The Oxygen Mask

Anxiety arrives in various forms with the arrival of any new baby. Even the most experienced of mothers will find herself questioning the sound of a cry, a change in appetite, or forehead temperature. An expat mother adds another layer to the unknown, she is often on her own, away from family and navigating a foreign health system.

It was for this reason that I chose to come home to have my first child. It was a luxury to give birth in Australia, to listen to the advice of my obstetrician in an accent that matched my own. I knew my time was limited and I milked (pardon the pun) the opportunity to spend time with breastfeeding nurses, pediatricians, family and friends. They say it takes a village, and it helps immensely when that village is speaking the same language and you don’t get lost trying to find it.

She was eleven days old when we boarded our first flight. I took my seat on the plane, strapped the baby belt around my waist for the first time and experienced a feeling that would become the norm in our expat life. A feeling that all expat families can relate to – we were in this together, we were taking on the world. I listened to the safety message about oxygen masks and the reasoning for why I had to put mine on first and then hers, because without me, who would look after her?

It was just her and I for the first couple of years, sure G was there, but the hours that were filled while he went to the office were the hours that we went out to explore. They were the hours that we made new friends and discovered the city of Jakarta. They were the hours that we were stuck in traffic while she screamed and I sang to placate her. They were the hours that we were caught in a riot and she slept through the protesters jumping on the car and hitting the doors with sticks. They were the hours that I held her in my arms for two days while G was away and she was so frighteningly quiet and listless, only to bounce back for his arrival. It was her that initially taught me about parenthood – that I would feel a level of protectiveness I didn’t know existed. That my biggest fear was now based around her health and happiness. That I could feel so proud. It was all new.

When her siblings arrived she became my assistant, she stroked my hair and patted my back while I went through hours of morning sickness. With pig-tails and the slightest lisp she spoke in the third person and made her demands clear. We conquered another city. We settled into another home. She helped push the stroller through the airport and forced me to get on with it, to get out there and join new groups, find new people. We made a new life again and again and again…she was my travel buddy, my constant companion.

Yesterday we went through it again, but this time it was much harder, torturous. While we were both involved in the adventure of boarding school, this time the adventure had to be done separately. And while the beginning of it all felt familiar with the packing, the planning, and the early morning departure, it was the end that broke us.

I’ve been crying for about a week. Inconspicuous crying, the type you do when you’re in the car or walking along to the beach. The quiet wipe of the tear as you think about your child no longer at your dinner table, or under the same roof. She’s been brave, made all of the jokes, talked of her excitement. And then last night we hit the perfect storm, she was tired, it was all new – she cried. And in that instant I decided that boarding school was a ridiculous idea and that we should go and pack everything up and tell them it was all a big mistake, because how could she go anywhere without me? Who would put her oxygen mask on?

You know how this ends don’t you? I got tough, I reminded myself of all the opportunities she was about to be given. I assured myself (with the help of some very good friends) that this was always in the plan, that we were doing the right thing, that she wanted to do this and that we knew it was going to be hard.

Except it doesn’t end like that, because parenting is never like that. It’s never that clear, that obvious, or that easy. It’s been said before, from the moment your child is born it’s a gradual process of letting go. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I suck at this.

I saw her today, she’d been for a walk after school to the shops with her new friends. As they made their way through the door they giggled and when she saw me her face lit up and she smiled. She’s going to be okay, she’s going to be better than okay.

Our travels will continue both together and apart. I can’t let go, not yet, maybe not ever, but I can watch with the same protectiveness and pride that I was given all those years ago. She will continue as my travel companion, constantly with me, deep in the centre of my heart. My beautiful girl.

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