During a trip home for Christmas last year, I brought my one-year-old daughter, who had just learned to walk. The trip was a pointed reminder of why I should swear off travel with babies, but also of the joy that random acts of kindness can bring.
Our journey began at 4am with a sandy-eyed drive to the Boston Logan airport. Because I’m cheap and $25 luggage fees make my toes curl, I opted to carry our four bags on the plane.
I must have been a sight to see slogging through the airport with a heavy pack strapped to my back, man-handling a stroller that kept veering left and an overstuffed diaper bag spilling sippy cups and small toys. Fellow travelers cast sympathetic looks. TSA employees cringed when they saw us coming.
Recently separated from my husband, I was still getting used to the whole single mom business.
Jealousy prickled when couples passed sharing the burden of children, luggage and strollers. Nothing like a bustling airport of families traveling for the holidays to make you feel swallowed by loneliness.
I searched in vain for another mother struggling with an erratic stroller, and finding none, grit my teeth and trudged onward.
When we finally boarded the plane to Raleigh-Durham, I flung myself, exhausted, into the seat, hoping that the early hours and hum of a moving plane would lull my daughter to sleep. Ah, the dreams of fools.
My daughter is a sweet thing, but she’s – how shall I put this – energetic. No sitting quietly in the seat for her, no ma’am. We spent the entire plane ride in flagrant disobedience to the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ signs while she bobbed up and down in the tiny aisle offering her sippy cup to the sleeping bodies and squeaking in frustration when she didn’t get any takers.
I rushed to grab her when the plane pitched so she wouldn’t careen into the metal arm rests. When she bored of the passengers, she tangled herself in the legs of the flight attendants. I groveled apologies, but there was no need. The attendants cooed and offered her treats only available to first class passengers. I guess it helps to be cute.
After a two-hour flight we exited the plane, the baby with a contented belly and I with sweat-crusted clothes. I had just loaded myself with luggage again when a middle-aged woman approached.
“Can I help you with your bags?” she asked with a kind smile. “I have kids too. They’re grown now, but I remember this age.”
I accepted gratefully (travel warnings be damned!) and we walked and chatted about the trials of air travel with children. Before long she had dropped me at the curb with some parting advice.
“Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it,” she said. “There are plenty of people here who have been in your shoes and would lend a hand.”
After she left I thought for a moment. Traveling as a single parent with kids can be miserable, but there is a flip side. The worse your woes, the more you attract random acts of kindness from strangers.
Take a few months ago, on a trip plagued by delayed flights, hurried gate changes and lost luggage. I was sitting on a bus to the next terminal with baby and bags crowding my lap when a woman coughed in front of me.
“Ahem,” she said, pointing to my mid-section. “Looks like you need some help.”
I looked down and blushed. Let’s just say that after several hours plugging the baby with a milk bottle to keep her quiet and neglecting her diaper, the cup had runneth over. The woman was kind enough to accompany me to the bathroom and hold the baby while I changed clothes. Then she carried my bags to the gate.
My favorite act of kindness took place on a flight squeezed next to a man with an abundance of arm hair. I attempted to distract the baby with snacks and toys, but those curly strands proved irresistible and she pivoted towards them like a sunflower to light. Luckily, our furry seatmate was flattered by her interest.
He spent the flight playing peek-a-boo and indulging her curiosity by allowing her to tug, tussle – and to my horror – even taste his arm hair.
Afterwards, he thanked me for a wonderful time. Go figure.
When I think back on my travels without a child, I recall headphones plugged into my ears or nose tucked into a book with nary a glance at fellow passengers. But with a baby, I interact. Strangers reminisce about their own parenting experiences. Flight attendants forgive my daughter’s dogged determinedness to trip them. I share moments of understanding and sympathy with other luggage-strapped mothers as they lumber past. The airport is no longer a sterile portal to pass through, but part of the journey, carving the indelible prints of its own experiences.
So next time you see a single mom, consider lending a hand. Who knows, you might become one of her most cherished travel memories.
Author Bio: An avid traveler, Tessie Swope has visited 27 countries and draws from these experiences to write on humor, travel, relationships, social justice and other topics that compel her to pick up a pen. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and is working on a memoir about the time she (didn’t) solve world poverty. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and manages a blog (www.tessieswope.com) about finding happiness and meaning in hard times.