Have you travelled on a plane with a baby for whom you are responsible? I have done it many times and my experiences have varied quite wildly. I have experienced an inexplicably painless long-haul flight with a seven month old and I have experienced inexplicably painful short domestic flights with the same child at different ages.
As is almost always the case in the arena of parenting small children, it is not always possible to predict with any certainty how any day or event will pan out. Your fate is in the hands – and lungs – of the baby in your care. Being organised and well-intentioned is no guarantee of a small person’s behaviour.
To the un-initiated, I know that might sound ludicrous. In theory babies should be malleable and behave the way a parent would like. In reality they aren’t and they don’t. It sounds dramatic but venturing out in public with a baby, a toddler, or both, carries a small risk. Tantrums, meltdowns and accidents can and will ensue in a shopping centre, a café, a car-park, a doctor’s waiting room, a plane. Basically anywhere. It is the stuff of nightmares for parents and non-parents alike but what’s the alternative? Stay indoors until all of your children reach the age of 5?
It’s not reasonable. Very few parents actually want their baby or toddler to be a public nuisance, but very few parents can lock themselves inside for years at a time. So they walk the tightrope of venturing out from time to time in between desperately attempting to cajole, coerce and coddle their children into “behaving” in a manner that is not entirely unbecoming to their fellow citizens.
The tightrope never feels more precarious than hopping on a plane with a baby strapped to one’s chest. It’s a confined space. You are surrounded by fellow citizens whom are rarely at such close proximity. There is no escape.
You have already navigated your way to the airport with the added pressure of requiring more equipment than ever before. You have presumably survived the rigmarole of checking in your baggage, folding your pram and navigating the security checks with all of your infant-related paraphernalia with no spare hands.
You have probably been juggling your baby’s feeding and sleep times around the journey to maximise their wellbeing, your sanity and the sanity of those destined to be around you for the next hour or so. You are doing your best. Chances are you were knackered even before you started your journey, so as you collapse into your seat, having survived the logistics to get you there, all you can probably muster the enthusiasm to pray for is a comfortable baby.
If you were getting carried away you might also pray for another set of hands, a cup of coffee and a word of encouragement from someone. Anyone! But, really, you’ll happily settle for a comfortable baby.
Which is why you really don’t want someone – anyone – telling you to stop feeding your baby during take-off. Yesterday it was reported that last month a mother was escorted off a Virgin Australia flight from the Gold Coast for failing to stop feeding her 10 month old baby as the plane taxied down the runway. Virgin Australia have released a statement saying the fact Virginie Rutgers was breastfeeding was not the issue, it was the baby sling in which she held the baby that prompted the action.
“Virgin Australia welcomes breastfeeding and bottle-feeding on board at any time during the flight, especially during take-off and landing when it can help prevent any ear discomfort felt by infants,” the airline’s statement reads. “When the seatbelt sign is illuminated, an infant must be restrained to its carer via the infant seatbelt only, which is provided by our crew.”
Rutgers told Seven News a cabin supervisor ‘started to raise his voice’ and became ‘quite abusive’. She refused to stop feeding because staff could not explain why the baby carrier was a safety hazard. And so the plane was turned back and police were called.
My heart sank reading it. I have had similar discussions with flight attendants when I have had a sleeping baby in a carrier. They must be strapped into the airline’s seatbelt. I get that. I don’t understand why that conversation had to escalate into an aggressive standoff whereby the plane was turned back.
But I know how it might have. Having flown solo with small children on more than one occasion, I have been struck by the absence of understanding on the part of airlines. The low point was when I had my own stroller “confiscated”. On checking in an attendant asked whether I would like to check my stroller in which I said I didn’t. I had brought it to transport my traveling companion who was two at the time through the terminal and to the gate. The lady at the check in said to go straight to the gate which we did.
But when we arrived at the gate the two attendants treated me and my contraband stroller with nothing less than disdain. There were eye-rolls and snide remarks, the subtext of which was clear. Who exactly did I think I was flaunting a frivolous accessory like a stroller?
This is who I thought I was. A mother traveling solo with a child too big for a Baby Bjorn, too heavy and wriggly to carry long distances and far too unruly to walk alone. A mother with a genius solution to the dilemma facing parents on solo missions with toddlers the whole world over: a stroller. A lightweight, travel-friendly, airport-ready, stroller! It’s hard to imagine a setting that requires a stroller more than a large airport terminal. And yet I was derided for bringing it.
Consequently the stroller never made it to our destination. I was told it had been “confiscated” because I had “refused” to check it in and consequently I would have to collect it at “my expense”. I was ropable.
That lack of understanding doesn’t happen often but it does happen and when it does it’s hard to take. It’s the same as when breastfeeding mothers are told to cover up and parents are told to keep their misbehaving kids out of cafes. As if women flaunt their mammaries purely for the discomfort of others, or prod their kids to squawk in cafes just to irritate you.
I can’t speak for every parent but honestly I don’t know many parents who don’t try and make life as comfortable and pleasant for themselves, their children and the people around them.
Would a little compassion and understanding from the people around them go astray? My guess is that if Virginie Rutgers had been offered a smidge more compassion or understanding, the plane wouldn’t have been turned around.