This is how a heart breaks. Expat parenting

Expat parenting - this is how a heart breaks. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

You think when you have left school, taken exams, graduated from college and reached adulthood that the slings and arrows of the school playground can never hurt you again.

And then you have children of your own, and you realize that you were wrong. Only this time, it is magnified through the lens of their pain, your sense of powerlessness and the weight of parental expectations. I sometimes think that I should just have ‘Bad Mother’ tattooed on my forehead and be done with the pretense. It’s one of the harder realities of parenting.

A wonderful, heartbreaking post by Anne Egros at Zest and Zen International reminded me of the pain of middle school all over again – not my own (the UK doesn’t have a ‘middle school’, just primary and secondary) but instead the joy of experiencing it in all it’s misery; the challenge of expat parenting.

Middle school is widely acknowledged in the US as the tricky one. It serves the 11-14 year olds; that explosive mix of puberty, hormones and identity crises. It’s when the differences between girls and boys are no longer about sports and hobbies, and all about body shapes, gender expectations and the excruciating embarrassment of sex education.

Ironically, my son nearly made it through unscathed. He had a solid group of friends who played football in the park, consumed junk food in gigantic quantities and who had a healthy respect for parental sanctions. We heard of bullying, shoplifting and alcohol consumption, but they seemed either too lazy, too disinterested or too involved in the destruction of opposing medieval forces to be affected by it. His grades were decent, his self esteem was intact and when graduation came around, it should have been a very happy event.

It was awful.

In Britain, the only place you graduate from is college. Everywhere else, you just leave, mostly with only a modest school dance to mark the occasion. And although I knew the parents of my son’s school friends by sight, they didn’t know me well enough to know how uninformed I was. So when we turned up to the Middle School graduation ceremony, I expected a general gathering with a bit of applause, the acknowledgement of the star pupils and very little else.

The first clue I had of impending parental humiliation was the distant sea of undulating teal. It was the massed forces of the graduating 8th grade, all wearing robes. Despite many opportunities over the course of my former life to wear a cap and gown, I had managed to repeatedly avoid it, and yet here all 300 were, at the grand old age of 14, already donning the robes of academic advancement.

It got worse. They were also all in formal wear; shirts and ties, prom dresses and heels. Unlike my son who had dressed himself – in his own personal uniform of shorts and a t shirt. Yet again we had got it wrong, but never so publicly. We were all completely unprepared, and at that moment, I truly hated the fact that I was an expat.

We have faced floods, earthquakes, angry mobs, police questioning and personal injury, but there have been very few moments in my expat life that have brought me to tears. And yet, sitting in that auditorium, surrounded by parents I didn’t know all whispering about the ‘parents who had let their son come so inappropriately dressed’ was by far my lowest moment. It was humiliating, frustrating and unfair, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.

Which is why, when Anne wrote her article yesterday, I was reminded just how important an expat support network is, no matter how many global transitions you have been through. You get better, smarter and more practiced at the art of relocation, but there is always something waiting in the wings to trip you when you least expect it.

The good news? We’ve all been there too, and if we can’t warn you about every challenge you will face, we will at least hold your hand while you pick yourself up.

Welcome to our world.


18 thoughts on “This is how a heart breaks. Expat parenting”

  1. Thanks Rachel for sharing your own story, it helps a lot to know you are not alone. I find the expat community pretty strong regardless of country, experience, age, social status etc. Our differences seems to vanish when we share all what we have in common. I would say that the internet has made things easier for expats and speed-up the adaptation process by identifying support groups and individuals before a new expatriation.

  2. oh pffffffft…
    2 things i remenber from you that i impart on a daily basis to my kids
    1) It says more about them than it does about you!
    2) If they care, they don’t matter and if they matter they don’t care!
    See I always listened xxxxx

    1. And shared in some of our more dubious fashion moments.. Pink cycle helmets and fairy wings to name just two.

      P.s. things I learned from you:
      Check the girth personally before you get in the saddle.
      Remember who’s the adult.. (that one’s tricky).

  3. Oh Rachel, I’m sorry that you were caught by surprise and that silly people made you feel uncomfortable about something they shouldn’t have. I’ve found that the preoccupation with middle school ‘promotion’ ceremonies is that they tend to get out of hand so quickly: my son’s school had one but certainly no one wore caps/gowns! They weren’t even in existence a few decades ago, and I tend to think they sprung up because some children/families weren’t ever going to have the experience of celebrating the academic milestone of high school graduation (which in itself is pathetically sad).

    As your friend Suzanne points out, it doesn’t matter. Your son has good friends, is doing well and enjoys school. Don’t let his attire for a few hours on one day (hidden underneath said gown) get in the way of the many positives in his life. The funny thing is that at many high school and university graduations, there’s always a fair number of students who wear t-shirts and shorts to be comfortable.

    And on behalf of any current/future expat parents, please contact the school and ask that they send reminders via email, letter sent home, etc. so that others aren’t caught unawares in the future.

    1. One of the surprising benefits of it has been that he now is far more aware of dress codes, and the impression one creates, even inadvertently. He spent last week at an engineering conference in Berkeley, and willingly wore a jacket, tie and dress shoes EVERY DAY.. God works in mysterious ways..:)

  4. People around here suck. They could have told you, guided you, but as is often the case, they didn’t. I find myself asking what are seemingly stupid questions all the time. And often it’s the wrong questions. I feel I have let both of mine down a fair few times because I haven’t been appropriately briefed. I’ve been the only one without flowers, the only parent who hasn’t turned up for stuff because no one had said that it was unofficially mandatory.

