Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

Being a Mother’s Helper, to a Fellow Mom

By Karen Dempsey

0-30Brennan, Liddy and I sat by the gate, waiting for our flight to board. Holding sections of newspaper in front of them, they took turns reading aloud from fake articles on subjects like poop and exploding toilets, sending each other into fits of laughter.

The airport speakers rasped out: “Standby passenger [indecipherable name].” A few rows down, an adult-sized head of erratic blonde curls bounced up, followed by a chubby-cheeked miniature version of the same person.

“Okay, Isabel. They need us one more time,” the mom said to the little girl. She stood up to reveal a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest and struggled to maneuver a floppy baby boy into the arm- and leg-holes.

An airline staffer looked on from the check-in desk, radiating impatience.

“This will just take one second, Isabel,” the mom said. “Just. One second.”

“His leg is stuck,” an older woman called out unhelpfully, her own arms folded across her chest.

I recognized the desperate look on Isabel’s mom. She was me, seven years before. I stepped toward her as she worked the baby’s errant foot down through the carrier hole. “I’ll watch the bags,” I said in a low voice, in violation of all those warnings posted around the airport.

She took me in with a grateful glance and mouthed, “Thank you.”

At ages seven and nine, my kids are just recently easy — even pleasant — when it comes to airline travel. And nothing makes that clearer than seeing another parent perform the juggling act I struggled with for so long.

The call to begin boarding came just as Isabel’s mom began nursing her baby. She stopped, he cried, and Isabel squirmed under a row of seats and refused to come out. The mom piled the two suitcases on top of her stroller and began negotiating with Isabel.

I reached for the stroller. “I can wheel this down.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said breathlessly, tugging Isabel out by an ankle.

But my hand was already on the bags. Brennan and Liddy were lined up with our bags and the other passengers had already boarded. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’ll leave it on the jetway.”

She didn’t say anything as I walked ahead and I instantly knew I’d overstepped — inserted myself into her situation and probably made her feel worse. She’d said they were fine. Why hadn’t I let it go?

On the plane, Brennan and Liddy settled into a pair of seats across the aisle from me, pulled on their headphones and plugged into a movie. I looked at them — frightfully independent and funny, so much of the time now, and wished I could travel back in time to my early days as a mom and give myself a preview of moments like this.

I was still flustered about whether I’d crossed a line with Isabel’s mom. She would have figured it out. We all do. And I’ve had my share of “well-meaning” strangers interfere, like the librarian who warned three-year-old Brennan he looked cuter without his pacifier, and the woman on the beach who tried to distract Liddy out of a tantrum and made everything much worse.

But I thought back to the stress of boarding a plane alone with tiny Liddy and toddler Brennan, and the relief I felt the time a stranger took the infant carrier from my hands and deftly installed into the seat for me. He had a three-week-old at home, he explained. He was actually a pilot for the airline, “catching a ride home to see her.”

I remembered other moments when someone offered a small gesture that made a difference. When I was hugely pregnant with Liddy, I was struggling to collapse Brennan’s stroller on busy Mass. Ave in Boston, and a woman pulled over, hopped out of her car, and folded it up for me. “I just couldn’t keep driving,” she said, gesturing at my belly, with a huge smile. “Good luck!” And there was the time Brennan and I took the subway and got swallowed up in the crowds headed to Opening Day at Fenway Park. The stroller wheel caught in the door to the subway car, and a group of young guys in Red Sox gear wrenched it free for me, then ran onto the train whooping and cheering in triumph.

My reverie was suddenly interrupted. Two little stocking feet dangled in front of me.

“Sorry-can-you-take-him-I-have-to-get-Izzy-to-the-bathroom!” Isabel’s mom was behind my seat, literally dropping her baby in my lap in a deft move that only a parent can pull off — when she has someone on the other end who gets it. She must have scoured the rows for me when she realized she needed her arms free.

I cradled that still-sniffling little guy in my lap — the tiny flapping arms, the giant crocodile tears, and smiled. “Okay little man. You’re right here in my arms,” I said, and heard echoes, again, of myself years before, comforting my own tiny kiddos.

I looked over at Brennan and Liddy. They were completely oblivious.

“Are you having a tough flight, little man?” I asked the stranger baby. “Are you happy to be going home?”

In another five minutes, Isabel’s mom was back, still looking completely frazzled. But grinning. And here too was an expression I could interpret. Relief. (They must have gotten to the bathroom in time.) Pride. (They got to the bathroom in time!) Disbelief. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time.) And gratitude. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time!)

“Thank you,” she said simply. “So much.”

I was still smiling when Brennan, Liddy and I made our way through the airport to the baggage claim.

“Did you guys see that I got to hold that tiny baby?”

“What baby?”

“The woman from the airport?” I began. “We took her stroller onto the plane…?”

“You took her stroller onto the plane?” Brennan exchanged a glance with Liddy, confirming again their shared world view that adults, especially parents, are crazy.

I laughed at their expressions. Never mind, I thought. You kind of had to be there.

Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Extreme Family Flying

Extreme Family Flying

By Rebecca Martin

Extreme Flying ArtI recognized the woman approaching me in the baggage claim in Los Angeles from when I’d seen her six and a half hours earlier in the terminal in New York. Back in New York she had glided through the crowd to the Business Class line, a tall exotic model-looking type, with a dark curly halo of hair and a slight glossed pout hanging below monster-sized black sunglasses. She looked perfectly composed, even with the small infant hanging off her front from a baby carrier. Beside her was a daughter of about four pulling her own suitcase and behind her a pack mule of a husband pushing a stroller with a baby carrier and carrying four or five carry-on bags covered in designer initials. Six hours later, she still had on her shades, but instead of looking chic and serene, she looked disheveled and weary.

