Which Pilot Are You?

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
03/08/24  11:14 AM PST
child on tube feeding

We’ve been traveling a great deal recently in comparison to the almost zero travel we did during the pandemic. We’re getting out! And now that springtime is nearing, the endless wide open schedule of summer is calling us. Every July we fly to Colorado. We drove once and once was enough. I will never get those nineteen hours back. Flying is the way to go and I’ve always loved to fly. I love the free snacks and the people watching and the antics of the flight attendants (we fly Southwest where every announcement is a song and dance). But I know some people are skittish flyers and sometimes it can be downright scary.

Recently, I was listening to an interview with Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist based in New York. If you have young kids, you’ve probably heard of Dr. Becky. She’s all over Instagram. I don’t read parenting books. I don’t subscribe to Parenting Magazine or any of the others. But I’ve fallen a little in love with Dr. Becky. She’s no nonsense and pretty chill and her advice is easily digested. In the interview I was listening to, she was describing an analogy that I will do my best to relay to you now…

You’re on a plane and oops, you feel that dip in your stomach and it’s not just a little dip, it’s the gut plunge of some serious turbulence. Pilot #1 gets on the intercom and makes this announcement: “STOP SCREAMING! I CAN’T FOCUS! YOU ARE LITERALLY THE WORST PASSENGERS EVER!” That would be terrible, of course.

Now imagine the exact same scenario, but pilot #2 gets exasperated and dismissive and says, “I can’t believe you’re freaking out about this. There is absolutely nothing to worry about. Get over it.” Also terrible and maybe extra terrible for the attitude.

Here comes the last pilot, pilot #3, who calmly says, “Yes, there is turbulence. It’s scary. I get it. But I’ve done this before and we’re all going to be okay.”

Obviously, we’d all want the last pilot. And perhaps more obviously, we’d want to be that kind of parent—the kind that stays calm and acknowledges the feelings of the kid having the meltdown, but doesn’t let it make them react.

I so very much want to be pilot/parent #3. I am so very not.

With Charlie, my oldest who has special needs that involve sensory triggers such as sound, I watch the sound of a barking dog send him into a spiral that triggers tears and twenty-minutes’ worth of walking alongside him while he circles his wheelchair in a quiet space until the zing of the stimulus fades. I see it coming and I feel it too. I feel that zing. His cries trigger my tears. My voice wobbles while I try to calm him and he feels my wobbliness. I want to be steady, but we are both ready to topple.

Perhaps it’s because of all the trauma of his early years – the months and months in the NICU, the emergency surgeries and seizures and ambulance rides – I feel like he’s had his fair share of hardship and shouldn’t have to deal with more. We both should get a free pass from now on out, but that’s not how the universe works. Conflict will come. Dogs will bark. Vacuums will vacuum. Kids will scream in excitement and startle him. I need to be a steadier. This is something I’m working on. He needs to feel safe to panic without worrying that it will trigger a panic in me. My sweet Charlie needs me to be that third pilot.

But one last thing I like Dr. Becky for is that she fully admits she’s not that last pilot half the time. She’s a mess like me. Thank goodness. I don’t have to get it perfectly right. I just have to have the notion of what the right way is and give it my best. If I don’t expect Charlie to be perfect, than I cannot ask that of myself. So here’s my Dr. Becky-esque advice: go with grace and knowledge into the turbulence, do what you can to safely land that plane, and then let the rest go.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.

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