    I’m so so sorry that it was so awful. So sorry.

    Thing is – the kids seem to cope better than we go at all this lark. That’s something to remember. 🙂

    1. Yup – needless to say, he came away pretty unscathed. And then we promptly relocated to San Francisco, ready to make a whole new impression. Thankfully, I have friends here who recognized my cultural ineptitude early, and send full briefings before any social event, including pictures.. And for those of you who don’t already know, ‘Homecoming’ attire for boys is chinos, button down shirt, tie (which can be removed and promptly lost once at the dance) and dress shoes. Now I’ve just got to get Prom figured out.. A little help, anyone?!
      p.s. Clare, you have all this to come – I’m taking notes for you.

  5. Uuggghhhh… my heart breaks for you and your son. So much of the suck! We’ve all been there — over-dressed, under-dressed, and everything in between — and it feels like the worst thing in the world. Here’s the thing, though: because we went through it and we can empathize, we’re nicer in the end. That’s what my own mom told me about my rather rough middle school days, and I think she’s right. I’m better for hearing the snickering behind my back because it reminds me never, ever, ever to do it to anyone else. (I had one girl in 8th grade tell me that my bright blue satin dress, that I loved, was something ‘a hooker would wear.’ Whaaaa????!!!!! So mean. So, so mean.) I am not looking forward to the day that my kids go through those years. My heart will be a WRECK.

    1. This is why God invented chocolate. And photographs, so we can look back and see just how ridiculous we all looked, bar none. Adolescence is unforgiving for all concerned, and you’re right, Middle School was invented to teach us all how it feels when people are really mean, so that we all (hopefully) grow up knowing better.

  6. I am so sorry for you and yours and anyone who has felt excluded! And you listened patiently while I yammered on about the PTA and its recipe rules…(OK, we did have a good laugh over it.) I am grateful once again about the school from which my son just graduated, which sent letters and e-mails clearly stating: for Event A, dress as if you were going to church or out to dinner; for Event B, nice school clothes are fine…the population is richly diverse with about 25% non-native to the US, and this school system is careful to make everyone feel welcomed. Just a positive observation that some get it right!

    1. You’re right, many schools and parents are wonderful – to be fair, the problem was that I hadn’t made friends with any of his friends’ parents, so they had no idea about my naiveté, and it probably looked like we were being deliberately disrespectful, rather than simply clueless..

  7. Part of the headache is that expats to the US tend to live in higher-income neighborhoods, where people are so much snobbier, and those unspoken, unwritten “rules” are the code that separates those In-The-Know from those Not. My expat experience outside the US was great; everyone was so supportive. Then I expat’d back to my home country & it was so awful I begged to go back to Saudi Arabia. I say it here OUT LOUD: Patty Avery Smith, the heiress to the Avery office supply fortune, hit me with an umbrella because my 11-year-old son failed to make a hit during a Little League game. Thankfully, my children forgot immediately how nasty those San Marino’ers were to us. I never have forgotten, though.

  8. I’ve been living outside the US for 10 years now, but I’m fairly sure that middle school “graduation ceremonies” are kind of a regional thing. I grew up in the northwestern Indiana and most of my family (including several siblings with school-aged kids) still live there. Middle schools have end-of-the-year convocations and/or award ceremonies, but nothing close to the kind of pomp & circumstance that you describe. That’s reserved for high school graduation.

  9. Hi Rachel. Oh I feel for you and your son:) I’m so glad he came out unscathed and has moved onto bigger and better things by the sounds of it. We are just going through the middle school thing, foreign to us as well, as Australians. I havetoo made the mistakes of no flowers after the production play, overdressed for Moving Up ceremony, as there wasn’t any guidance and even with other mums advice, there was no clear answers. Your story has made me aware to check this one out very well before hand. Thank you for sharing this-I’ve really enjoyed reading it:))

    1. Oh yes, we managed the no flowers bit too – the Other Half had to abandon the play halfway through and dash to the nearest supermarket. Eek. I swear, when our kids start school, we should be given a special t shirt saying “Hello, my name is ___ and I know nothing about any of this stuff – Help!”.

  10. Thanks for sharing. I just want to add that we did something slightly similar this summer, although at a smaller scale! We have moved from Denmark to Sweden, which in itself should not mean significant culture shocks. However, I get it wrong regularly. At the last day of school we somehow heard last minute that parents should come along, which we then did. When approaching the school I noticed very well dressed parents and a white bright light shining from the large groups of kids waiting outside the assembly hall. Girls in white dresses, flowers in hair, boys with groomed hair, white shirts and very clean summer shorts….Took a quick turn to look at my two boys. One by cooincidence looking ok, the other in an old grey t-shirt and jeans with his ever present green football grass knees…. Aaargh! I am telling you, next year we will be so well dressed, and do everyting so right. I promise…I really do (?)Btw. got some really funny pics of the crowd, where it is really easy to spot my darling boy!! Luckily our kids are healthy happy kids, and they really didn’t care much

    1. My trouble is that I manage to repeat mistakes with alarming regularity; it’s turning into the parental version of whack-a-mole. I have now started referring to my son as “the tester child”. He has now hit senior year, and it’s payback all the way..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *