Dear fearful parent dancing with the idea of living abroad,
Let me tell you a story involving a fussy infant, a nine hour flight, a foreign country and lots of emotions, including a whole lot of fear.
On July 27th, 2016 I sat on a plane in the middle of the night with a cranky 8-month-old who despite my efforts would not go to sleep. Each passing moment was filled with dread and uncertainty as I questioned our decision to move abroad and travel with our young children. At the time we were on board a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, so there was no turning back. I felt the waves of fear screaming inside of me, swallowing me and pulling me under. I felt overwhelmed with powerful emotions I wasn’t familiar with; feelings of loss, grief and fear. It was just too much as I sat crying in the airplane bathroom with my infant son. How could I do this? Was this the right decision to make? I was so, so afraid.
What is fear anyway? Psychologically, fear is the emotional and physical responses we have to stimuli. It stems from the unconscious and spreads throughout our body like a fast acting plague. Fear stops you from living life in the present and dances around your thoughts asking hypothetical questions that can cause suffering from a place of non-existence. I was fearful of what I didn’t know; I was apprehensive about events that hadn’t occurred yet. Fear of the unknown was busy at work building walls around my conscious mind faster than I could break them down. I was crippled in mind and spirit by the non-existential which by definition is often what we refer to as insanity. Sounds insane, right?
Just because you have children doesn’t mean you can’t take giant leaps of faith into the ocean of the unknown.
I have to believe this feeling of fear and uncertainty is shared with my fellow first-time travelers, whether you have decided to leave home and journey abroad alone, with a partner or like us, with your family. Parenting up until the flight to Frankfurt was one big routine and I made the conscious decision to break that routine in the most extreme way possible. That can have a real impact on your mental well-being, but it shouldn’t be enough to throw in the towel and call it quits.
Just because you have children doesn’t mean you can’t take giant leaps of faith into the ocean of the unknown. Overcoming and conquering fear is what makes us grow as human beings, and I believe I am a better parent for recognizing and conquering those feelings. I don’t want to raise children who watch their mother toil and trouble over decisions that make me uncomfortable and scared simply because I haven’t experienced them yet. I want to live in the present and shed any fear of possible outcomes that may or may not happen given a set of circumstances or within a particular environment.
So now I sit in my kitchen in Spain pondering these words and asking myself if I have indeed been living the way I have described. The answer is in some ways yes, although I still walk with fear every now and again. Living abroad with my family has undoubtedly changed who I am and how I parent. Residing in a new country with people who don’t speak my language or share similar habits is already leaving a positive impact on the woman that I intend to embrace as I grow, molded by new experiences. I have been tried and tested in so many scenarios with my children that otherwise wouldn’t have happened in the comfort of my home state and native country. Help, for one, is scarce. I don’t have my parents or sister to rely on for babysitting, so my husband and I find ways to spend time together with the kids instead of shoving them off elsewhere. It isn’t always ideal, but it makes for some great memories.
Residing in a new country with people who don’t speak my language or share similar habits is already leaving a positive impact on the woman that I intend to embrace as I grow, molded by new experiences.
My kids are learning to adjust to their surroundings without the comforts of our old home and routine. Two and a half weeks ago my four-year-old fell asleep in a cab, in the middle of the day, without me asking or fighting with him to go to sleep. I never, ever thought I would see the day. The next week he willingly ate mushroom pizza, and I thought I might pass out from the mere sight of the ‘Prince of ONLY Cheese Pizza’ actually enjoying each bite and consequently ask for more. My youngest is finding his voice, often in the middle of an ongoing mass inside some historically significant cathedral or basilica. He squeals with joy when he hears the echo of his shriek reverberate off the walls and although heads turn to investigate the source of the sound, my husband and I laugh, stick his binky in his mouth and hurry out before we get in trouble. These are the memories I hold onto tightly and hope to reflect upon when we are in a new destination with a new set of obstacles.
