Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.
What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:
GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE
Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.
When: Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away
What else? Question and Answer session
What kinds of questions?
- Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
- How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
- Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
- Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
- What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign country?
- What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
- What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?
And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.
Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!
I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.
June 30, 2011, Singapore
You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.
At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.
What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.
That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.
Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time. We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.
June 30, 2014, Switzerland
There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.
My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account. Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18, is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.
You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.
June 30, 2007, Paris
A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.
Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude. Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts. My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together. How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.
June 21, 2014, Paris
“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”
A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.
The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.
“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years. One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”
The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.
I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.
Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.
How I have been here before. How everything is different.
How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.
How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.
Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.
As I approach my 200th and final post here at Melissa Writes of Passage, I want to share one last time with you the reason I began blogging in the first place: This book below.
We’re heading into an intense passage, we global nomadic Bradfords, with a new job in a new country, and each of our children heading in different directions geographically and metaphorically. In order to navigate this period I need focus, focus, focus. When our family has eventually found its bearings in our new life in Frankfurt, Germany beginning late this summer, I’ll be establishing my new, beautiful author website. It will merge channels for my books as well as all forthcoming writing projects alongside any public appearances and readers/audience reviews. There, you’ll also find my regular blogpost-like essays. I hope you’ll come back to it all golden and zen-ified after a peaceful summer vacation.
In the meantime: thank you for reading my first book. In the next post, #199, I’ll post a reminder of my second book. And finally, in blogpost #200, I’ll summarize what these two years of blogging and publishing have meant to me and my family. Come back then, if only to let me know what lies in store for you over your summer!
Much warmth to my friends and readers–
That high school senior of ours I mentioned in the last post, in addition to slaying the dragon of the full IB, is simultaneously in the throes of completing college applications. One or the other, IB or college apps, is a lot. The two at once is a recipe for nutso. I know he’ll make it – we’ll all make it – and I can say so in good faith because with this, our third child, it’s my third time visiting the Land o’ College Applications. Still, you’d think by now I’d have this college app thing down, well, to an app.
(I’ve checked. No such thing exists.)
If you’ve not yet done college applications with your child, you’ll want to listen carefully as I describe in a sentence or two what I could easily spend several posts discussing. It is here where essentially three qualifications bear sway: the accumulated grade point average (GPA), college entrance exam scores (SAT and ACT), and supplementary strengths. These are a strong personal essay, glimmering letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities including awards of all sorts, i.e., your nomination for a Nobel or Pulitzer, or receiving either a Fields or Olympic Medal. Or getting both (or all four – hey, go for it!) is better. Anything helps.
Combined, such quantifiers and qualifiers make up the filter for sorting students into schools where they will, 1) merit entrance, 2) be a positive contributor to that community, and 3) thrive. In theory at least, and more than any other factors, those GPA and college entrance exam numbers are supposed to effectively sort applicants with certain strengths (including academic capacity) into the appropriate universities.
Side note: you know as well as I do that standardized tests cannot describe the galaxy-wide breadth of differences in intelligence. And you know from reading this interview that while I value education and lifelong learning, and am a vocal advocate for education as a means of contributing to the welfare of humankind, I do not revere academic achievement for its own sake, meaning in isolation from moral training (including social responsibility) and emotional/spiritual well-being. And I am wise to know that quantitative measurements not only cannot measure a human being’s worth and potential contribution, but might even distract us, if they become a fixation, from some of the greatest concerns.
Can make us unwell. Sick. Addicted. Even, in the extreme, morally and ethically corrupt. Ignorance and sloth breed a certain corruption. Myopic focus on external measures breeds another.
We’ll come back to that world of thought in future posts. Can hardly wait.
But for now, back to the IB.
Considering the rigor and depth of a program of its sort, you’d expect it would be of practical advantage for the young learner when considering colleges. But this is not necessarily the case. Why? There are several reasons, and I’ll begin one here:
Grading procedures specifically during the junior year
When one applies for US universities, one normally begins the process of applying now, in the autumn of the first semester of one’s senior (or final) year of high school. College and universities in the US will in turn respond to these apps by early winter. The grades that “count” are from the junior year, since the first semester senior year grades come in late, sometimes too late to count for many US college applications. While those senior grades are relatively important for US-bound students, they are clearly not as important as those junior grades.
Furthermore, many of our family’s high school seniors’ friends do something called Early Decision, which means they apply this month (November) to a single university, (not to four or six or more, as many high school students do) with the understanding that this is the only university they are hoping to attend. Their applications rests solely on a GPA gathered from their junior year. All eggs are in that precarious academic basket, so to speak. The kids know it. The college admissions gatekeepers know it.
The students who’ve done Early Decision find out by December if they are accepted. If they are not, they then begin the scramble for applying to a number of other schools, if perhaps a little bit late. Lots of stress during those holidays, I can tell you. And all that, by the way, while swinging away at the IB dragon.
If applicants’ grades from their sophomore and junior (and not senior) years are used to prove their academic standing, what happens if a school espouses an IB system, which, as I’m learning can happen, is keenly attuned to European and UK schools? For European and UK universities, the senior – not junior – year grades are most relevant. And in order to motivate the students to up their scholastic game the final, or senior, year, teachers tend to grade harder (lower) in the junior year.
A US-bound student, then, could potentially end up with a lower overall GPA – could end up disadvantaged – with respect to his or her junior year grades, the ones US universities will look at most closely. Consequently, he or she is submitting grades which might be among his or her lowest.
