How do you change a diaper at 30,000 feet?
My 9-week-old daughter was lying, docile and stinky, in the crook of my arm on a flight from Hartford to Atlanta. I had prepared, like a warrior for battle, for this and every other possible complication.
Change of clothes in case of accident: check. Natural wipes approved of by parents in my crunchy, overly child-centered town of Northampton, Mass.: check. Disposable diapers quietly judged by parents in my crunchy, overly child-centered town: check.
As I opened the door to the lavatory, that tiny space I’d visited hundreds of times as a child-free business traveler, I looked for something I’d never bothered to check for: the changing table.
Of course there would be one, right? This was a three-hour flight. Babies on planes are a cliche — like snakes, only louder and smellier.
“We don’t have one on this plane. It’s an older model,” the flight attendant explained. A sign next to her head read, “Wi-Fi on this aircraft.” I wondered if she knew that babies preceded the invention of the airplane and the Internet.
“Why don’t you change her in your seat?” she asked.
“I’m by myself. I’m a new mom. I don’t know how to do that,” I said, feeling my chest tighten. I could only imagine the collateral damage to the hapless guy in the window seat during a No. 2 emergency.
“Why don’t you change her on the toilet?” she tried again.
The toilet? I began wondering who would play me in the Lifetime movie about the flight from Connecticut that hit severe turbulence while the newborn dangled off the toilet and her mother flailed (working title: “Not Without My Diaper”). Finally, the flight attendant relented and let me change my daughter on the galley floor.
On the return flight, one of her surlier colleagues refused me the same “privilege.” She said it wasn’t allowed — and asked me to tattle on the maverick flight attendant who’d helped me out earlier. I refused to talk. Meanwhile, my daughter rode out the rest of the flight in her dirty diaper. I was too scared to do anything else.
Thirty thousand feet up, I was learning that air travel is one of the most inhospitable experiences for mothers with small children, especially moms who travel for work. Gone are the days when I would stride onto a plane in heels, with headphones and a cute handbag, en route to speaking engagements around the country to advise parents on how to raise more assertive daughters. As an author and educator, I flew several times a month before I became a mother. Today, as I have cut back on my work travel, the frequent-flier perks that would make my life easier as a traveling mom have evaporated.
Now, after I chide my audiences of helicopter parents to stop worrying about their girls’ every social hiccup, I return to an airplane that pretends my kid doesn’t exist. While I tell parents to model assertive behavior — such as sending back food in a restaurant or sharing feelings about something that matters to them — that may embarrass their self-conscious daughters, making a scene that resembles a Jackson Pollock creation in a middle seat on Flight 3462 is not what I had in mind.
I am trying to heed Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in” by not scaling back on my career now that I’m a mother. But as Sandberg says, the most important choice a woman can make is the person who will be her partner. It’s a little harder to lean in without a partner to help with child-care duties. I am a single mother by choice, and like millions of women doing it alone, there is no second lap to lay a baby on for an in-flight diaper change.
In the past year, several airlines have ended the pre-boarding customarily offered to families. Before a recent flight from Hartford to Dallas, I watched two dozen men in suits cruise down the elite passengers’ red carpet. I stood to the side, carrying a 20-pound baby, an overstuffed diaper bag and a breast pump while pushing a stroller.
The world I have entered as a traveling mother is filled with indignities I never noticed before giving birth. I knew that motherhood wasn’t the focus of many second-wave feminists eager to get women a seat in the boardroom. But if the personal is political, then so are poopy diapers at 30,000 feet.
I still nurse my now-11-month-old daughter, which means I have to pump milk when she stays home with her nanny or my mom, who visits once a month from Rockville to help out. There are no private places to use an electric pump in airports, unless you buy an expensive day pass to an airline lounge or sit on the sticky floor of a “family friendly” restroom with an electrical outlet. (I have done both.)
When I mutter about my problems to other frequent-flying parents, they tell me to change the baby on the seat.
Hotels, by contrast, have tuned in to the surge of women who travel. (About half of all business travelers are women.) Now, my hotels deliver last-minute nail polish to my door, and room service is brought by female staff members. This past week, a Courtyard by Marriott employee tagged my breast milk to be refrigerated overnight with as much interest as if I were asking her to print my bill. I think I felt more awkward than she did.
It is time for airlines to catch up to what women need.
I found that more people offered to help me in airports when I was pregnant than after I had the baby. Babies, after all, emit noises and fluids that irritate others. They are to be sequestered safely online in cute photos or blogs, such as the recent Tumblr sensation “Reasons My Son Is Crying.”Sure, the blog has gone viral because it depicts the sheer frustration of parenthood, but would you keep scrolling through if there were a soundtrack attached?
When mothers find ourselves in family-unfriendly spaces, we cope by searching for a private spot for our sometimes-messy duties. We try to keep the peace and minimize the inconvenience for others. I’ve started a petition at Change.org asking Delta Airlines, one of the worst offenders I’ve seen, to put changing tables in even its oldest aircraft.
In the meantime, I’m thinking that next time I’m stuck in an airport, I might plop down to pump some breast milk next to someone charging his laptop.
Originally published at the Washington Post.