So if you are fearful of moving abroad, I ask you to look deep inside that fear to the source. I hope you can dismiss it and allow yourself to live in the present, as foreign and scary as it might seem. When you walk without fear, as I am learning, you embed yourself into a life of the present where possibilities for happiness, joy, and fun are truly endless. Living abroad with my family is so much fun, and I would never have known just how much fun I could have with my family if fear had changed my decision. Moving away from my friends, parents and siblings were one of the hardest conscious choices I have ever made, but it has allowed me to bond closer with my husband and children in a way I didn’t think existed. Together we are closer than we have ever been, both in proximity and physical state, and it is as much a learning experience as it is blissful.
Be well, live in the present and never stop dreaming.
A friend and I were hanging out at the playground, as her little boy jumped from one structure to the next, when she turned to me and said…
“Sometimes, I wonder if he’s not a little too happy.”
I didn’t know what to say. He was a good kid as far as I knew, only causing the requisite amount of trouble to be considered a healthy five year-old. Was there even such a thing as a child being too happy? “Of course, I do everything so that he can be happy,” she said. “But I grew up poor, and I worry I’m not preparing him for the real world.”
This I understood. In fact, it was something I was also dealing with on the flip side. Even though I’m 31 years old, in my family, I am the Too Happy Child.
As we continued to walk and talk, I was able to get to the root of my friend’s worry. “I didn’t grow up middle class,” she said. “I grew up in survival mode. I don’t know how to raise middle class kids.” Her words hit me right in the gut.
I was raised in a working class structure, just like my mom, who spent almost 25 years working as a confinement officer at the local jail. She would work whatever shifts brought in the most money — and in the months leading up to Christmas, even more than that. There was little time for homemade meals, so we ate fast food or packaged meals that would allow her to spend more time sleeping, doing house repairs, or whatever she could to make us all a bit more comfortable. She was on her own with four children to raise. I was her oldest child, and we both wanted another kind of story for my life.
Once I went to college, things began to change. Even at my medium-sized Midwestern university, I was exposed to new ways of understanding the world around me. I took my first flight, then I took another. I started going to therapy. When a former teacher saw me during winter break and asked what my favorite part of college was, I answered her honestly: I could get fresh fruit whenever I wanted.
My roommate and I were good students, and we were also the poorest young women on our floor. During the day, we worked and studied. But some evenings we holed up in our room, laughing, eating pizza and candy from the dining hall, and talking about the families we feared we’d left behind by coming here. We worried we were losing our tribes.
Back home, my mother accused of me of rebelling, when I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t eat fast food much anymore because it didn’t feel good to my body, and I let my natural hair grow out because I was no longer afraid of it. Because my mother wasn’t helping me pay for school, she had little say over the choices I made outside of her house. I only saw myself growing up and having adventures. Wasn’t that what she’d wanted for me? Of course it was. She wanted me to have wings. She just never considered that sometimes I’d fly away.
My mother — like my friend from earlier — worried she was losing her child to a world she didn’t know how to navigate. To her, I was too happy. To her, happy people stop paying attention to danger. I don’t believe my mother or my friend are very different from most parents who want to be the guiding force in their children’s lives for as long as possible. But few want to admit how a class transition can challenge that role.
My mother was torn. She saw my exposure to new things, and my delight in the world opening up to me, as proof that she had done something right while raising me. She also saw it as an attack on her place in my life. There are certain aspects of the way I was raised (hitting out of anger, etc.) that I would never repeat if I became a parent. Not because I’m angry at my mother, but because in my mind the point of all of this — the point of her sacrifices in my childhood — was so that I could have a better life experience, and so could my hypothetical future children. I don’t begrudge my mother for what she didn’t know or wasn’t able to give me when I was growing up. She did her best for her kid. Because of that, I am required to do my best for my own.
This past weekend, a week after our initial conversation, I texted my friend a note: “You don’t have to be the best middle-class mother to your middle-class children. You only have to be their truest home. Maybe they’ll experience the world much differently than you did, but they will always know where home is.” I could send her that message with confidence because I know it to be true.
