by Beth Burrell
My daughter has another mother.
I met her last month when I visited my daughter on her college study abroad program in South America. Her new mother is lively and effusive, fun and generous, warmth radiating from her open arms. In a word: like my daughter.
I knew when she boarded the plane in February for Chile that my daughter would soon be living with a host family, but these were abstract words. Comforting but somehow unreal, promising something that neither my husband nor I had ever experienced. We’d never lived abroad during college with another family. Our older two children hadn’t either. And South America seemed an awfully long way away.
What if she didn’t like her family? Or they didn’t like her? What if Chile was the wrong country, this was the wrong time, her classes were bad, or she got sick or hurt and we couldn’t get down there fast enough? All the usual questions a parent might ask, sending a child off to another country and culture.
But little by little, I conjured up others: What if she actually preferred her new family to us, her new mother to me? Mostly I asked this in a lighthearted way. But really, what if she did?
I haven’t truly worried, but this isn’t the same as not wondering. Mostly I think—what an opportunity it is for her to explore living with different parents, in a different home, in a different country. To reimagine who her loved ones could be and who she could be with them. To feel the arms of other parents wrapped around her, loving her as their own. Who is not better for this?
It all brought to mind a picture book that my children and I checked out over and over from the local library: The Trade-In Mother. (We never bought the book; instead we enjoyed rediscovering it every time on the crowded shelves.) In it, a young boy Max tells his mother mid-book he wishes he could trade her in— she never does what he wants or allows him to do what he wants. She falls short at every turn and he’s had it. He imagines a mom holding her nose in disgust at green beans as he does, letting him wear his favorite dirty shirt all the time, or shaking his hand rather than giving him mushy kisses at bedtime. My kids liked to imagine trading me in, what their new mother would look like and let them do. It was great fun, and a lesson in appreciating what’s right in front of us even when we’re disappointed and mad.
In any case, I have begun looking ahead to my daughter’s return in about three weeks, her celebrating being home but also wrestling with the loss of her new family. I’m steeling myself for her sadness, and perhaps feeling my own failures in comparison, as she’ll likely whiplash from bemoaning me as her mother one minute to relishing it the next.
When I met her Chilean mom I’d already heard a lot about her on video chats with my daughter. “Mom, you two are so much alike! I can’t wait for you to meet her. I love her so much.”
While visiting, I watched them hug, hold hands, this new mother lovingly stroking my daughter’s soft, long hair. They seemed to share an emotional language as foreign to me as the Spanish they spoke. Luckily for me, her mother also spoke English. I shared that I was worried about my daughter’s cough. So was she. Together, we conspired to flood her with as much hot tea as we could, giggling as “our” daughter rolled her eyes at us, as if suddenly unsure that having two mothers at once was such a grand idea.
I pondered why my daughter had thought us so much alike, seeing as how we weren’t possibly. Me, intense and reserved, quiet and prone to swallowing my strongest feelings. People who appreciate my warm side have largely known me for months, not minutes. But perhaps her comparison sprang simply from her experiencing a deep well of maternal love and acceptance in both places, our personality differences notwithstanding. I hope so. It seemed fitting that our celebratory first meal at her host family’s home came on Mother’s Day.
Eight days later when her host parents drove us to the airport and we said our final goodbyes, I was the emotional one. As I reached to hug her mother, gratitude swept over me. I couldn’t find the words to say how glad I was that thousands of miles from home, my daughter had another mother.