While I can be as Pollyanna as it comes, I have to acknowledge that life, motherhood, expat life is not always what we imagined it would be. Sometimes there are wonderful surprises. Sometimes, the surprises are not what we might have hoped.What did you think mothering would be like? Did you expect that your heart would break every day when you saw a child struggling to make friends? That reading your favorite books would not be sweet moments snuggled together on the coach, but rather admonishing of “If you don’t stop pulling your brother’s hair right now, I will stop this story.”
Expat life? The expectations would fill a book, the reality another. Maybe even in a different genre.
I’ve been learning so much about persevering through the tough times. Sometimes I think those are lessons I could really do without, but in all honesty, I know this is where the growth happens. Here’s a few lessons I’d like to share with you, so you can make the most of your tough time lessons.
1. This is now.
Sometimes, when times get tough, I find myself wishing for the next phase – please let this little kid fighting phase end. Please let them outgrow this habit. Only 18 months until we leave this country for the next, only one more Christmas here. When I catch myself, I stop and wonder at the questionable wisdom of wishing your life away.
This is now.
Cliched as it is, this moment will never happen again. In this moment, there is something beautiful. Take a deep breath, slow down just for a second, and think about the beauty, the joy, or if nothing else, the growth, in this moment.
2. Embrace the tough.
Hear me out. I’m not saying that you should be grateful that something horrible is happening to you. In fact, let me say that sometimes life is hard, and I’m so sorry that hard times are happening for you.
Here’s what I’m saying. Lean in. Feel hurt, feel sad, feel angry. Then acknowledge the growth opportunity. You are strong enough to do this. Hey, if you belt out a chorus of “I will survive” all the better.
3. Ask for help.
There is nothing that says you have to tough it out alone. Talk to other parents. Talk to other expats. Maybe the situation requires professional help. Get help. Ask. You never know what resources may be at your disposal. Figure out what you need to make it better, and then ask. People want to help, but often don’t know what you need. Are you overwhelmed with the needs of the new baby? I bet you a friend would be happy to pick up groceries, bring a meal, or take your older child to the park. Allow others in. Ask for what you need.
4. Nothing lasts forever.
It is the great tragedy and the great joy of our lives – babies grow, we get older, times change. I am a huge fan of the Anne of Green Gables books, and here is one of my favorite quotes:
“I’ve kind of contracted a habit of enj’ying things,” he [Captain Jim] remarked once, when Anne had commented on his invariable cheerfulness. “It’s got so chronic that I believe I even enj’y the disagreeable things. It’s great fun thinking they can’t last. `Old rheumatiz,’ says I, when it grips me hard, `you’ve GOT to stop aching sometime. The worse you are the sooner you’ll stop, mebbe. I’m bound to get the better of you in the long run, whether in the body or out of the body.’” Anne’s House of Dream by L.M. Montgomery
While I don’t wish my time away, I know that this will end. My boys will get bigger, the challenges of parenting will change. This tour will be over, and our new location will have its own challenges.
If I do this right, I will be ready to face those new challenges stronger and maybe a little wiser, because of the tough times I face today.
My grandmother passed away at 104 and three quarters. She was a doer of crossword puzzles, a voracious reader, and a great cook. I remember her garden – there were early peach trees, and a giant grape vine, and a hydrangea bush so big and fragrant that it dwarfed everything. The back of the house was cool and smelled of sunlight soap. She cooked macaroni casseroles for the day we arrived, served with chutney. We ate fried fish and chips hot from the oven in the garden before she served dinner, and she made biriyani – an indian mix of rice, lentils, chicken and fragrant spices.
I’m sad that she is gone, sad that she never got to meet my little boys, sad that I have not seen her in 15 years.
As expats, it seems that there are two things we miss most: family, and food. We miss births, and deaths, and weddings. We miss Sunday lunch after church. We miss the comfort food we were raised on. We talk incessantly about the place to find peanut butter your kids will actually eat, the difference between vegemite and marmite, and the acceptable substitutes. (Fray Bentos for me, none for the Australians.) We talk about who got chocolate chips from the U.S. I know the (three) places in Lima where I can find whole-wheat flour.
