his family and find the gate, leaving Airport Mom to deal with the toddler tantrums behind him. And then ask ourselves if we can let tasks be handled by our kids rather than taking on the responsibility of doing it all ourselves. Why can’t our kids pack their own suitcases? Even if we have to make a list for them to follow or monitor their packing at first, or if we really don’t trust them go through their suitcase while they are sleeping to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything. At least they’d be helping to alleviate some of the travel stress (until they realized they forgot their toothbrush, or worse, bathing suit on a week-long beach vacation!)
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting we moms collectively quit giving a shit about our kids. Nor am I suggesting that dads don’t give a shit. But I am wondering if we spent less time worrying about packing sunblock and more time focused on finding our gate, would we feel less stress in those moments? Or would our mom guilt sink to new levels of despair because we’d be constantly worried we are not providing for our children at our own expense?
Isn’t that the kicker? Mom guilt is steeped in the tradition that we’re supposed to sacrifice ourselves for our children, which is historically the burden placed only on the mother. And whether we’re perpetuating that stereotype ourselves or we’re feeling an external pressure to continue it, the fact remains that in the majority of families equality is still largely not felt in the parental relationship.
Because, the truth is, while moms can handle everything, it doesn’t mean we should. And, either way, that tired Airport Mom deserves to have a big-ass drink waiting for her at the other end of her flight.