I was flying alone. “I can do this,” I told myself, as I moved to the bathroom through an obstacle course of elbows and dozing heads. “I am a successful, multitasking professional.”
As I opened the door to the lavatory, that tiny space I’d visited hundreds of times as a child-free business traveler, I looked for something I’d never bothered to check for: the changing table.
Of course there would be one, right? This was a three-hour flight. Babies on planes are a cliche — like snakes, only louder and smellier.
“We don’t have one on this plane. It’s an older model,” the flight attendant explained. A sign next to her head read, “Wi-Fi on this aircraft.” I wondered if she knew that babies preceded the invention of the airplane and the Internet.
“Why don’t you change her in your seat?” she asked.
“I’m by myself. I’m a new mom. I don’t know how to do that,” I said, feeling my chest tighten. I could only imagine the collateral damage to the hapless guy in the window seat during a No. 2 emergency.
“Why don’t you change her on the toilet?” she tried again.
The toilet? I began wondering who would play me in the Lifetime movie about the flight from Connecticut that hit severe turbulence while the newborn dangled off the toilet and her mother flailed (working title: “Not Without My Diaper”). Finally, the flight attendant relented and let me change my daughter on the galley floor.
On the return flight, one of her surlier colleagues refused me the same “privilege.” She said it wasn’t allowed — and asked me to tattle on the maverick flight attendant who’d helped me out earlier. I refused to talk. Meanwhile, my daughter rode out the rest of the flight in her dirty diaper. I was too scared to do anything else.
Thirty thousand feet up, I was learning that air travel is one of the most inhospitable experiences for mothers with small children, especially moms who travel for work. Gone are the days when I would stride onto a plane in heels, with headphones and a cute handbag, en route to speaking engagements around the country to advise parents on how to raise more assertive daughters. As an author and educator, I flew several times a month before I became a mother. Today, as I have cut back on my work travel, the frequent-flier perks that would make my life easier as a traveling mom have evaporated.
Now, after I chide my audiences of helicopter parents to stop worrying about their girls’ every social hiccup, I return to an airplane that pretends my kid doesn’t exist. While I tell parents to model assertive behavior — such as sending back food in a restaurant or sharing feelings about something that matters to them — that may embarrass their self-conscious daughters, making a scene that resembles a Jackson Pollock creation in a middle seat on Flight 3462 is not what I had in mind.