My Velcro® Baby has blossomed: Why expat life was good for my kids

My velcro baby has blossomed

Younger Daughter has always been a Mommy’s girl.

Raising kids is a crap shoot: you do your best, but there are no guarantees they’ll turn out well. Throw in a parenting choice that’s the slightest bit unconventional — moving to another country with your children, for example — and you’d better steel yourself for the self-doubt and parental angst that’s coming your way. It’s a rare expat parent who doesn’t have at least one major crisis of conscience over the decision to uproot their children and replant them on foreign soil.

I wrestled with the bad-mommy demon countless times. On my most rational days, I was able to see that every negative I conjured up was neatly counterbalanced by a positive. But in my darkest moments, I worried that dragging my darlings from continent to continent would seriously impair them in some way. I imagined them unravelling in adulthood, sinking into some unspeakable depravity (becoming serial killers, perhaps — I watch way too many Criminal Minds reruns.) When I closed my eyes, I could see the lurid newspaper headlines and grainy paparazzi shots that would trumpet my role in their downfall.

What can I say? A vivid imagination is not always a good thing.

Now that I’ve taken a step back from those heady days, I can assess the situation with a more critical eye. And I know perfectly well that expat life was good for both of my children. As they begin their second week of the new school year, I only have to look at Younger Daughter to be more convinced of it than ever before.

Almost from birth, she was a painfully shy and clingy child who always found transitions difficult. The first month of preschool was a nightmare for everyone within earshot. She attended Junior Kindergarten, Senior Kindergarten, and half of Grade 1 in Canada, and each September she cried loudly and incessantly for the first few weeks of classes.

My velcro baby at Trapeze Club

The Trapeze Club unleashed the daredevil within.

We moved to Singapore midway through the school year, so she had to live through another first day of Grade 1, complete with the requisite tummy aches and tantrums. Several months after the move, however, we noticed something strange. Our Velcro® Baby, who had never strayed more than a few feet away from me, was starting to blossom.

On a trip to Beijing, this crowd-hating child — whose first sentence had been a sobbed “too much peoples!” — strode confidently through the throngs of persistent hawkers in Tiananmen Square, haughtily declaring “bu yao!” (“I don’t want any.”) She climbed happily onto the school bus every day, even though she’d always held Mommy’s hand and walked to school before. And the girl who used to cry when I pushed her too high on the swings joined the trapeze club. “I love living in Singapore,” she said.

My velcro baby at the year-end fête

She enjoyed this performance at the year-end fête. Shy? Not anymore!

Halfway through Grade 3, we moved to France, and all her old fears and insecurities came back with a vengeance. The first day of school was a disaster. Soon, though, she began once again to shed her old skin and become someone new. She made friends in both languages, and surprised us all by becoming the best French-speaker in the family. There was no school bus in Bordeaux, so she conquered the transit system instead. Most amazingly, she began to perform, taking part in piano recitals and the school talent show. “I love living in France,” she said.

By the time we moved back to Canada two years later, she was 10 years old. I held my breath, waiting for the hysterics that heralded both a relocation and a new school year. But that September, to our delight, there were no tears. Younger Daughter dove headfirst into Canadian life. She entered the board-wide public speaking contest and placed well. She strutted her stuff on the catwalk at a fashion show put on by a local clothing store. And she auditioned for  — and won — a spot in a specialized high school arts programme.

Last Tuesday was her first day of high school. I barely recognized the eager young woman who left the house that morning wearing her new uniform and a brilliant smile. She came home bubbling with excitement over her classes, her teachers, and the new friends she’d made.

I still sigh sometimes over things my kids missed out on while we were away, but for the most part I’ve put doubt and self-recrimination behind me. Although expat life has its downside, my daughters are grateful for the opportunities they’ve had. They saw more of the world in their five years overseas than many people do in a lifetime. Exposure to different cultures has endowed them with remarkable maturity, adaptability, a sense of independence, and an open-minded approach to life — not to mention top-notch language, social, and cross-cultural skills. (And lest you think I’m suffering from My-Kids-Are-Perfect Syndrome, let me point out that teachers and other non-related adults have made the same observations.)

I’m sure the day will come — soon, probably — when I’ll feel the need to write about the less agreeable legacies of expatriating with young’uns. But for now, I’m going to bask in the absolute joy of knowing that choosing to raise our children overseas was the best parenting decision we’ve ever made.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to My Velcro® Baby has blossomed: Why expat life was good for my kids

  1. Thanks for this. We’ve just moved from Manhattan to Sao Paulo, Brazil with our two-year-old. There was a rough time when she burst into tears every time I spoke in Portuguese (obviously terrified that one of her only connections to communication was being lost). But now we are in month three and she is adjusting. It’s good to know that the expat life was beneficial for your daughter.

