Last weekend I watched our eight-year old daughter board a plane alone, her ticket in a plastic sheath around her neck, her pink and white Pottery Barn backpack filled with enough books and snacks to last far longer than the ninety-minute flight to Kansas City. I had spent the past month convincing her that spending two weeks with her grandparents and cousin and attending Shakespeare Camp would be an adventure, and almost as much time reassuring my nervous husband of the safety of her flying as an “unaccompanied minor.”
As I have mentioned in previous columns, I am more comfortable than my husband in giving our daughter freedom. So I was unprepared for how bereft I would feel as she walked confidently into the boarding ramp and out of my sight. I, who had not shed a tear on her first day of kindergarten, sobbed into my bewildered husband’s arms, inconsolable. Because, for the first time since she was born, I could now imagine her leaving me.
This past year, as I’ve been caught up in a whirlwind of professional activities, I have been gone from home quite a bit. At my urging, my husband has been taking on more parenting duties. And I am incredibly grateful that, after devoting much of my time to her early years, I have the luxury to experience a second wind, an exciting renewal in my career.
My husband’s first marriage ended when their daughter was four; he has never been the custodial parent. He never got to watch his daughter ride the school bus, or go on her first date. She is now nineteen and he has had to face the fact that she will never live with him. He also lost his own father to divorce, when he was ten, and remained with his mother as the custodial parent. I’ve sometimes wondered if he’s held himself back from our daughter, having learned that fathers are secondary, that mothers are the primary caregivers, and that a beloved child sometimes must be emotionally let go.
I had a radically different experience. When my parents divorced in the early 70s, my father remained part of our daily lives. Until he died in 2001, I talked to my father weekly; he was my closest confidant. I’ve probably been self-righteous about both my closeness to my father and my inability to imagine not living with my daughter. “I could never do that,” I stated smugly when my husband described his pain at being separated from his elder daughter.
But it’s not always that simple.
And so it was with joy that I watched our daughter “discover” her father this year. She crumples with delight at his corny jokes, exclaims that he's the handsomest, strongest man on earth, and sometimes gets jealous when he wants to spend time alone with me.
When I got pregnant I promised my husband that, whatever happened to our marriage, I would never take our daughter away from him. That he would be part of her daily life. Pledging this had felt magnanimous. But perhaps it was a longing to never let my own father go. And a plea to keep my daughter with me always.