I took a little break from writing, knitting and crocheting due to sudden and unexpected goodbyes in my family, both the one in which I grew up and the one which embraced me when I married into a real Irish family. For all intents and purposes think about an all encompassing, huge, warm and protective Irish Clan. It was heartbreaking to deal with family departures in the last months. I’m back though and goodbyes isn’t what I wanted to write to you about. Today I wanted to tell you about being a mum and the difference hostility and kindness of strangers make.
At the beginning of December life threw me on board of a Ryanair flight, not out of any glamorous want to escape the storm drenched shores of Ireland, but because I needed to travel to be with my closest Polish family after a tragic event. I have three young kids. The youngest, The Little Bird, was then 23 months old and still very dependent on me, especially at night. I needed to take her with me. The older kids stayed at home in Ireland with my husband and The Little Bird and myself packed, booked the only flight available and on Tuesday, 1st of December, and found ourselves on a busy, very crowded Ryanair flight to Warsaw, Poland. To those of you who are reading outside of Europe, Ryanair is the discount supermarket of the European air travel: it’s big, cheap, messy, somewhat dirty during later flights and gets their money on all the optional extras, like assigned seat, priority boarding, water to drink during the flight or the new concept of business class, which is “business” because you get to squeeze your legs in front of you, not sideways, like the rest of the average sized mortals sitting in the “economy”. You get the idea.
It was a morning flight and Little Bird, dragged from her bed earlier than usual and stuck in the middle of a crowd squeezed into a can of a plane like a shoal of human sardines, got overwhelmed and stressed and started sobbing. The last straw for her was the orange seat belt which she took immediate and immense dislike to. Unfortunately the airline rules are clear, babies and toddlers need to be strapped to one of their parents during take-off and landing, no matter how much the said babies and toddlers protest. To be fair, I didn’t feel much better then her, the last thing I wanted to be doing was sitting on that plane and facing an unexpected funeral away from home and my own support system. Somehow it’s not the done thing for adults to be crying in public, so there I was, sitting on a crowded plane, cuddling and shushing my daughter, trying to comfort and distract her, hoping she’d fall asleep soon to make the journey easier on her, me and everyone around. But her first of all, she was so upset none of the usual comforts worked.
And then it happened. A woman in her late sixties with stern brown Crayola eyebrows pulled into a disapproving thick vertical wrinkle sitting over a shiny nose, sitting in the row in front of me, turned around and demanded I “calm down that child immediately”. “I am a paying customer!”, she announced with a note of affected disgust. “I paid for this ticket! I am entitled to some quiet and not having to listen to a screaming child. You need to calm down THAT (the cartoon eyebrows frowned at the red and puffy face of my toddler) child now.” A brief exchange followed, after which she proceeded to loudly complain to the air steward, who found her a different seat, moved her and came back to apologise to me for the situation. And that was it, perhaps three minutes on a busy morning which sunk my heavy heart even deeper, so deep in fact I started sobbing into soft curly hair of my little girl.
I tried to forget this harsh stranger with cold heart and vicious tongue, but then I realised how easily I became a target because I looked and sounded like one – a woman travelling alone with a child, a stressed and sad woman with a crying child. I usually can and do take care of myself and having worked in conflict prone environment usually such situations don’t shake me as badly. But I was vulnerable then and I have no doubt that it showed. This person who must have spent at least sixty years as part of normal functioning society found it normal and acceptable to try to bully someone who she thought was a safe target. So here it is, an open letter to the English speaking woman in her mid sixties who sat in seat 8D on Ryanair 9.35 flight from Dublin to Warsaw on Tuesday, 1st of December:
Dear Co-passenger of the Ryanair flight,
you seem to be under the misapprehension that a 15 or 35 EUR ticket on a Ryanair flight entitles you to demand from your fellow passengers, especially those vulnerable or very young ones, to accommodate your needs and wishes, and to do so loudly, in public, with sense of entitlement. You also seem to think that the price of the ticket is sufficient reason to lecture others on appropriate behaviour or to bully them because you have been somewhat inconvenienced by level of noise you deem unacceptable in a public space. Let me explain it to you simply – you aren’t special. Ryanair seat is no Etihad luxury suite with a VIP concierge and optional massage. People get squashed together in hard seats and no knee or elbow room. Some adults smell, some snore, some keep running to the toilet. Some will even spill a drink when a wobbly tray jumps during unexpected turbulence. Some parties who didn’t get to seat together will talk loudly over your head, communicating across several rows or standing over your aisle seat through most of the flight. Some people, exactly like yourself during the course of that flight, will march up and down the narrow aisle in fear of thrombosis, hitting people’s elbows and knees. Some will listen to their i-phones on cheap earphones, broadcasting the boom boom boom of the latest Jason Derulo, 50 Cent, or other Pittbull. Some, as my daughter, will cry out of fear and tiredness. People cope to their best abilities. In general they do what they can to travel as painlessly as they can, cramped into a small space with fellow passengers.
