My family recently moved to Africa. I would say it’s been a summer of — transitions.
Luckily, this isn’t my first overseas experience. My husband has worked for the Agency for International Development (USAID) before and together we lived in South America and Asia. We also lived in Europe during our service with the Peace Corps. This was simply a matter of reentering the service and accepting a new assignment.
“Simply”? To Africa?
As I prepped for the big move and got things organized, I talked myself through all the changes that I knew were coming. I knew we would be living in a much bigger house, which the kids would be thrilled about initially, but would likely complain about eventually. I kinda felt silly, but I made a few things the kids could use to decorate their rooms that would fit into our suitcases. I had experienced the months of staring at blank white walls before and hoped that a few pops of color would make a difference.
As the primary parent staying home, I knew that I would have a considerable amount of free time for the first few weeks or months. I packed activities that could stimulate creativity and last through several cycles of “Mom, I’m bored.” I prayed that whatever I forgot would be something replaceable or expendable.
In my mental preparations, I was deeply aware of some of the changes I’d never faced before. In Africa, obviously, my family and I would stand out for our lighter skin color. As I anticipated the experience, I recalled times when I have felt like all eyes were on me. I’ve learned through years of experience how to downplay my cultural give-aways and soften the obvious contrasts between myself and those around me.
I couldn’t imagine anything I could do to soften the contrast in skin tone.
Anyway, time marched on and somehow, we managed the pack-out process, the vaccines, the visas, the passports, the COVID tests, the flights, the layovers, and the jetlag. Our house turned out to be well beyond our expectations; spacious, fancy, and nestled safely among three other homes. There wasn’t much my kids could complain about; except too much space, feeling scared, and wanting to sleep all together in one room.
My splashes of color turned out to be a drop in the bucket compared to the space we had to fill. Still, I felt good having something to offer the kids to put up in their rooms. The crafts and activities were like dear friends giving me something fun to do. For the kids, however, no craft or activity could last long enough to help them endure the eternal hours of a day.
And of course we had electricity problems, which caused internet problems, which caused the kids to demand our immediate return to the United States. After weeks of trying to diagnose the issue, burning up two microwaves, a washing machine, a DVD player, and two router plugs, the power issues got generally resolved. I admit, I still kinda hold my breath every time I plug something in, but eventually we began to settle into a slow and bumpy rhythm.
And then it came time to transition the older three kids to a new school.
Living overseas provides a few schooling options that are meant to be comparable to education in the US. Home school and international schools are the most popular options. I decided on an international school that provided transportation. Best of all? One campus for grades pre-k to 12.
But I had completely forgotten about preparing for the first day of school.
Sure, each child had a backpack, including the one whose seams had burst at the straps in the middle of the airport. And yes, I had made sure each child had a pair of new and sturdy shoes… three months earlier. One pair had a decorative piece falling off. The others looked “tired” from too much summer fun.
There are obviously stores here too with shoes and clothes and school supplies. But at that moment I felt paralyzed, unable to replicate our traditional Back to School shopping experience. And I felt horrible that I hadn’t prepared for this moment ahead of time.
As with many of the other things I had managed to struggle my way through, like a completely different menu, I reluctantly decided to just accept the fact that my kids would show up on the first day of school with glued shoes, stitched up backpacks, and a modge podge of sketch pencils and colored paper. Well, that, and a frantic slurry of online ordering of things that wouldn’t arrive in time, as some consolation that I did something.
The school had made it difficult (or maybe it was just me) to find supply lists and required items in preparation for school. Fortunately, though, they offered a new family orientation just a few days before school started. I wasn’t sure whether this orientation would make me feel better or worse. Still, it would be worth going. Orientation day arrived and our plans for child care fell through. We boarded the embassy-provided bus with all five kids along with several other new families. The trip to the school was less embarrassing compared to the return trip home when the whole bus had to endure our three-year-old scream-crying — and then just “ahhhhhh… *breath*…..ahhhhhh” — the entire ride back. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so stubborn about hiring a full-time nanny.
We arrived late, got turned around among the multiple campus buildings (how is that possible when you’re supposedly following people?), and at the tail end of the school director’s speech managed to duck into the back of the auditorium. Soon after taking our seats there was a flurry of forgettable names and faces of various staff members and then we broke up into groups: senior school and junior school. The baby and I stayed with my oldest and the senior school group, while my husband took the toddler with the younger two to junior school.
