Generations Learning to Fly: When You Have to Be Your Own Parent
Even as a child I found extreme pleasure in the things I could control.
“Have fun with your father,” our mother said as she hugged us goodbye. It was the morning of our first solo adventure and she was about to drop my sister Lindsay and me off at the curb of Philadelphia’s Terminal E. I was twelve. Lindsay was ten.
My mother got back in the car and drove off, not even waiting to see that we made it through the sliding doors. We stood on the curb with our backpacks stuffed and heavy, Lindsay’s 101 Dalmatians pillow folded under her arm, watching our mother’s silver Subaru disappear around the bend.
Our parents had recently divorced and now lived hundreds of miles apart. Lindsay and I had settled into a townhome with our mother in suburban New Jersey. Our father found a house near Raleigh, North Carolina, where land was cheap and jobs were plenty. Before their marriage had legally ended, my father moved in with his new girlfriend—a younger woman with no children of her own. He only ever wanted to parent when it was convenient for him—my mother took us full-time; he signed up for the weeks we weren’t in school.
Any holiday or summer break meant being shuttled up and down the East Coast, bouncing back and forth between parents. For a while, this meant long car rides to a meeting point somewhere around Baltimore, where we’d switch cars and head in opposite directions. I became their go-between, passing messages back and forth over the phone: tell your mother this and tell your father that . When I turned twelve and Lindsay and I were finally old enough to fly by ourselves, our parents jumped at the chance to no longer see each other in person.
At the airport, Lindsay and I made our way to the check-in kiosk. “Give me your boarding pass to hold onto,” I said. “Your school ID, too. I’ll make sure you don’t lose them.” I held her pillow as she searched through her bag. When we flew, I morphed into the nervous traveler my mother is, but Lindsay was always calm, never fazed by the chaos around us.
We embraced our new status as Young Travelers, Southwest Airlines’ term for a child “of sufficient maturity and capability to travel alone,” and I learned to navigate us through airports with pride, my copilot at my side. My role as the older sibling took on new importance and meaning: Without me, Lindsay couldn’t fly. Without her, I didn’t want to.
At home, there wasn’t an object we wouldn’t throw across the room at each other when arguing. We’d always bickered, as sisters do, but the fighting escalated after the divorce, when it felt like we had to compete for attention from one parent at a time. One day after school, before our mother got home from work, Lindsay wouldn’t change the channel to the Maury Show that I wanted to watch. I got so irritated with her I threw an unopened Capri Sun at her head. I missed, and it exploded on a painting hanging on the wall behind her. “Nice throw, loser,” she said. Another time, in a fit of rage after she ripped out a page from my favorite book, I threw the nearest object I could find in her direction: a Timberland boot. Again, I missed.
But when we were flying together, just us sisters, there was no bickering or fighting—not even over who got the window seat. “You take it,” I’d tell her. On our own, in transit, we always got along.
First we’d buy trashy tabloids at Hudson News, stuffing purchased bags of candy into our carry-ons. On the plane, we would imitate the adults around us, ignoring the flight attendant’s safety speech and trying to complete crossword puzzles in the back of the in-flight magazine. We’d order ginger ales and ask for extra peanuts. We would flip through the pages of SkyMall , noting all the useless items we absolutely needed, like a customized crate or pet staircase for the dog we didn’t have.
From her window seat, Lindsay would look out and name every type of cloud we passed through: stratus, cumulus, cirrus. She did this on each and every flight. Our life, split between two different states, was often messy, but in airports and on airplanes she and I found a routine, something I had been desperately craving.
Even as a child I found extreme pleasure in the things I could control. I could get us through security and to the gate on time. I could help relieve my mother from some of her single-parenting duties, which I knew weighed on her. I was young and naive, and never worried that one of us might get lost or hurt along the way. As long as we stuck together, we’d be okay. Every new flight was an adventure.
After nearly seven years of not dating, when I was sixteen, my mother found a man on eHarmony. They eloped within months. We didn’t find out until she came home from Las Vegas with a ring on her left hand.
I knew she had been on a few dates, but rushing to get married—and without us—was a departure from the person I knew. “When did you guys even get engaged?”
“Right before the wedding,” she said, waving her ring at us. “Do you like it?”
“I do,” said Lindsay.
I remained silent, and so did my mother.