But our food genealogy changes. My favorite biriyani is that of my grandmother despite my travels in India. My favorite foods of all time might be my other grandmother’s chicken casserole, my mother’s chocolate mousse, the t-bone steaks with salt my grandfather grilled over a half-drum. Of course, there is my husband’s award winning chili.
But now it includes more: the lamb curry we ate after a dusty day on the road in Rajasthan. The koshary we ate at Cairo Kitchen, the cilantro hummus so good that I would eat the leftovers with a spoon while cleaning up after dinner. Dates from the street corners. It includes my finds at the fruit market here in Lima – cherimoya, lucuma, maracuya, and the small sweet bananas. Of course ceviche is great, but my new comfort food may be Lomo Saltado – a saucy stir fry with asia and new world blended like the rice and French fries that accompany it.
My family has also grown. Our small circle is tightly knit, and I count the days until my mom comes to visit obsessively. But now, my family includes the family we make for ourselves when we are far away… the women I can call to pick my kids up from school when I’m stuck in traffic. The women who showed me Cairo, and the way to live with grace in this crazy life of ours. The families with whom we share Thanksgiving – to me, the most sacred of American traditions.
We miss food and family. We miss so much. We gain so much more.
Foreign service parents – a quick note to share a fabulous resource for your young kids – enjoy!
Embassy Kids Coloring Book.
In facts, the story of last week is this: a baby bird was outside our doorstep, seemingly separated from his mother. We could not find a nest, but brought him inside the fence to keep the dog from grabbing him. His mother found and fed him, but two days later he drowned. Those are the facts.
The facts do not tell about the empathy in my little boy’s heart, as he insists on bringing baby bird water, and giving baby bird flowers because he is sad without his mama.
The facts don’t tell of his three year old hand reaching into the dog’s mouth to take the baby out, and safely nestle him between the plants. When it becomes clear that the dog would not let it be, he ever so gently picks up the bird and requests a nest. He helps me to carry the bird out to the fenced yard. There he insists on watching for over an hour, sitting on his knees, while baby bird’s new feathers, interrupted by fluffs of down not yet lost, wave with the rhythm of his tiny beating heart.
The facts don’t tell how we all cheer from the living room window when his mother finds him, and feeds him over the next two days. We watch, breath held, as she teaches him to fly, and he takes small fluttery leaps, from branch to branch, in the shrubs by the pool.
The facts cannot tell how we all run to check on him every time we return home. The facts cannot explain my heavy heart beating loudly as I fish his little body from the pool, now tiny, yellow and still, without the fluff of his frightened heartbeat giving him shape.
Baby bird flew away, my boy declares. I don’t correct him.
Loss is part of life, and yet, I sometimes wonder whether we expect too much maturity from these little expats of ours. Say goodbye to your home, say goodbye to your friends, say goodbye to the family you just visited for the first time in a year.
Maybe adding the life lessons of a little bird that didn’t make it outside his nest, is too much for my mama heart. I have been second-guessing my decision to move that little bird, just as I second-guess my decisions for my little expats with every move.
My husband assured me that the likelihood of the little bird’s survival was pretty slim outside the nest. I know he is probably right – I found a sibling just a day later, still alive, but covered in ants.
In facts, we know that children with routine and ritual are more resilient. But that’s not the whole story.
The story is that I nest constantly, making sure our home reflects us, makes us feel loved, even as the institutional furniture is the same everywhere. I nest – building routines and rituals out of the smallest events of our family life, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Without this nest, our ability to thrive is so reduced.
Doesn’t that sound fancy? But once you hear my definition, I bet you will realize you have an art collection too!
My husband has collected antique prints and maps for a long time, and also had several art pieces when we got married. His mom curates an art museum after all!
