Three Things That Keep Expats Parents Awake at Night

audrey-hepburn-lying-awake-bed-insomnia-800x500Imagine a big Venn Diagram. Really, who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram?? This one is called “Things That Keep You Awake At Night.” On one side you have expats. On the other, non-expats.

Most of the things that keep many of us tossing and twisting in our beds while the rest of the world slumbers will likely intersect in a nice big lemon shape in the middle. Kids, marriage, health scares, money, retirement, the inching forward of the Doomsday clock, that crepe-y skin that is advancing across your neck (No? Just me?). That’s because for the most part, day-to-day life is the same regardless of where you live. Work, food shopping, kids, school runs, laundry, watching The Crown on Netflix. trying to remember that Mother’s Day in the UK is not the same as Mother’s Day everywhere else (No? Just me again? Damn).

But…that’s not to say it’s all the same. There are things I never really considered before we moved abroad. Things that weren’t on my radar, didn’t give me pause, and certainly didn’t keep me awake at night. Or at least not as much. I’m not even talking about the big-ticket worries–culture shock, language issues, whether or not you have to buy all new electrical appliances because the world can’t agree on socket shape or voltage–though those things have been known to cause a sleepless night or twelve.

But there are some issues which are likely unique to the expat experience, or, if not unique, play a bigger role.

I’ll take three things that keep expat parents awake at night for $200, Dina.

School

The big kahuna. The topic of conversation after conversation. Where will they go? When should we or should we not move them? Will they be ahead? Behind? If we move them once should we move them again or stay put? Will we scar them for life if we move right before high school? If we don’t? Will moving from one curriculum to another spell disaster? Can they even spell disaster? I can’t think of one other topic which dominates as much time of an expat parent’s life and conversation as trying to juggle kids, school, work assignments and moving. Even the folks I know in NYC, who have to deal with public school applications which could double as door stops, don’t usually have to add the worry of moving mid year or mid high school or switching curriculums or languages, sometimes every few years. It’s an exhausting and ever-present niggler at your bedtime peace.

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Friendships

Other than the military, I’m not sure there is a situation where the constant revolving door of friends is as noticeable as it is on the expat circuit. There are good sides and bad sides to this, of course. New blood is always good. New faces, new friends to meet, you never know who your next best buddy’s going to be. Then…then there’s the other side. Goodbyes are hard.  There’s the very real chance that, when a good friend picks up and moves back to say, oh, I don’t know….Perth, it’s going to be a long time before you see them again. And there is the heartbreak of watching your child say farewell to good friends year after year. My younger son starts to get anxious around March, and keeps a running list of friends who are leaving in his head. No parent likes to see their kid upset. It’s even worse when you know they are upset because of a decision you’ve made. Maybe it’s good for them, maybe it is, indeed, character building–or maybe, as you flip  your pillow over to find a cool spot, your current decisions are nothing more than money in a future therapist’s bank account.

Roots

If school is always the big X factor in decision making, it’s closely followed by the idea of putting down roots. I have a lot to say about this and it deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the idea of trying to figure out where your kids are going to feel comfortable, call home, feel grounded, is another large part of expat parent worries. I only know what it is like to grow up with feet firmly planted in one place. My kids? Different story altogether. Theirs will no doubt have a different ending, as it should, but that doesn’t mean trying to make sure it’s a happy ending doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s an unknown, an unanswerable. They may be just fine. They may thrive. The may part of that equation is what keeps my eyes open staring at the ceiling while my husband gently snores beside me.

 

o-insomnia-570These are the things that are in constant conversational rotation. The things that keep me, and many other expat parents I know awake at night. The kicker? There is no one answer that ticks all the boxes. There is no is magic formula. You can talk to ten different people and they’ll have ten different solutions and not a single one is going to give you the one size fits all answer you seek. You can rub a lamp, wish on a star, take a sleeping pill, and those problems are still going to be there when you wake up.

If you’re like us, you talk about it until you’ve gone around the subject a hundred times and then you stick your head firmly back in the sand where you don’t have to think about it any more.