I have been part of an IB school community where US-bound college applicants, recognizing this tendency to intentionally grade harder in the junior year, have petitioned faculty and administration for to review if not revise that grading approach in that too-telling year. That shift, from what I’ve gathered, has not yet occurred.
Next IB-related posts:
Grades: Inflated? Intentionally Tempered?
To Weight or Not to Weight?
College Prep, But No College Credit?
Extra Curricular. . . Whuh?
Multiple Choice vs. Essay, Dialogue and Debate
Multicultural, Multidisciplinary, Multi-philosophical
A Mother’s Perspective: 5 Reasons Why I Like / Dislike the IB
Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries. These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public. In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public. This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats. And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.
That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins. I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives. In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.
You might say we have come to the mount.
Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)
My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts. I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size, I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.
In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.
Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe. But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.
In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.
Time and Stress Management
Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc, often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.
Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time. They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.
But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.
I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?
(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)
My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?
(I’ll let you know in a few months. In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)
Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?
Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?
Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?
Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?
A typical scene in our home lately:
Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed. His eyes are gloopy and glazed. He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00. Courses started near 8:00. One 30-minute lunch break.
“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”
“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”
He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.
Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.
“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”
“You’ll have to do whatever you can,” another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”
Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)
It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that. Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you. So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”
“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.
(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)
What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic. There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB Survival.com.” But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.
Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.
In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.
So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.
Ute Limacher-Riebold has a profile that makes one’s eyes pop, glaze over, wink twice, then close with reflection and a bit of – oh, I don’t know – Global Mom reverence. I’ve quietly followed her blog for a while, then recently dared to drum up an offline connection. Ever since, I have been greatly enriched by our cross-cultural interaction. One of those times where I am indeed grateful for the power of social media.
Let me introduce Ute before you click over to her blog, where she has (voluntarily, without my request or prompting!) written a thoughtful and thorough review of my recently published book.
Born in Switzerland, she spent her childhood in northern Italy, attended university in Switzerland (completing a PhD in French medieval literature), worked there in the Department of Romance Studies, scooted down to Florence for professional reasons (and had a baby son there), scooted back up to the Netherlands (where her twin daughters were born), and now maintains a rich treasure of a blog, Expatsincebirth.
Yes, as you guessed, Ute is a polyglot. She masters German, Italian, English and French, and in turn considers herself a comfortable coalescence of all of these cultures. No doubt her Dutch is nearly as impeccable by now, and she, her husband and her children (all multilingual, as well) are flavored by the Dutch language and culture, too. Her life experiences offer a strong model for the kind of nomadic, borderless living that is becoming more and more common.
I’ll be returning in future posts to Ute and similar writers and mothers. Their global outlook and multicultural life experiences will surely inspire a holistic view of how to navigate this fascinatingly diverse and ever-shrinking world.
Do you know families like this, who move between countries, cultures and languages?
Are you one? Tell us about it.
What do you imagine the costs are for such fluidity?
If you happen to live a more localized life, what things would be hardest to sacrifice to have such global experiences?
And what about localized living would you not mind giving up?
The following is an excerpt from the recently published interview with Neylan McBaine of Mormon Women’s Project. To view the full interview in its original, and to read other intriguing interviews with women of my faith from around the world, go here.
MWP: Would you please describe the trajectory of the story that you’ve written in your recently published memoir?
MDB: The book begins when we had been married for seven years, Randall and I, and we were living in the New York City area. It was my husband’s first job and at that point we had two little children, Parker and Claire. I had been, as I describe in the book, busy following a few different career trajectories: I was a full time mother; I was teaching writing part time at a local college; and I was launching a career as a musical theater actress. And it was right in the middle of a musical that I was in that my husband received an offer pretty much out of the blue for us to move to Scandinavia for two or three years. As it turned out, that move ended up lasting a couple of decades. . .
We were in Norway for just under five years, time to have our third child, Dalton, and then we moved to Versailles, a medium-sized city which lies just fifteen minutes outside of Paris. We were there for four years, just enough time to have our fourth child, Luc. . .We moved to the heart of Paris, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We enrolled our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, in French schools. Our two oldest attended an international school, and we were there for a little over four years.
We lived in Munich for three years, and then went to Singapore, where we were supposed to stay for many years, if not until the end of Randall’s career. But there was a sudden restructuring and the entire international component of the multinational company he was working for was dispersed and his position was moved to Geneva. That’s where we live now. .
MWP: Tell me a little bit about the honest costs to you personally and to your family.
MDB: I will tell you what a couple of them are. The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family. When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, parenting while your partner is half a world away and for over half the month, and when there are whirlpools . . . Oh, I didn’t think I would come to that metaphor, but I tend to always come back to water and drowning metaphors. . .
For more of this extended interview about global living, traumatic loss, the journey with grief, and how to help someone who is hurting deeply, please click HERE.
This year it hit me broadside.
Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.
Pain. Pain for my children.
I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life. What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure. It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of ballast. Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.
Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.
It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.
Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.
T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.
A TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.
That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.
Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another. They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.
What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.) It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.
Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.
What might those costs be?
Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.
Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior. In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…
A French bilingual preschool…
An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…
I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.
Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.
So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life?
1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.
2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times. This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same. They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.
3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum. When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.
4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.
5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International? Who am I? I don’t know the first thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue. Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)
6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra. I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.
7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university. She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all. After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.
8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)
9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding. But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.
10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now. When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath. This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.
It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are. I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death. I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight. I felt fuzzy and nauseated. Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold. I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?
Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?
Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.
It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know. I took a breath. I put them away. And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.
I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.
TICK Mom: A Confession
What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?
What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?
What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?
Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?