Over the years, my mother has become more and more comfortable with our changing roles. Her need to be my guide in all things has reduced (a bit), and I don’t condescend to her to prove my competence as an adult woman. I make it clear that she can always ask for financial help because I have enough, and if I don’t, I’ll say so. She makes it clear that needing my help will never feel as good as she wants it to. Paycheck to paycheck is the language we used for most of my life. Now that I’m have financial stability, we are learning a new language together. Our dynamic may have changed, but she’s still my mama, my truest home. I’ll always fly back to her.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)
While waiting on the line to order food in Penn Station in New York City, your sweet little boy looked me up and down, his soft blue eyes curiously studying my power wheelchair. He watched as my food was prepared, and noticing I'd ordered the grown-up size meal, he turned to me and declared I was getting a "big burrito." He sidled up to the control box on my wheelchair, pointing to the joystick and asking matter-of-factly, "What's this?" I explained that I use it to move my chair back and forth, and gave him a quick demonstration. Satisfied with my answer, your little boy went on to ask how I turn my wheelchair on and off, and how I change the speed. It was such a lovely little conversation, and I was glad to have a chance to share that my wheelchair isn't anything that a kid should be afraid of.
But then, you heard your son's questions and you cut him off. You told him "She could run you over!" as you laughed a condescending laugh and pulled him away. It seems you entirely missed the point of what could have been a perfect teachable moment. And it stung.
Parents should be their child's best role model when it comes to how to interact with the diverse world around them, and yet, situations like these happen all too often. I'll pass by families on the street and a parent will yank their child away, as though I'm a threat. (If you're afraid I actually will run your child over, consider this: I won't. I've got just a little bit of experience in my wheelchair.) I'll be rolling through a store and hear a little kid ask innocently what happened to me, prompting the parent to hiss at them for being disrespectful. In a child's eyes, these interactions cause me to become scary and intimidating, someone who should be avoided. This kind of negative reinforcement breeds new generations of stigma against disabled people, and I, for one, am tired of history repeating itself.
Disabled people have long been made to be outsiders. We are rejected, unaccepted, the running punch line of society's jokes. At no time do I feel this more deeply than when strangers who know nothing about me feel that they have the right to comment on my existence. I've heard it all before, from the not-so-funny "do you have a license for that thing?" to the cutting "I'd be miserable if I had to live like you."
And you know why people say things like this to me over and over again? It's because behaviors are learned. Attitudes are learned. Prejudice is learned. But it doesn't have to be this way, and the power is in your hands to spark a change. Every child raised to accept all human beings has the potential to grow up as someone who will work to end the cycle of discrimination.
By allowing children to express their natural curiosities about bodily differences and disabilities and encouraging them to accept and understand, disability becomes just another part of the world instead of something to be feared.
Your child is watching you, Mom and Dad. Who do you want him to be?
By Vivett Dukes | July 16, 2019
S ummer is here and I’m exhausted. Teaching, while extremely rewarding, is equally as draining — sometimes more so. Every year, it becomes more and more apparent to me that a huge part of why I’m so exhausted has to do with the shortage of parental involvement in their children’s/my students’ academic lives.
Dear parents, I say this with all due respect and as a parent myself: Your expectations of teachers should match your commitment as a parent. Done and done. I know you may be a single parent who has to work more than one job. I was, too. I still work more than one job, as do many teachers to make ends meet, but that’s another post for another day.
But working multiple jobs does not exempt parents from showing up and being present where their child’s studies are concerned. There is no excuse for not attending your child’s parent-teacher conferences. I don’t care if you can’t make it! Send another family member, friend or neighbor in your stead. Teachers, students and their families must work in tandem like a well-oiled machine to support college-career readiness, access and the healing of our students’ social-emotional traumas. This must take place in meaningful and real ways.
Yet this isn’t happening, and, as a result, teachers are more overwhelmed than we have to be because the other adults in our students’ families/village of support are not pulling their weight.
Can we please stop this trend for the upcoming school year and beyond? This is a serious plea. My sustainability as a highly effective teacher depends heavily upon this paradigm shift going into effect — now! Now? Yes, now!! I know it’s summer and school is out. Take your child to the library. Help him take out a book. Read together for even five minutes a day.
