Written by Andrea McLean

Voices

Invisible mums

Travelling with kids can be a right royal pain in the behind. Let’s not forget this when we’re child-free, says Andrea McLean.

teddy bear and suitcaseThursday. I’m at the airport about to head off somewhere hot for a lovely and much-needed break. It’s 8am and I’m sat in Jamie’s cafe, tucking into a full English and a strong coffee. I’ve got two hours to kill and nothing to do. Literally nothing. Bliss. A couple of last-minute things to get in duty free (Chanel foundation, snacks, a magazine for the plane and one of those travel steamer things to get the creases out of my clothes), but apart from that, I am good.

The waiter smiles at me in a busy, distracted way as he took my order. But he smiles, and he’s pleasant, which is nice because it means he registers my presence, not just my breakfast order. I smooth down my jacket and put my napkin on my knees to protect them from fallout. My fallout, no one else’s. I look around, savouring the time and peace to do this, because all around me are women like me. About the same age. But no one can see them except me. It’s as if they’re wearing a cloak of invisibility.

They’re at work. Hard at work, gathering up toys, wiping snotty noses and breaking up fights. They’ve stopped eating their breakfast mid-mouthful, as youngsters announce, “I need a poo – now!” and race to do the toilet dash, leaving their breakfast to go cold.

“Boarding the plane, my fellow free-from-kids passengers scan the rows with anxious eyes. Where are the children? They may be the future but on a long-haul flight, no one wants to be sat next to them.”

As we stand, shuffling forwards in the queue waiting to board the plane, these women wrestle with stubborn pushchairs, holding wriggling, protesting toddlers on their laps, lugging heavy, over-stuffed bags of essentials on stiff shoulders.

Boarding the plane, my fellow free-from-kids passengers scan the rows with anxious eyes. Where are the children? They may be the future – and indeed, I have two of my own – but travelling child-free on a long-haul flight, no one wants to be sat next to them.

We settle in, silently cursing the innocent man who takes the empty seat to the left of us, filling our row of three. Then I feel the first unmistakable, international signal that a small child has sat down in the seat behind me. To my left, movement catches my eye as a tiny girl, not quite two yet, with blonde erect bunches perched on either side of her head like antennae peers at me. Dribbles of snot trickle from each little nostril.

“Eh-oh…” she gabbles, a tiny human Teletubby.

Invisible hands grasp her from behind and pull her into a lap as we buckle ourselves in. Doors to manual and cross check.

Four hours in and I feel a surge of sympathy for the invisible presence behind me, as she soothes an irate and bored little girl and shushes and cuddles a screaming little boy.

After endless dull hours our plane finally pulls up to its parking space on the tarmac – phase one of our trip ticked and about to be put to one side. As we gather our things, it becomes clear that the mother behind us isn’t actually travelling alone. Across the aisle from her, a grey-haired, aloof-looking gentleman, dressed in the holiday attire of a city gent – less formal shirt, chinos rather than a suit – stands up and addresses the crumpled and cross little boy in the seat behind us. “Come now Toby! Pick your bag up and let’s go!” I had noticed him as he’d nursed his drink, watched a film then slept much of the way here. I hadn’t seen him speak to the travelling party behind us, much less help out, so I hadn’t thought that they were together.

I keep an eye on them in the airport, as the presence behind me is revealed to be a beautiful woman in her late 30s, blonde like the children, with the saintly demeanour of one used to keeping calm in a crisis. I watch as her husband (I assume, it looks like it) stands next to the car seat on the floor that holds their baby daughter, hands in pockets and looking ahead, as she pulls their heavy family-sized suitcases off the carousel and lugs them onto a trolley, making sure their little boy doesn’t get squashed in the process.

“As I watch the mums, exuding strength and patience, their clothes spattered with the fallout of young children’s detritus, I see them as superwomen.”

As my travelling companion and I pick up our bags – he’s a gent and grabs both – and head outside to the heat, I say a quiet ‘thank you’ to the gods (mine are called ‘grandparents’) who have allowed me to travel as ME. In full 3D vision, seen and smiled at, helped with my bags and waved on my way to a quiet, stress-free break from the kids.

My cloak of invisibility is at home, crumpled at the bottom of the laundry basket, ready to be washed, ironed and wrapped round my shoulders when I return. For now, I’m a woman on holiday from her other self. As I watch the mums, exuding strength and patience, their clothes spattered with the fallout of young children’s detritus, I see them as superwomen.

I’ve been given the opportunity to leave my superpowers at home, to revert to being a mere mortal, yet I’m the one being assisted, just because my clothes have stayed smart, my hair’s still smooth and I’ve had the time and inclination to reapply my lipstick.

My holiday, a break from my wonderful, exhausting, frustrating real life, is the thing that gives me the strength to be a better mum. Any woman who goes on holiday with children is simply using her superpowers in the sunshine, without all her usual gadgets to hand. As wonderful as it is, to a mum the family holiday can also be her Kryptonite, sapping strength, patience and humour. Keeping hold of those with dignity intact takes super human strength.

When you head off for your break in the sun this year, and sip your coffee in the departure lounge or scan your eyes on the plane, hoping the dishevelled woman with complaining kids doesn’t sit anywhere near you – give them a hand. Smile at them, help them with their bags and wish them well. These women are invincible, not invisible. See them.

@andrea_mclean

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Written by Andrea McLean

I am a 45 year-old mum of a newly teenaged boy and a fearless eight year-old daughter. I am happiest in my pyjamas watching telly and eating biscuits. My alter ego is a TV presenter who dresses well and looks like she knows what she’s doing.