Stuck in the confined space of an airline seat, the whingeing of 'minors' sounds louder, the bickering more annoying and the wriggling more exaggerated. One parenting website reckons it seems much worse for the parent than it does for the other passengers. I hope that's the case but having observed many childless travellers over the years I'm not so sure.
My family of five (including three children aged 9 years, 7 years and 6 months) recently travelled across Australia and it was stressful. The older children were well behaved - only requiring adult intervention when one vomited on descent into Melbourne and on a later flight lost a wobbly tooth.
The baby however was not at all happy to be getting on the second flight of the morning and refused to be quiet. I was very conscious of the other passengers' silent scorn and their feeling of relief as I passed by their row until I finally stopped at an empty seat in row 21. The unlucky lady I'd be sitting next to turned to her husband and said under her breath, 'Now we have to listen to this for the next three hours.' I smiled apologetically and said knowingly, 'she'll be asleep soon' but I got no response.
I was taken aback. I was already worried about disrupting the other passengers and I desperately rocked, hummed, offered toys and a dummy. I would have taken her into the toilets if we weren't about to take off. The crying became louder and more fervent until I fed her (the seatbelt sign now on), not sure if the lady sitting next to me would be pleased at the sudden quiet or horrified by the fact I was breastfeeding (discreetly) just inches from her. Close to tears myself, I felt condemned by all in economy class, taking comfort only in the sleeping face of my child for the rest of the trip.
From my experience, air travel brings out the worst in people. You only have to watch the reality TV shows set in airports to see people at the end of their tether. Late or cancelled flights, excess baggage charges, closed boarding gates…it's enough to set up some (supposedly entertaining) tantrums usually only seen in the under fives.
Whilst I was nursing my sleeping baby I thought about how much of a difference it would have made if the lady sitting next to me had acknowledged my difficulty or even given me a sympathetic smile. Just a few words of encouragement would have been enough to show me that she was on my side. For example, 'you're doing a great job,' 'it's hard work travelling with a young baby,' 'poor little thing, she might settle when we take off.' She could even have offered to help me in some way…what an amazing encouragement that would have been.
Other mums I've spoken to who've been in the same position agree. The feeling of being ostracised is more stressful than a crying and inconsolable baby. There's no denying that travelling with children can be difficult- especially if they are not your own. Here's the challenge: try to stay positive, ignore the noise and if you can, offer a kind word of sympathy or encouragement to a probably frazzled parent who is obviously trying to make the flight as pleasant as possible for everyone.
Donna MacFarlane is married with three children and is a former Olympic athlete, now living in Western Australia.
Donna's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/donna-macfarlane.html