She started spending more nights at her new husband’s house, just over twenty miles away. He also had a teenage daughter. Her mother had died from breast cancer six months before her father met mine. Their home was close to where my mother worked, and she talked about how much easier her commute was from there.
I started taking on more hours at my job as a part-time manager at a grocery store. Lindsay also worked there as a cashier, but was too young to work anything but weekends. She got a boyfriend, and then another, and, on most nights, ate dinner at her best friend’s house across the street.
When I came home from my driving test on my seventeenth birthday, a freshly printed driver’s license occupying the slot in my wallet where my school ID used to be, I found that my mother had emptied both of her closets. With no warning, she’d picked up and left to go live full-time with her husband. She’d left us alone.
She wasn’t that far away—closer than my father—but she didn’t check in on us often. I changed her contact from “Mom” to “Mother” in my phone, and only texted when a bill came for her.
I was the one who did the grocery shopping. I remembered to put the bins out on trash day. I forged signatures on my sister’s permission slips, and wrote the please excuse Lindsay’s absence notes. I picked my little sister up from her friends’ houses. I made sure she finished her homework, often while speeding us to school every morning. When one of us got sick, I drove us to the doctor, then to the pharmacy drive-through.
I grabbed onto whatever I could control, and pushed away what I couldn’t.
A couple of weeks after my high school graduation, our mother sold our townhome. I went off to college, and Lindsay was sent to finish high school with my father in North Carolina. He’d been oblivious to our situation the whole time.
It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I confronted my mother about the abandonment. I went to visit her and her husband at their home after she fell seriously ill with what she’d later learn was lupus. I didn’t want to feel resentful anymore. I was worried I might lose her before I got the chance to forgive her.
We were driving somewhere, just the two of us. I was behind the wheel, steering us down the winding roads near her home. If I wanted answers, I knew I’d have to ask now, in the car—while she couldn’t just get up and walk away. Finally I spit it out: “Why did you leave?”
I held my breath waiting for her to answer.
“You said you wanted me gone,” she said. “You had your license. You didn’t need me anymore.”
I couldn’t remember telling her to go away. But even if I did say that, I was only a teenager—and what teenaged girl hasn’t told their mother to leave them alone? I turned my head to look at her in the passenger seat. “Of course we still needed you, Mom. I might not have needed you to drive me to work anymore, but I still needed you.”
She just sat there, staring out the window. For miles, she was quiet. When she spoke, it was only to tell me, “The turn’s up ahead.”
It’s been a decade since our mother left us alone in our home, and I’ve spent much of the last few years working to build a different kind of relationship with her. It’s not what I want it to be, and not all wounds are healed yet, but it’s something. And something is better than nothing.
When Lindsay and I used to fight as kids, our mother would always tell us, “One day you’ll be glad you have each other.” She hasn’t been right about everything, but she was right about that.
I couldn’t have known when we were walking through airport terminals together as children that one day our mother would abandon us. I couldn’t control her decision to leave when she did. But I could try to steer us in the right direction. I couldn’t fly our plane, but I could get us to our gate and safely aboard. I could get us both through college, and help guide us toward fulfilling careers. I could make sure I was always there by my sister’s side.
Five hundred miles separate my sister and me now. We talk by phone nearly every day—about our inability to trust the men in our lives, our looming student loan debt; about our triumphs, and how satisfying it feels when we accomplish a task on our own. Sometimes we reflect on our childhood, talking about what we lacked and what we yearned for. We wonder if we’d be in different places if we’d had the same guidance and support that so many of our friends did.
Sometimes, I wish we could go back to summers at my father’s, where the only thing we had to do was spend the days with each other while he was at work. We don’t see each other nearly as much anymore. It takes me eight hours to drive to her house, but I can be there in an hour and some change if I fly. I still stop in Hudson News to read the tabloids and buy a snack to bring on board. On the plane, I snag the window seat and order a ginger ale. These days most airlines serve pretzels, not peanuts, and the SkyMall catalog no longer exists; if it did, I’d find the most ridiculous item and rip out the page to show Lindsay.
Now, when Lindsay pulls up to the airport terminal to pick me up in her white Escape, her dog Leo is always smiling and drooling out the back window. She gets out of the car and gives me a hug, and it feels like we’ve both landed safely.