Category: family

Recent Posts

Closing doors

 

When one door closes, another opens…right? I hadn’t known that the famous quote from Alexander Graham Bell goes on to add: “…but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Being able to close some doors and open others, to look ahead and not back should be key skills to have when one leads the nomadic life. Isn’t that a large part of what we do when we move constantly from one place to the next – dismantle our existence and
rebuild it, in a slightly different way, somewhere else; close one door and open another?
Does this mean that all of us who choose the mobile life have what it takes – namely the ability to let go and move on in absolute smoothness? Is there hope for those of us who are not naturals and find it extremely difficult to close doors – despite being excited about the ones that open? Even though we do get better at it with every move, it is always hard. And painful. Sometimes heart-breaking.
It helps not to see it in absolute terms. Yes, we should be getting better at closing doors, but we don’t need to close them all the way. We should be developing our proficiency to
bravely and skilfully move on to a new life, but there are elements of our previous life that have become part of our identity and make us who we are. We don’t close the door to those the same way that we don’t close the door to the people from our various past lives. That makes it easier – at least when you are an adult and can reason that way.
It’s different for kids. They see things in much more absolute terms. They don’t think in terms of the big picture.
When we left Vienna last summer, we were not sure how long we would be away, so we asked the schools to “reserve” spots for our children for
another year, in case we came back. That year has passed and yesterday we had to officially give up those places. As happy as I am with our new life here and all the new doors that it has opened, it still felt strange to close the last “old” door that was still open.
I’m not sure how the children will react when we tell them. They could see this as a sign of stability in their new life; less uncertainty. But it could also be that, in the back of their mind, those reserved spots were a silent promise that they could always go back; a secret outlet for when they were not too happy with their life here. Do we take away that outlet? Or do we wait until the excitement about the new doors becomes more powerful than the regret about the ones that are now closed? Even if, in the grand scheme of things, they are not really closed.

The phone call

 

The last time I saw my father was a couple of weeks before he passed away, only four days before my scheduled monthly trip to go visit him. Four days. The day before, I could not get him on the phone for our daily chat. He was too weak. It didn’t occur to me then. I refused to even consider the possibility until the phone rang at 7am the next morning, as we were getting the kids ready for school. Before I even picked up, before I even saw that it was coming from my parents’ home, before I heard my brother’s voice on the other side – who would not, normally, have been there so early in the day –, I knew.
I had been dreading that call. I had been dreading being away when my father’s time came. Shouldn’t I have sensed something? Why didn’t I change my ticket and fly back to see him earlier? Why couldn’t I have been there by his side? Why did I choose to live in another country?
I’m not the only one haunted by the “dreaded phone call.” Most of us who have chosen the nomadic lifestyle and live far away from ageing parents or other close relatives, are bound to feel that at some point. It is part of all the things we miss while we are away. But, more than birthdays, graduations or weddings, missing death – or rather, missing life – may be what haunts us the most. I have many friends and family who, at some point or another, have had to drop everything and get on a plane to go help out when a parent got sick; who have had to change their lives to accommodate taking care of an ageing relative; or who worry if they can’t get them on the phone at a time when they should be reachable. It’s not easy, yet we accept it as an integral part of our fragmented mobile life. We are fully aware of the consequences but we still choose that life.
Sometimes we even change our life plans, willingly. I dream of living in California and would move there in an instant; but at this point, I know that not even the East Coast would be a realistic option. I don’t think my mother would ever forgive me for taking us – especially her grandchildren – so far away from her, where even the transatlantic journey to visit us would increasingly become a challenge for her. Others would still choose to go – and have. Indeed, life is too short. But I use the same argument for my choice not to go. I want to be around, as much as possible. I want to be able to be a couple of hours away, not a whole day’s journey. I also want my children to be around
their family. I want them to hear the stories and create the memories that will become part of their identity. A while ago, my husband, having just come back, enchanted, from a trip to Australia, asked me when we are moving to Sydney. My reply was: “When all our relatives are dead.”
Do you live far away from (ageing) family? How do you cope with that?

Counting blessings

Although today’s post is not technically about crossing cultures or the expat life, essentially it is. To start, I am writing it from a place halfway around the world from where I call home; a place that has become home for a loved one, a member of my family. Though this was the main reason for visiting Vancouver, the city is also home to some other very special people in our life, so how could I be surprised when I felt an immediate connection to this city – its landscape, its vibe and most of all, its people. Besides all the personal reasons, I should have guessed this would happen from the pure fact that Vancouver is built on the shores of an ocean. I was bound to feel at home here. What I did not guess was that the main reason I would feel so welcome from day one would be the people. I have been to a few places – my current home included – where people are pleasant, polite and welcoming, but not yet to a place where all that is overlaid by an air of unambiguous authenticity and warmth. This is not your typical North American friendliness – there is a sincerity and kindness to it that makes it unique.

On our second day here, even though we had not slept well the night before and were still being brutally assaulted by jet lag, we decided to walk to the waterfront. Unfortunately, we overestimated our energy levels and after a couple of hours, the kids were tired and needy. No wonder. Their bodies must have felt confused. Schedules, mealtimes and nap times were all still a jumble. I was running out of patience, being exhausted myself. Just as we had finally managed to find a taxi to get back to our hotel (since nobody was up for walking), my youngest insisted on getting in the car by himself and, in his attempt, fell into a puddle of dirty rainwater.

