My mother in law has a rich cache of memories that find their way easily into a conversation – a walk on the beach, a cup of tea in a comfortable chair, or on the bleachers of a child’s baseball game. Her stories span from a rural childhood riding a horse to school to a young nursing career. Marriage lead to an expat life in the seventies in Asia with a husband who travelled back and forth to New York. Follow this up with a return to Australia moving to and from three separate cities, children educated in each and a foray into small business which had her working six day weeks. The majority of her memories have a central character, her husband who was her confidante and best friend – he died two and half years ago and I still look for him over her shoulder as she walks into a room.
“I’ll be married 53 years tomorrow” she told me last week. There’s an awkward pause. “You don’t stop being married just because…” her voice trailed off, we both found somewhere else to look. She began again “The trouble is when a marriage ends you don’t just lose half… you also lose all of the memories that they had that you’ve forgotten.
I thought of G and I filling in the gaps of each others conversations. The people I’ve lost that G has kindly returned to me. “I was talking to Paul. You remember Paul? He worked in Adelaide but he came to Canada.” G is playing expat charades – two words, one Australian, first word…Paul…
I’m completely blank, shaking my head slowly while searching back through the years like a time traveller.
“Remember that night in Canada?” G goes on. “His luggage didn’t arrive, he showed up to dinner in a track-suit, really nice guy”. It slowly starts to come back thread by thread, the jacket, the grateful face, the sparkling eyes. “He told me he’s never forgotten you because you drove into town the next day and gave him some clothes”.
Seven countries, four children, parent teacher nights across continents and I somehow struggle to remember Paul who lost his luggage. Paul with the kind eyes who’s from my home town. Paul who I genuinely thought enough of to head into town in the middle of a brutal Canadian winter with kids in tow. I find myself desperately searching for the details. How old were our kids? I want that memory back, I want to picture the kids, my friends, my house in Canada. I want just five minutes of it – let me stand in the kitchen with a baby in a high chair, a toddler on my hip and an eye on the clock. I want the sound bite ‘kids we’re going to grab a few things to take into town to the man from Dad’s work’.
Our days that roll into weeks months and years often feel endless. Small children, bath times and planned menus amongst grocery shopping and carrying the folded washing to the bedroom. An ordinary day with a mundane task punctuated by a chance meeting at the letterbox or the supermarket. Those were the days I let slide by, feeling they were the hours I was pushing through to get to the end goal – the holiday marked on the calendar, the weekend brunch with friends, the return home for Christmas.
How fantastic would it be to place each day carefully in a vault to return to. Maybe that’s what my mother in law was missing, hers was a shared vault and now half it was missing. She’d been robbed and the good were irreplaceable.
Our expat friends provide the same, maybe more of a lock box than a vault. While smaller and easier to relocate, the lockbox gets carried year to year, scuffed and dented along the way. As it fills with new experiences and friends old memories spill out and remnants are left behind. You can remember the street, the house but not the exact address, what was the post code? You can see your front garden but were the bougainvellia pink or white? The teacher from Ireland, she was so lovely you went on the field trip together when the bus got a flat tyre – where did she end moving to? Did you ever say goodbye?
How great would it be to return to the vault – to that one day – the day you thought was so ordinary.
*My welcome address at the Parenting and Toddler Forum in Doha on March 2nd 2019*
Hello there, I’m Kirsty Rice – some of you may know me from a website called 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle – others from the expat podcast Two Fat Expats – and to some I’m possibly one of the mums from school, or perhaps I’m just that woman on instagram who seems to be at the airport a LOT. And to work colleagues I’m Barefoot Kirsty – the Community Manager for the Barefoot Investor.
But to the most important people in my life, I’m the same as you. I’m Mum.
I’m a mother of four children, and my expat claim to fame is that they’ve all been born in different countries.
Amazingly I’m still married to the man who came home one day in our first year of marriage when I was just a few months pregnant, and told me there was a rumour going around the office that we were moving to Indonesia.
“Wait? What? I thought you said if we moved anywhere it would be Singapore?” four weeks later we were eating Nasi Goreng for breakfast in Jakarta.
It turned out the company he worked for was pretty terrible at keeping secrets because a couple of years later a colleague of his walked past a meeting room and saw my husband’s name on a whiteboard under a column that said Kuala Lumpur – three weeks later we were packed up and gone. That was my first taste of saying goodbye to a girlfriend who had somehow become a daily and integral part of my expat survival. We’d had our first babies together, shared all the nitty gritty details of it all. It was also my first taste of realising that somewhere else had somehow become home. That I was no longer just uprooting myself and everything I knew, but I was now doing it to my child as well. I was going to make them have to say goodbye, I was going to make them have to start all over again. It was the beginning of wondering what this life we’d chosen would mean to our children.
