Inching up the Air France security line, my daughter Amy blew me a kiss. A junior in college, boarding her first transatlantic flight alone, she was off to study at the Sorbonne. We both held back tears.
She was apprehensive that the homesickness she'd previously struggled with in sleepaway camp and those first few weeks of college would return, while I was left behind to worry about her safety on the Métro at night and fret over possible terrorist attacks. The Atlantic was an endless ocean separating my only child in the event of an emergency.
I was married for 18 years before Amy was born. Ambivalent about having a baby, I was 41, afraid of repeating my mother's mistakes. Growing up in an orphanage, my mother was overly strict, controlling and prone to unprovoked outbursts. I was determined to forge a bond with my child. In her freshman year of college Amy announced, "I'm not going to rebel against you. You didn't give me a reason to."
At first I was relieved that Amy's host parents lived in a safe section of Paris. Having raised three sons, they'd surely look after her. Madame escorted my jet-lagged kid around her neighborhood, fed her, then left for the evening with her husband. Amy texted me, alone in her strange new room, a secular Jew with a cross over her bed: "I'm homework," an auto correction from "homesick."
Her last message that night: "I don't think I can do this."
That made two of us.
In the morning, Amy woke to a croissant, homemade jam, yogurt, coffee. She would never feel "homework" again.
"My host mom's an amazing cook," Amy Skyped. "I wake up smelling quiches baking."
I knew French women didn't get fat, but did they all cook like chefs on Food Network? I'd never been able to roll out a pie crust that didn't look like an amoeba.
"My host mom had a dinner party," Amy texted. "I ate venison. My host dad hunts on Saturdays."
Amy's real father hunted and gathered in Whole Foods. I entertained with store-bought hummus atop plastic place mats. I was surprised how threatened I felt, resentful about sharing my only daughter with a European surrogate.
When Amy mistakenly called Madame the familiar "tu," she curtly corrected her to use the reverential "vous." Madame also reprimanded her when she found Amy's feet on the living room couch.
"I'm so embarrassed," Amy texted.
How many times had I told her not to drape her legs over our couch cushions?
They baked a cake together that weekend. All forgiven.
Six weeks into her stay, Amy grew feverish. Madame offered a Gallic Tylenol, but Amy couldn't swallow the huge pills. Madame chastised her for not taking the medication.
"She's not nurturing," my daughter complained.
I relished that she missed my warmth and homemade chicken soup. Until Madame whipped up lait de poule ("chicken's milk"), eggnog with rum. In 1270 Louis IX refused to listen to his doctor's orders to quaff this ancient potion; soon after, he died.
"It was delicious," Amy reported.
Suddenly, she started calling Madame her "French Mom."
"My French Mom asked me to taste the curried lentil soup before she served it to guests," Amy texted. "To see if the flavors were right."
"Or to see if you'd live," I responded, "like food tasters for royal families,"
"She went to the theater and left me fondue and chocolate mousse."
Damn it—I wanted a French Mom, too.
I winced when Amy texted photos of candles atop a breathtaking gâteau au chocolat. Hugging wrapped gifts from Mom No. 2, she would remember her 21st birthday with her, not me.
"She says I'm the daughter she never had," Amy texted about my Parisian rival.
"Don't you hate this woman?" a friend asked.
Sure, I felt resentment. Envy. Umbrage. My jealousy was rooted in how much I missed Amy, the longest we'd ever been apart. I had to keep reminding myself that Madame wasn't a true threat, trusting that my daughter would return to me: more worldly, independent, with better manners.
"My French Mom explained dinner party etiquette," Amy texted. "She invited you to dinner when you come."
Next month, I'll sit across from Madame, hoping I use the correct fork, spearing the freshly killed canard—not my competition. After all, she'd just borrowed my only child. Amy was the daughter she never had, yet an offspring with an expiring lease.
"I don't think I can ever leave this place," Amy texted me one night.
I hoped she meant Paris, not Chez Madame.
"My French mom asked if I was homesick," Amy continued. "I told her not at all: You're my mother now."
My fingers froze on my phone's keyboard. Amy texted back: "Don't be offended."
"Of course not," I replied. It's so much easier to fib through cyberspace.
Finally the message I yearned for arrived: "Can't wait till you visit. Miss you!"
I rejoiced. When Amy was 9, she returned from a sleepover and confessed, "I forgot to miss you." Her words stung. Quickly she added, "Sorry."
I knew that if Amy embraced the wider world with confidence, my success as a parent would rank as high as Madame's four-star desserts. Amy wasn't running away from me, as I'd fled my mother's outbursts and emotional distance. Amy would always need me, even 3,600 miles away. Less frequently, in different ways. And as much as I learned to revel in my daughter's adventure with her Other Mother, I will feel most secure when she's on my own couch again, feet and all.