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Those Times I Have to Embrace the Suck

There's a lot to love about raising children abroad: having children who can speak two languages, who hold multiple passports and who get to experience diversity and multiculturalism on a daily basis.

The downside is being far away from family and friends—which we try to make up for by visiting both Ireland, where my husband is from, and America every year.

Just over four and a half years ago, before I had children, this was hardly a sacrifice. I have a brother-in-law who flies for a commercial airline, and this enables me to avail of buddy passes when I fly—which puts me on standby but often lands me in business class.

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And that is divine: from the welcome champagne to the fully reclining, pod-like seats to the quality meals served on actual porcelain. I was once the only business class passenger still awake and a flight attendant could not stop seeking out my subconscious wants. A glass of wine? Another pillow? A chocolate sundae? Don't mind if I do.

Now I have three children, all of whom have done at least one transatlantic trip. With children there's no business class, no champagne, no midnight sundaes. You shove a stale bread roll in your mouth with your free hand when you get a chance, and you don't bother with the wine because you worry the other passengers will judge you (and it would only spill anyway).

There's no reading, no getting work done, no relaxing. Both my daughter and son mastered the art of walking while cruising at 35,000 feet or so over the Atlantic Ocean. This meant 8 hours of doing laps around the cabin, which is big fun, especially when you are—as I was in both instances—six months' pregnant at the time.

I have arrived at a mantra for the trip that I think can pull me through. It came from something my brother-in-law once said: embrace the suck.

I used to be the passenger I imagined others wanted to be seated with—I'm pretty small, I always carry a book, and I really just keep to myself on airplanes. But I'm in a new category now: the person others hope they are seated nowhere near.

My first realization of this struck me a couple years ago as I was sitting on a plane with my then infant daughter. A guy in his late 20s boarded and plunked down next to us. My first thought—a remnant from earlier times—was, great, now he's going to chat to me the whole flight.

Because yeah, this guy wants to hit on the 40-year-old covered in Cheerios with a baby on her lap.

When you travel with small children, you hope they will read their books quietly and fall into a soft slumber, but that's the kind of optimism that leaves you feeling there must be a trick to it that you just haven't discovered (or that you're just not a very clever mom). Or that maybe slipping them a Benedryl wouldn't be so bad.

Next week, I'll be embarking on a three-city, 12-day American vacation with my 4- and 3-year-olds, and I'll be doing this by myself. I'm excited for the trip, but wary of the travel. Which makes me feel a bit of a wimp.

This should be in my blood—my mother flew every summer with my sister and me from our infancies to her native Ireland from wherever we lived at the time.

That was the '70s when, although security was no doubt less of an ordeal, there was limited accessibility for strollers in airports, people smoked on airplanes, and they only showed one movie on a big screen. (This would be problematic for me, as my main plan of attack is to allow my children to binge-watch television for as long as the service is available.)

Last year I flew from Amsterdam to Chicago with my youngest—she was 2 months old, and there was a lot of feeding, bouncing and pacing. Throughout this, I spent time considering the girl across the aisle from me, who flipped with disdain from one movie choice to the next while sipping a cabernet: bored, impatient.

No way is she a mother, I thought, or she'd surely indulge in 10 hours alone, sitting in a chair with wine and entertainment. That in itself seemed like a nice holiday to me.

And now I'm bracing myself for another long journey at the emotional will of a couple of children who can be so delightful but who will no doubt be bored, frequently need to pee, spill juice, argue about something stupid and not sleep for more than a half hour.

The Internet is full of tips for traveling with toddlers, which I've read. And I agree with a lot of it—arriving in plenty of time to the airport, keeping your child active and awake right up to boarding time, not loading them up with sugar. Logical.

For this trip, I've bought new books and puzzles and have talked a lot with the children about what it will be like on the plane and how we will behave. But I'm not going to be naïve and imagine there's a way to guarantee this goes well from take-off to landing.

Instead, I have arrived at a mantra for the trip that I think can pull me through. It came from something my brother-in-law once said: embrace the suck.

It's a military expression that basically means however gruelling or boring or exhausting a task is, you've just got to get through it.

There's no reading, no getting work done, no relaxing.

Embrace the suck instead of trying to resist it or fight it. Because the point is not whether it's going to suck: it's going to suck—for them, for me, for the people next to us. The point is, it needs to be done and I need to be on top of things.

If I accept it that it's going to be challenging at times, I can keep myself focused on getting everyone through it. I can keep my sense of humour. I can only make it worse if I get impatient or embarrassed or flustered, or try to hurry them or get them to understand how stressed I am likely to be feeling.

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My main task is to keep them as content as possible and to try to predict and assuage any emotional outbursts or tantrums, and to enjoy the time with my children as much as I can. Someday, I may get back to my business class comforts. But for now, this is what travel means.

And acknowledging that makes me cautiously optimistic.

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Photo by Rudi Wells.

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