The Breakfast Club

It’s not often I drop my kids at school. The thirteen year-old is in charge of his own schedule and the ten year-old, who almost is, cycles in with his father. On the rare occasions I am in the a.m., I usually spot The Breakfast Club.

On any given school day the mothers of the Breakfast Club are there with boxes of cereal and loaves of bread and pots of yogurt and cut up fruit. Someone is inevitably keeping an eye on someone else’s kids, doling out napkins and juice and spoons. The entire thing is messy and full of spilled milk and crumbs and yogurt streaked faces.

Yet, somehow these mothers have managed to grab hold of an often stressful situation (and oh my God, why is eating and getting ready for school so damn stressful anyway??) and make it into something special and communal.

And really, when you think about it, what’s more communal and tribal than literally breaking fast together?

Many of The Breakfast Club members are sharpening their pencils to write new chapters this summer, and this week we did our ritual goodbyes. I listened as they wept at the idea leaving behind this extraordinary community they’ve been a part of. And then one said something which hit me directly in the heart: she mentioned that by watching the women around her she learned how to be a better mother–that among this tribe of expat women, and yes, it is a tribe, she felt uplifted rather than torn down, supported rather than burdened. That no matter how stressed out or angry or irate she was coming into that school building, whenever she left she always felt better. Someone was always there to shoulder a part of her burden, whether it was feeding her kids breakfast or lending a listening ear.

In the expat world, there are a lot of women and children left behind due to logistics. They have spouses who travel extensively, who commute not just an hour on a train but a few hours on a plane to be home on weekends, or every other weekend, or two weeks every two months. I used to call them lifeboat expats, women and children somewhere safe but slightly adrift. But that’s not accurate, because they’re not adrift, they are moored to the larger community.

When you’re in a foreign country alone with your children, finding a village to anchor yourself to isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

You need to have someone who is going to pick up your kids from school if you’re felled with the flu, or someone who you can call in case of emergency. You need sustenance and daily nurturing. You need a tribe. You need a village. You need a community, a group who can shoulder some of the burden of doing it on your own in a place where you likely don’t even speak the language or get confused by the currency.

You need a Breakfast Club.

Expats, especially women, fill these roles, mostly without even thinking about it. We form and reform, knitting and re-knitting groups and clubs and clans and tribes. Looking after one another’s kids, feeding them, comforting them, shepherding them around. Supporting and lifting up. Learning and teaching. Listening, nurturing. You lean on the collective village.

The Breakfast Club is just one example of village magic.

The ones who are leaving are, understandably, sad about losing all of that–the connectivity, the tribe, the village mentality.

To those leaving I have this to say:

You’re forgetting the role you played in shaping that community. Yes, you were welcomed into a village which already existed, but you molded it, changed it, and made it into exactly what you needed. And if you’ve done that once, you can do it again.

When we welcomed you in we taught you the words to the spell, and now that spell? It’s bound up in you. It’s a part of who you are.

The beauty is, the magic is portable. It goes with you, wherever you go. When you leave, wrap it up in bubble wrap and put it with the expensive stuff you don’t trust the shippers to handle, the magic is this too precious for international freight. Then, wherever it is you land in this crazy game of map darts, take it out. Unfold the tissue paper it’s wrapped in, pop the bubble wrap, and plant the magic.

You are the seed. Share that wisdom. Lift up instead of tearing down. Ask and offer help. Support rather than dismantle. Remember, you came in and helped to shape a community. You’ve seen how it works. There is no reason you can’t do it again.

Somewhere out there, there’s a lonely woman spooning yogurt into a pot for her kid’s breakfast. Find her. Join her. And then teach her the spell so that she has it written in her as well.

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To All the Moms I’ve Loved Before

thumb_P1100053_1024First was the mother who cradled me, belly then arms; the one who checked for breath in the middle of the night and stayed up until dawn slaying fevers, the one who documented first teeth and words, who started a living record in her memory. The mother who held out her arms to catch my first tentative steps.

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The childhood mother who encouraged her shy seven-year-old to go out and make friends, a clutch of birthday party invitations in hand, the one who had a secret word with the teacher to make sure her daughter wasn’t friendless on her first day at a new school, the one who sat outside ballet classes and applauded a hundred thousand handstands in the pool, quick with a kiss and a band-aid (an occasional I told you so) whenever I fell.

20160508_100015There was the mother who hung further back while I dove in and started the long, hard swim upstream toward adolescence,the one who took a backseat while friendships got more intense, when independence took the form of kissing boys under porches and coming home when the street lights blinked on, still ready to catch me, but from a little further away.

There’s the mother of the teenager, who saw past the aqua-net and the eyeliner, who bit her 20160508_100031tongue over the outlandish, the one who let me cry when a best friend broke my heart, when a boy broke my spirit, when I was still wiggly with who I was, giraffe legs wobbly on the ground. That mother didn’t argue when I petulantly insisted that who I was was the same as who I would be (and refrained from I told you so), the one who let me choose my own road less taken, even though that road led me away from her.

There was the mother during my first few years away from home, tripping and faltering into young adulthood in New York City, a voice at the end of the phone line, the one who let me think I didn’t need her to catch me if  I stumbled and bruised my soul.

IMG_3261The mother at the end of the very same phone line when I got sucked feet first into a black hole I couldn’t see a way out of, the one who got into her car in the middle of a weekday night to shine a light for me to follow out; because of course she was close enough to catch me, no matter how far away she was.

There was the mother who bit her tongue through boyfriends who weren’t right, men who didn’t break my heart as much as they broke the person I thought I was, the one who let me figure out how glue the pieces back together to make a different, stronger version of myself.1378644_10151967016719066_787144188_n

There was the mother who took the last boyfriend aside and thanked him for bringing a smile back to her daughter’s life, the one who thanked him again at our wedding a few years later.

20160508_100001There was the mother who cried with me all those months when my own hopes of motherhood got flushed away like so much waste, the who patiently tried to understand all the needles and the blood tests, the new-fangled methods, the one who cried with me when those new-fangled methods didn’t work. And then cried harder when they did.

There was the mother who stood back looking on while I took more shaky first steps, this time down the road of motherhood myself, who resisted giving advice or an I told you so, who let me find my own footing, who watched me gain my balance and climb higher than I thought I could.thumb_IMG_7725_1024

There is the mother to my adult, the one who shares a bottle of wine and stories, the one who can tell me, now that I am old enough and experienced enough to understand, about all the times she stood behind me, ready to catch me if I fell, even when I didn’t know she was there.

thumb_IMG_0146_1024Time keeps marching and dragging us both with it. Eventually it will be she who is taking steps which are shaky, slightly wobbly on her feet.

And I’ll be behind her, ready to catch her if she falls.