Me on a beach in Senegal with two of my brothers
I have been pondering this question more than usual lately as I was challenged on this question at a dinner party not long ago. My reactions in such situations where I feel put on the defensive to explain my choices are akin to running in quicksand. They suck. And I spend the rest of the night and next several days kicking myself for not being as quick and adept verbally as I should have been.
This person’s take clearly suggested that I was not considering L’s emotional life and desires enough in my choice to travel with him and disrupt his stable life. I tried to draw on my own experiences growing up as the daughter of a travelling family, and that in fact I had much more upheaval than L has had, and yet I am still happy and grateful to have had those experiences, even though it wasn’t always easy. I also suggested that it is the natural order of things that kids follow their parents and these experiences shape who we end up becoming. In response to this, the person said that “was bordering on child abuse.”
L in Görlitzer Park, Berlin
A little extreme perhaps, but I am not so secure or arrogant that it did not get under my skin and cause me just a wee bit of distress. And arguably, it’s a fair question. When does the long-term benefit of travel outweigh the short-term experience of what can sometimes be fractured upheaval, sometimes wondrous experiences, but often difficult? I think we all walk a balancing act of trying to be the progressive 21st century parents that we feel we should be, and being another version of our own parents. I can say this having lived through the ‘analysis years’ of my 20’s.
For example, L still contends to love travelling and love being in Italy, yet at the same time he is very homesick for his friends and cat. If I told him we were going back to Ohio tomorrow he’d surely be thrilled to pieces. Having just turned 11, he is now coming into that age where he wants to be out spending time with friends, or playing soccer, and not necessarily playing a board game with his mother (although luckily he’s still up for that on occasion). I am aware that he will no doubt soon reach that age where he may adamantly refuse to leave home, wherever that may be.
In recent years, the term “Third Culture Kids” has gained a lot of purchase. It refers to kids who have spent the majority of their formative years living outside of their parents’ (or passport) culture. The idea is that they build significant relationships to all of the cultures they live in, while not having ownership of any and while the TCK may assimilate elements from each culture into their life experience, their true sense of belonging is more often in relationship to others of similar background. It all sounds a bit scary and I guess I would qualify as being one, as well as L who has already lived half his life in the UK and half in the US, and is now experiencing other new cultures for an extended period.
But is this bad? I grew up in an era when comparatively little heed was paid to whatever lifestyle wishes and desires offspring under the age of 18 might possess. Being raised by parents in their 50’s and 60’s added to this generational gap. I was carted around many a country, in and out of school many a time, which is probably why I became an actress. As a kid who moves a lot, you become adept at being a chameleon. Research, apparently, shows that TCK often enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas which may make it difficult for them to develop long-term, in-depth relationships. Now that’s alarming indeed!
Taken by itself, it’s enough to make me shake in my boots and really question my parenting choices. Yet it is also interesting to note that I did not grow up swearing off the kind of choices my parents made for me. I believe they made me who I am today, for better or worse, and I cannot imagine not trying to give my child similar experiences. But to keep it all in perspective, don’t just about all of us have something to contend with that was a difficult part of growing up? Whether it was alcoholic parents, a learning difficulty, physical disability or ailment, or a parent who withheld the love we so needed. The list is endless. And so are our abilities to cope with and learn from the experiences.
I came across some tips for those of us out there who do travel extensively with our children, whether for work, pleasure, or by lifestyle design, that I think are useful. I will borrow them here from www.edexpat.com:
actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, general renegade and rabblerouser.