Not you though. My child cried because she was scared and exhausted. She was also 23 months old. You decided to turn around and launch a verbal attack, after the benefit of sixty years plus of life experience. So I would like to tell you in public what this life experience hasn’t taught you. And it’s kindness. And basic human decency. If you see someone in trouble or crying and if all it does is annoy you, the best thing you do is – nothing. Walk away, or if you can’t, put on your headphones, or, if you don,t have them, take a deep breath and think about pulling wings off flies, writing blasphemy complaints to Newstalk radio, badmouthing your annoying neighbours or whatever hobbies take your time and relax you. Verbally attacking someone or someones already upset and struggling to cope is not something a normal person with basic levels of empathy does. You are a bully.
I did tell you, swallowing tears, that both my little daughter and myself were paying customers of Ryanair too, therefore we had every right to be left alone, travel in peace and to be treated with basic respect. And what I needed you to do was to shut this unkind, vicious mouth and think a little about your own impact on others, rather than throwing a tantrum. My toddler was upset and loud. You were rude and heartless.
I have no doubt that a crying child is the last sound a childless passenger wants to hear. Yes, it can be tiring, annoying and distressing. It is no reason, though, to behave worse than a very small human ever would. And if you can’t control your temper, well, stay at home, charter a private plane or at least take headphones with you. It’s your problem though, not the one of thousands of families who, shockingly, take their children in public and sometimes struggle a bit. Or struggle a lot.
Not to keep this post so negative, I would like to say a huge, massive thank you to
- the childless man in his thirties who sat next to me at the the time, tried to entertain my toddler, told the attacker to back off, let my little girl stretch when she fell asleep and then chatted to me. He doesn’t know how these small things helped, both then and in the coming days
- the young girl who turned around and sent me hugs and mouthed “don’t worry” to me (and one or two comments in unapologetically bad language, which I won’t quote but which did make me laugh)
- the woman travelling with a 7 year old girl, both of whom had big tired smiles and made a big effort to play with my exhausted toddler when the return plane was delayed in the middle of the night
- the couple who pulled a hat and a hood on my girl’s head when I had her on my back in the carrier when we were waiting outside in cold rain and wind
It really is simple, isn’t it? Our tiredness and annoyance at small things can free the best or the worst reactions in us. We may feel they are small, but these small things, little things we say to strangers do matter. I don’t believe in karma but I do believe that positive or negative words create ripples of impact in people’s lives. So, if you see a stressed mother with a howling toddler and are just about to submit to an internal rant of annoyance, the very least you can do is nothing. Say nothing. Do nothing. Breathe – kids rarely scream forever. And if they do, well, thank your lucky stars they are not yours. Switch off. And the best you can do is offer a minuscule gesture of help – who knows, your little gesture may touch someone so deeply they’ll never forget your face and will think of you warmly from time to time. Which is way better than sending you wishes of warts, blocked pipes and a flood of howling babies and toddlers every time you set your foot outside the silent sanctuary of your own home.
Happy New Year, everyone, may 2016 be kind to you, healthy, yarn rich and joyful. Hugs – Anna.