The reality is that kids who excel have parents who push them. Parental involvement is a huge factor in student success. Don’t just ask them if their homework is done! Check their bookbags and see for yourself. Even if you don’t know how to do their homework with them, just holding them accountable and them knowing that someone else besides their teachers is checking up on them makes a big impact. According to a National Education Association policy brief:
“Parent, family, and community involvement in education correlates with higher academic performance and school improvement. When schools, parents, families and communities work together to support learning, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, stay in school longer and enroll in higher-level programs. Researchers cite parent-family-community involvement as a key to addressing the school dropout crisis and note that strong school-family-community partnerships foster higher educational aspirations and more motivated students. The evidence holds true for students at both the elementary and secondary level, regardless of the parent’s education, family income or background — and the research shows parent involvement affects minority students’ academic achievement across all races.”
Here are three recommendations for parents and village members to support their school-age children:
● Get signed up with the online communications platform that your child’s school uses. Mine uses Skedula/PupilPath, others use Jupiter Grades or Power Grades. Whatever it is, please get connected. It’s the most efficient way to stay on top of your child’s academic performance and behavioral concerns and be in real-time communication with their school community.
● Check to see if any summer packets have been assigned and set aside 15 minutes each morning when your child gets that work done. Do not wait until the day before she goes back to school to hastily complete summer work. That defeats the purpose and does not lend itself to the reason the work is given in the first place: to actively combat learning loss over a summer of academic disengagement.
● Read, read and read some more! Immerse your child in a print-rich environment. Encourage him to read a variety of texts. Your library is your best friend! Take advantage of this often underused community resource. We are very fortunate in New York City to have one of the best and most extensive library systems in the world. See what’s going on at your local library and sign your child up for an activity or two — or 10!
Teachers need your support, parents. Even more so does your child. Won’t you please help us?
Vivett Dukes teaches public school in Queens, New York, and confronts the challenges faced by students and teachers of color, as well as exposing the school-to-prison pipeline.
As a college professor, I have had numerous conversations with students about what they wish they could tell their parents. Below I translate these feelings into a letter, highlighting some of their major worries and wishes:
What a weird summer this has been. All this crazy anticipation. All the rushing around to buy stuff and pack stuff. All the June celebrations we had. All the fights and struggles since. The apologies and the smiles. And the lists. Oh, the lists.
You’ve gotten me this far. For that, I thank you. Now, let me go. Not in a sink-or-swim way. But in a way that you’ll show me you want to see me try out this thing called life on my own terms and see what happens. Maybe Buddhist philosophy offers us something here — we need to be not too tight and not too loose. As I loosen my grip on everything that is familiar here at home, please loosen your tendency to want to grip on to the new me that is emerging.
This is my launch, my flight. I may crash, but I probably won’t. So please don’t try to live it for me. Let me move to my edge. To that farthest place where I might really grow and stretch, and where my life might shift in extraordinary new ways.
You may hear from me less than you would like, especially when life is going great. But try to let me set the pace and tone for how often we text and call. And, oh my gosh, please don’t make surprise visits at college! Don’t be offended if I want to go to my friend’s or roommate’s house for one of the upcoming school breaks, or if I ask to bring people home to our house. Try to be happy that I have new friends and want you to meet them. Take an interest in them without being overbearing. You don’t need to go too crazy with care packages, either. I hear all about these parents, especially moms, who have gone wild on Pinterest to make and send the best care packages. I don’t want to be babied right now, and while I might long for some creature comforts from home, I don’t want to look ridiculous among my new friends. So try to do this sparingly. Maybe even save some of the money, so if I want to travel abroad or do a cool internship one summer, you can visit me in that new place.
I will likely try out a lot of things in the next few years, some of which you might have tried when you were my age. Some of it will be stupid, or just for the moment, and some may be part of who I am becoming. If you want a relationship with me for the long haul, accept me and love me anyway. Because of all this, and not because of all this. Just love me. Oh, and while I am speaking about unconditional love, please don’t threaten me that you will stop helping me pay for school if I earn a C in some of my classes or, god forbid, lower than that. C is still satisfactory, it’s average. And college might be much more challenging. In fact, I hope it is. It needs to be. I will try my best, I promise. I will seek tutoring if I need it. You can remind me if I haven’t. But please just don’t hold the money over my head with my performance or my choices in friends.
