I Recently Flew with My 5-Year-Old: All Parents Live in Fear of the Shame Inflicted on the Popcorn Mom

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It’s the plane popcorn incident gone viral: A pregnant mom—who turned out to be the sister of country singer Jessie James Decker and wife of Toronto Blue Jays’ pitcher Anthony Bass—was flying solo with her two kiddos (ages 5 and 2) on a United flight when her daughter spilled popcorn in the aisle.

A flight attendant rushed over, not to help, but to hand Sydney Rae Bass, the mom, a trash bag and instructions: Captain’s orders, you need to clean up every drop. (This was all reported by Sydney’s sister in a now-expired IG story; Sydney’s husband also took to Twitter to vent about the incident.)

Needless to say, the Internet went nuts with quite polarized views on the incident. (They range from how dare the flight attendant make a pregnant woman get on her hands and knees to pick up popcorn kernels to they’re your kids—clean the damn mess.)

Before I dive into my own opinion, let me preface this by saying that I fully respect the difficult duties of flight attendants and wasn’t aboard this particular flight to know the full circumstances of what went down. Still, it struck a chord after my own recent flight with my 5-year-old: The fear parents absorb to keep their kids calm and contained while up in the air is visceral and real.

Ironically, my flight was also with United, about an hour and a half in length. The circumstances were quite different: I’m not pregnant and only have one kid. I also had my husband with me. Two adults to one child. Seems manageable, right?

Except it’s not. Long lines at the airport (it was spring break after all) and travel restrictions to keep the plane safe (like no liquids until you get past security) mean that you’re already spending time negotiating with a kid who is doing their best to stretch beyond their routine. Potty break mid-airport security line? No can do. You need a sip of water? Sorry, mommy had to dump it when we checked into our flight—we’ll refill as soon as we get to our gate.

Yes, we all have to endure these travel “hardships”, but my point is that—just like grown-ups—the patience of a child can run thin. Unlike grownups, they have less experience keeping their moods in check.

After all that, you board the plane. In my case, I do everything within my power to keep my son happy and set up for success. We talk about the experience ahead of time, I load up on snacks and pack activities for the plane. (Fun fact: These Melissa & Doug reusable stickers are the gift that keeps on giving.) Worst case, I have a screen and fully charged Bluetooth headphones at the ready. On our flight to Charleston—which was bumpy—we marathoned Bluey, but without a stable place to lean our tablet, I contorted my body to hold it for the duration.

The entire time, there was a fear living inside of me: Keep the peace! Don’t disturb others! Don’t let your child moodily exist!

When we landed, the couple behind me actually complimented us: Your child was so well-behaved. I beamed.

But therein lies the problem: A fear of mom shaming shouldn’t guide our every public move. Parents are doing their best. A disclaimer I’d like to attach to this: I am the mom that grabs every piece of trash—kid-related or not—and disposes of it properly (heck, I’ll stuff it in my purse) before deboarding a plane. I check for crumbs, too. I work hard to not leave a trace.

Again, I didn’t witness directly what happened with Sydney, but can’t we give her the benefit of the doubt that she had similar intentions here? That she, like so many of us, was trying her darndest to keep her kids in check. Maybe she was even going to clean up the mess once her kids had settled down in front of a screen or for a rest? If what is being reported is true, there wasn’t a need to rush over with a reprimand. A trash bag and a helping hand, maybe. Also, some empathy that traveling with kids is hard. (Did any of the nearby passengers offer to help? Why hasn’t that made any headlines?)

Bottom line: Travel—heck, any experience outside the home with kids—can feel like a tightrope walk. The more grace others can apply, the better.

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Rachel Bowie

Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...
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