I get asked a lot what it was like to take care of three babies at once, and I tell people it was hard. The most difficult part of those early days was the extreme sleep deprivation that came from feeding, changing diapers and coaxing babies to sleep in intervals throughout the day and night. When I look back at those days, though, they don’t stick in my mind in the way that some other experiences do. Near the top of my list of really-hard-days is the day we flew cross-country with three 18-month-olds.
My triplet mentors, a man who I worked with and his wife, had told me early on that the most difficult period of raising multiples would fall around 18 months. I believe they told me that about three months in, and I didn’t appreciate it. At three months, I felt like things were very, very difficult. Being told it would get harder, was demoralizing. Still, it turned out to be true. I would say today that 18 months was the hardest stage.
At eighteen months, all three babies were walking. At eighteen months, none of them had developed judgment or were capable of processing danger or responding much to correction or discipline. They had the physical skills to do lots of things and no ability to comprehend why most of those things were bad ideas. Worse yet, they were not at the point of understanding information, correcting behavior and comprehending basic consequences. As a parent, I would spend a lot of time telling them it wasn’t acceptable to, for instance, bite other kids, and they would each stare at me and continue biting.
At times, the disconnect at this stage can be so frustrating, and parents resort to all sorts of tactics to try to adjust behavior. Almost none of them work. It was no small amount of relief that I felt when not one—but two—parents admitted to me they had tried to demonstrate to their children that biting was not a good idea by biting their children. Of course, we’re not talking about a real bite, we’re talking about a nip (mostly gums) just to get a reaction and demonstrate what it feels like. One parent said to me, “I had no choice—I was on the verge of getting kicked out of day care, and if I didn’t have day care, I wouldn’t be able to keep my job.
Thank goodness for parents who admit to this sort of flawed response. It allows the rest of us (who also may have tried the tactic. . .) to feel less alone and less of a failure.
It was within this context of the 18-month phase that we were asked by my parents to come to their 50th wedding anniversary—3,000 miles away.
I had talked to many coworkers and friends who had children and had tried to gather as much information as possible about what it would be like to travel with three toddlers. The helpful advice ranged from not forgetting to pack extra clothing (in case of a diaper blow out on the plane), to asking the airline for a gate pass so a babysitter could help us right up until the time we boarded the plane, to the most pointed piece of advice: don’t hesitate to give the babies Benadryl to knock them out during the flight.
I had a real problem with that last piece of advice. It seemed irresponsible, at best, and possibly dangerous, but I worked up the nerve to ask my pediatrician how bad an idea it really was, and he told me the effects of the stress inflicted upon me in relation to the upcoming trip appeared to be outweighing any potential danger of a teaspoon of Benadryl. He then cautioned me: Yes, it does make some children drowsy, but it just makes some children more hyper.
What do you know—I had that baby, the one who gets hyper.
We spent some extra money and booked a direct flight, I had all my supplies in hand: extra clothing, diapers, blankets, pacifiers, water bottles and formula, books, music, a DVD player. I took two babies, one my lap and one in the seat next to me, and my husband took the third baby on his lap. The babies did great for most of the flight, but when we were 90 minutes from landing, the baby with my husband started fussing. It began small, nothing more than minor irritability, but it gradually built. About a half hour into the fussy period, we went for the Benadryl, and about 30 minutes after that, it was full-blown shrill screaming, kicking, wailing and elbowing.
Among the pieces of advice I’d been given, was to apologize in advance to passengers in our vicinity and try to build up goodwill prior to take-off. I said to my seat companion, “I know that feeling of being in a seat and watching the woman with two babies stop at your row. I want to let you know, I will work hard to try not to ruin your flight.”
I don’t know what strategies my husband was employing. My guess is he probably tried to relax more than he should have, and he didn’t stay in front of the fussiness as well as he could have, but my guess is also that, with all my various efforts, if I would have had that baby, the outcome would have been the same.
Nearly 45 minutes had gone by and the baby assigned to my husband was still screaming. Some people on the plane didn’t realize we were all a group, since those two were in a row ahead of us and across the aisle. As a result, many passengers looked over to me like we were accomplices. Their looks said, “You can do it, why can’t that parent do it with his baby?” They were annoyed, they were getting mad and they were miserable.
Nonetheless, what happened next made me so angry, I still feel my blood pressure rise even thinking about it. A woman in front of my husband stood up and turned around and yelled, “Get that goddamned baby under control!”
I wanted to believe she’d embarrassed herself, and with some people, she probably did, but I also felt some looks of smug satisfaction. It was obvious she was speaking for more than herself.
It was a good thing I was on a plane where I was restrained by a seatbelt and subject to FAA rules. If we’d have been someplace else, I may have started a fight, but then again, if we were someplace else, I would have taken my child away before it ever got to that point.
When the plane landed, all three babies were all smiles. My parents were there to help, and everything was fine. I spotted the female passenger in the baggage area, within earshot, and I yelled to my husband, “Just because her ovaries are all dried up, she doesn’t need to get hostile toward us.” (I don’t even know what this means). He looked embarrassed, and I got a talking-to from my mother. I don’t think the woman heard me anyway.
As it turns out, that fussy child from the airplane ride has become the one who wouldn’t inconvenience a fly on a cross-country flight, or anywhere for that matter. A few weeks ago, we took a short vacation to Phoenix. It was our first time flying Southwest with the kids, and I told them over and over on the way to the airport how first-come first-serve seating works and explained to them what to do if we had to take separate seats. As it turns out, we were able to sit together and everything went smoothly. All the kids were carrying their own backpacks, going to the restroom on their own, entertaining themselves. Our story has not yet been fully-written, so I can’t say for sure whether 18-months really is the hardest stage for a mother of multiples. Poolside, watching the Arizona sunset, there is no need to tackle the question.