The conversation took place while we were ‘home’ over the holidays in Australia. Our local (non expat) life. A neighbour I hadn’t met before was about to embark on a solo parenting stint. Her husband was heading overseas to work, he’d be away for about six months. They’d considered moving the entire family (again) but it just felt too disruptive for their school age kids. They both felt that as the children had got older it somehow felt harder to switch from one life to another. They’d decided as a family that this time she’d stay put with the kids while he took up another contract in New Zealand.
I smiled, nodded, talked about my stints of solo parenting when my children were tiny. I empathized, it was a familiar chat. A topic that comes up regularly in the expat world. The invitation of career opportunity and job security slotted somewhere in between the guilt and the conflict with family life.
“I know there are people who think we’re crazy, that the kids being away from their Dad is the worst thing we could be doing” she said. She was savouring her last few days with her husband before he went away but also dealing with the conflict, the thoughts of friends, the self-doubt, the school changes. What was this doing to her children? How would it change them?
I couldn’t help myself, it was none of my business, but out it came. “I’m an expat, expats talk about this stuff all the time. I promise you – your kids will be fine, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re great parents, your kids are lucky. There are far worse things you could be doing.”
She smiled, and then her child joined us and smooshed a handful of half eaten strawberries into her palm “what do I do with these Mum?” It was going to be a long six months.
I’m often told how screwed up my children will be because of our expat life. Sure, it’s rarely presented as a straight up statement, but there’s the questions, comments, and written articles to provide a kink in my parenting armour.
Whether it’s the “Oh, I could never do that” from a well-meaning friend. Or the “Aren’t you worried about…” from a stranger. Or maybe it’s the latest psychological study/article that appears in my Facebook feed. Something like yesterday’s post which popped up in an expat forum discussing how messed up children who attend boarding school are. My favourite comment in the thread “every person I know who went to boarding school has emotional issues”. I giggled thinking about myself and many of my boarding school friends who have somehow, almost outrageously, gone on to live functional lives against the odds. I mean, c’mon, if you scratch the surface don’t we all have our issues?
Today an email from the school arrived, an invitation to attend a coffee morning to discuss the latest book written by a therapist who specializes in TCK’s or Third Culture Kids (expat kids). I clicked on the link “Every expat parent should buy this book” Amazon urged. Between getting the left at home science experiment to school, making my way to softball trials, baseball, rugby and running a business, I wasn’t sure I needed the additional angst. Does this make me a terrible parent?
Recently after a podcast interview with the fabulous Dr Sarah Whyte who specializes in Third Culture Kids I asked my two eldest children, my girls, about their “unresolved grief”. Ms 14 gave me the side eye” What’s unresolved grief” she asked, “You know, from moving around and not getting to say a proper goodbye – no closure”. She raised an eyebrow and suggested that with Donald Trump as President I perhaps had bigger things to be worried about.
Ms 16 decided to turn it into an opportunity. When we recently moved her back into the boarding house after a long summer break I complained about the amount of crap she seemed to have acquired. It was after our third trip back to the car “You need to do a serious cull” I said in my best motherly tone while carrying two suitcases and a beanbag up the stairs. “Mum?!” she mocked, astounded by my callous nature under the circumstances. “You know what it is don’t you? It’s my unresolved grief, I carry it all with me” her grin was both cheeky and enormous.
Here’s the thing. I’m sure I’ve screwed my children up. We all screw our children up. We also give our children all that we can. All the love, all the support, all the recorder practice. We work our butts off, from the moment we wake, until the moment we hit the pillow at the end of the day. We do our best. And our best is just fine, it’s enough. You are enough.
My children have been handed incredible opportunities to travel and have experienced immeasurable cultural awareness with friendships all over the world, but at the same time they’ve had to struggle with the same geographical schizophrenia my husband and I do. We’re all in this together. That’s what makes us so lucky. No matter where we are, we’re loved. You can’t ask for any more than that. Even if we are a little messed up.