After drifting asleep in the car, my daughter woke up sleepy-eyed in Muscat. Not sure where we were, she asked “Suwayq?” “No, sweetie, we’re going to Suwayq on Monday.” “Ma-wocco?” “No, we’re not going to Morocco today but maybe later”. At two, she can’t quite understand what ‘next month’ or ‘next year’ means. She does not yet realize the reality of how far or near places are but as I flip through the pages of her worn little passport, I wonder at want point will she begin to realize how blessed she is to see many places that most have only dreamed of.
While parenting is an adventure in itself, parenting abroad is like an adventure on wheels. What or where ‘home’ is is a blurry concept and it takes a strong family bond to ride out the constant waves of transition. As parents raising young children abroad, we’re sometimes branded as ‘selfish’ for torturing our own parents, forcing them to travel long distances to see their grandchildren in between annual summer visits. Some brand us as ‘opulent’ for actually traveling to learn about new countries as opposed to picking up books and Hollywood movies in their place. Some consider us down-right crazy and irresponsible for taking our children to developing countries where ‘all those poor and diseased people live.’ In the fraternity of families abroad you find a variety of folks who may be all or nothing of what others assume but in my circle of fellow parents, we seem to have common aspirations and frustrations with our life abroad.
The advantages of a childhood abroad can be tangible and appealing. Young children can learn about cultures, languages, and world history in the context of where they live, as opposed to textbooks and tutors. Authentic connections can be made with others before learned biases set in and make color, race, and religion points of difference. Traveling matures children and gives ample opportunity to learn flexibility, adaptability, and agility in the face of life’s unexpected surprises. Many of us find a better quality of life abroad and actually spend more time with each other, cultivating a home life and a vivid montage of memories for our families to savor for years to come.
One sacrifice that seems to hit us all pretty hard is the distance from our extended family. Virtual grandparenting is challenging. Children grow in leaps and bounds from summer to summer and no time is enough time every single vacation. The luxury of sending children to Grandma and Grandpa for the weekend or even a night is forfeited in place of finding trustworthy babysitters and friends or simply opting for a night in as opposed to a night out for a date. Depending on where you reside, you may not always find common principles and practices in parenting. Varied notions of discipline, different styles and standards of education, and the role of children in society may not agree with your understanding and experience. Even at the playground or in the neighborhood, if your child looks unlike their peers or don’t share the same language, making friends and finding playmates may be a hurdle too.
In coping with all of the challenges it entails, many families abroad have to seek out strategies to keep the wheels of our life abroad churning. Some set up social groups or clubs for expat families to find a familiar haven when you need a break from being the foreigner. Some rely on media tools like Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber to stay in touch with loved ones back home. Some fly relatives over for visits to make the time abroad shrink just a bit. Between care packages, video chatting, and fellowship around familiar foods, we make it through. Sometimes other expats become stand-in family members while we’re abroad. Just last month, our family along with two other American families met up in Abu Dhabi. The long drive and border drama were not beyond the lengths we would go to be a family for each other. We go out of our way to help each other and bolster one another on this journey.
As true as the etymology itself, there is no ‘utopia.’ Every place and circumstance has its benefits and challenges. Life ain’t all rosy abroad but neither is it back home. An economic downturn, rising costs of living, and mass shootings are enough to make our countries feel less homely and inviting. Out of all our relatives, we own the least but financially have the most because we are debt-free. Some of our dreamy goals and idealistic values are better actualized on the other side of the planet, making the sacrifices worthwhile not only for ourselves but also for our children. Whether at home or abroad, our hope is that the compassionate, peace-loving, globally-minded citizens we raise today will become the pioneers of a better world tomorrow.
Being able to choose a life abroad is a gift which helps us, humbles us, and sometimes hurt us, but it is not in vain. While my daughter may not have roots in any particular land just yet, it’s more important that she has wings. Allegiance to any one place shouldn’t prevent her from trying life elsewhere because who knows- she just mind find happiness, peace of mind, and security on the other end of a plane ride.
|Photo credit: Labinsky|