This Is For The Expat Mothers - Especially My Own

MsCaroline and her mother before moving from Thailand to Taipei, around 1972

When I started this blog a little more than a year ago, one of my intentions was to explore the differences between life as an expat child and life as an expat adult.  

What I didn't realize was that almost every step I took would give me new insight into the life that my own mother had led - and a new and deep respect for the courage and aplomb she displayed even as she gamely packed our family up every few years for parts unknown. What my mother did when I was growing up is what expat mothers all over the world do on a daily basis, and is something those of us who haven't ever done it (or haven't done it very long) can only imagine.

Being a mother in a foreign country means separation from the support of home and family.  It means coping with homesickness while still trying to create a sense of belonging for the children you are raising.  It means trying to instill a sense of national pride in a child who doesn't remember the country of her nationality.  Being an expat mother means trying to keep family ties strong with a family that is thousands of miles away.  It means trying to wind your tongue around the names of your child's friends that you can barely pronounce, trying to make a birthday cake without the right ingredients, trying to explain national holidays back home when no one around you is celebrating them, and reminding your children that not every family has a maid, a yardboy, and a driver.  Being an expat mother means stepping out into uncharted territory - learning how to bring up children in an environment completely different to the one in which you grew up, and making up the rules as you go along.  It means trying to impart a sense of security to your children when you don't know the language or the culture yourself.  It means making new friends quickly who become like a second family - and then saying goodbye to those friends much sooner than you'd expected.

And millions of women across the world - like my own mother and mother-in-law -have done it.

What I know now- a year into my own expat journey- is that my mother had exactly the right combination of courage, optimism, enthusiasm, and humor to weather the many twists and turns that would come her way over the course of her life.  And that, just possibly, those experiences would give her a strength and a perspective that would help her to face even greater challenges once she was 'home' again.

 MsCaroline's mother, circa age 3
A minister's daughter from Canada, my mother had grown up moving from parsonage to parsonage, culminating with a move to the U.S. when she was in her late teens.   When she married my father- a military officer - I doubt she could have begun to anticipate the life that was ahead of her. In their first years in Bangkok, my father was often in Vietnam, and she was not only separated from him, but also alone in a strange country with a small child.

Over the course of the next 30-odd years, she moved house many times - sometimes in as little time as a year and a half - to many cities, and several countries.

What must it have been like for her, packing up and moving every few years, never having a real home of her own, and never knowing how long we might be there? According to her, that's just the way it was, and she made the best of it. (Having weathered only 4 major (interstate/international) moves during my own 20-year marriage, I suspect that's a huge understatement.)

I can only imagine how she felt being so far away from her large extended family (she is the youngest of 9) in a time before Skype and the cheap long-distance phone call, when slow-moving letters and snapshots were the primary means of communication, and a phone call was a rare event.  It was a time when air travel was still very much a luxury, so the idea of a yearly flight home to see friends and family was out of the question for military wives.  She knew it might well be years before she saw her family again.

Despite these challenges, I can only say that she has seized every opportunity and met every obstacle with tremendous faith, courage, optimism, and an enthusiasm for life that have been a wonderful example for me, especially as I began my own expat journey.

Snake handling in Bangkok.  Or Taipei.  Or Panang.  Or somewhere.

A petite redhead, she is referred to by MrL as  'The Red Tornado,'  a reference to both her red hair and her fast-moving, high-energy demeanor (although she insists that, at her age, she should really be downgraded from 'Tornado' to 'Zephyr.')  Yet she is a sensitive and thoughtful person who loves to garden, and enjoys nothing more than telling me about the nests the birds are building next to her patio.  She is an avid reader who brought me up saturated in the written and spoken word (the poetry she read to me as a child is still deeply ingrained.)  Early on, she instilled in me a love for music, and one of my earliest memories is of her playing the piano for me in our house in Bangkok after she had put me to bed at night.

Of course, for every soft and gentle story I have about her, I have another that illustrates her zest for life and her willingness to try something new.  The fact that we bought her an iPhone for her 70th birthday - and that she took to it immediately- is just one example of the way she meets life head-on.  To this day she has a penchant for fast cars, long road trips, and new experiences. I still clearly remember her coming home when we lived in Germany and complaining to my father that her car had an annoying shimmy on the Autobahn 'Whenever I go over 100."

Of course, my mother is nothing if not a realist. One of the best illustrations of her highly practical nature is an oft-related family story about her killing a snake when we lived in Bangkok and I was about 4 or 5.  It was evening, she was alone, and she had encountered a snake on the doorstep of our house.  Worried that, if she simply shooed it away, it might lurk in the garden and bite me, she decided that the only reasonable course of action would be to kill it, which she did (quite neatly, I might add) by dropping part of a heavy stone hibachi on its head and crushing it.  The next morning, upon finding the deceased reptile on the doorstep, the maids and houseboy came to her in great consternation, asking if she had killed it.  As it turned out, the snake she had so creatively dispatched (and come well within striking distance of) had been a Banded Krait, also known as the 'two-step' - the number of steps one could reputedly take before dropping dead after being bitten.  My mother (who hadn't known this) simply pointed out that she was concerned about me and to this day I'm sure that she believes that anyone with a child would have done the same thing.

But her courage wasn't limited to facing reptiles in Asia:  later, back in the U.S., in the space of just two years, she battled breast cancer and coped with the heartbreaking death of  her husband.  Instead of the happy retirement she had been looking forward to with my father, she found herself facing a life as a single woman after 34 years of marriage.  But with her typical no-nonsense, no self-pity attitude, she set about living a full life:  making new friends, volunteering in her church, traveling extensively, enjoying her grandchildren and her family, and reveling in new opportunities as they came along.  She saw glaciers crumble in Alaska, admired the grandeur of New Zealand ("I think I need to see this Lord of the Rings movie they keep talking about."), traveled to the Grand Canyon.

