Raising Kids Overseas
“What age was your daughter when you moved out of the States?” asked one reader-guest at our Christmas Open House here in Panama City Friday night.
“Kaitlin was 8,” I replied. “It was, we realize now, looking back, the worst possible age for making the move…”
Younger than 7 or 8, and a child doesn’t really recognize what he’s leaving behind. Older than 15 or 16, and that child, we’ve observed, can be old enough to recognize what lies in front of him.
From age 8 to 15, though? Most kids at this stage are old enough to regret what they’re losing but not yet thinking big-picture enough to register all the potential that lies before them. At this stage, it’s all about the loss with nothing to balance it.
Lief and I literally ripped Kaitlin from her home and her life in Baltimore. I had to pull her from my mother’s arms the morning we took off for the airport and our flight to Dublin. Kaitlin cried the entire trip…all 24 hours, Baltimore to Waterford, doo-to-door. She cried much of the 24 months to follow, as well. “I’m an American,” little Kaitlin would shout at Lief and me with troubling regularity. “I belong in America!”
Today, 14 years later, Kaitlin is a well-adjusted, self-assured, charming, interesting young woman with an open mind and a broad perspective. She finished her college studies last May (graduating with honors), moved to Panama to join us in June, and will be starting her own online franchise business in January.
Like any mom, I’m exceedingly proud of how little Kaitlin has turned out. Reminded Friday night of those early days in Ireland, I have to admit that I’m not only proud…but also a little relieved. There was a time when I feared a different outcome (to include, perhaps, years of psycho-therapy).
All those years ago, when we were preparing to leave Baltimore, a friend there asked me, “How will you make sure Kaitlin is ok in all this?”
Then, before I could respond, my friend answered his own question: “Well, I know you. You’ll just make sure,” he said, showing more confidence in me than I had in myself at the time.
Over the years, others have asked, “What’s your strategy for raising kids overseas?”
I don’t have a strategy. Poor Kaitlin was a guinea pig. Lief and I felt our way through this day by day, month by month, country by country. No question we’ve made mistakes.
It’s been far easier for Jackson, born into this life (in Ireland) rather than yanked into it.
When we left Baltimore, we walked away from the family infrastructure that Kaitlin had grown up counting on. The risk, doing this with a young child, is that the sudden absence of that extended family support can lead to uncertainty. How do you create a stable home environment for a young child in a new, exotic location where nothing is familiar and everything the child might normally look to for stability is lacking?
For us, part of the answer has been to remember the seasons as though we were celebrating them back in Baltimore. Kaitlin and her brother Jackson wore homemade costumes and set off trick-or-treating in Waterford, Ireland. They and their friends we invited to join them were the only ones out knocking on doors our first couple of Halloweens in that part of the world. The Irish who responded to those knocks were sometimes confused but always obliging, scurrying around to find an apple or some pocket change to drop into the kids’ pumpkin-shaped bags.
In Paris, we had 4th of July picnics in the Tuileries gardens. Every year, everywhere we’ve called home, we’ve had the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
And we make a big deal of Christmas. We bring home the biggest live pine tree we can find and cover it with white lights and ornaments collected from around the world. We bake cookies, hang stockings (from a piece of furniture when no chimney is to be found), and have cinnamon buns for breakfast Christmas morning…just like my family has done every year since I was a girl, just like we did every year with Kaitlin when she was a very young girl back in Baltimore, and just like my family, still in Baltimore, continues to do every year still.
It’s a tiny thread of consistency that keeps us connected to where we’ve come from as we continue to discover where it is we’re headed.