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 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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Comments

  1. oh goodness – you do know how to make a fellow-mother cry Kirsty!!

  2. Absolutely made me cry as well. Our daughter is now in third year Uni and it still isn’t clear at times. Somehow it’s been easier for me with our boys, perhaps as they don’t rely on me so much emotionally. Hang in there. There will be wonderful great days and days when you’ll be doing what you do over Skype, instead of right by her side. But her knowing of your love, care and concern will be no less.

  3. Suzanne Levine says

    Beautiful writing Kirsty……I think every mother can relate in some capacity. My kids are still small and a long time away from leaving home but you captured the emotion of that moment when it happens so perfectly, I was tearful reading it. It was my kids that got me through those early days of being here in Doha, I would be very little without them. The very best of luck to your daughter and the biggest of hugs to you and the rest of your family.

  4. Phoebe Thomas says

    crying as I type! I went to boarding school (because of expat parents) and loved it, thrived, wouldn’t have had it any other way….but seen from the point of view of the mother I realise just how hard it must have been for my mum and how hard it would be for me if I had to take that decision for my kids. You’ll both be fine, but I sure do feel for you right now!

  5. Welp, now I have something in my eye. That was beautiful and I pictured my oldest (who is only four) through the whole thing. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Lucille Abendanon says

    Wow, I don’t think anyone can read this with dry eyes. Progress is painful and opportunity hurts sometimes, I admire your strength.

  7. Been there done that. Oh I can feel your pain

  8. Oh, the tears!! You’ve beautifully worded how our expat kids help us along the way, just as much as we help them. She’ll be better than okay. She’s an expat kid–she’s done this before!

  9. These times are always hard for a mom, but you planted the seeds well and she will be just fine. That bond is always there no matter where in the world you are. I am in Spain, my beautiful girl is in Canada. I miss her like hell but I know she is there for me.

  10. Caro Webster says

    A beautiful piece of writing Kirsty…. x

  11. Still in it together, even though now apart.

    Just love your posts Kirsty, somehow you can put into words how so many of us are feeling but can’t quite articulate. Thank you for the many aha moments your articles bring.

  12. I wonder if this is the way a mum feels at any time when their child leaves, be it to boarding school as a teen, or university as an older teen or finally getting out in their 20s? Some day the time arrives, but are any of us really ready? (Possibly if you have a 30 something still in your house!)

  13. Caro Webster says

    Kirsty, I shared this post with my sister who is a long-time expat. I thought you’d be interested in her comment back to me…. Thanks for sharing.

    I love the way this lady writes. I understand every word as if she has lived my expat life and written about it as her own. From sentences like ‘ we take on the world together ‘ to her descriptions of moving ‘again and again’ but the joy of discovering each new strange city with your child, is just so spot on. I remember trying to figure out Bangkok from the back of a Tuk Tuk when the children were babies and the joy of just letting go and accepting the love and help of beautiful Thai strangers. Tom adopting families when we were out at restaurants when he was three. The fear when each child would be sick and trying to navigate care with no English. New schools, new friends , new EVERYTHING over and over again. But I would not swap any of it because we did it together as a four. The four of us took on that world and had the most amazing time, I do believe that the connection an expat family has because of these collective experiences is unique.

  14. Oh darling, what a time for all of you. 4 kids and a tissue again here. Hugs from here x

  15. Tears here from me. Beautiful words from you K. I’ve been a ball of emo-ness all week. Number 1 son moved out for good (he’s lived on campus for three years but has been effectively home four months of the year for holidays every year since) and daughter is snowboarding in Japan before moving back into college. Youngest started “big” school and today the whole school (boarders included!) clapped in all the new year 5s and year 7s. I know it all goes in a flash. I know we are always letting go. And IT IS good they want to leave home. But sometimes it just gets you – and this week it was for me too. Big hugs to you beautiful woman x

  16. Oh my goodness. What a lovely piece of writing. I cannot even imagine how hard it must be for you both, but I’m sure it will help to make your daughter a stronger, more confident, and independent young woman. I went backpacking around the world on my own at 20, and sure I cried and missed my family, but it was the best thing to do. I had an awesome adventure. Keep your chin up. You’ll both be fine in the long run.

  17. Annabel Campbell says

    Kirsty, I’ve followed all your boarding school posts so closely as your timing is so similar to mine but I’ve been a bit of a voyeur rather than a participator. But your latest post moved me to tears (my sentiments exactly, just much more beautifully expressed!) that I felt now was the time to join the discussion. My daughter started boarding in Sept last year, at the same time as my husband started a new job in another country, which was one month after we’d relocated! I felt like I’d lost a limb – nothing felt right, I wanted to go and get her and bring her home. She did struggle for the first few weeks but I can happily report that one and a half terms in, we’re both in a better place. Now I feel pride in seeing her grow emotionally and become more independent. It’s not always a smooth road but I know she’ll make it and I’m so pleased for her: she’s reaching for that oxygen mask all by herself. Sometimes it pays to listen to our heads rather than our hearts and be a ‘sensible parent’!

  18. *Tears* But she will be OK. How could she not be, with you as her mum? xxx

  19. She will be ok but it is fine for you to not be ok – sending gentle hugs

  20. Awwww. When my oldest (daughter) left for college I was bereft and I’m not even that maternal. She graduated this summer, came home for 6 weeks then found a job and moved 1,000 miles away – while I was in England! I didn’t even really get to say goodbye and this time it’s permanent. Probably for the best though.

  21. Oh gosh, you just threw me back 16 years when my journey started with my little boy in Argentina. Thanks for a lovely post!

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