In answer to your question ...
‘DON’T YOU MISS your daughter?” It’s not a particularly rude question. Each person who asks me is genuinely curious, a little bit concerned. Sometimes, I consider responding honestly: “Well, yes. In fact, I fight against the wild urge to kidnap the 11-year-old girls I see on the playground.” But by now my answer is shorthand: “I do, but we are all thriving.” Both answers are true, though neither is all that relevant to the rage that flashes up now, when the question has been posed hundreds of times.
They wouldn’t be asking if I were divorced and had lost custody, or if I were mourning the circumstances that had prevented me from having a child, or if my child had died. But my situation is not normal. We chose this. My husband and child are in Norway for the year, while I stayed behind in Boston.
I have started to imagine all sorts of subtexts to the question. Some younger women seem to be asking, “Will I ever have a child, or is it just too hard?” Sometimes mothers ask, “Is it possible that I’m not necessary?” Fathers wonder, “Will my wife saddle me with the kids?” Couples worry, “Can we ever make this work?” The most cheering subtext is the one I sometimes think I hear from an attractive man, “Are you available?” The most poignant one comes from older feminists, “Did we do all right for you?” The harshest just sounds like, “Are you a bad mother?”
But the reality is that my husband and I weren’t aware of all the ramifications when we decided I should go to graduate school first. We couldn’t afford to do it simultaneously. We might have vaguely realized, back then, that once I finished my PhD and got a job, I’d be the primary breadwinner for a few years while he was in school. Later, when our daughter was born, we were surprised how important financial stability had become. It was also a bit of a shock that I was the one who could get a good job, eventually tenure, a stable income.
When I got a Fulbright fellowship to Norway in 2001, all three of us went. My husband could work on his dissertation there easily enough. But when he was offered a Fulbright for this year, I couldn’t leave. It’s not simply that I love my job; it’s also that we need it.
And so we had to decide where Annelise should spend the year. For her, it didn’t feel like a choice between parents. It was a choice between staying home or exploring the great world.
One option was a familiar neighborhood where kids must be supervised at all times, driven from soccer to swim practice and back to the shelter of the Disney Channel. The other was a neighborhood where 11-year-olds have Pippi-Longstocking-style freedom to play in the park, to go out for cocoa, to ride the bus alone. She chose adventure.
We, her parents, would have chosen the same if she had asked us because, on top of the great educational opportunity, it’s easier to be a single parent in Pippi-world than it is in Lizzie Maguire world. None of us is happy about the separation. But it was our best choice this year.
I’m not sure why it worries everybody else so much. They are curious, I think, about the possibility that families are changing. Some are blind to the economic reality that I’m the primary breadwinner. Others are terrified by it. All want to be reassured that I do miss my child. They are afraid maybe I don’t. They want to know what the possibilities are for families. Can men and women really share parenting? Can women care about their professional lives and their family lives without becoming strange and distorted human beings? What will happen to those women’s daughters? How is the new global family going to look? What will it feel like?
To me, it feels strange and difficult and, ultimately, worthwhile. I miss my daughter. It’s hard when she’s too happily absorbed in her own life to talk to me. When she does call me in tears, I’m fiercely joyful that she needs me (finally me, not her dad!), and desolate that all I can offer is a few minutes of phone conversation.
But it’s been a good year for me professionally, and even personally. I do love my work. It’s been great to be able to concentrate on doing it. Although it’s hard to come home late to an empty house, it’s fabulous to have a scotch and cheese and crackers for dinner. It’s also been a good year for my husband, who likes having a prestigious job, and for my daughter, who is growing into a remarkable person. All of us are stronger and more independent.
These answers are true. But if you ask me, “Don’t you miss your daughter?” I might just answer with a question of my own: Why are you so worried about this?