Administrators again took the stage and went through another slightlyless rapid fire introductions of forgettable names and faces, and I braced myself for more doses of inadequacy. Surely other parents were more prepared and acclimated than I was. My mind started a gradual downward spiral. What else would I need to order that won’t arrive in time? What would I have to piece together? What trips to unknown and unfamiliar stores would I need to make to browse foreign shelves looking for items on an impossible supply list? How would I manage “healthy” daily snacks and lunches for three children who complain about having to eat anything they don’t recognize — which is apparently everything — or isn’t smothered in Nutella?
And I needed to remember to send them with hats to protect them from the sun and water bottles to keep them hydrated. Right.
I was so mentally distracted I barely noticed the transition as the school counselor took the stage. I absently wondered if she had any openings in her schedule. As she went through her role and purpose in helping students, she explained that we often imagine ourselves getting from point A to point B the quickest and smoothest way possible — in a straight line. (Yes, please.) She said in reality, it’s more like navigating a maze from point A to point B, with the occasional dead ends and backtracking. (*Sigh*)
I started thinking through our point A and how nice and easy it looked…. and how far away point B felt. How could I keep going? How could I continue to muscle through the embarrassment and disappointment with kids that complained and with nothing to get me back on my game?
“It’s okay if you don’t have it all together. Transitions are really hard,” she said.
It took me a moment to process.
I didn’t realize it until that moment that I had been holding on to so much weight and so much pressure, expecting myself to ensure a smooth transition for my entire family. My smooth transition was supposed to include being prepared, having things ready, making things fun, familiar… like home.
Was I the only one choking back tears?
I glanced over at my daughter and hoped she didn’t see. I could have done an ugly cry just then, but I kept it together.
The counselor’s comment felt like a hug. A really big hug. I had been missing a hug.
Transitions ARE hard. They’re stressful and filled with anticipated and unanticipated obstacles. Obstacles can come from our own emotions pressing down on us, expecting nothing to change as everything completely changes.
I started to feel the weight lift as I slowly let go. I let go of the idea of a perfect first-day photo op and knew I could probably manage a few smiling kids. I thought about what I DID have for that first day and…felt pretty good about it.
It felt strange to need permission to not have it all together, but it helped me find the courage to muscle through the remaining days of preparation. I felt happier, acted happier, and found my children happier too.
This transition has been hard with many more stories to tell (oh, just you wait), but I find myself encouraged by the small victories and compassionate reminders that there might be dead ends and backtracking, but I’ll eventually get to where I’m comfortable again and my family can call this new place
Emily, how cool! Such an adventure! The kids are so lucky to have a Mom and Dad open for such experiences. I’m staying tuned in to hear your next chapter. 🙂 Camille
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Emily, it’s sooooo good to have you back at your Mom Talks Politics blog ! I love your “real life” descriptions.
Yeah, transitions are hard and we don’t really acknowledge that until we have to experience it for ourselves. There’s alot to be said for settling in one place and staying there forever. There’s stability and comfort. But such a situation doesn’t prepare someone for empathizing with those who are working their way through something new.
Emily, your transition to another country is a major one. Transitions don’t have to be so uprooting to have an impact. Even learning a new job skill or trying a new diet change can be upsetting, taking the familiar and turning it into the unfamiliar.
I appreciate learning through you that our transitions don’t have to be bump-free. We can still get to point B from point A with all the one-step forward, two-steps back that it takes.
Like Camille, I’m eager to read more.
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Thank you so much for all of your thoughts, comments, and encouragement! I sure hope people read the comments too because you make so many wonderful points! We certainly can learn empathy for others who are going through similar struggles.
And I LOVE your comment about the fact that transitions don’t have to be as uprooting (or dramatic) to have an impact. Very true. There are so many ways, like the ones you mentioned, that move us to make various transitions in life.
Thank you! 🙂
You guys impress me so much. My favorite line, Emily, was this: “ Obstacles come from our own emotions pressing down on us, expecting nothing to change as everything completely changes.” Love you!
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You’ve been through some major transitions lately yourself and I have admired the way you’ve handled each one! You always find a way to laugh and joke through some of the stress. Thank you!! Love you too!
Wow! What an adventure you’re having! We will miss you in Utah but I wish you the best in Africa. I would LOVE to hear more about your adventures and experiences. Hope you’ll keep blogging!
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Hey, are you in Ethiopia or Sudan? Addis Ababa?
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Another friend has recently moved to Ethiopia, so I hope we get a chance to visit sometime soon. We’re in Kampala, Uganda. If you need anything in either place let me know.
No doubt you’re in for an exciting, challenging and rewarding adventure there. So excited to hear all about it. 🙂
You’re killing it. In a good way. You and Nils are giving your family THE best experiences. No, I’m not at all jealous.
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