The Virtual Expat

I have moved into phase two of my expat and mothering life. No more baby groups or coffee mornings with a toddler at my knee. My children are sometimes out the door as early as seven in the morning to start school. They’re pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to remembering to pack their clarinet or swimming gear (until someone can’t find something). As they wake and head down to breakfast they walk into my home office to kiss me good morning, and because of my perpetual headphone usage while speaking on the phone they have learnt to mouth the words good-bye as they head out the door. This is the life of a parent who works from home.

My day begins at 4.45am with the sound of a Skype message, either a “Hey girl!” from Georgia in the US, or a “Yo” from Melbourne, Australia. From the moment I wake I’m transported to another country. As I make my way downstairs in the darkness towards the coffee machine in my Doha kitchen I read what’s been happening in Australia while I’ve been asleep. The headlines from various news sites followed by video streams of leading stories of the day. My eyes narrowing in on a finance story, something that would affect the average Australian. I read emails from colleagues who have ridden and driven to work on Australian roads earlier that morning. We talk via speaker and I can hear Australian birds tweeting in the background. I listen as my boss orders his lunch at the local deli “thanks mate” “onya” “no worries” in one ear while the sound of the mosque echoes from my backyard.

This is the new expat life; connected, online, networked, streamed and plugged in. It feels light years from my expat beginnings sixteen years ago.

“Can you remember when there was no internet?” a girlfriend asked me over the weekend.

“We’re not that old?!” I snorted.

“Yeah, I know, but remember when you couldn’t book flights, carry your friends in your pocket via your mobile phone, or load this morning’s newspaper onto your iPad?”

I thought back to a hotel room in Indonesia, my first day of expat life in Jakarta. While I owned the latest clunky Toshiba laptop, the dial up connection was prohibitively expensive. In the foyer of the hotel I read newspapers from Australia with yesterday’s news. I’d left my career behind only weeks before and was now on count down, waiting to give birth to my first child.  And while motherhood was something I was intensely excited about I couldn’t shake the feeling of panic at how removed I felt from my career. There would be no dropping in to my old workplace with my newborn after the birth. With the price of an international phone call somewhere in the range of my first car there were no ‘quick catch ups’ to find out if we’d won the tender I’d been working on before I left. I was nowhere to be seen, gone, remember Kirsty? I think she went overseas?

I was back in Australia over Christmas and New Year for the holidays. My stay was then extended to factor in six weeks of “just to make sure it doesn’t come back” radiation.  While that was happening I went through the process of settling my eldest into her new school. After a nine week stay I’ve found it incedibly hard to settle back in to Doha.

“I’m finding re-entry really difficult this time” I told my husband G.

“That’s because you haven’t really come back – you’re kind of still there. Your head is in Australia all the time.”

He was right. From the moment I woke, right up until my last thought before going to sleep, it was all about Australia. The news items, the publishing schedule, the social media, the team that I worked with. I needed to get better at switching off. There was a scheduled work day, a plan to work around. That part was easy.

The other, I don’t have an answer for. Any mother will tell you that each of her children carries a piece of her heart wherever they are. Right now a piece of mine is sitting in a school library finishing her homework. I can see her face as I type, how she’s holding her pen, the music that she’ll be listening to through the earbuds we bought together in January. I will follow her throughout the day. Whether it’s Math or French or a visit to a friends house. I think of her as she walks to softball practice, picks up sushi from across the road or buys a friend a gift card for her birthday. I’m there constantly, my heart somehow beating along with hers.

“You haven’t really come back.”

I’m not sure I ever will.

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