Just over a week ago, beginning at approximately 2pm EST on Thursday the 6th of September, we departed from our cozy and safe little house and threw ourselves upon the mercy of the unknown. Charlie is half French–or actually completely French, as she is completely American–and I admit that I did suspect that at some point we would be making the grande voyage across the ocean to see her large and rather boisterous paternal family. When we planned for our first trip when she was just about a month old and already seemed a lifetime older and stronger and more person-like than when she first arrived. Her 3-month birthday seemed a very long way off, and I was sure that she would be sturdy enough by that time that I would feel prepared to cross the ocean with her and put us all at the mercy of the French.
As the time for our departure neared, however, and plans solidified, I became more and more convinced that I’d made a terrible mistake. What was I thinking, taking my dear angelic child on a plane filled with germ-ridden strangers, and then subjecting her to 2+ weeks during which time every inch of her fragile little head would be kissed and pinched by crazy French people? In addition to this ordeal, I was also damning my little family, including my father-in-law, to a week-long trek across the United Kingdom to attend an over-the-top British wedding, complete with antique cars and fancy hats, in a mansion on the coast of Wales. My reservations grew, expanded, and then exploded, as the date for our departure neared.
Taking a plane with a baby seems like a horrifying ordeal. Airports are loud and unpleasant, and security is, as we all know, a nightmare. We have all sat beside the poor, desperate family with the screaming child who makes the (1 or 2 or 6 or 8-hour) flight feel like it’s lasting about 24 hours. Who wants to be that person, even for a moment?
Our little reality, for the duration of the first leg of our voyage at least, was much happier. To be certain: my child screams as much as the next infant, and although I think she looks like a cherub from heaven and has the wit and charisma of Oscar Wilde and Barak Obama (respectively), there is some part of me that knows she’s no more charming or attractive than most people her age. However, there are a few things to be said for traveling with an almost-3-month-old. First of all, there’s the priority treatment. I don’t just mean priority boarding here: despite the fact that my child is quiet and wide-eyed when we entered the security line, we are ushered past the people ahead of us, and the woman checking our bags is far more interested in my baby sling than in making sure we’re not hiding explosives among our diapers and baby socks. Because of this we are ridiculously early for our flight, and hence we sit as if on display in front of the Terminal E Starbucks, greeting one person after another with smiles and introductions. I take off to purchase water and snacks, and G informs me upon my return that Charlie is better than a dog for attracting women. I am not in the least surprised: what girl wouldn’t stop to look at a cute guy cooing in French to the smiling baby in his arms?
From there things just get better. Charlie charms the flight attendants: that’s no surprise. Older couples stop by as they make their way to their seats to tell us stories of the first time they brought little so-and-so, their son or daughter, on a trans-Atlantic flight, and how great they were at flying at an early age. Please, they say, we’d be happy to hold her/bounce her if she cries. (For the record: I never offered to hold anyone else’s child on a plane before I had one, and I don’t know that I’d do so now, however nice it might be. I’m not really that interested in other people’s children) My cherub proceeds to fuss a bit, then sleep peacefully through most of the flight, waking to gurgle and coo and nurse as we begin our descent into Charles de Gaulle. I don’t sleep a wink, but she’s rested and all smiles: so much the better. The drive from Paris to the north of France is equally uneventful, and Charlie falls asleep at 7:00pm local time and sleeps through the night. I am beginning to think that perhaps I have the perfect child: she seems made for transcontinental travel, among other things.
It isn’t until the next evening that my greater fears are realized, and then only partially. We attend a very long and very loud family party, complete with two full 3+ course meals starting at noon, games, dancing, and endless mucky-handed children who insist on petting and pinching every inch of my child’s body. I am a nervous wreck for most of this time, although I am trying desperately not to show it, in the interest of my husband’s happiness. By 7:30pm Charlie is done. She’s had an entire day of loud music and strange people grabbing her for photos (and just generally grabbing her), and she’s been an angel through it all. She’s smiled and flirted and allowed every indecency the French could throw at us, but at some point she decides she’s had enough and just wants to go to a quiet, dark place and go to sleep. I’m right there with her: it’s been less than 48 hours since we left Carlisle, and I’m about ready to kill for a comfortable bed in a quiet room with my child. There’s no quiet place for us to go, however: nieces and nephews and little cousins follow us everywhere, and refuse to leave us alone. The draw of a baby is great enough, but the draw of new baby with a foreign mother–the coveted Americaine aunt–is just too much. I can’t get rid of them. And even if I could, there is really no place for us to go: outside of the main room the school is dark, but also unheated and drafty. There is no place to sit and hence no place to nurse other than the dirty tile floor. I’m stuck.
I bring the problem up to G, and he’s reticent but willing to drive us the 7 minutes back to his father’s house, where I can put myself and my baby to bed. G’s childhood best friend, Frederic, has just arrived, having spent nearly 10 hours on trains from the south of France just to see us for this one evening. He’s leaving again in the morning, so this is our only chance to spend any time together. What is more, our other good friend, whom we’ve known since we met one another 10 years ago and haven’t seen in years, is driving up from Paris with his dog for the occasion. I simply must wait for him to arrive–this should take place around 8:30. Can’t I stay?
So I stay. I wander around in cold dark corners with my fussy, exhausted baby, and get more and more agitated. I can’t bring myself to complain to G, however. What am I to say? ‘Your family is loud and overwhelming, and all I want to do is leave and go home and sleep’? Not the best wifely behavior. I love my husband, and we see his family so rarely, I cannot find it in myself to complain.
Herve finally arrives at quarter to nine with his yapping cocker spaniel in tow, and we enjoy a joyful reunion. Charlie ducks her head and smiles at him charmingly before relapsing into frantic, exhausted crying. I lose it.
“We have to go,” I insist, livid with myself for not insisting earlier, fighting the urge to scowl at everyone around me, hating them all for my own failure to responsibly parent my child. G quickly complies and we bundle our bundle into the car and drive her home.
By the time we get into the house Charlie is on the brink of hyperventilating. Her little head has turned the color of a ripe strawberry, and I’m sobbing myself. How could I let this happen to my child? I’m embarrassed, ashamed, and heartbroken. Here I have this perfect, angelic baby, who smiles and winks and charms, and I reduce her to this mess through my own selfishness, my own inability to stand up for myself and be the mother I need to be. Through my tears I promise her I will never, ever, let this happen, ever again. I will be stronger next time. I will better protect her from all that is hard and terrible in life, as long as I can, and as much as I may.
In truth, I know even then it will not be possible for me to keep this promise. This is only the beginning, and before I became a mother I made other promises, to myself as much as to others: that I would continue to honor and respect my husband, for example, even in the face of motherhood. How to be a wife and a mother, both, while also keeping true to myself, and all at the same time? There is no perfect and right answer to these questions, however simple they may seem from one angle or another. I just hope I’m strong enough to face each challenge as it arises.