I have just survived a long haul flight with my three children. This is no mean feat and to emerge unscathed and still willing to venture further than five miles from your home ever again is worthy of a gold parenting star.
Flying pre-children was a much under-appreciated pleasure: a little solo packing, an amble around the airport shops, perhaps a little light dinner with a first holiday glass of wine and then a leisurely stroll to the gate.
Flying with three children is a completely different experience: packing takes the best part of a week, a frantic shop-athon at the airport, buying things you couldn't possibly ever need on a week away before a hectic dash for the gate, laden down with numerous bags which your children have refused to carry for themselves, dodging people who insist on standing still on moving travelators, apologising profusely to everyone you whack with your bags, all the while bellowing at the children to "calm down". That's the reality of travelling with children.
One of the key parenting skills required for travel with children is the ability to resolve the complex issue of what to take in your hand luggage. Packing hand luggage is not for the faint-hearted, tough decisions have to be made with far-reaching ramifications if a mistake is made. There are so many things to factor in - child being hot, child being cold, child spilling drink all over him and the one that makes all parents shudder - child being sick. Not forgetting, of course, the "will it or won't it arrive" luggage lottery at the baggage carousel which adds a most unwelcome frisson to your arrival. So there is nothing for it except to pack, in your hand luggage, clothing for all eventualities from arctic temperatures to tropical sunshine and the complete replacement outfit for the dreaded "sick" possibility. Add in games, books and enough Calpol to medicate an entire children's hospital for a month and you are most definitely not travelling light.
Of course you not only have to pack all this stuff but you have to carry it too - children only carry their own hand luggage for a maximum of five minutes in my experience before the whinging and complaining start. Inevitably, all parents end up as the proverbial pack horse, bent double, wearing at least three of those neck pilllow things, staggering along whilst smug people without children saunter past, jauntily swinging their one little bag in one little hand.
By the time I arrive at the gate, I am so frazzled that I am starting to hallucinate about getting my hands on one (or five) of those lukewarm, mini bottle, pathetic excuses for white wine that you only get on planes. All promises to myself that on this flight I will just sip on water and do foot exercises have completely gone out of the window - I am slipping swiftly into survival mode and if that means self-medication then so be it.
The first 10 minutes on the plane are spent apologising to other passengers - apologising for bashing them with your two tons of hand luggage as you negotiate the way-too-narrow aisle, apologising to your neighbour for his misfortune in getting your family as his co-passengers, apologising in advance for all the noise, mess and general irritation that being in the vicinity of your children might cause fellow passengers and apologising to the person sitting in the aisle seat for the number of times you are going to have to climb over them during the flight. The only positive about flying with children is that you do not experience that feeling of dread which others without children feel as they enter the plane and move up the aisle, craning their necks, praying fervently, trying to work out where their seats are and whether they are sitting next to or near wailing children. Parents do not have this concern as they are always sitting next to or near wailing children - their own.
Next up is the safety video. I have to watch this even though I could probably tell you verbatim what it says. I am a veritable expert on passing life jacket strings around my waist and tying them in a bow on the side, securing my own oxygen mask (breathing normally) before those of my children, removing my high heels (as if I travel in those?!) before sliding down the emergency chute and don't forget that woeful little whistle which apparently could be a lifesaver if you were to come down in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Call it superstition but I have to watch it although travelling with children will inevitably mean that I am multi-tasking whilst watching - usually unravelling a tangle of seatbelts and telling one or more children that they will just have to wait to go to the loo. Yes, despite ample opportunity to visit numerous bathroom facilities en route to the plane, my children only ever want to go precisely when they are not allowed to.
So off we go. Normal service is resumed - that is, my son is the only one on the entire plane whose entertainment system does not work, none of the food which you want to eat is available by the time you get served and turbulence always starts the minute I get up from my seat to go to the bathroom. However, once the children are plugged into some electronic babysitting device and I have downed the contents of a couple of those nasty white wine bottles, I have time to reflect - travelling with children is not that bad really is it? Then my youngest starts, "Are we nearly there yet?" - only 11 hours to go...