If you think I may be hurting myself, or that I might hurt others, then try to talk to me with an open, non-judgmental, and listening heart. Better yet, offer me the invitation to seek out professional mental health resources and counseling, or medical services to get information on safer sex and birth control. And if you can afford it, please offer to pay for them, without criticism or judgment. Remember that I may not want to talk about all this stuff with you, yet I still might know I really am floundering and need help. Let me know that I have this chance anytime, even in the absence of any sort of crisis. Remind me to seek out mentors at school — professors, coaches, counselors, and older students — but don’t feel threatened if and when I follow their advice.
Right now, though, try to stay in the present so that I can, too. All this talk about move-in day, dorm décor, the right-sized linens, the proper hooks, arranging a box of emergency medicines for when I will inevitably get sick, meeting my roommate’s parents, and securing Thanksgiving airplane tickets before I have even stepped foot in my first class has me super nervous. So, I have wound up lashing out, yelling, sulking, retreating to my room, scrolling through my phone, and procrastinating. I want to believe that all I need I already have. But when you continually obsess over all this stuff, and most of it really is just stuff, I worry about what I might lack — on all levels.
I’m also aware that my leaving means our family will feel different soon. The dinner table will look different, maybe a little lopsided. The house might be a little quieter. It will be a little like something or someone died, but if things go the way we hope and plan they will, there will be a sort of rebirth, and this whole college thing will help me to come into myself intellectually, socially, emotionally, politically, and creatively. I am sure I do annoying things that make you want to count down to departure time, but I have a bigger hunch that you worry you will be depressed and anxious and will mourn my absence and walk by my room and cry. Trust me that, just as you do that, I will walk by the lousy cafeteria choices and long for a home-cooked meal and cry.
But think about the person I am becoming, the one you might enjoy being with much more than the me now, the one you will soon be able to clink a glass of wine with and say cheers at graduation, and the one with whom you will relish all sorts of interesting conversations for years to come. I hear it all happens so fast. You’re my parent, so things might resemble that scene in Father of the Bride where Steve Martin has a million flashbacks to his daughter Annie's childhood the night before her wedding. You’re thrust into thinking of driving me home from the hospital after I was born, my first words, the time I dressed up in your heels at age three and stumbled around, walking me to the bus to go to kindergarten, etc. It’s all flashing before your eyes, and it stings. I get that.
Now, just think: We'll make new memories. You can visit me at college and meet my new friends. Maybe you can even join me at my favorite class and sit in with me if my professor says it’s okay. You can bake quadruple the number of chocolate chip cookies you usually make and send them at midterms, and I will share them with my floor.
And in the meantime, you can have your life back. The one you probably longed for when I was yanking on your dress in the freezer aisle to buy me popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on one of those dreadfully hot summer days. Or the one you achingly wished for the night after you cleaned up throw-up and drove in circles doing carpools to maneuver all the convoluted scheduling that my activities required. Or the one you yearned for when you had to chaperone a class trip, and it would have been way more fun to spontaneously take a road trip with a friend and dance the night away in a great dive bar.
You know that Dr. Seuss book that I got for graduation, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Well, just think, there could be one for you: Oh, The Life You Can Have Now! So, go — do the things that might make you happy.
And just think, there will be a little less laundry, the last square of toilet paper won’t be used without being replaced, and you can have your sleep back. At least until I come back to visit and want to stay out with my friends till 2 a.m.
You’ll worry about me. I’ll worry about you. About your job, since we had those problems back in 2008 after the crash. And I will worry about your marriage because I want you to stay together — but you have to focus on each other more now for that to happen. You really do. And I will worry about your health because I want you around for as long as possible. Even when I have not always acted like it.
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. But remember: I will miss you, too. And we will both be okay.