It started with an invitation to a Frozen dress-up birthday party leading to a foray on the Internet to look for the perfect costume. We came across a picture of the dress. “Can we get the Elsa dress? The real Elsa dress? For the party?” my daughter, Nikki, asked, batting her wee five-year-old eyelashes at me. “Please Mommy? I love it so much!”
This scene, followed by many more days of reminding me that she had to have this gown, took place last year, when the dresses were absolutely unavailable unless you enjoyed trolling eBay and paying $300 or more for a $50 kids’ costume. I swore I would never spend that much, that it was crazy and irresponsible.
A few days later, I spent hours combing the Internet, trying to find something comparable. I finally cobbled together an outfit that resembled the dress: a blue gown from one store and a handmade cape with a snowflake motif from another. It ended up costing me around $80, but at least it wasn’t highway robbery. I felt like a level-headed parent, buying something nice without caving to the little voice in my head saying, “But it isn’t quite perfect, is it?”
Where did this voice come from? It came from the guilt-ridden land of divorce and single parenthood. There were, of course, many other ways I could make sure that Nikki was still feeling loved and cared for, despite her father leaving us to start a new life in California. I could—and did—spend lots of time with her. We lived rent-free with my mom, so I could work part-time to be there whenever Nikki needed me: at school pickup, on sick days and so on. I knew all of this was valuable, yet my heart still ached. I didn’t feel like I was enough.
So I bought things. A lot of things. Each time she asked for something when we were out, I justified the purchase: What’s one more toy? What’s one more cute charm for her bracelet if it makes her feel good? It makes me happy, too! As soon as her dad left at the end of his last visit, I suggested going shopping to lift our spirits. My compulsion wasn’t fading with time. I’m not the one who left, but I was the one who was left trying to fix the hurt that I assumed she felt but never spoke of. I thought I needed a band-aid. A really, really big band-aid. With sparkly snowflakes on it.
When the costume parts arrived, I presented them to Nikki. She was over the moon! She loved the cape and the blue dress—she put on the ensemble immediately and refused to take it off. We already had the crown, so she was set with a week to spare before the party. I was ready to give myself the Mom of the Year Award for my ingeniousness, but then the voice came back: Is it really good enough? Nikki seemed perfectly satisfied with this dress, so why wasn’t I?
I was on my computer and popped on to the Disney Store website for a second, just to be 100 percent sure that the real dress wasn’t available. Except it was. It was available for the first time since the costume had come on the marketplace and sold out in days. I hovered over “add to bag,” hesitating for a second, but only a second. Buyer’s remorse took over moments after I’d completed the purchase, but when the dress arrived a few days later, I gave up all pretence of telling myself I could always return it or sell it. The dress was beautiful, putting my not-quite-perfect alternative to shame.
I decided to give the dress to Nikki on the day of the party—a big surprise to make the day extra fun. When we arrived at her friend’s house, I pulled it out of the trunk. In typical Nikki style, she gushed, “Oh, Mommy, I love it! It’s so perfect! Thank you, Mommy!” She was so happy, and for a moment, I was happy. Then she looked into the trunk and added: “Did you get the shoes that sparkle, too?” I sighed and shook my head, finally realizing that no matter what I bought her, there’s always something more.
“Things” can’t be the band-aid for the void created by her dad leaving. So in the interest of her not becoming the world’s most spoiled child (not to mention my dwindling bank balance), I decided that the best thing I could do for both of us was to learn the word no. I’m still working on it.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, "Can't buy me love," p. 48.
Wondering how to talk to your kid about divorce? Check out this helpful video.