Until the next time you find yourself laying awake at night, plotting Venn Diagrams and trying to remember when Mother’s Day in the UK is.

Just me?

Damn.

 

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An Open Letter From a Parent Volunteer

chaperoneDear Parents,

I volunteer at my children’s school a fair amount. I do it for a lot of reasons, but believe it or not, I actually enjoy spending time with school age kids. Most of the time. I complain about it and I’m often exhausted by it. Often times it’s thankless. Sometimes it’s downright appalling how badly you’re treated. Sometimes spending time with kids not your own makes you come home and appreciate the ones you’ve got a little more. After a few trips around the field trip block, there are a few things I’ve noticed, things your kid is doing or not doing. Because the majority of them are. Or aren’t as the case may be. Things that are easily fixed…and taught.

Teach your child to say please or thank you to the parent volunteering in their class or school. When I volunteer for a school event, it means I’m giving up time I could be doing something else. Napping, food shopping, trying to sell my novel, starting the next one. Doesn’t matter what. It means I’ve given up a portion of my day. Usually it means I’m doing it because no one else would. When a child demands, or don’t even bother to say please or thank you? You can be pretty sure I make sure they’re the last to get whatever it is I’m handing out. You may think younger kids are the worst offenders, but you’d be wrong. It’s the older ones who seem to have lost their manners with their baby teeth. And it’s most of them.

Teach your kids to listen to the adult volunteer in charge. Many kids talk over, ignore, and in some cases even mock the adult who is there to look out for them. The behavior ranges from rude to downright dangerous. If I’m responsible for your child on public transportation or outside of school grounds, you’d better make damn sure they know to listen to whatever I’m saying and the instructions I’m giving.

Teach your child to have realistic expectations, the old ‘you get what you get’ platitude. Not everyone is going to get their first choice. Not everyone is going to get what they like. Pitching a fit, ‘accidentally’ on purpose dropping it, or just plain lying gets your child nothing but a reputation as that kid.

Teach them to appreciate the fact that so many adults in their life are willing to give up their time to help out.

The one who brings cupcakes into class or chaperones a field trip to the recycling plant, the one who organizes a group gift for the teacher (and the six teacher’s aides, four coaches, and seventeen admin assistants who grease the wheels of your kid’s day)–they’re not doing it for the glory. Or the money. Make sure your child thanks them.

The one who plans a Halloween event, helps out with the stupid holiday craft or spends hours decorating a barren hall. No, volunteers don’t have to do it, though truth be told, sometimes the only thing standing between the planned field trip and a classroom full of disappointed kids is the one parent everyone knows will say yes. Your kids need to thank that person. You should too.

please-thankyou

Your child should be pleasing and thanking just about everyone in their life considering how much is done for them. Not just a parent volunteer or two, but the person serving them lunch and the one cleaning up their mess (and trust me, it’s disgusting). The person who cleans the toilet five times a day because, well…kids often miss. The secretary who calls home and the guy who makes sure they don’t get run over in the morning.

Sometimes there is an event to say a formal thank you to all those people who keep your child’s day running smoothly. And that’s nice. But if you want to know the truth, it’s not even close to being enough. So teach your child to say please, to say thank you. To listen respect, and appreciate the people behind the scenes as well as the ones who don’t have to be there, but are anyway.

It goes a long way.

Love,
Me

A Morning in the Life

School Mornings

I’ve been experimenting with some cross-over blog/social media/picture posts. I usually post this sort of thing on the FB page and Twitter, but hey….anything for a buck, right? Wait…who am I kidding? No bucks here, there, or anywhere ;-).

Throwing Punches: Why Kids Sometimes Need to Fight Back

gty_levis_kids_fight_kb_ss_130520_sshYears ago my husband told me a story about the one fist-fight he got into on the schoolyard asphalt. There were insults and threats and while not quite pistols at dawn, an assignation by the lockers at 3–or something to that effect. My husband is a big man, in stature as well as heart, but despite his size he comes down squarely on the lover side of the lover/fighter equation.

