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Man of the House

Mistakes on a Plane

Our favorite primary caregiver wonders why his wife gets to fly home in blissful solitude, while he is left schlepping two kids across the country for Christmas.

Written By Nick Morton
Illustration Adam Nickel

You’ve probably witnessed this scene before: a mom making a transcontinental flight with two unruly kids in tow. She is at her wit’s end, barely keeping it together amid the Cheerio container explosions and the wails from high-altitude pressure on infant eardrums. Then the curtains part, and in from Business Class walks a man with a spy thriller in one hand and a tumbler of Scotch in the other.

“How are my people doing?” he says exuding the bonhomie of Cary Grant — and you realize this is the husband. He has consigned his wife and children to steerage, so he could have some Mile-High Me Time. You are overcome with conflicting emotions: disgust at this Diamond Medallion-level, douche-nozzle but also feeling a smidge of envy, fantasizing about what it might be like.

The last time this happened to me — on my annual holiday haj from Los Angeles to the East Coast — I turned to the poor woman and commiserated, “At least he’ll be there to help you out at baggage claim.” The bitter-sweet reality for me is that now that my wife has an enviable and demanding career as an award-winning costume designer she is often too swamped to get away at all. And when she does manage to escape, she pretty much always tries to fly home on a separate flight.

How did this happen?

It wasn’t long ago that my wife toiled away at the drudgery of raising kids while I escaped to my gig as a mid-level studio drone in the movie business. Back then, I often had to leave my kids screaming with soggy diapers and jam crusted fingers right in the middle of breakfast to go meet a difficult director over a plate of sous-vide eggs and warm crusty bread.

And when it came to the annual march to the east coast for the holidays, my wife was at least a comrade-in-arms with whom I could trade war stories over tankards of ale once we were safely ensconced beside the fire. Back then when the kids were barely walking, we’d pull up at LAX in a taxi van with two children in car seats and the adrenaline would hit my bloodstream like an 8-ball of coke. I could literally feel my throat closing up from the chemicals. I’d jump out of the van like a Viking berserker hurling bags around as if my primordial strength were something close to a match for the monumental indifference of failed seat assignments, weather delays and lost diaper bags.

"I’d jump out of the van like a Viking berserker hurling bags around as if my primordial strength were something close to a match for the monumental indifference of failed seat assignments, weather delays and lost diaper bags."

But then things changed. It began at the end of my wife, Marie’s, first really big job which – no coincidence here – marked the start of my slippery slide into the role of primary caregiver. We were both exhausted and were flying East for a break. The plane was overbooked, and we were informed that one member of the family would have to wait for the next flight. I drew the short straw, and it is hard to articulate the sheer force of will that went into maintaining my poker face as my wife and kids hugged me good-bye, worrying that I would be lonely traveling by myself.

Marie says it was only as she was somewhere over Idaho, struggling in the cramped lavatory to change my son’s eco-diaper (pro tip: get the most absorbent, environmentally destructive brand for all cross-country travel) that she realized how badly she’d been played I was – I believe – just finishing off my second Cinnabon about then as I tucked into the latest collection of essays by David Sedaris. Three hours later, her triceps cramping as she bounced our 18-month old son for the 984th time, she resolved this would never happen again.

So when December rolled along, Marie seemed to have a perfectly valid reason for why our son, Waller, daughter, Georgia, and I needed to get on a plane 20 hours before she departed. As Marie pointed out, there’s no need for you to wait around for me to finish this project thing-y when you could be home in New Jersey with my parents. It’s not totally clear what vital task she needed to accomplish in that brief time, but it was important enough that she also claimed she needed to return 20 hours before us to get back to work.

This is not to say she contributed nothing to our cross-country trek. In fact, I arrived at LAX carrying an extra piece of luggage: a canvas bag she had packed to the brim with 40 pounds worth of picture books, art supplies and plastic figurines that I would haul thru the airport steeling myself for six straight hours of cheery pantomime and nursery rhymes droned through gritted teeth.

It turned out to be a journey of self-discovery. Here are four things I learned:

1. No amount of preparation or training can ready you for the three thousand lunges required to retrieve Hot Wheels from the airplane floor and return them to the tray table in front of your 6-year-old.

2. I am NOT that guy who hands out little baggies of treats replete with earplugs and apologetic notes to the people in the seats around us. How much do those people hate themselves, anyway?

3. In fact, I’m so amped up by the time we get on the plane, I’m hankering for a fight. When the passenger in front of me craned his neck dramatically a few too many times — I’ve seen soccer players take dives that looked less fraught — I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, buddy, they’re kids, alright? They bought tickets. They have as much right to be here as you do. You should just be thankful they’re not vomiting right now.”

4. Beware the attack radius of a parent in an airport at Christmastime. It exceeds that of a wild grizzly bear.

And it seems every trip since Marie has tried to come up with some dubious excuse to send me ahead with the children while she finishes up her work. Sure, it’s true the kids love the veggie chili served at the rink on family night in New Jersey, but I’m not sure it amounts to a “sacred Morton tradition.” We’d all survive if we missed it so we could all fly home on the same plane. On the one hand, it seems pretty likely we’re getting played. On the other, she does have a brutal job and if a little economy-plus nap time supports the illusion that the scales are even, maybe we won’t let on that we are perhaps better off without her.

I mean, have you ever tried to lift a costume designer’s suitcase? Or remind a boss as they dictate which rideshare service to use and where to catch it that you do not, in fact, work in her wardrobe department? It’s not easy. In fact, sometimes it seems a lot simpler to just be the boss, yourself — even if the only people under your command are a 9-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl.

So what if the evolving parenting paradigm necessitates bifurcated parental travel and whole a host of new yuletide rites? Veggie chili? I’m in! “Happy Holidays!” I merrily exclaim to that 40-pound canvas bag that has miraculously transformed itself into an eight-ounce mini iPad. Not only will it carry all the books, art supplies and figurines, it will also sing and pantomime without complaint for the entire flight. And as DIY slime videos and homemade ASMR recordings quietly melt the brains of the boarding pass holders for seats 36A and B, 36C will blissfully enjoy the entirety of seasons three and four of “Better Call Saul” uninterrupted.

Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.