As summer rolls forward, it seems everyone’s talking about family vacation plans, including plans to send young offspring off to theme parks, famous campgrounds, and animated wonderlands with grandparents, giving moms and dads much-needed breaks to be adult couples instead of parents for two blissful weeks out of the year.
When my son Jake was six, we were living on Maui and my parents lived in Oregon. They called that summer and announced that they wanted to take Jake to Disneyland in California. After much discussion on the best way to get Jake to them, my mother informed me that she’d already called the airline, and they said Jake could fly without either parent, as an “unaccompanied minor.”
He’s six, Mom. SIX. As in “years old.” Not only that, he was small.
So I’m looking across the room at my small child, with his Hawaiian-style shaved head and little round glasses, looking like an adorable tiny Harry Potter, and she’s going on about him getting on a 747 by himself and flying to Portland.
“It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “They assign a flight attendant to him, and he’s never left alone. She’s responsible for him the entire way. Besides, it’s a direct flight. We’ll pick him up in Portland.”
After another several minutes of debate, with Jake jumping up and down, repeatedly and happily yelling “I’m going to Disneyland!! I’m going to Disneyland!!” I put down the paper bag I was wheezing into and agreed to hand over my child to some unknown flight attendant, trusting she wouldn’t inadvertently send him to Botswana, resulting in a massive, worldwide child-hunt, followed by a made-for-TV movie called “I Gave My Child to a Stranger and They Lost Him. Bad Mommy.”
Jake and I went to the airport, where I filled out the eight page, triplicate forms, attached to copies of his birth certificate, my driver’s license, and a list of emergency contact names of every single person in three states and two countries that he was related to in any way. Jake was beside himself with excitement about traveling “all by himself,” and I was a teary mess. “Don’t worry,” the flight attendant smiled, “We haven’t lost one yet.” Yet?? OMG. Several minutes later, I put my only child on the plane and cried all the way home.
He had the time of his life.
Two weeks later, as I was anxiously waiting for my baby to get off the plane, armed with the 30 pieces of ID required to take a child out of the airport, I finally saw his smiling face, and the thought briefly crossed my mind that he looked older. More confident. More young boy than small child. But as I was trying to process the changes in my son (could this trip have actually been good for him??), I instinctively burst into relieved tears that he made it and was safely home where I could see him.
Completely oblivious to the commands of the attendants to “Stay behind the yellow line, ma’am. BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE,” I rushed forward, bent down and grabbed my child in a full-body mom-hug, crying uncontrollably, while assuring him he was missed every single day. (Yeah. It was every 6-year-old’s worst nightmare. Being mauled by your sobbing mother. In public. That would no doubt come up in his therapy years later, but I couldn’t stop myself. My baby was home.)
Usually, when you pick up an “unattended minor” at the airport, the ID requirements are intense. No simple driver’s license will do. The legal ramifications of letting someone walk out of the airport with the wrong child are the stuff zillion dollar settlements are made of, and the airlines are determined to avoid this mistake at all costs. So at the time of the ticket purchase, you’re given a list of paperwork they’ll need to see before any child is handed over to your custody.
As I reached into my purse for the required documents, the flight attendant just smiled and said, dryly, “And you must be the mother.” “Yes,” I sniffed, still clinging to my boy like a life raft. “Jake,” she asked, just to make sure, “Is this your mom?” Jake, sharing a glimpse of what was to become his trademark one-liner wit, looked up at her and said, “Well, she wouldn’t be my first choice, but yeah, she’s my mom.”
14 years later, Jake would be flying to Iraq, and we would relive this experience on a different level. We dropped him off, and I cried all the way home. When he arrived home a year later, safe and sound where I could see him, I cried again and mauled him in public. This time, he grinned and replied, “It’s okay, Mom. Go crazy.”
And so I’ve decided that children (no matter their age) should never be further away than you can drive to see them. It’s just too damn hard on their mamas. And when he gets redeployed, I’m going with him. But I’m not telling him just yet. I just might end up flying as an “unaccompanied mother.”