“I hit him before he could hit me,” my husband told me. Sometimes in life, he insisted, you have to throw a punch. “And sometimes,” he said, “you have to throw the first one.”

I used to cringe every time I heard that story. Especially when I became the mother to not one, but two boys. I used to think that surely preaching–never mind teaching–violence was never going to be the answer. Surely we want our kids to grow up to be intelligent, rational, non-violent folk.

Right?

You can preach intelligent, rational, non-violent; you can teach do the right thing until the cows are blue in the face on their way home. But my husband is right. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. And sometimes you have to throw the first one.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently listening to parents tell me about their son or daughter being goaded, picked on, harassed, punched, made fun of, called names. It happens at school, on the playground, on the football pitch, in the hallways. Most of it doesn’t go too much deeper than the normal rough seas of childhood we all had to sail; some of it probably toes the line of what I would consider bullying, not a word I bandy about without thought.

They, like most of us, give their kids the same advice.

Walk away.

Ignore it.

Don’t let it get to you.

Tell an adult.

Be the bigger person.

Do the right thing.

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It’s the first line of defense: find a teacher, find a grown-up, walk away. Sometimes it’s enough. But sometimes, it’s not. Because in real life, the perp, also known as ‘the little shit’, often gets away with his or her actions without any real consequence.

There’s a good chance what I’m about to write will be taken the wrong way. I stand by it nonetheless.

I hereby call bullshit on our approach of teaching kids to always turn the other cheek. Sometimes turning the other cheek isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. Hopefully it’s a metaphorical punch, but, well, sometimes it may be a real one.

Why would we encourage a young girl to shoulder the burden of being made fun of by telling her to ignore it or pretend it’s not happening or find a way to convince herself that it doesn’t matter? Why do we perpetuate that kind of bullshit with our kids? Because of course it matters–it matters a tremendous amount, especially to a young girl.

It took me most of my life to build up a skin thick enough to let that sort of thing roll off my back. Part of that thickening process was learning how to say “fuck off.” A verbal punch. A young girl probably won’t be able to let insults about the way she looks just roll of her back, especially not when society throws images of what a girl should look like at her all the time and then backtracks and contradicts telling her ‘no, no, everyone is beautiful in their own way”.

Bull.Shit.

Every time we tell that little girl to ignore it or walk away, she’s internalizing that insult. Every time we tell her to find an adult to tell, we are trusting that the adult will handle it in the correct way. We’re assuming the perp will be dealt with. But most damaging, we’re failing to give her all the tools she needs for dealing with it herself.

Why should a boy who is getting punched on a semi-regular basis have to bear the physical pain of being pummeled? Why should he have to bear the burden of responsibility for someone else acting like an asshole? Not only must he bear the brunt of being hit, but the playground consequences of running and finding a teacher and the backlash that ensues. And that’s assuming the adult, who probably didn’t see how everything happened, is even going to mete out a consequence.

I wish life worked the way we want it to. I wish that being the bigger person and walking away was always, always the right thing to do. And it is sometimes. But not always. That’s not how life works. That’s not how childhood works or the playground or the hallways of middle or high school. Hell, it’s not even how the workplace works.

I’m not suggesting we teach our kids to push and shove and punch their peers, to use violence as a means of negotiation. Not at all. I am suggesting we find a way to teach our kids how to deliver a metaphorical punch when needed. As Helen Mirren so eloquently put it, if she had any advice to give to her younger self, it would be to use the words “fuck off” much more frequently.

Helen Mirren

We all strive to give our kids the tools to get through life, but sometimes we leave a few important bits out. Kids need a slightly watered-down version of “fuck off” in their arsenal.

I’ve stopped short of telling my kids to call someone a four-letter word. We’ve taught them that no one has the right to hurt them or to touch them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable. We’ve taught them if they feel threatened or need to defend themselves, they should do what they need to do and we will always get their backs. But we’ve also told them that sometimes you need to push back, hard enough to let the other person know you’re not going to be pushed around.

If I happen to hear they’ve called someone who was regularly giving them a hard time an asshole? If I find out someone threw a punch at them and they punched back?

I’ll be the one turning the other cheek.