“Did you do this yourself?” she asked me, pointing at my children. “Oh, yeah,” I said, downplaying it. Then she turned to her husband, still laden in designer bags, and said, “she flew from New York with three kids by herself!” She then turned back to me and added, “You’re amazing!” “Oh, thank you,” I said, and then looking down at my five-year old, Johnny, holding my hand and at Maeve, three, and James, one in the stroller, I added, “but, these guys were really good” as if they deserved any credit. It is a response I have rehearsed to give a sense of humility, because I hear that I am amazing for flying solo cross-country with three kids all of the time and what I really want to say is, “Yep, I am pretty incredible.”

I don’t do much else that is dazzling, like run marathons or scale mountains, but three times a year I fly with my three children from Connecticut, where I live, to California, where I grew up and my parents still live. I am an average person, until you see me at airport security. In one motion, I can remove three pairs of crocs and my own shoes, pull my electrical devices from the one bag I am carrying, place the bag on the belt, and collapse my double stroller. It is a move worthy of an instant replay. It should be named after me. I so relish this ability and the others that get me through the six hour trip, that flying with three children has sort of become my extreme sport—complete with rigorous judging. I secretly score other people I see flying, shaking my head and deducting points at solo adults who fill four bins at the security belt or parents who pack multiple bags but cannot produce a wipe on demand.

I award myself points for not needing the assistance of others—not that we are often offered much assistance. To other passengers just the sight of me so outnumbered in the terminal seems to foretell imminent disaster. As we wait and James engages in his usual pre-boarding sprints across the waiting area, chubby arms flapping at his sides, I have noticed people gesturing toward us nervously and whispering. I imagine they are saying, “Yikes! That child does not look like he could sit still for five minutes!” or “I hope we don’t get stuck sitting near them,” or, “that mother must be insane.” But there are the rare good Samaritans—they are always grandmothers, who express their fear that their own children might be stuck in my position one day—and once or twice my bladder has forced me to accept one of their offers to hold a baby for a moment.

I don’t have to fly without help. I have a husband and parents who can occasionally fly with me, but I would have to make the trip less often. Besides, help is not always what one would hope. “Was I supposed to be watching him?” My Dad said to me after James took a header into the aisle. My husband has been known to enjoy the onboard film. Once, when James was just three months old, I took a babysitter: it was heaven, but that is a luxury I cannot afford. Besides, flying without her, is like working without a net—there’s the exhilaration factor. It’s like my Everest, but how many people do that six times? And I do enjoy the praise that it inspires from other people. I may not be the mom who hosts the best play dates or be president of the PTA, but I can fly.

I engage in no doping—for myself or the kids. We fly chardonnay and Benadryl free. I cannot risk slowing my reaction time—my daughter Maeve can wiggle to the floor and dart down the aisle in a split second—and I have heard that a kid could have the unintended response to an antihistamine and end up jumping her way across country. Also, I need to be at my sharpest; my mastery lies in my recall of the location of all of the family restrooms in JFK and LAX, being able to easily grab hold of the two fully charged DVD players and three sippy cups in my single carry-on bag and to pick up matchbox cars with my toes. I am not saying that things always go smoothly on the flight, but they have never been so tragic that I have had to drown my sorrows.

When things get hairy and I am pulling a screaming child up from beneath the seat in front of us or holding someone’s legs still to keep them from kicking the chair in front of them for the hundredth time, I do as any sports psychologist would recommend, and use mental imagery to keep me going. I go to India, where I have never been, and not to some ashram where I meditate myself out of my body, but rather to an image of traveling third class across India with all of my children. I have even looked it up. The train trip from Mumbai to New Delhi is over 16 hours. If the mothers of India can endure that, then I can make it to LA in Economy Plus.

And in my favor, as always in motherhood, is that I have no choice but to go on and that, like all experiences with my children, when I look back on the trip the time seems short. I wonder if other endurance athletes feel the same way.

Of course, I do not really fly with my three kids for the feeling of pride I take in being able to do it, nor do I need to outdo myself. I have no plans to attempt a solo transoceanic flight—the equivalent of a quadruple axle. I just want to get to California, where I am able to collapse into the bed my mother makes for me. With the time change, I wake up at dawn. This last trip, the June Gloom slowly receded from the beginnings of mountains outside the window. The lushness of winter that can make the hills of Southern California look like piles of moss was already drying out to reveal the scattered cactus and the prickly leaves of Live Oak that reach up from narrow canyons. It was worth the trip. I love Connecticut, but this is my landscape and I want my children to know it, I thought and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I did not have to get back on a plane for two weeks.

Author’s Note: I waste an inordinate amount of time feeling like a pretty shabby parent. Even when I suspect I have done good, I immediately refer myself to my most recent mothering snafu, be it forgetting that the bus comes home early on teacher conference days or overcooking the nut-free spider cookies for the school Halloween party. But so many people are really in awe of my ability to put myself in a difficult situation from which there is no escape, i.e., boarding a plane with three children, that I decided to let myself enjoy this small triumph and ponder just what makes me so fantastic.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in, Literary Mama, StepMom and She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.