How my fear of flying changed with motherhood

filtered photograph of young girl throwing paper airplane into sky

By Lauren Apfel

For much of my adult life I’ve been afraid of flying. It’s takeoff that bothers me most. The thundering down the runway, the dramatic dip back. The idea of a four hundred ton machine catapulted off the ground and embraced on its way up by a flimsy scattering of clouds, as if by a long-lost friend.

It’s only since having a child I’ve become convinced there is something primal about my fear. Have you ever seen a baby exhibit the Moro reflex? Watching my newborn throw his arms out in instinctive supplication as the doctor tested him for it, as she let my son fall from her hands in a parody of cruelty, I thought to myself: maybe I’ve never outgrown this. Drop a tiny baby, just a little bit, and their defences ignite. They startle, sometimes wildly, hardwired to react to the sudden lack of substance beneath them. Babies don’t like to feel unsupported. Who does, really?


I used to fly a lot as a kid. I even used to fly alone, though more often than not it was with my older sister. We were known, in aviation lingo, as “unaccompanied minors,” a category of passenger largely comprised of the driftwood of broken homes. From New York to Charlotte, from Mom to Dad, and back again. Summers and some holidays, we would sit in that bulkhead row, specially reserved for our kind, with nobody but the stewardesses to care what we ate or when we last went to the toilet. We were the first ones onto the plane and the last ones off, our safety contingent, it seemed, on being boarded for the longest time possible. And then a parent would collect us at either end, waving from the mouth of the jet bridge as we stormed down it toward reunion. Getting on an airplane was as much about saying goodbye as it was about saying hello.

I didn’t mind flying back then. It wasn’t scary, it was boring. My dad would make these elaborate “anti-boredom kits,” puzzles and stories and such, to keep me occupied on the plane, to make the journey between lives a little bit smoother. My sister and I stayed with my mom the majority of the time. As soon as my parents decided to separate, she packed us up in her 1979 Toyota Corolla and hightailed it out of North Carolina, back to the real North, to “civilization,” as she called it. She hated the South, its lazy drawls, its looping pace. Moving there had been a compromise from the start. When the marriage ended, so did her commitment to stay. I was two years old.

In the beginning, my dad used to come to us, his rental car shiny and foreign in the driveway of our Long Island home, the one we moved into when my mom re-married fairly quickly after the divorce. I can only imagine what those scenes must have been like, the handing over of their shared precious cargo, the aftershocks of anger from the dissolution of a thirteen-year-old pact still pulsing in the air between them. I have no real memory of it, other than a sense of adventure at the prospect of sleeping in a hotel a mere matter of miles from my own bed or at my grandfather’s place further upstate, with its eclectic art on the walls and dusty stacks of Reader’s Digest. Nor do I remember how old I was exactly when we started travelling to my dad’s house by ourselves.

I was young, that’s for sure. By today’s standards of parenting, where nine-year-olds aren’t allowed to walk to school without supervision, I was impossibly young. I was small enough at one point not to understand what the prefix “anti” meant, scrawled as it was on the cover of my “anti-boredom kit” in my dad’s unmistakable hand. But I was old enough towards the end to be annoyed with him for trying to save money on airfare by buying flights with stopovers. “It’s raining in Philadelphia,” I said to him once, not kindly, after a long layover there in which I wasn’t allowed off the plane, in which I was left, for hours, watching the rivulets of water streak down my little oval window like tears. “I shouldn’t know that.”


I think my fear of flying began when I became, officially, no longer a minor. I moved abroad to the UK as soon as I graduated college and found I was almost always travelling by myself. Twenty-two years old, I wasn’t considered “unaccompanied” anymore, I was simply alone. And perhaps that’s what was frightening. Starting again in a foreign country, I felt the loss of support anew and I thrust out my arms in protest. But I didn’t stop boarding planes. I couldn’t if I wanted to see my family, to keep my old life in touching distance. Armed with an Ambien or a Xanax I got from a friend, I routinely took to the skies in a fog of narcotics and red wine.


By the time he was three years old, my first child was already a seasoned flyer. In a box I keep filled with souvenirs from his earliest days, there are several sets of “wings,” those iconic pins small children are given by flight attendants to make them feel special or to shut them up or a bit of both. When he was an infant, three months if that, I travelled with him from Glasgow to New York, taking care to reserve the bulkhead row I was so familiar with from my own childhood. Far from being unaccompanied, however, my son was tucked snuggly into the bassinet affixed to the wall there, with both of his parents hovering over him. Rearranging blankets or resting a reassuring hand on his body as the plane began to lurch.

How much easier it was to ignore my own pounding heart amidst the turbulence when I was worrying about his instead. The plane journeys when my son was young took less of a toll on me for exactly that reason: the distraction of new motherhood, its uncanny ability to displace sources of fear. Takeoff still made me prickle with anxiety, but as with everything else at the time, my own emotions were dampened by concern for somebody else’s. For the baby guzzling at my breast in an effort to stop his ears from popping. For the toddler fretting loudly in the confines of a Boeing 747 bathroom, because he didn’t like the feel of enclosed spaces.

I often flew alone with my son, as the only adult, and, in time, with his baby brother in tow. This was a consequence of being an expat, but also of marrying across borders. I wanted to spend longer patches in the US than my husband did or than he was able to take off from work to accommodate. So I loaded up the kids myself, unaccompanied once more (at least in a metaphorical sense), and we cried and nursed and wiped and colored and snacked our way over the Atlantic Ocean. On those trips, there was no time to be afraid. Nothing keeps fear at bay like overflowing hands.


My oldest son is almost twelve now and, whenever we fly together, we hold hands until the plane has settled into its cruising altitude. It’s for my sake, not his, he knows this as much as I do. He humors me, more or less reluctantly, depending on how engrossed he is with his iPad as the engines start to roar. He shows no signs of being afraid himself, the Moro reflex long since outgrown. I think back to how he used to startle in his sleep and I wonder if this is just a holding pattern, as it was for me. A period before the dangers of life become apparent, before he is truly conscious of his own mortality. A period when the blissful ignorance of youth acts as a shield against the vector of fear.

When I flew alone before I had kids, what I was afraid of was death: the sick feeling of plummeting to the ground and the stretched-thin moments of awareness before metal met earth. Now when I fly alone, I fear something bigger. I fear leaving my children motherless. Which is why I am happiest flying with them—calmed by the knowledge that, if the plane does fall from the sky, the things I love best in the world will fall down with me.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is a much better flyer than she once was, but still likes to hold one of her kids’ hands during takeoff. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This piece was adapted from Brain, Child Magazine.

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