Third Culture Mom

Last week I was talking with a fellow teacher mom whose family is leaving Kuwait in June. She told me all the work involved in exiting the country. Moving necessitates a load of paperwork. (That’s the joke why Justin and I aren’t moving yet.) But moving also brings unexpected emotion. For kids too, which is what my friend and I talked about. She mentioned a book about third culture kids, which I haven’t read, and when I started listing not only my kids’ goodbyes but the ones I’d be making this year too, she said maybe I was a third culture mom. Her offhand comment got me thinking about where I belong and the unique challenges of living abroad. And so, an essay draft in its draftiest form:

One summer I took long runs from my parents’ house into the country and back through town. I ran past two houses for sale, one on a narrow country road and the other on a quiet town street. I looked at the front yards and driveways and windows thinking of picnic blankets, snow shovels and Christmas lights. If we lived there, my kids would grow up near grandparents and extended family. We could bike to the library and grocery store. Justin would have a workshop and garden. After dinner one night, I took Justin past both houses. One of them advertised an open house that weekend. You want to go? Justin asked.

What I craved from a house were friends who didn’t move away. Everything I’d been glad to leave – small town routine, especially – now had my affection. I went to my parents’ church and saw high school classmates with their own families now. I imagined how my life and theirs might overlap, how our kids might go to school together. I imagined finding a place in the community, staying for decades, maybe even watching my students come back to buy a house on the middle lot of a quiet street they’d wanted to leave too.

Finding a place underlies why I wanted to leave. And now I wish I was planted where neighbors remember when I had a paper route or knew my siblings well enough to ask after them.

One year I said goodbye to three dear friends in as many months. Two years of significant farewells followed. I started to think I couldn’t do this anymore. Last August I went to bed early while Justin joined a potluck of new and returning staff. I could think of nothing worse than answering where I was from and what I was teaching a dozen times, speed-dating for friends. One of my close friends (also leaving this June) thinks that means I’m ready to go too. I’m not sure. Maybe I reached an emotional pause. Like, I am full of dear friends right in front me and can’t take any more on board.

That’s selfish. So as the year went on, I learned better. Or am trying better. I want to love the one I’m with. I want to be present with the friend in front of me. Sometimes this means sidetracked conversation as babies, toddlers and kids weave around us. Sometimes this means I know this friend best in the courtyard or out for breakfast or before morning bell. What I’ve recognized is a wealth of relationships pouring into my day.

This June I am saying goodbye to a core of women who give me grace and wisdom (and laughter, recipes, books). I am afraid I won’t know how to be sad in a healing way. I am afraid I’ll count all my friendships lost, that the daily momentary relationships don’t add to anything sustaining and I’m silly to think so. I am afraid I’ll want to buy a house this summer only to find that there isn’t a good place for me there either. I am afraid I am running short on my allotment of dear friends.

Once I asked another mom friend what she found most difficult about being a mom. At the time, with an infant and toddler, I found nearly everything difficult. But she didn’t say sleeplessness or inexplicable grief or potty training. She said the most difficult thing about being a mom was spending time with people you wouldn’t choose. (I think she was talking about me). Being an expat can be like that, too, when we are finding our way through new cities, foods, currencies and norms, when what we need most is the stability and laughter friendship can give. So let’s try to like each other a lot.

Which is why June remains a unique heartbreak for me. Because I like you a lot, without trying. And because my sad heart will think it’s safer to stay closed or buy a house in Wisconsin. When August comes Justin (excited about meeting people he has everything or nothing in common with) will want to go to the welcome potluck. Fine, I’ll say, Give me a minute. I’ll go to the bathroom and put on mascara and lip balm, a spray of perfume, and head downstairs with my family. I’ll open up enough to tell as many people as ask that I’m from Wisconsin and I teach high school English. Yeah, I’ll say, Those are my two kids running around over there. I’ll open up enough to trust dear friends will come.

3 responses

  1. Beautifully expressed, Sarah. I pray you’ll press through the hard to find more beauty that God has waiting for you in the friendships that are waiting to take root in the future. I have been learning that we do need the people who are physically present in our lives – they need me and I need them – for as long or as short as God gives us together. But the precious friendships from the past- they remain treasures to me. I’m pretty sure I’m not able to express myself as well as you do, but just some thoughts in response to your writing. Thanks for sharing. It IS hard.

      • Beautifully expressed, both of you! Even though the years and distance may not allow us to see into each other’s lives as I would wish, what you have said I relate to, also. Now we are building roots in Kansas City. It’s becoming different, though we are young and not afraid of more change. But so well said, Sarah. And perhaps for me the hardest friendships not to have in front of me, daily — over bbqs and kid sports, church and mom tea times… Is yours, my family. I really hope for this summer to be refreshing for those relationships, that we can enjoy being in front of each other fully. I love you both, sisters. There is much to be said with keeping up in between our in person times, too.

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