  2. Maria says:

    Two is such a great age — your daughter can’t even twist your words and use them against you yet! :) I’m actually jealous of the opportunities ahead of her, especially since she has a parent who speaks the target language fluently. (I learned that by reading your excellent blog.) Good luck with your new life in Brazil — and please don’t stop writing about it.

  3. bookjunkie says:

    It’s so wonderful that your little girl is a world traveller. I am so glad she liked Singapore.

  4. blobbyblobblob says:

    I’m sure having supportive, loving parents helped them. I think the real problems with being a TCK occur when parents are unloving and/or even abusive. Your kids sound very lucky.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks so much! I’ll be sure to show them this comment. ;)

      • blobbyblobblob says:

        You’re kidding, right? It’s just that I can’t imagine the “you’re so lucky” message being put across in a non-hateful/resentful way (due to this having been my unfortunate experience – a very bad combo: abusive parents and constant moving).

      • Maria says:

        Not kidding at all. There are both positives and negatives about being a TCK, and my kids are lucky in that their experiences were mostly positive. There’s nothing positive about having abusive parents though, and I’m sorry your experience wasn’t good.

  5. blobbyblobblob says:

    I guess I can’t imagine, as a kid, being shown a post where someone says I sound lucky, and anything good coming of it :) (Though the internet wasn’t around when I was growing up, anyway.)
    Being a TCK *can* be great, if you are lucky enough to have good parents and other support systems (like a ‘home base’ somewhere, extended family, etc) but if you aren’t lucky that way (e.g. emotionally damaged parents perpetuating cycles of abuse, no home base anywhere, neither parent liking the other’s family, etc) it can be an extremely isolating and undermining experience, and since the parents are the ones in control making all the decisions, and also the only constant in the kids’ lives, that puts kids in an unusually vulnerable position – they have nowhere and nothing to turn to (though I wonder how much difference the internet makes now; and would you say that parenting standards are maybe improving? At least there are laws in most places now against assaulting your child with a weapon). Anyway, it’s the luck of the draw, with parents. Add the extra challenges of being a TCK and you get a very damaging experience, that not many people understand or are aware of (perhaps it’s pretty rare), and this lack of understanding, even dismissal, can be further isolating.
    This is not to take away any of the great things there *can* be in the experience. My (and my sister’s) experience would obviously fall into the ‘worst’ end of the spectrum. But it is real.

    • Maria says:

      I believe you when you say it’s real. Abuse is easier to hide when a family is mobile, and as you point out, being isolated from extended family and a stable community makes children even more vulnerable. I don’t know how much of a difference the internet would have made to you and your sister. On the one hand, it allows you to gather information and create a virtual support system no matter where you live. But I wonder how many children in that position would reach out for help, even if it’s online. Maybe the idea of the internet as a great liberator is an illusion for expat families living with abuse. I hope life is better for you now.

  6. blobbyblobblob says:

    Thanks Maria. I’m working on it. :)
    It is rare to get any recognition of how things actually were for us, so thank you for that. (When non-TCKs hear about our lives it seems their main reaction is to be intimidated by all the traveling or something, so being understood is very rare. It’s so unfair, since we had absolutely no choice in all the traveling. People are strange.)
    I think it’s very important that the TCK community not only celebrate the great things that being a TCK can mean, but also recognize the risks and increased vulnerability of kids who are unlucky in terms of what type of parents they get.
    (Neither my sister nor I are having kids ourselves, so at least one positive thing is that the cycles of abuse my parents perpetuated are definitely ending with us.)

    • Maria says:

      I never lived abroad as a child, so my impressions of what it means to be a TCK come mostly from my own kids. You’ve made me realize that my understanding of the downside of the TCK experience doesn’t go deep enough. It’s a pretty grim subject, but thank you for opening my eyes to a reality of expat life I hadn’t really considered.

  7. blobbyblobblob says:

    Thanks for hearing what I’m saying and taking it on board, Maria. (My past experience has usually been for people to try to invalidate or minimize or dismiss this stuff, so it’s pretty amazing when someone doesn’t.)
    (p.s. I obviously don’t know the details of how you dealt with leaving places, I assume you’re probably the responsible, aware, caring type of parent who facilitates their kids saying as much of a complete & satisfying goodbye as possible to everything they are being taken away from, and listens to and validates any sadness they might have, but when parents don’t do these things there is always the risk of buried/disenfranchised grief, which has been such an ongoing problem for my sister and me.)

    • Maria says:

      I thought I was done being surprised by the insensitivity of people, but the fact that anyone would minimize or dismiss the kind of trauma you’ve been through just amazes me. You don’t have to understand the expat life to see that someone’s hurting.

      I made sure my kids said a proper goodbye to the people and places that meant something to them. (I’ll admit It was as much for my sake as for theirs — I needed to tie up any loose ends while there was still time.) Grief is a very real part of moving on, and a lot of expats don’t realize that it can sneak up on them long after the actual move.

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