03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In-Flight Insecurity: Near Arrest for Maternal Hug

If your family is anything less-than-Brady-Bunch perfect then you too are glad it's January. The holidays are over. You can sink into a depression over your credit card excesses, double up on therapy sessions (further increasing your debt) and scrape your ego off the stained carpet, which you plan to get professionally cleaned sometime after you tackle all your other new year's resolutions.

The holidays elicit fear in the best of us. Fear of buying the wrong gift, dealing with feudal family conflicts you've successfully avoided all year, keeping your children from vomiting into grandma's lap, or (in my case) fear of dying on the plane that will bring you closer to all these things.

Last Christmas I put aside my fear of flying in order to reunite my two-year old twins with their estranged family in Florida. The only available flight, on Continental Airlines, promised a travel time of seven hours (from San Francisco to Palm Beach, with a stop in Houston). I prayed my babies would succumb to their daily two-hour nap, so we adults could recuperate from sleep deprivation, wrap some presents and brush up on Proust.

On the fated day, our traveling circus (my husband Stephen, the twins, our babysitter Ylenia and I) finally made it onto the airplane. We checked our over-weight luggage (bearing 77 diapers, ten sippy cups, the medicine cabinet, the sure-to-be-hated Christmas presents, and enough outfits to dress the twins for summer, winter, fall and spring). After the mandatory twelve mile hike to the gate we checked our mammoth stroller, changed two sets of diapers and hauled aboard our emergency entertainment kit: snack traps, finger puppets, pop-up touchy-feely books, one organic monkey and one sheep blankie. Next, we elbowed our way through the masses (knocking out fellow-passengers with extra limbs, diaper bags and bottles). After stowing our paraphernalia into seat-back pockets we attempted to stow the twins, now dressed in goldfish crumbs, onto our laps.

We had flown once before, a year earlier. Before the boys knew how to walk, talk and throw food. They were still infant twins then, a phenomenon which had garnered us praise, attention, cooing. Women and flight attendants had said things like: Can I hold them while you go to the rest room? What good babies you have! What great parents you are!

Now, a year later, Stephen and I sat side-by-side restraining cranky toddlers eager to practice their new words: "No!" and "Walk!" Our babysitter Ylenia (whose presence had been deemed necessary to keep us sane) sat behind us. In retrospect, I should have brought a bodyguard, not a Bible reading Bolivian. Just as we began taxiing onto the runway a flight attendant rushed over, claiming that we were only allowed to have one "lap baby" per row. Reluctantly, I handed Quinn, my sensitive twin, to Ylenia.

Upon take-off he became hysterical, wailing "Maaaammmmaaa." I waited for the crying to cease, for the seat belt sign to go off, for fellow passengers to stop slaying me with their looks.

Finally, my maternal instincts overcame my law-abiding ones. "Hand him over," I said.

Stephen, always the rational one, said, "I don't think that's a good idea."

"I don't care," I said, irreproachably as Mother Teresa.

Quinn's howling body was passed across the laps of strangers. At last, safely wrapped in my arms, he quieted and began chewing on the ear of his sheep, a sure sign that sleep was on the horizon.

But no. Suddenly more flight attendants swarmed down on me babbling about Transportation Security Administration's regulations and something about not enough oxygen masks per row -- as if you ever hear about anyone actually utilizing those cute yellow masks. I apologized, seats were rearranged and both babies were shushed.

Then a red-faced and righteous "Head" Flight Attendant (HFA) appeared. Talking slowly (as if I were a demented child, not a starving, overwhelmed mother). "Do you fully understand why you have to separate your babies?"

"Sure," I replied, "But the problem is solved."

This made her angrier. "Let me tell you about a number of recent crashes involving oxygen masks and babies!"

I raised my hand in protest, "I'm afraid of flying. I don't want to hear about any crashes."

"Are you threatening me?"

I am so anti-violence that rather than killing errant spiders, I trap them and set them free.

Stephen (a fellow pacifist) whispered, "Just be quiet, apologize and stop interrupting."

