I took my son’s passport, slid it into a plastic pouch and slung it around his neck. We were at the airport check-in and I felt like the worst mother in the world. What I really wanted to do was take a marker and write my name and phone number on his forehead.
In a few minutes, I would watch my 10-year-old walk off. This day, the one I dreaded for so many years, had arrived and I was determined not to cry.
I am the mom of an unaccompanied minor – a kid with more stamps in his passport than are in mine. The travelling came as a result of his father relocating from our home in Montreal, Canada to the Midwestern U.S. soon after our separation. Long-distance relocation and coparenting meant two long visits to his dad, one in the summer and another at Christmas. But I balked at the notion of putting my son alone on a plane.
Anthony was only four at the time. I researched airline policies regarding UMs (airline lingo for unaccompanied minors), and I discovered children under five are not allowed to travel alone. Which was great, because as far as I was concerned, the only place my son went unaccompanied was the bathroom and I wanted to keep it that way.
In the beginning, his father would pick him up and drop him off in the same way he had for his weekend visits before he moved away. The only difference was they would take two planes and return five weeks later in the summer and a week later at Christmas. By the time he was eight, Anthony had accumulated enough miles for a free trip and qualified as a frequent flier. He also met the airline’s age requirement for UMs on connecting flights. His father thought he was ready to fly alone. Guess who disagreed?
The questions consumed me as I tried to imagine his first flight alone. This flight involved a stopover and a change of aircraft. An onslaught of ‘what-ifs’ poured into my head. What if he got scared? What if a stranger approached him? What if he got lost? If airlines could lose luggage, could they lose track of a child?
When I called the airline to inquire about my son’s itinerary, the agent explained their policy and answered all of my questions. Finally, I asked the one question that was nagging me: “Would you let your child travel alone?” She replied with split-second clarity, “Not me.” I realized my issue wasn’t about understanding their policy and knowing that UM travel was not uncommon. It was simpler. I just wasn’t ready.
The reality was that Anthony was familiar with security checks, customs line-ups and other procedures that come with travelling by plane. But when I broached the subject with him over breakfast one day, his face turned as white as the milk in his cereal bowl. He said, “Mom, there’s a plane in my heart and it goes back and forth, back and forth and I don’t know how to get off.” My heart ached for him and for me as I realized there was something else going on. As much as I tried to avoid it, I knew his father had been dropping hints about him moving there. Anthony was torn and there was no way I was going to add unaccompanied travel to his plate.
A few years later, his father approached me again about the idea of Anthony travelling as a UM. He had just turned 10. Was he ready to go alone now? Was I ready? I remembered the first time he wanted to go to the corner store with his friends. From the feeling in the pit of my stomach, he might as well have asked to take the car. This time when I asked him about flying alone, he said he was ready. He also said he needed a new video game to keep him occupied during the flight.
To avoid any issues with flight cancellations or delays during the stopover, his father agreed to meet him in Dallas, the connecting city. After I filled in the necessary forms at the check-in, he practised reciting our address and phone number backwards, forwards and in three languages. I had hoped to take him to the gate but it was against security regulations. I pleaded with the agent to make an exception until I heard, “Mom, I can do it. Let me go.” For just an instant, I caught a glimpse of the young man he would be one day. I hugged him and watched until he and the agent disappeared past the security gate.
After that, I finally found some peace with the idea of Anthony flying solo until his father announced he was relocating – to Dubai, two flights and 24 hours away. Anthony did not visit his father that Christmas. It was just too far to travel without a grownup. Dubai was not only on another continent, it was a foreign country and I needed time to prepare him and myself for this trip.
But a year later, there we were at the airport check-in, waiting for Anthony to take off for Dubai, via Atlanta. I was listening to a woman grill the agent about UM procedure and quizzing her daughter on what to answer if a stranger approached her. I felt an instant bond with this mother as we watched our children walk away together. When she discovered Anthony was connecting to Dubai, she asked if I was on Valium. I felt myself smile at her comment. I was thankful for meeting her because in that moment, I knew I had come a long way. I was proud of myself for not feeling so vulnerable anymore.
I wish I could say I found a way to separate the love in my heart from the fear in my head. I haven’t. I still worry when he travels. But I’ve learned that growth can happen for both of us when we’re asked – or forced – to step outside our comfort zones.
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