Across the Universe: Musings from the Evil Stepmother

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Like most mothers, I want my daughter to see the world. I’ve always dreamed she would spread her wings, experience different cultures and environments, and develop a sense of herself in the biggest possible way. But in those dreams, I’m the one who has the privilege of showing her, at least while she’s still a child. Next month, T. will travel to Israel with her dad’s new in-laws for a family tour.


When T.’s dad and new stepmother brought up the trip and asked my permission to take T. with them, I immediately said, “Absolutely. What an incredible opportunity for her.”


And it is, I know it is. 


As thrilled as I am that she has this opportunity, I can’t help envisioning myself as a stowaway in her carry-on bag, wedged between her beloved stuffed dog and her Game Boy, trailing behind her family with a bag over my head so no one will realize I’m there.


T. turned eight just a few weeks ago. How can I let her travel to the other side of the world without me? It’s too far away. I’m having the kind of separation anxieties that haven’t plagued me since she started pre-school. I’m not a helicopter parent—I work full time and I am just not put together in such a way that I find it satisfying for either myself or my daughter to spend endless stretches of time in each other’s company. But the idea that I couldn’t reach her without an entire day’s air travel has sent me back to memories of the first time she took a bottle. She was six weeks old; I expressed milk and gave the baby and the bottle to my mother. T. drank with gusto, my mother beamed with pride, and I burst into sobs.


“I’m so happy that I’ll have some freedom,” I remember weeping, “but I’m so unhappy that I’ll have some freedom!”


That paradox of new motherhood feels fresh all over again.


I had a mini-preview of the Israel trip over Presidents’ Day holiday, when T.’s dad and stepmother took her to Florida to visit her stepmother’s parents. At first I didn’t think anything much of the trip—just another weekend she’d be with her dad instead of me, tack on a couple of days at the end. I was used to this. But on her second day away, she called on the phone to announce:


“My tooth came out!” and I wanted to burst into tears. I was jealous that a different tooth fairy would visit her pillow that evening. (And, it turned out, a more generous one. I guess the premium on lost teeth is higher in Florida than it is in the New York metropolitan area.)


This small jealousy roused a greater one: my jealousy that I won’t be the parent to see her eyes grow wide in Jerusalem’s marketplace when she sees the mix of cultures, smells and tastes new foods, views ancient monuments, and hears different languages. Her first time out of the United States is happening once only, and her father and stepmother get that memory. There again, the constant reminder that the saddest part of divorce for a parent is you only get some—not all—of the experiences during these brief childhood years. I knew I was trading them away when I made the terrible and hard decision to end my marriage to her father, but I didn’t make the trade happily.


It doesn’t help matters that my husband and I are currently not in a position to travel, either ourselves or with our kids. It won’t take long for T. to notice the contrast between her lifestyles at her parents’ two houses. I know, I know—the material goods don’t matter, it’s the love and security and she has that aplenty with us. But while I’m on the subject of jealousy, it would be disingenuous of me to deny those twinges. 


So I’ll let her go, send her off with hugs and kisses as she boards the plane, and be happy that she’s among the lucky few who get a chance like this so young.


But honestly, I’ll be happier when she’s back at home with me. And there will be a part of me that will always wish I had had the chance to watch as she spread those wings of hers across the whole wide world.


Read last month’s column: Anatomy of a Sofa


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