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How motherhood is like flying

by Meagan Francis on April 22, 2011

As I’ve shared here before, I don’t like to fly.

I could really relate to Brene Brown’s Blissdom keynote, when she said that every time she takes a trip by airplane, she is pleasantly surprised to find herself alive at the end of it.

For me, the worst part—by far—is taking off. Does anyone remember the scene at the end of Say Anything, where John Cusak’s character is trying to comfort Ione Sky’s character (who is terrified of flying) by telling her that the first five minutes of a flight are the most dangerous part, and that as soon as the fasten seat belts light goes off, they know they’ll be OK? Yeah. Not helpful. That scene has stuck in my head since I was a kid, and instead of being comforted by it, all I can think each time I fly is “The first five minutes of a flight? ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH.”

It’s not just my Say Anything hang-ups that scare me about the first few minutes of a flight, though. The noises, the almost impossibly fast, lurching forward motion, that creepy feeling when the plane starts lifting into the sky and you realize there’s no going back now—I fly several times a year, and usually it’s all I can do to get through the first few moments of a flight without clutching the arm of the person next to me and sobbing on his or her sleeve.

When we reach cruising altitude, though, I always relax. After the terror of takeoff has passed, I somehow remember—and believe—that flying is statistically much safer than driving. Once we’re past that mythical first five minutes, even turbulence doesn’t freak me out: I liken it to driving over bumps and, occasionally, potholes (though I’ve never experienced any really awful turbulence, she says knocking wood frantically)

And I actually love to land. From my very first flight ever—which took place when I was an adult, so I can remember it clearly—I loved the feeling of descending, and watching the ground growing closer and closer. I got a huge thrill out of looking at the approaching skyline of whatever city we were landing near, tingling with excitement over being in a new place.

Now, logically I know that landing is probably every bit as statistically risky as takeoff. But after that first flight, I’d decided “I love landing!” and believed it. And I’ve continued to believe it through dozens of flights. It’s like creating a positive feeling about landing early on overrode any logical arguments my brain might have tried to raise.

So the last time I flew, I decided to try an experiment: could I convince myself to love takeoff just like landing? Because my trip to New Orleans had two layovers, I’d have four separate takeoffs to practice loving takeoff. Or at least experiencing it rather than hiding my face in my hands and trying not to hyperventilate.

On the first flight the window shade stayed firmly drawn. As it turned out, chanting “This is fun! I love taking off!” was not all that convincing when all I could do was look down at my clenched hands, feeling every single bump intensely while listening to whirring engines, landing gear clunking into place and goodness knows what else.

On the second leg of the flight I planted myself near a window and took cautious peeps as we ascended. It was kind of cool to see the ground getting smaller and further away.  I had a few white-knuckled moments, but I never once thought about bursting into tears.

On our third flight I outright stared out the window and watched the whole process. And…I can hardly believe this, but it was fun.

Suddenly the noises and bumps and grinding all made sense; there was context. I could see where we were going and what we were leaving behind. It was exciting and distracting, and even though I was still nervous, I had something beautiful to focus on. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there was the knowledge that things could still go wrong, that we could still crash. But I was so busy taking it all in, I almost didn’t care.

Why had I thought takeoff would be less scary if I spent the entire time staring into the darkness of my palms and wondering what was going on outside my window? I mean, duh, right?

I know you all are smart enough to sense where I’m going with this, right? You got it: there’s a lesson about motherhood tangled up in here; possibly even two or three, but I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what they are.

Maybe it’s that you can’t completely predict how your kids or your life are going to turn out—all you can do is try to make the most of the ride.

Maybe it’s that it’s not enough to white-knuckle it from the sidelines, trying to convince yourself you’re having fun. You have to really get in there and experience it, scary as it might be, or else all you’ll feel is the bumps and dips.

Or maybe it’s that intent is everything. If you tell yourself you hate takeoff…or the playground…or taking your kids to the hotel pool (hand raised!)…or cleaning the kitchen…or doing the laundry…or helping with math homework…well, that’ll definitely be your experience, won’t it?

Or maybe there’s entirely another lesson in this metaphor. I don’t know. What do you think?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

S April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am

I am an expert at adopting others’ paranoia for myself, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t complete reading your post :-(. I am with Brene Brown, I am thankful that I am still alive. And in this dangerous world, that the bad people didn’t touch it. Grrr, some people ruin it for everyone.

That said, I always LOVE watching take-off and landing. I always worry about flying, but thankfully, thus far, not while up in the air.


Kenna April 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never sit next to you on a flight (unless your strategy really worked). I love flying. In fact, I would fly from my house to work every day if I could. I have a difficult time understanding people who fear air travel. Now cars… those are death machines… ;)

Thanks for the post!


Lisa April 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Unlike you, I think take-off is actually the most fun part about flying. I love the speed! Of course, I love roller coasters too. (The fact that I studied flying in high school and actually flew a plane then might have something to do with it too).

But point well taken about mothering – maybe I should try to “like” cleaning up 3 high chair trays & seats after every meal… :-)


Karen April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I just found your blog from Simple Mom, and had to say thank you so much for this post! It describes perfectly how I sabotage my life with negativity. I look forward to reading more of your blog. It will definitely be in my bookmarks!


