I think she saw me crying. I was jammed into an aisle seat on my way home from spring break, my iPad-watching son and daughter to my right, the baby playing on my lap. I knew it wasn't rational to be so upset that our long-awaited trip was over, but the thought of picking up the old routine at home after two amazing weeks away seemed oppressive and depressing.
Earlier that day when I'd asked the kids what they were most looking forward to at home, I realized I couldn't think of anything myself other than my bed. As I stopped the baby from grabbing my son's headphones, I could feel a dark pit in my chest forming, tears pooling in my eyes.
That's when she stopped in her tracks. Jane, the lovely, kind-eyed, flight attendant, came by and started asking me about all the kids. She had three kids too, all teenagers.
"How is it at that stage?" I asked. I'd been panicked about the teenage years ever since, well, the kids were born.
"They're good kids," she admitted, reaching over and tickling the baby. "If you invest the time along the way, then they end up right where they should be."
It was the best advice I'd heard. I'd been worried my kids would suddenly morph into rebellious, parent-hating, strangers once puberty hit. But maybe that was more in my control than I thought. I wondered what life was like for those three good kids of hers if their mom was traveling all the time.
"How often do you fly?"
"I'm away 14 days a month," she said. "But when I come home, everyone's excited to see me. Plus the kids learn to be independent citizens. People talk about helicopter parenting, but I don't have that luxury. Mom is gone a lot. So they have to learn to do things for themselves."
I commented on how ironic it was that only a flight attendant could escape helicopter parenting by literally being on a plane.
She laughed, let the baby play with her fingers a bit more ("don't worry, I just washed them"), and walked away.
My self-indulgent sadness vanished. I could help my kids become the people I wanted them to be just by continuing to do what I was doing, teaching them good values, staying on top of them for manners, yet giving them more space to be independent. Investing along the way. Simple advice, but so effective.
Our conversation also reminded me of how lucky I was that I didn't have to travel away from the kids regularly and that I could afford to stay at home with them. Our imminent arrival didn't seem as daunting anymore.
Meanwhile, as I hurriedly wrote down what she'd said, the baby ate part of a page I'd ripped out of the SkyMall catalog. Shoot, those pajamas jeans had looked awesome. Maybe a little helicoptering wouldn't be all bad.