A shorter version of this post was originally published in The Guardian, couldn't help myself, posting the long version here....
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Denial. Both my husband and I grew up moving around. It is very much a part of who we are and probably very linked to why we chose this lifestyle. We liked seeing and learning new things. We liked mingling in new cultures, going off the off-beaten track. More importantly neither of us has any attention span worth mentioning, and we get bored easily.
When we met we were both working in development and travelling was part of the deal. We planned our wedding in Spain while I resided in Colombia and he in Kenya, a great way to avoid family conflict, not so great for menu tasting. When the kids came along they soon familiarized themselves with Skype and airport procedures. By the age of five they had already lived in three continents. But soon it became evident that moving every one to three years was too much, both emotionally and from the point of view of logistics. We decided we needed to ensure destinations where we could stay longer. A job in the US came along that fit the bill well. We never intended for it to be permanent, we'd always planned for our kids to experience “moving” at least once, but years went by and everyone settled into New York life nicely. We bought a house and started putting down roots. However, about five years in, we started getting fidgety again. To mentally prepare them for the move we spoke often about the adventure we’d one day take, fearing somewhere deep inside that maybe it would never happen. That maybe this was it, the end of the road. What I value most about my upbringing moving around is that I feel it gave me a sense of relativity. You realize that social rules are somewhat relative, and as such, it's up to you to decide who you want to be and what rules you want to play by. I wanted my children to have that freedom. Also, it was obvious they were not going to be Europeans, like their parents. But I wanted to make sure they didn’t end up complete gringos.
But in all our preparatory work, we completely forgot to explain to the kids that moving is hard and it can suck big time. We were in complete denial about how hard it was going to be to have them say farewell to all their friends for an amount of time that – for them - is tantamount to an eternity. How hard it was going to be to get them to go into a classroom full of strangers speaking a different language, not just once, when they were still somewhat unaware of what they were getting themselves into, but five days a week, week after week, with any progress gained over the week lost over the weekend.
We were in denial about how lonely those initial weeks can be, spending days on end with no human interaction outside the house because we don’t know anyone in town. We were in denial about how frustrating it would be to wait entire afternoons in an empty house for the internet guy, a service we had completely taken for granted, only to have him not show up. Time and time again. To not know how to get to places, where to buy simple things. To lack what feel like the most basic essentials for kids who've grown up in the States, such as a working TV and access to Amazon prime.
Anger. So that is when the blame game begins, because, let’s face it, it’s got to be someone’s fault, right? I mean, yes, sure, you agreed to this, maybe even planned it, but it is your partner's job that got you here, and they are the ones who are turning up late, having to travel, or rush off and skip the morning drama. They are not the ones who have to spend the entire day working in a café because the internet signal is gone (again), or wait around for the (fill in the blank) guy that will inevitably show up late (if at all). It’s not their work that is suffering because you have no babysitter and your workday has just shrunk to a minimum.
Then there is the anger at the poor internet guy, when he finally shows up and fails to deliver any results. You know you should lower your expectations because, after all, this is (insert country here), known for a lot of things, one of which was never efficiency. It doesn’t matter. This guy in front of you, telling you he can only give you an 8-hour window for the technician’s arrival, is now feeling the wrath, as is the woman explaining that they can deliver the large item to your house, but not everything else in the same basket because... well, there seems to be no legitimate reason whatsoever. It is their fault, all of it. They are single handedly responsible for your misery, that of your children, and possibly for world hunger. And you are going to let them know.
Bargaining. This phase is sometimes also described as self-begging and is filled with regret and nostalgia. You now wish that you had made a different choice and moved into the all-American compound as a permanent living arrangement because they have internet and it works! You and the kids would be able to meet other humans, and there is a pool and a spa right inside. Even if it meant they might never hear the local language. Imagine, you could even go get a drink, or a massage! without having to locate a babysitter (another thing you still haven't managed to do). So you start mentally negotiating whether you can move there in a years’ time, when the contract you literally just signed runs out.
This is when your son declares that he wants to go back in a year, an option that was initially suggested by you on purely hypothetical grounds to make the idea of moving easier, and starts planning his next birthday party around that. It’s when you decide that since you can't socialise or work you are going to go swimming every day and at least get your pre-baby body back, ten years later, only to have a tropical storm, thunder, lightning and all, start just as soon as you’ve managed to fit what is now a massive set of fizzy hair -courtesy of the 98% humidity- into one of those obligatory pool caps that resemble a cheap condom. Every time.