Visiting Son#2 at Summer Camp...of course she had to try out the rope suspension bridge.
In her late 60s, she decided that it would be a good idea to exercise our rambunctious new Labrador puppy by throwing a ball and racing him for it (who races a labrador puppy?).  She probably would have beaten him, too, except that the dog tripped her up, causing her to fall and break her wrist.  While I was still wallowing in guilt and regret about our unruly dog, she was showing her grandsons the x-rays of the metal pins that had been surgically placed in her wrist "just like Frankenstein" and sporting a hot-pink cast on her arm.

Thirteen years after my father died, she met a lovely man, a widower himself, and, in her 70's, remarried, adding new children and grandchildren to our extended family and beginning a new chapter of her life with her typical energy and enthusiasm.

After all these years, not much that she can say surprises me, which is why, when I last talked to her about our plans for my Home Leave this summer, she suggested that, instead of just 'sitting around' her house in Ohio, we consider a road trip to see some of the New England family. It will give Son#2 a chance to see his Boston relations, she said, and really - it's only a few days' drive.

Just a few days' drive.  Sure.

Let's just hope I can keep up with her.

Happy Mother's Day.


broken biro said…
Wow! What a fascinating story of an inspiring character
Happy Mother's Day to your mum!!
BavarianSojourn said…
Your Mother sounds like an incredible lady, and how glamorous she is as well!

Happy Mother's Day to you as well fellow Expat Mum!

Your post made me cry by the way. You ruined my mascara!! :) x
Wilma said…
Your mom sounds like quite the lady. She and my mom are kindred spirits when it comes to driving. :)
MsCaroline said…
BB- thank you: she is very much a character, and is so modest she would never consider what she does inspiring in the least - which is part of her charm!
MsCaroline said…
Emma - Awww...I hate to be responsible for anyone's mascara, but I'm glad that some of what I felt came through in the writing! Happy Mother's Day to you, too!
MsCaroline said…
Wilma - yes, she is one of a kind. This was so hard to write, as I had enough material for a book and had to cut it down for a reasonable post...quite a challenge for me. I remember you telling me the story of your mother 'pegging it' - sounds exactly like my mom!
Karen said…
What a fabulous tribute, Carolyne. I cried, too, but alas, my mascara had already worn off for the day. I find it hard to imagine the courage it takes to pick up and move to strange and new places with young children on a regular basis. I have moved only once since my children were born (and I had only a 2 yr. old at the time) and that was enough for me!
Happy Mother's Day!! Hope your guys made it special!
broken biro said…
Re your last comment - I was going to say her story would be a great book!
Trish said…
An incredible story of a fabulous woman - how gorgeous is that lady!

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about your mum. I feel very privileged to read them.
MsCaroline said…
Karen - thanks so much! The longer I live over here, the more I realize that I have had it so very easy compared to what she must have experienced!
MsCaroline said…
BB- I have thought that often - writing this has re-ignited my interest!
MsCaroline said…
Trish - yes, she is very lovely, although she would probably roll her eyes if she heard me say so! She is quite a gem. I'm so glad to be able to 'share' her a little bit!
What a lovely post and so true what you say about expat mothers. When I think of what my mother had to deal with in the days before the internet, Skype, plus 22 hour flights from England with small children, I think I am very lucky in comparison. Your ma sounds like a real star. Sadly mine died a long time ago, but I wish she was around today so give me some advice on being a mother abroad.
MsCaroline said…
nvg - I suspect your mother would believe - as mine does - that she did nothing particularly out of the ordinary - which makes what they did all the more to be admired!
What a lovely tribute to your mother. There is such strength in that generation. My mother lost her husband when she was only twenty four. She had two children under four. I was the older, the three year old. She just got on with it and has had a life of much fun and very much hard work. She is seventy eight now and I suspect she would get on very well with your mum!
MsCaroline said…
Elizabeth - Thank you - it was very easy to write (except for cutting down the content - hard to do!) I suspect you are right about our mothers - sounds like they were cut from the same bolt of cloth! So amazing that they don't seem to think that they did anything much out of the ordinary...
Heather said…
I really enjoyed reading about your mother. Great details and glimpses into her life as an expat mom! I hope you write more about your mother in future posts.
Ok, so my tingly feeling from your last post has turned to tears in my eyes! I have deep, deep respect for your mother, she sounds truly amazing - and is absolutely gorgeous too. I've had a sneaking suspicion for ages that as a modern-day expat in Dubai, with flights home on DH's company whenever we like, I've got it easy in comparison to wives who did all this years ago. Thank you for some wonderful reading tonight Ms Caroline!
I love this! Do you mind if I share it? Sometimes when I actually stop and think quietly about our crazy nomadic life, I wonder first how in the world I ever did it, and second, if when my boys are grown up they will ever sit back and reflect on the positive things that I have so desperately tried to make part of our wandering life. This gives me incredible encouragement and optimism! My mother is so like the description of your mother (she once killed a rattlesnake that had managed to climb into the clothing dryer in the garage in the rural community we lived in for four years when I was in high school), and I teared up a little reading this. You're a fabulous daughter, and certainly must be a wonderful mom! Happy Mother's Day (a bit belated)!
MsCaroline said…
Heather - I suppose when it comes to our kids, we all have the same one-track mind: what will be best for them? Location and conditions seem to be secondary to that main focus! I have to say, while I've always appreciated my mum and thought she was a tremendously brave and inspiring person, I definitely saw her with new eyes after we moved to Seoul. Feel free to share, you are welcome to it!

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