The airplane cabin smells of bathroom sanitizer and stale breath. My knees bump against the seat in front of me and the clasp holding the plastic tray in place gives way, and the whole thing comes tumbling into my lap. It’s not half as heavy as the sigh from the passenger in front of me, but both are enough to sting. The flight attendant smiles as she shuffles down the aisle, her navy skirt bunched into her dark, knit tights.

Your tray tables need to be secured in the upright and locked position.

“My god, I’m trying,” I think.

A Cheerio hits the ground by my feet. The tray obscures my reach, and before I can stop her, my daughter reaches down and pops it back into her mouth. A hundred diseases she’s just contracted scroll through my mind. We’ve barely started the journey and already I’ve probably killed my daughter. She smiles up at me with her fingers in her mouth. I’ve never flown by myself with my daughter before — hurtling through the air at several hundred miles per hour without an exit plan.

How does anyone board a plane without a parachute and live to tell the tale?

I reach over our heads and turn the dial to open the air vent, but it barely trickles against my clammy palm. It never occurred to me before the divorce, before becoming a single parent, how scary it is to be so out of control. It’s vacation; it’s supposed to be fun. Relaxing. But right now, all I feel is the weight of failure, and for a moment I wonder if it’s heavy enough to drag the entire plane out of the sky. This was my choice. Not just the vacation, but the divorce, too. All of it. And I was dragging her along with me. I turn the knob over my daughter’s seat and the little blonde wisps on the top of her head blow in the wind. She giggles.

A latecomer hovers in the aisle beside her, nodding toward the empty seat to my left. “Is anyone sitting there?” he asks, already shoving his suitcase into the overhead bin. Merely a courtesy. He knows my answer before I shake my head, but I do it anyway. And the faulty tray drops again as the stranger pushes past. I try to take up as little space as possible. This is my reality now.

I’m alone.

The seat belt sign illuminates and announces our impending departure with a cheerful chime. The panic swells in my chest though I’ve never been a nervous flier before. But things change. They always do, and this plane is going to take off whether I like it or not.

I never imagined I’d be a 30-something single mother, never thought I’d have to look my child in the eye and promise her this was for the best even when, at times, I could barely convince myself. I've witnessed the sadness and fear in old friends’ eyes when I share the news of my separation. I've seen shame and anger and pain when I tell them it was my decision to leave. I’ve heard the judgment.

“You don't do that to your family. It doesn't matter if you're not happy, you suck it up and you stay together for the kids.”

I’ve spent nights awake in bed, sweating through the sheets, wondering whether it’s possible that what’s right for me might not be what’s right for my children. Maybe I should have stuck it out a few more years, marked each one off the calendar as I waited for my own life to begin. I could have done that. But I didn’t. I chose me, and now we’re locked into a multi-ton projectile with nothing but plexiglass and Cheerios to keep us safe.

I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste blood, then lean over and help my daughter fasten her seat belt. It’s just us now. And I pull the strap a little tighter. My own I secure loosely so I can make space in my seat for her toys, her snacks and probably her limbs as she grows increasingly restless. She slumps to the side and her head dangles dangerously into the aisle. I should have put her in the window seat. What was I thinking?

The flight attendant gestures toward the emergency exits. In her hand is a yellow, plastic mask attached to a clear tube. She pulls an elastic strap over her head.

If you’re traveling with a small child, please remember to secure your air mask before assisting anyone else.

My daughter peers around me to look out the window of the plane, but the tiny portal is occupied by the stranger’s head. My daughter’s legs are too short to touch the ground, and her bare feet swing wild and free in the space beneath her seat. It never occurs to her to worry that she’s out of control. She has me. That’s my job. At least, it’s supposed to be. My chest constricts, and I realize the importance of the advice I just heard.

Please secure your air mask first.

I exhale, and the man beside me nudges my elbow from our shared arm rest as he shakes open his newspaper. Without thinking, I mutter “sorry” under my breath, and it hits me: I’ve spent so long trying to fit into spaces that are too small, too uncomfortable, or too restrictive that I’ve begun to apologize for existing. I feel guilty for having thoughts and feelings that take up room I could have dedicated to someone else. I’d been trying to make sure everyone else could breathe first before putting on my own mask, and finally I found myself suffocating.

I love my children — I always have — but I haven’t been good for them.

The truth is, sometimes you have to save yourself before you can be okay enough to help your kids. We accept this to be true during flights, so why not for the rest of life? Everyone agrees that an unbroken family is best. Except what happens when the happy life everyone thought you had comes crashing from the sky and all the oxygen is sapped from your lungs?

How could I help anyone — how could I be the role model my daughter needs — if I couldn’t first help myself?

Children are like tiny sponges, looking around the world and absorbing more than just the lessons we intend to teach. My daughter looks to me to show her how to exist in the world, to teach her which space to demand for herself and which space to yield to others. Sometimes staying together for the kids is best, and sometimes children need to see that it’s okay to choose their own happiness even when others don’t understand or respect that choice.

As the plane lurches into a slow taxi, my daughter lays her head against my shoulder. I brace my elbow against the armrest to support her weight and the stranger shifts away against the cabin wall. Sleep drifts over her as I hold her close. It took me a long time to get here, to find the courage to do anything alone. To occupy my own space. I find myself wishing for her a different life.

And I think to myself, “Please, baby, don’t ever sell yourself short. Don’t be so afraid to be alone that you trade away your happiness for others’ safety. And please, if you ever find yourself in a life that’s too small for you — so small that you can no longer breathe — don’t stay for anyone.”

Please secure your mask before assisting anyone else.

Mary Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and author of the novel “A Mutual Addiction.” Read more at marywiddicks.com. You can find her on Twitter @MaryWiddicks.

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