That was probably the last straw for me, because I lost it. As I started fussing about how I’d had enough of all this and all I wanted was to go back home to Switzerland, an elderly lady who was passing by, overheard me and stopped. She took my hand and told me to calm down. She looked in my eyes and said: “As long as the sun is shining [which it was], you cannot be upset.” She pointed to my children and said that I should be thankful for such a beautiful and healthy family. “Besides,” she concluded, “how can you be unhappy when you are in Canada – the best country in the world?”

She said all that in such a gentle, non-judgmental manner that I felt embarrassed for having made a fuss. Her English had a barely detectable accent, which made me think that she might not have grown up in Vancouver, but had felt happy and comfortable enough there to make it her home – the best place in the world. Her kindness and wisdom left their mark on me. I really do feel thankful for everything I’ve got.
Leading a nomadic life is not always easy. It is rewarding, but it is also challenging. Not everything runs smoothly all the time. There is loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, even anger sometimes. When I feel that way, it helps me to remember the words of the wise lady who stopped me on the street that day in Vancouver. Stop and smell the flowers. Take a deep breath. Count your blessings. We tend to forget to do that, but it really works.

Separate lives

 

I was introduced to the concept of separate lives more than fifteen years ago, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband, fresh out of graduate school, took a job as a consultant – in Paris. During the half year that I had left to finish my own degree, I stayed on in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an interesting, thankfully short time with a lot of transatlantic back-and-forth, lonely weekends, long letters and emails, even a marriage proposal (I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder). When I graduated and moved to France to join him, I was convinced that things would
improve dramatically. I didn’t suspect that this back-and-forth would become a
permanent feature of our common life.
His job meant that between Monday morning (usually at some ungodly hour) and Thursday evening (at an equally ungodly hour) he was out of town. I hated Monday mornings. I was lonely and I missed him. He was often overworked and tired from all  the travel. At the end of his consulting stint of six years, I was, again, convinced that things would improve with the next job. But the next job ended up being in London, while our family was based in Vienna. That became a pattern: while my jobs were stable location-wise, his were not. Somehow it was never possible to have both work and family life in one location. Fifteen plus years and three kids later, our family qualifies for the title of cross-border commuting veterans. Managing our disjointed existence has become a habit; not one any of us is particularly fond of, but one which we have gotten good at.
It is not just our habit. My daily news feed on Facebook is strewn with postings from friends who are not where they are supposed to be – where their families live. Cross-border commuting is a fact of life. Sometimes it’s a good deal, sometimes a necessity. An opportunity may be so good that you are willing to tolerate the commute; or local jobs may be scarce. Often, working abroad is cheaper and simpler than moving your whole family: you don’t have to uproot them, disrupt your children’s education or take them away from extended family. It is less stressful to be able to devote yourself completely to your work during the week, when no one is waiting for you at home, and devote yourself completely to your loved ones on the weekend.
But it is also a demanding life – both for the commuter and for the ones that stay behind. If you are the commuter, your belongings are scattered across two places and a suitcase.
You are neither fully here nor there. You miss your family. You are often exhausted. If you are the “stationary” partner, most of the family responsibilities fall on your shoulders. Add to that a full-time job and career of your own, not to mention what happens when children are in the picture. You have to manage alone during the week and on the weekend you get what a good friend of mine called “a leftover spouse.”
Despite all the nice sayings about absence and its effects, this kind of lifestyle, especially when it is prolonged, can strain a relationship. Resentment and frustration can build up. People can grow apart. Your partner may resent the fact that you are not around when they need you; they may go up the wall when you come back and want to have a say on every decision (don’t they manage perfectly well when you are not around?); you may find being a “weekend parent” terribly frustrating. Sound familiar?
Have you lived the commuter life – on either end of it? Was it a good thing, a necessary evil or something you would rather never have to go through again?

New Kids on the Block

 

When it comes to how children adjust after a major transition (such as a move), school is a major playing field. It is at the centre of their lives, not least because they spend the biggest part of their days there. School also is their main social habitat. It’s where most of their friends come from, at least in the beginning. What happens at school often “spills over” to the rest of their lives. If they feel comfortable and integrated in their new school, that usually helps them do the same in other areas; if they struggle there, it taints their whole experience (not to mention their parents’).
The first day of school for my two older children, or rather their first week, was one of the most stressful times of our move to Switzerland – for me. I was nervous for them. Would they like it? Would the other kids be nice to them? Would they fit in and be accepted? I was most worried about them feeling awkward and lonely.
I still have vivid memories of what going to a new school felt like – from my own moves. Even though I was very young at the time, I distinctly remember the feeling of being the new kid in class, the odd-one-out, all these – thankfully brief – moments in the beginning that I would happily have skipped. I would rather my children did not have to hang out by themselves during break; sit alone at lunch; not have a partner for those first group projects. I would rather they’d skipped those moments, even if they are a necessary part of adjustment; even if they are a rite of passage that will make them stronger and more resilient. Of course, there was absolutely nothing I could have done to spare them that. They had to manage on their own and they did a decent job, as far as I can tell.
But they have changed in the past few months. My older son has become much more independent and responsible, but also more irritable, short-tempered, stressed and, in his own words, lonelier than he was back in Vienna. My daughter, always bubbly and larger than life, has become more subdued. She spends much more time by herself than she used to. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’s lost her
spunk.
Most of these changes are subtle. Sometimes they are able to express how they feel, sometimes I have to dig deep to get them to formulate what bothers them. I’m sure some of those changes have to do with them growing up, but isn’t it a strange coincidence that they should all happen now? And, more important, are they just transition pains or are they here to stay?
Were you ever the new kid at school? Did you like it or hate it? How did your kids cope with it?