My 9-week-old daughter was lying, docile and stinky, in the crook of my arm on a flight from Hartford, Conn., to Atlanta. I had prepared, like a warrior for battle, for this and every other possible complication.
I was flying alone. "I can do this," I told myself, as I moved to the restroom through an obstacle course of elbows and dozing heads. "I am a successful, multitasking professional."
As I opened the door to the lavatory, that tiny space I'd visited hundreds of times as a child-free business traveler, I looked for something I'd never bothered to check for: the changing table. Of course there would be one, right? This was a three-hour flight. Babies on planes are a cliche — like snakes, only louder and smellier. There wasn't.
"Why don't you change her in your seat?" she asked.
"I'm by myself. I'm a new mom. I don't know how to do that," I said, feeling my chest tighten. I could only imagine the collateral damage to the hapless guy in the window seat during a No. 2 emergency.
Finally, the flight attendant relented and let me change my daughter on the galley floor.
On the return flight, one of her surlier colleagues refused me the same "privilege." Thirty thousand feet up, I was learning that air travel is one of the most inhospitable experiences for mothers with small children, especially moms who travel for work. Gone are the days when I would stride onto a plane in heels, with headphones and a cute handbag, en route to speaking engagements around the country to advise parents on how to raise more assertive daughters.
As an author and educator, I flew several times a month before I became a mother. Today, as I have cut back on my work travel, the frequent-flier perks that would make my life easier as a traveling mom have evaporated.
Now, after I chide my audiences of helicopter parents to stop worrying about their girls' every social hiccup, I return to an airplane that pretends my kid doesn't exist. While I tell parents to model assertive behavior — such as sending back food in a restaurant or sharing feelings about something that matters — that may embarrass their self-conscious daughters, making a scene resembling a Jackson Pollock creation in a middle seat on Flight 3462 isn't what I had in mind.
Though I'm a mother, I am trying not to scale back on my career. I am a single mother by choice, and like millions of women doing it alone, there is no second lap on which to lay a baby for an in-flight diaper change.
The world I have entered as a traveling mother is filled with indignities I never noticed before giving birth. I knew that motherhood wasn't the focus of many second-wave feminists eager to get women a seat in the boardroom. But if the personal is political, then so are poopy diapers at 30,000 feet.
I still nurse my now-11-month-old daughter, which means I have to pump milk when she stays home with her nanny or my mom, who visits once a month from suburban Washington to help out. There are no private places to use an electric pump in airports, unless you buy an expensive day pass to an airline lounge or sit on the sticky floor of a "family friendly" restroom with an electrical outlet. (I have done both.)
It is time for airlines to catch up to what women need. In the meantime, I'm thinking that next time I'm stuck in an airport, I might plop down to pump some breast milk next to someone charging his laptop.
Rachel Simmons is the author, most recently, of "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence."
© 2013 Washington Post