Depression. The beginning of this stage (the most alcoholic of the stages) can be identified by how soon you start looking at the watch to assess if it is too soon to crack open a bottle of wine. If it’s noon or earlier you’ve moved into stage four. You look around at what is only just beginning to look like a home and realise there is no way you are going to talk anyone into doing all this again in 11 months, yourself included. Hell, you are probably going to die here just to avoid going through all this again. So you mentally say farewell to the compound and massage option.
You realize that it is going to be months before you can go back to full time work because you left your entire support system behind and, let's face it, the kids still need you at pick up and drop off and in the background when they are fighting or drawing or watching TV. As long as you are there they can complain and ignore you, but the moment you hint at the idea of going somewhere, a look of sheer panic takes over them.
This is the stage when you begin to meet other humans and realise that after a perfectly nice thirty-minute chat, your face literally hurts from the effort it entails to keep up a casual conversation with a complete stranger. It’s when you promise a teary eyed child to stay the whole day in the school parking lot to ease his anxiety, and spend the entire day feeling like the worst parent ever because you are not, and never intended to keep that promise. It’s when you look at Facebook and realize that, while your world has been turned upside down, everyone else’s life carries on normal without you.
Acceptance. And then, at last, a bit of light begins to creep in. You'll recognise this stage, because you start having more good days than bad ones and things start rolling more or less as planned. We still miss those who filled with colour our old life, but we reach out and begin to make new connections. In my case, in the form of flamenco lessons from a Venezuelan teacher, which is ironic given that I am originally from Spain. You start recognizing faces at school pick up or at parties, and identify people you actually enjoy spending time with.
Slowly you begin to accept your new reality and begin to reorganise your every-day activities around it. For example, here in Panama, a small country where everything is close, a key element is traffic. There are times of the day when a 10-minute trip can take more than an hour - we have learned this the hard way, so now at certain times of the day we just don’t go anywhere unless we absolutely have to.
There is a subtle but clear shift in your thought process and on how you approach things. Now when the delivery guy says you need to wait for him eight hours you nod, internally thinking “in your dreams” and “make me”. Fully accepting that depending on your location and what the traffic is like when they call you from the door step, you may or may not get to own the barbeque you just paid for. You figure your neighbour’s daughter is a good-enough babysitter.
The kids begin having play dates and referring to some of their classmates as friends. You accidentally overhear one of them tell grandma that their new school is “so cool”. They begin using local expressions and complain about the canteen food, a clear sign of integration. Finally, looking very stern, the little one informs you that you no longer need to walk him to his classroom (where you then proceeded to have a 20 minute negotiation before physically prying your hand away from his fingers), that you can now drop him off down the street. “It is time” he declares sternly, and you watch from the car as he heads off between the palm trees, frightened but proud to be walking to school on his own. No one ever felt so proud of an 8 year old for walking.
A key part of this stage, and the reason that I personally love moving, is that it entails listening to your feelings and understanding your needs: recognising what is important to you, and what you need to move towards being happy again. As a result, we move, we change, we grow and evolve. We let go of what
is not important. We become involved in other people’s lives and invest in new friendships, slowly morphing into a new version of ourselves. The bruises heal and the wounds turn into tougher skin. Or as my 10 year old put it, you get a second chance to define yourself.
Love and loss. And then, unbelievably, the time at your new duty station comes to an end. As a good planner you've been working on identifying a good new duty station for the family, you're filled with anticipation for all the new things that you and the kids will get to experience, and grateful for all the every-day nuisances that you will no longer have to put up with. So long suckers!
And then it hits you. All the friendships you’ve made, many of them still flourishing, may never fulfil their full potential because you are about to walk out on them. Others you’ve met you know are now part of your existential fabric. You know you will remain friends for life. Unfortunately, from now on that will mean coinciding here or there, briefly, every few years. It starts to dawn on you that together with all the nuisances, there are many things that you have come to love about your new home and you will now miss. And that’s when it hits you, the realization that it takes a special kind of crazy to keep this lifestyle going. Rinse and repeat.