Amber April 22, 2011 at 9:39 pm

There’s apparently this thing called neuroplasticity, which means that your brain can be re-mapped based on your experiences. So you can DECIDE that you like something, and if you can really make yourself believe it, your brain will come to be believe that’s true.

That’s my totally non-expert understanding, anyway.

My point is that I think a lot of life is tied up with what we BELIEVE we feel, or should feel, based on something from our past that may not be true anymore. But we can change it. We can decide that maybe we actually like flying, or playing Barbies over and over, or something. It’s worth a try anyway, right?


Mrs. White April 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

I love the movie, “Say Anything.” I wonder if the first flight is the hardest? I grew up near Boston and when we children were very young, Logan Airport offered a free flight for children to experience. Of course, we headed into the city for that special plane trip. Maybe that is why flying never really bothered me?


Jennifer April 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I feel exactly the same way about flying! I hate taking off and want to cry – or at least have someone knock me out so I don’t know I’m on a plane. I can relax somewhat during cruising, but landing is my happiest time on a flight!


Emily @random Recycling April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm

You sound like me when it comes to flying. I love to see new places, but hate getting there. The one thought that helps me is to imagine the plane is in a vat of Jello while in the air. It was in a “face your fear” article. Now I need to face my fears as a new stay at home mom!


IncidentalDomestic April 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm

This is a great metaphor! To extend it a bit, in regards to my own personal situation, when I fly, I get severe motion sickness. If I don’t take something for it, I (much to the horror of myself and flight-mates) get good use out of the personal air sickness bag from the seat pocket in front of me. Landing is just about the worst part for me in that regard unless I am asleep. It is something I cannot control. Fear is not even an issue for me, unless it’s fear of throwing up in the lap of the nice person sitting next to me, or not getting the bag out fast enough when the urge hits.

No matter how much I wish I could fly without getting sick, it’s just something I’ve had to learn how to accept and find methods to deal with … much like my domestic skill set, my experience with success in this regard is limited. For me, events of domestic success are few and far between. I sometimes feel as though I missed a class or something, or maybe I carry a genetic flaw that does now allow me to excel in this area.

It’s not that I don’t embrace or want to be a successful domestic, it just seems improbable that I will ever be able to fly, ride a spinny theme park ride or watch an Imax roller coaster film without getting queasy or tossing my cookies altogether. When I take Dramamine, it makes me super droopy, so I don’t really like to take it, but the alternative is not a great situation for me or those around me so I do what I have to do.

There are many other things I can enjoy about a flight including the unbelievable views from the heavens, the SkyMall magazine, or even just taking the time to marvel at the science fiction miracle of flying through the air in a heavy metal beast. And, you know, the seats aren’t always comfortable, sometimes the person next to me is stinky, and sometimes I just feel like I don’t want to do anything except sleep … but I believe as you inferred, everything is what you make of it.

As I am always telling my children, it’s really not about what happens, it’s more about how you deal with it. Even though I get barfy, I will still choose to fly. Making to the destination is totally, totally worth any negatives that come along with taking the trip and I may as well enjoy the ride, air sickness bag or not.

Great blog! Look forward to reading more. :D

-Jennifer P.



Meagan Francis April 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Jennifer–REALLY EXCELLENT POINTS ALL. I was actually reflecting on this post over the weekend and thought, hmm, so do I really think I’m going to LOVE flying from now on? Well, no. Chances are good I will eventually experience a very rough flight or just be in a bad frame of mind for flying some day and that old fear/dislike will take precedence in my mind again. But even if I don’t LOVE it, I still choose to DO it because the end result is worth it.

It’s kind of like writing. People sometimes don’t realize that much of my life as a writer is made up, not of writing, but of sending out invoices, reading, negotiating and signing contracts, and chasing down payments. Do I like those activities? Well, no, not really. But I still love writing as a career, in spite of the not-so-fun parts.


melissa stover April 24, 2011 at 9:59 pm

i hate to fly too. i know they say it is safer than driving, but why don’t i feel safer? being up in the air is just not natural.


Rachelle April 25, 2011 at 9:08 am

For me while you were telling the analogy I was thinking in terms of time. The beginning of motherhood is kinda scary. You have this baby, then a few more and for me at least these first five years have been wonderful but also kinda tough. Now I finally am feeling like I’m getting it down. I am starting to have more confidence in myself and how I mother (in relation to everyone else), I am figuring out my priorities, I am starting to worry less about the little things because they just don’t seem to matter later. I used to freak out over missed naps and this and that and now I know that cranky days pass, a missed nap is a missed nap, nutrition works out in the long run, teeth come in when they come in. I wish I could go back and say “relax, enjoy the take off…you’re doing great.” That’s what I thought, anyway. Loving your blog! It’s awesome. Thanks.


SleeplessinSummerville April 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I wanted to offer tips on the whole flying thing, as I have a major problem flying myself, so on that note… Exposure combats fear. If you take a trip with a layover (something that can’t be avoided where I live), you (mostly) get better at flying over the course of your trip because just doing it is therapeutic. Actually, a big part of the reason I still have trouble flying is that I can’t afford to do it often enough for what I learned about not fearing it to really “stick.” Maybe that’s relevant to motherhood as well (says the lady with just one kid to the lady with five), that it gets less scary and stressful every time you do it again. Just a thought. And to all the people out there who like to remind me that flying is safer than driving over really long distances: Thank you. Now I’m freaked out about that long car trip as well!


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