About a year after that when I’d finally managed to find my way around KL without getting lost, when I’d secured a decent hair dresser and made a friend or two, well you know how this story goes right? I was nine months pregnant and trying to wrangle my two year old into the bath when my husband casually mentioned while passing me a towel that one of the guys at the office had heard a rumour we were moving to Libya…knowing how this story went I cut to the chase
“And when did he hear we were doing this?” I asked with a raised eyebrow
“Erm, I think they’re kind of waiting for you to have the baby before they break the news”
A week later our second child was born and two weeks after that we were on a flight to Tripoli.
We loved Libya. We arrived with a two year old and a two week old. It was a rocky start with a baby who insisted on breastfeeding constantly while refusing to let her father give her a nighttime bottle, along with renting a house and discovering it had a goat living in its basement. Libya became home though and maybe even to this day my favourite. I guess we’d been living in Libya for about four months when we had a very boozy night at the British Embassy and I woke up knowing, just KNOWING I was pregnant again. Our third child was born in Malta.
Fast forward a couple of months and it was Christmas eve in Australia. With mobile phones turned off the company somehow managed to track my husband down at my mother’s house – our third child was about 8 weeks old at the time, I was sitting outside with my three children under the age of three with my parents while my husband was inside on the landline receiving the news that he was required in Calgary, Canada.
I’m sure there’s many of you here that have your own stories just like mine – you’ve been the recipient of the call – you’ve had the discussion about pregnancies, child care, careers, schooling and the implications that come the minute you put the word expat in front of what is usually an every day event. This is not unusual – this is just what we do – it becomes our superpower. What is unusual though is that we do this without a manual, without a mentor or a job description. We survive solely by instinct, community, and a bit of luck.
It was in Canada that we had a reprieve – four years of Canadian suburban life, another baby, a return to the workforce for me, and a lot of photos of little people in snow suits and fantastic north American holidays.
We then moved to Texas, this time adding a dog, our beagle, to the mix. And then finally Qatar where we’ve settled and grown and said hello and goodbye to way too many great friends.
It was here in Qatar that I started to write and from that learnt about social media, community management and the online world. Qatar has an amazing entrepreneurial feel to it, there is a ground up approach, I think a little bit of it has rubbed off on me. I taught myself about podcasting and editing and started to tell stories of every day expat women. The more I wrote, the more stories I told, the more I realised that no matter where we came from, or what our personal situation was, we all had a connection. And for those with families there’s a fear – how is this life affecting my children. Is it as wonderful as I think it is? Or is it as terrible as I fear it could it be?
Only yesterday I was reminded of this when I asked in the Two Fat Expats Facebook group what I should talk about this morning. I explained it was a toddler forum – the number one question in the poll that people wanted me to discuss this morning was:
Will my kids turn out okay?
The number two suggestion was:
Just tell some stories from your blog.
And so with that I’ll combine the two with two stories.
My first born child was of course perfect. All first born children are for about the first week or so. She was a baby like most others, beautiful because she was ours ,but hard to work out because we were beginners and she didn’t come with instructions. Like many babies she screamed each night at witching hour, and once she was up and walking we went through a good year of bedtime negotiations with her playing every trick in the book and me trying to reason with a two year old – but she made her way through those toddler years and eventually became the leader of our small pack. She started school in the British system in Libya and spoke of eating sweeties and biscuits. She then hit the Canadian system and we threw in the double whammy of French Immersion just to really mess with her (and us because we had no idea how to help when it came to homework), she then made her way into the American system in Texas and with hand on heart pledged allegiance to the flag, she spoke of candy and cookies. And so by the time we hit Qatar we prided ourselves on her international experience, on the fact that she’d had access to so many cultures. In her travels throughout Asia, Africa and North America we felt that both she and our other children not only understood the customs of Qatar but also the culture of elsewhere – I mean this is what expat parents tell each other right? Global active citizens? We send them to schools that house 76 different nationalities. They’re religiously tolerant and aware.
So you can imagine my surprise when I had all four little travellers in the car around Easter time.
“So, when’s Easter?” One of them asked on the way home from school one day
“Yes” said number two excitedly, “when does the Easter Bunny come?”
It was the second question that raised me onto my parenting soapbox.
“You know, Easter isn’t all about chocolate and bunnies. I think it’s important we remember why we celebrate Easter” I said this earnestly, while thinking of Lindt Chocolate Balls and how we were going to keep the beagle away from the stash.
