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I boarded a flight home and sat next to a woman with her small baby. The woman was panicking. She was trying to modulate her breathing, but she was sweating, and I could smell the stress on her breath, and then her baby started crying. As we started to take off, she grabbed my hand. We hadn't made eye contact at this point - we didn't share a language, she was an Orthodox Jew and spoke only Hebrew, I was a cynical Londoner who only spoke internet - but she squeezed my hand and I knew what to do. I asked if she wanted me to take her baby and she quickly shuffled him on to my lap, then put her head between her knees, her hand still gripping mine. Soon, the baby stopped crying, and I sang gentle songs to him, and though this wasn't recent, it remains maybe the best flight experience of my life.
Which is why a new cultural development has not just irritated me but left me ... baffled? When a Facebook post went viral - a mother who was flying from Seoul to San Francisco with a four-month-old baby handed out 200 sets of ear plugs to her fellow passengers before they took off - I fell down an internet hole and couldn't climb out. I found myself on a Pinterest page called Baby's First Flight Goodie Bags. These were a little like the going-home bags children receive at the end of a party, but where those would typically contain a dense glob of cake and bright piece of unidentifiable plastic destined to become the final thing we see as it floats past us on the wave of molten effluvia just before the world ends, these contained ear plugs, a pack of mints and a note. "Hello, new friend!" the note might say, the words often printed in Comic Sans to signify a child's voice. "I might be good, I might be bad, I'm sorry if I make you mad! I might cry or wet my pants, so I'd like to apologise in advance. Love, Crittal, nine months old."
The response to the Seoul mother's thoughtfulness was pink and bathed in light, and soundtracked with a chorus of awww's. People loved it. But me, no. I understand the aww-ers, the "kindness of strangers"-ers, the people sharing this woman's frantic attempts to make her flight like, 8% less awful, and a sign of how not all people are selfish beasts. But by approving this behaviour, they're revealing and reinforcing expectations of how a parent should behave, and triggering an inevitable flood of further attempts by parents to placate passengers, before then placating the kid. This is a trend that will swell in size until it swallows trains, too, then buses, then bikes. George and Amal Clooney did it when travelling with their twins (the headphones were branded with the logo of George's tequila company, which was a nice touch), and Niall Horan (formerly of One Direction) tweeted in awe about finding a baby's care package on his seat. In time, upon sight of a child, passengers will line up stony-faced to receive their charming pre-apology snacks.
There is no part of me that thinks a mother, having a weekend alone before a long-haul flight, would chuckle to herself, "Ha, this will be delightful," before meticulously building a production line of small things, bought in bulk, and then, after a two-hour trip to the airport, having woken at four, joyously sprinkling them on strangers' seats. Nope. Instead, the anxiety will have started approximately one month before, a dawn-seeing teeth-grinding frantically Googling worry about other people's discomfort, and then, what it says about her. They will resent her, they will expose her as a bad mother, they will groan, and turn, and stare. Like a pearl, which is born of animal pain yet is shared and sold in wonder, this bag of ear plugs and don't-hate-me's may emerge as a kind gesture, but it is created in a state of fear.
Phew. Who knew I'd have so much bile for a bag of sweets? The reason it annoys me so much is that it's another way to garnish yet more horror on an already extremely stressful experience, and layers further expectations of perfection on to a person who is struggling.
A year after holding the stranger's baby, I flew with my own, who screamed, of course, and I tried not to make eye contact with my fellow passengers, stranded on the Gatwick tarmac. But soon a stranger offered her some fruit, and another smiled at me so warmly I welled up.
We should not feel bad when babies act like babies. We should, however, question why adults must be treated like children. Rather than a gesture of true human kindness, to me this goody bag looks like a sign of the opposite. It's a sign that parents expect only bad looks from people rinsed of empathy, and have scrabbled for days to try to counter them.
For me, the suggestion that mothers will now be expected not just to parent their infant child but an entire plane full of strangers leaves a bitterness that no mint could sweeten.
- Guardian News and Media 2019