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.
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.
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.