As an expat, it’s all very funny when you have little children, born and raised where you weren’t. They often have a different accent from you, a slightly different vocabulary, and they invariably make fun of your pronunciation. As they get older, and closer to leaving the nest however, things take on a more serious tone.
My daughter is entering her last year at an American high school, and we’re currently looking at colleges. My long term plan has always been to move back to England once the big kids were in college, at least for a little while.
“But mom”, said one of them, “What if you stay there?”That’s when it dawned on me. I would be going back to England to be with my family again, but my “real” family would still be in the States. How would that work? How would I be a parent when my children were thousands of miles away? Could I even bear to be that far away from them? What if they weren’t even bothered by the distance? Should I expect them to follow me there? And so on, and so on.
Of course many families know only this life. Apple Gidley, writer and global nomad, is now based in Houston but her children (in their early twenties) haven’t lived on the same continent for a number of years. Apple herself grew up moving around the world, and she’s been a trailing spouse for over twenty years, living in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. She advises “I’ve seen it from both sides. I spent a year in London at 18, when my parents were in Papua New Guinea. It was lonely sometimes, but my God I learnt a lot about actions and consequences. So I think with teens away you have to trust the ground work you, as a parent, put in when they were with you – they might make a few deviations but as long as your principles, your morals and ethics if you like, are in place in them then they will make the full circle.”
Johara Nour, scientist, mother and trailing spouse for the last fifteen years, now lives in Thailand, and has two sons at college in the States. She adds, “The boys do not struggle at all with being far away and I do think being semi nomadic has made them not worry about the distances. They know that if needed that we could be there in under 48 hours.” Nour also has the comfort of having a sister in the States who could be on hand in an emergency. She adds, “I would say that the majority of the families have their kids in universities near families or very close friends. You have to rely on others in case of an emergency and so it is comforting knowing that someone is close by.”
And what does the distance do for the kids themselves? I vacillate between being worried about my children coping so far away, and happy that they will be gaining much needed independence. Back in the dark ages I went to university a mere three hundred miles from my family but rarely went home mid-term. There were no cell phones then, and I would call home once a week if that. These days, kids are on the phone or texting all the time, money can be deposited into an account and spent in the blink of an eye, and parents seem to be “on call” twenty four hours a day.
Gidley refers to “some interesting research being done on parents being overly intrusive in adolescent’s lives. The classic helicoptering scenario. That is not something that happens when you are on one continent and your not-so-little darlings on another. With teens away at boarding school, or young adults away at college, I think it finally gives them a chance to make decisions, and yes some mistakes, without parental hovering. Learning from those mistakes is key to growing up, and learning what not to do again. Classic case of hand in the hot water – it hurt, so I won’t do that again!”
And Nour agrees, “I do definitely think that the kids need to become more independent when they are in college and their parents are far away. No quick trips back home to get laundry done, having a home-cooked meal etc. “
However, with regard to modern methods of communication she adds, “That is probably the hardest part about being so far away – the time difference. At this point we talk to J about once a week – usually on a Sunday evening his time which is Monday morning our time. It would be great to talk more often but he is very busy and the time difference doesn’t help. For those of us so far away, Skype has been a God-send – being able to talk to J while seeing his face is priceless and we tend to talk longer when we can see each other.”
So it will soon be time to Skype, text and goodness knows what. I’m bracing myself for the next phase of expat parenting.
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.