Travelling with kids is unavoidable when living abroad. I've braved over a decade's worth of flights back and forth to the UK with one, two and now three wriggly little bodies. My toddler has already been on more than 20 flights. By his age I'd been to Scarborough in the back of a Ford Cortina.
Since having number three I've had to take several flights with all of them sans husband. I did it once out of necessity so for some insane reason he now thinks this is the norm. It most definitely is not. In between being deposited at Geneva's Kiss & Fly (a.k.a. Kiss & Run for him and Kiss & Cry for me) to landing at the other end I don't take a single breath. I'm anticipating disaster at every corner.
The flight itself isn't actually the hardest part for me. It's the effort involved in getting to the gate that makes me lose the will to live. The faff of negotiating all the gear along with the likelihood of losing a small child on route sends my cortisol levels soaring.
Last summer I naively booked an evening flight on my own with all three kids, the smallest being only a few months old. My mum had been taken to hospital so I was already on edge, but when I saw the giant snake at security I nearly dived for the exit. Not wanting to be defeated I wrestled through the crowds only to be shot down by a jobsworth at the scanning machine. Collapsing a buggy one-handedly, throwing it on the belt while stopping a four year old running through the beeper is no mean feat. So when she accused me of pushing the bags in front I exploded. Note, when someone is stressed telling them in a patronising voice that they can see you are stressed might just tip them over the edge. Facing a confrontation my French naturally failed me, so I did what I do best in these situations and cried. The kids thinking I was laughing, laughed. And all was witnessed by 200 gawping strangers in the line (though Geneva is a scarily small world). Later I could have hugged the Liverpudlian stewardess who offered to unscrew my mini bottle of wine. The baby had finally given in and the other two were engrossed in their iPad. And breathe...
Before I put you off ever flying again, I have had many a successful flight too. I was once grounded for three solid hours with my first. When the pilot announced this so-called minor inconvenience I started to hyperventilate, but in the end the baby slept for the entire time and I read half a book!
So here are some of the lessons I have learned from my flying highs and lows:
1. Take full advantage of the newborn stage. Yes you'll have more gear but babies are usually a dream to fly with. If you disagree, you haven't got to toddlerdom yet. Boob or bottle plus white noise at full pelt equals a baby's idea of heaven. I found the Ergobaby carrier ideal for transporting little ones. It has pockets for passports and phones so you don't have empty out the entire contents of your bottomless nappy bag.
2. Think about timing. Unless it's longhaul choose morning or over lunch when you can stuff them full of food or milk then hopefully they'll pass out for a bit. A muslin or thin scarf is handy to block out the light or keep little ones cosy so they'll drop off.
3. Be gutsy. If you're flying solo with kids find an approachable looking couple and ask if you could nip to the front of the queue. Always ask security if you can jump ahead too (though be wary of jobsworths!). Just pull your best I'm helpless and frazzled look; it won't be hard. They can only say no. Don't be afraid to ask for help during the flight. I was once rocking the newborn at the front when the four year old came running down the aisle announcing to the entire flight that he needed a poo NOW. I swiftly scanned around for the nearest kind face and stuffed the baby in the arms of a befuddled business man. It helped that he was good-looking. I literally have no shame these days.
4. Preparation is key. Aside from the obvious items such a gazillion wipes and a change of clothes, the things I've found useful over the years are - dummy clips, sticker books, kids' magazines and toy cars or planes. LittleLife backpacks with reins are great for tearaway toddlers. I was also seduced by the Trunki cases but after my kids took out several old dears at Manchester airport I was ready to swing them out of the plane window!
5. Take snacks, snacks and more snacks. Raisins, crackers, croissants, chocolate buttons, jelly sweets - choose survival over morals. Have something in every bag and pocket so you don't have to route around in a panic when dealing with ear pain on the descent and realise everything is overhead.
6. Occupy them with new entertainment. A friend once gave me a bag full of little wrapped up gifts for a flight so that I could pull one out every time a tantrum was brewing. A genius idea for a long trip. They can be simple gifts like crayons and card games but the excitement of unwrapping works wonders. It goes without saying that iPads are a gift from God on a flight. Download new programmes and apps to keep them transfixed. We like the Eggy and Tux Paint apps for our older two.
7. Don't forget to pack a thick skin. This is vital. Recently the husband failed to check us in early so I found myself wedged in between an unimpressed youth and a woman who was severely allergic to children. Now I realise it's no holiday being sat next to a bawling baby, I've been there, but the look of utter disgust this woman gave me when my one year old touched her arm was astonishing. She physically winced. The mother-of-one me would have apologised and stressed for the entire journey, but the mother-of-three me purposely leaned him in her direction just to watch the pain on her face. It was joyful. If you do get any rude comments or tuts rise above it and remember you'll probably never see these people again in your life.
Finally, if all else fails and you're faced with the mother of all meltdowns just remember there will be an end. On my last solo schlep, after a particularly turbulent flight that had nothing to do with rising air, I stumbled through arrivals pushing a trolley piled high with luggage and carseats in one hand and a buggy with the toddler in the other. The bigger kids were dangling off the trolley, veering it off course. Harassed is an understatement. But, as I burst through the sliding doors a round of applause greeted me from a group of Swiss pensioners. It felt like I'd crossed the finishing line of a marathon. Spotting the husband I pushed the tower of bags and kids off in his direction and smiled at my new fans. Victory!
In reality flying with small kids is much like giving birth, the process might be horrific but once it's over you somehow magically forget the pain and before you know it you are back there again.
Read more on my blog tensandtwos