Furious that he would not put aside his normally calm demeanor to defend me, I let out a stream of curses in Spanish to Ylenia. Meanwhile, the boys played musical laps, kicked the seat-backs, turned their snacks into confetti and licked leftovers from the floors. They acted like other people's children -- the kind of children you hate until they become yours. All around, witnesses ignored us, like silent collaborators during the McCarthy trials.

The HFA lectured on, oblivious to the importance of early childhood sleep.

Exasperated, I finally said, "Would you please back off? I'm trying to put my babies to sleep!" The twins shrieked louder to confirm my point.

"You leave me no choice but to call federal marshals..." She stormed away in regulation blue heels, her brown hair twisted unforgivingly into a tight knot. I was stunned, parched and afraid to ask for a club soda.

As much as I've always hated New Year's Eve, jail was not exactly the exit plan I'd envisioned. Surely my arrest would only prove my family right in their belief that I was an unfit mother, an ungrateful daughter, and a left-coast freethinker who should learn to respect authority. For a moment I regretted having rejected my doctor's prescription for Valium (to assuage my fear of flying) but as I had maintained, what was the point of being sedated while crashing? I'd only lower my chances of making it to the exit in time. I didn't want to be the person in the corner saying, "Hey, the flames look really pretty in this light!"

The HFA returned, for the second time, bearing a legal document, not a Club Soda. "Since you have disrespected my authority, and you refused to listen to me, read this!"

While I had foolishly tucked two books into my bag, what with fetching discarded puppets, corralling babies and wiping baby food off my sweater, I didn't have much time left for literary activity. Instead, I entertained myself by imagining what the headlines would read in the Houston Chronicle: Airline Arrests Mother for Hugging Baby: Another Victory in the War On Terror!

Upon landing, the boys curled up into the fetal position and passed out. I was not so lucky.

At the exit door we were indeed met by a federal marshal, who stood next to my triumphant antagonist. While we attempted to strap sleeping toddlers into our double-wide stroller she launched new accusations my way, "She threatened me with a lawsuit! [False] She gave me a stomachache for the entire flight! [Huh?]"

I interrupted. "That's not true!" I had stated, If you have anything else to say could you please talk to my lawyer? Actually, I don't have a lawyer.

The marshal guided us to the end of the boarding ramp so the other passengers could exit (while enjoying the free post-flight entertainment).

In a kindly but firm Texan drawl, he said, "Ma'am, this lady has the capacity to slap you with a twenty-five thousand dollar fine. I advise that you stop interrupting her."

My family would finally be vindicated: I was going to be arrested for persistent interrupting. I stared at my peanut-smeared sneakers.

"She can't even look at me, can she?!" shrieked the HFA.

Had there been a lull in terrorist activity causing this woman to redirect her energies toward sleep-deprived mothers of twins?

Broken at last, I wept. I wept for my un-redeemable childhood. I wept for the Hallmark family reunion I would never have. I wept for all the sleepless nights that stretched out ahead of me. And as I wept, a strange thing happened -- she cracked.

"I'm not a B?@%* on a power trip," she exclaimed, perhaps echoing the words of some past accuser. "People act like flight attendants just carry drinks. We risk our lives for you!" Having vented, she seemed to feel a tiny bit better. She tore up her report and released me, exhausted, humiliated and significantly less merry.

The family drama was (by comparison) easy to take. My world-view had shifted -- It could have been worse! I was not in a Texan Jail eating grits and listening to Billy Ray Cyrus. I should thank Continental for the free-exposure therapy.

On our return flight, I was further confused when the security guards confiscated my twins' lunch: two sealed mini-containers of Jiffy Peanut Butter.

"Wow," I turned to Stephen. "They must know how dangerous toddlers can be while eating."

"Please," said my husband, giving me a pleading look. "Just keep your voice down, this time, okay?"

Thanks to the enthusiastic dedication of these flight personnel there will be one more parent abstaining from in-flight-hugging. Do you feel safer now?

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