When your children range from four to ten in age (at that stage), a few questions from Mum can turn in to a rabid and frenzied display of I know I know, which is exactly what happened when I asked the next question.
“Who knows what happened at Easter?”
“Jesus had a birthday!” screamed The Second Little Traveler.
I put it down to excitement. I tried an easier question.
“When is Jesus’ birthday”?
“On Christmas Eve?” asked the First Little Traveler.
“Well, close, but no.” I remained calm “While we’re talking about Christmas Eve though, it was on Christmas Eve that Jesus’ parents were told there was no room at the Inn. Can you remember his parent’s names?”
“YES!” screamed the eldest child.
“Jesus’s parents are Lily and James”
Without wanting to humiliate and discourage, I raised an eyebrow and checked I’d heard what she’d said correctly.
“Lily and James, um, I’m not sure who they are?”
I saw a lightbulb, a glimmer of recognition in her face.
“Oops, she said, that was Harry Potter”.
You’ll be happy to know that that same child completed her IB last year and did well – she’s been accepted to Adelaide University to do a double degree in Economics and International Relations and as part of her IB completed a four thousand word extended essay in French – that Canadian education served her well ;-).
Sometimes our children save their more embarrassing questions for public consumption though. Like our third little traveller who stood at a crowded ten items or less aisle at the Carrefour checkout and asked me why the front of my bottom was hairy.
I prayed that the people around me were non English speakers but when the girl behind the counter smiled and the man in front of me snorted I gathered this was a conversation we were sharing with everyone.
I tried a distraction “do you think we have ten items? Shall we count them again?” It didn’t work, he continued on…and it got worse “I mean, I know why you have hair on your eyelashes Mummy, to keep out the dust…but why do you have hair on the front of your bottom? What are you keeping out?”
This same child is now 15. He’s the Australian boy with the American accent who has began at boarding school just a few weeks ago. He was the child I was most worried about this year. A mother is only as happy as her saddest child and I feared this would break us both. He loved it in Qatar and Qatar appeared to love him back. My husband and I agonised over the decision to send him to boarding school – but in our personal list of pros and cons we knew we couldn’t keep him here. Having never lived in Australia it felt cruel and unfair to expect him to begin University life without the basics of a small network of friends and the knowledge of Australian pop culture. Now I know that the mention of boarding school will perhaps have up to half of you in this crowd deciding that I’m a bad parent. Of course you are – you have babies and little people, you can’t imagine not having them under your roof, neither could I – but these are the decisions that come at you as your children grow. It comes gently with sleepovers, camps, courses, school trips. Bit by bit, piece by piece you’ll relinquish your hold to let them grow and only you will know what’s best.
Now I’m going to stray for a moment – stay with me.
I need to tell you about my friend Penny…
Penny’s been my friend for almost ever, – we have kids the same age, we knew each other pre husbands, pre kids, pre wrinkles, we knew each other when we could bounce on a trampoline or burst into spontaneous laughter without wetting our pants – we’ve shared a lot over the years. Penny is no bullshit. She tells it how it is. Whether it’s “you can’t buy those pants they look terrible” or “you should keep your hair like that – it works”
Penny’s had a bee in her bonnet for the past few years about what she calls “Professional Experts” She can’t stand them. People who have made a career solely by being the talking head on a particular topic. Whether it’s the guy who’s lost twenty pounds on the reality tv show and now you see him all the time selling his protein shakes. He’s become a “professional expert” and he wants to help you become just as fabulous as he is.
Or maybe it’s the woman who dated a footballer and gained an instagram following – who then did a 12 week yoga course that she shared every excruciating second of – she’s also now a professional expert – and she can show you just how you too can become a multi millionaire yoga trainer in your lounge room. She’s got online course you can sign up for.
Professional experts are everywhere now. They pop up in our facebook feeds, in our instagram stories and in our nightmares. They’re here to tell us how we can do life better and usually why we need to give them our money to do so.
If I was going to be a professional expert I might choose my topic as an expat parent. I could sit here and tell you how to raise your expat children to be a perfect as mine…or an even bigger lie…how to be the perfect parent. Something we both know doesn’t exist.
But here’s the truth.
Only you know what is right for your children.
In the same way that only you can rock the stroller over the bump that gets your child off to sleep, and only you has seen that particular expression your baby makes and have learnt to decipher it. Over the years to come they’ll be hundreds of experts ready to tell you what is best for your child. And you’ll take the advice from the experts on board, you’ll listen to the math teacher, the pre-school reader, the baseball coach and the swimming instructor. You’ll get fantastic tips and support from some, and terrible advice from others.