Since then, we have been acquiring more at a steady clip. We asked for a piece of art from our families as a wedding gift – a gorgeous pastel that reminds me of my family and native South Africa. Some of my favorite things are cheap little pieces I collected during my travels – a carved mirror from Bali, colorful cityscapes from Rio De Janeiro, and some miniatures from Rajasthan.
I’m lucky too – my father is a spectacular photographer and we have several of his magnificent landscapes around our house.
We have been “surprising” each other with paintings for birthdays and anniversaries, and have vowed to acquire a nice painting from each country where we live. (Our souvenir from Egypt is at the top.) The one directly above was purchased recently from Noche de Arte, a charity art show put on by the U.S. Embassy Association here in Lima.
Our collection certainly won’t rival the Louvre, or my beloved National Gallery in Washington, but it brings beauty and joy to my life daily. I’m grateful to have a home filled with lovely things that remind us of people and places we have known.
I’m unpacking boxes.
Here’s the frequent buyer card from my favorite coffee shop on Road 9. Here’s a phone number for a parent at my son’s school, scribbled on a piece of giftwrap from the birthday party we attended the afternoon before the evacuation.
Every box is an Egyptian artifact, an archeological clue to a life left behind in a rush. Here are needles and thread in a box filled with toys from my boys’ playroom where I sat down to fix the shirt he wanted to wear to the birthday party. Here’s the note on what I wanted to write in a friend’s going away message. Here’s a box filled with random make-up and perfume – all still open and messy – from getting ready for the party we were at when the call came to leave.
It’s not the archeology of Egypt – tombs and paintings, the book of the dead, all carefully prepared. It is the archeology of Pompeii. Caught in the act of living.
Here are the kids’ school bags, labeled with their names in elegant Arabic script. These bags, and their school shoes, were picked up by our nanny after we left. I asked for their portfolios – those have not shown. There is no proof of the year my children spent in the most amazing Montessori school, playing with friends from the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, and Egypt. Speaking words from three languages – all jumbled together.
Here’s my desk – my calendar filled with play date plans, the menu for a coffee morning, ideas for a ladies wine night, suggestions for the next book club book. Business cards with a phone number long forgotten. Resumes and job applications, acceptance letters for a job never started.
The chronology of that last day in Cairo is simple:
- 5 AM The boys are in the playroom, and I get the cheerios.
- 9 AM. Brunch at the American club – awful food, great friends, and bacon.
- 11 AM Boys in the pool, adults talk about the protests, and home leave for summer.
- Noon. We walk home, the kids nap. I walk to road 9 to get pictures printed. I take it to my friend S’ house to get included in friend A’s farewell book. S, one of the most beautiful women I have ever known, was harassed again. We’re angry, but shrug our shoulders. It happens too often.
- 2 PM. We get an email about a possible voluntary evacuation. If there was a voluntary evacuation, would we go? We must respond by 4PM.
- 3 PM. We head to a birthday party for embassy friends’ daughter. The kids are at home: they know the place; they know each other. Hushed conversation for the adults: What about the dog? Are you going?
- 8 PM We head to A’s farewell party. My husband is off in a corner of the garden on his blackberry. I’m with my tribe – these women I have come to love like family. I drink too much white wine and dance like a lunatic, watching him from the corner of my eye the whole time.
- Midnight. The call comes – we’ll be picked up in two hours to evacuate for 10 days. Do you want to stay in Frankfurt or go to the States?. I start saying cryptic goodbyes. Should we leave, people ask. We are instructed not to get anyone panicked. How do you answer when you don’t know?
- 1:45 AM I’m packed (one bag only) and wake the boys. We are going to grandma’s house, I whisper to them as I get them dressed.
- 2 AM We are picked up in convoy.
- 5 AM We are at the airport. I say goodbye to my husband.
The last picture of have of my son in Cairo is this:
It is dusk, and the picture is blurry. My guy is dressed as a pirate – white linen shirt, ragged shorts, a red sash around his waist. His hat is missing. He is dancing with or hugging his little friend Runi. We should leave to get ready for the next party, but we don’t. My son is happy here, and we don’t know what’s next.