Yesterday was my daughter’s last day of kindergarten. As we sat in the tiny chairs and looked through her portfolio of bright-colored drawings, stapled-together stories and assorted projects, we noticed a distinct trend: most of her drawings and quite a few of her narratives feature her older sister, Ali, drawn as a smiling stick figure with wavy hair or mentioned with lots of hearts overhead. My step-daughter, Ali, is 17 and lives with her mother, my husband’s ex-wife, about two hours away. Now that Ali’s a teenager, she is often too busy with her friends and the demands of high school to visit. She’s a warm, intelligent young woman who is a pleasure to have around, but I understand why she’d rather stay at her real home with her friends. After all, I had divorced parents and I remember how difficult it was to move from house to house, carting gym shoes and books and always worrying that I’d forgotten my homework. And when you’re a teenager, friends (and boyfriends) trump everything. I’m proud of my husband for respecting his daughter’s wishes, for not demanding his court-ordered visits. Although he misses her intensely, he cares more about her own happiness. That’s what it means to be a good parent, I think.
Still, my 6 year old daughter doesn’t understand custody arrangements, teenage priorities, or the concept of a “half” sister. To her, the tall semi-stranger who comes and goes (and may soon go far away to college) is the closest sibling she will ever know and she loves her passionately and without reservation. Ali is the person she calls out for when she’s most upset, the name she moans in tears of utter despair.
I don’t really know what role my daughter plays in Ali’s life. Does she envy this spoiled only child who has both of her parents, enjoy being the object of such worship, or neither?
My younger brother, Emile, was born when I was 16 and I know what’s it’s like to watch your father create a new family with another woman, to see him parent a child differently than he parented you. My father was a much more hands-on parent with my brother than he’d been when my sister and I were babies. But perhaps because I was already 16 when he was born, I felt more maternal than sisterly toward the crying baby, then cherubic toddler. My brother was the first child I truly loved, the first one I doted on, the first person I worried about, the first being I wanted to protect with my life. I was angry and bereft when my step-mother moved out of state with my brother.
Before I had kids myself I had lots of ideas about what was fair. I thought that the interests of the child should trump the needs of parents. I still do. But I guess now I have more sympathy for that strong desire to hold onto one’s child, the sense of unfairness of not being able to live with your child, that pain that doesn’t go away.