My son is now in his fifth week of boarding school. He loves it. I stayed in Australia for his first three weeks there and after the first week I had to force him to come out with me on weekends as he didn’t want to leave. He was worried he might miss something exciting with the boys. For him boarding school is like one HUGE sleepover. He is fascinated with the rural kids from the more isolated country towns. He loves the way they speak, their attitudes and the fact that they are so different from everything he’s known in his expat world. He taken up rowing and he’s out on the water three times a week. He loves heading into the city, catching public transport, and has put his name down for just about every activity and opportunity offered. “They’ll teach me how to scuba dive Mum, is that cool with you?”
“Completely cool” I say, telling myself not to watch Jaws or The Meg anytime soon.
We knew, as parents we knew that it was going to be the best thing for him – we also knew leaving Doha was going to be one of the hardest things he’d ever done – but deep down we knew the best thing for him was to go.
You’re going to get a lot of great advice today. I’m truly envious. I would have loved to have gone to a forum like this when my guys were babies. I imagine the tips you’ll take home will be life changing for many of you particularly if it sleep related or gives you additional skills or tricks to store for those challenging toddler situations.
But please, remember, when it comes to your child only you know what’s best. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts, I’d be willing to bet that you’re probably harder on yourself than you should be.
Definition of a holding pattern. 1 : the usually oval course flown (as over an airport) by aircraft awaiting clearance especially to land. 2 : a state of waiting or suspended activity or progress
I was flying into London to meet my husband G who’d been there working all week. As Aussies living in Canada with four young children it had taken german organizational skills to make it all happen. With the help of visiting parents, great friends and neighbours we were set for four days in central London.
High above Heathrow you couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions. It was summer, blue skies, white puffy clouds and a reasonably short flight by Australian standards, maybe nine hours, easy peasy. I was that person you see on the plane within 45 minutes of landing, the person with the grin who is beyond excited about what’s in store. I was busting to see G, we had plans for restaurants, meetups with old friends and four blissful nights in a hotel without the daily grind of kids, work, and life in the burbs.
As I looked out the window I saw something unexpected, another plane, and then another. We were in a holding pattern. I’m not sure how many others were up there that afternooon but each plane was patiently circling Heathrow waiting for their turn to land. I wondered how many others were sitting like me, perched on the edge of their seat.
The adrenaline that comes when you’re waiting to see someone you love – is there anything better? The excitement of a child coming home from camp. The anticipated bride at the altar. The first lock of eyes. The search through the crowd at the arrivals hall – there they are! The awkward drop of suitcases and who to hug first.
It’s our 20 year wedding anniversary today, and because we live the life we live we are of course not together. G is in Qatar with the boys while they finish school. I’m in South Australia with the girls (they finished school last week). We have six more sleeps until we’re all together.
This morning as the delivery woman walked towards the house holding an enormous bunch of flowers one the girls wistfully said “Oh Daaaad”, the card “looking forward to being together with our family on the 18th – Happy Anniversary”.
Our expat marriage involves far more holding patterns than I’d like. It feels like we are perpetually counting the days until we’re all together. It’s not perfect – but it’s also important to recognise the gift that comes with this life. On opposite sides of the world we sit on the edge of our seats grinning while looking out of the window high about the billowing clouds.
“Can Annie sleep in my room when Granny and Gramps come” says 12 year old Henry.
“Shall we go to the Cherry Farm on the first day after they arrive?” I ask the girls who nod enthusiastically.
“Dad ordered the reindeer for the front lawn but their heads don’t go up and down like the one’s in Canada” I tell my second daughter who exclaims “OMG WHAT WAS HE THINKING??” and then giggles hysterically at her own outrage.
We’re in a holding pattern.
Those four nights in London were exceptional. We went on a pub crawl and met people from all over the world – over pints of beer we listened to their stories and shared ours. While sitting at one of the most London of London restaurants with food to die for we struck up a conversation with a couple at the table next to us, they insisted we join them at a quintessential Soho nightclub. Occasionally photos of that night pop up on my screen and I giggle at G and I with our new besties in the middle of the dance floor. We wandered into our hotel late one night and gate-crashed a plastic surgeons convention where the star of the show had spent his early days as a flying doctor in outback Australia, he had stories that had us in fits of giggles with pangs of nostalgia for the country we love. We talked, G and I talked and talked about his career, my plans, our gorgeous children and how lucky we were. We slept, we walked, we held hands. It was wonderful.
This expat marriage has given me so much more than it’s taken.
Six more sleeps. Happy Anniversary my beautiful G. All of our travels, all of our adventures, and you remain the best discovery I’ve ever made.