Exactly four years ago, I sat down, exhausted yet proud, and wrote this with permission from our eldest. He’s 16 now, running headfirst into his final two years of high school. And this isn’t his story anymore (more accurately, this isn’t his story, yet – again!). No, this year it’s his sister. She’ll be graduating from primary school in three weeks and while the children rotating in and out have changed, the context remains the same.
We’ll be celebrating another milestone alone.
The story of parenting your child overseas may look different than ours: it may be homeschool or boarding school or no school at all just yet. They may still be at home and under foot and keeping you on your Lego-stubbed toes.
Yet the milestones feel the same, the loneliness entirely too familiar.
Parenting children overseas means we must plan for these moments of heartsickness almost as much as we plan for the party. This is how we’re learning to do it, and with each child, my prayer is we’re learning to do it a little bit better.
In the last seven years, our son has attended four different primary schools in three towns in two countries, skipped the first grade, relearned math, switched from metric to imperial and then back again, rallied through five years of Irish language (with six more to come), and made exactly three friends (and nary a sport). He has fallen in love with every one of his teachers, and grieved the end of every school year, often without knowing if he’d return. The longest he’s been in one place has been for these last 2 1/2 years.
Two weeks ago he graduated from that place, and his father and I were the only witnesses.
When you parent a child overseas, there are no grandparents in the audience, no cheers from the crowd. You know that it’s only primary school (or the latest match, or yet another band concert), but those seven years feel particularly hard won. You sneak pictures on his last day and whatsapp or instagram them for those who remember him on chubby, wobbly legs. They’ve watched him grow up on a screen for half his life, and they can’t believe their eyes. They love him and long to be near.
When you parent a child overseas, every tradition is all brand new. His graduation feels more like a sacrament than a formality. You kneel at the wrong time, clap at the wrong time. The words may be the same, but the cadence and the rhythm is all wrong. You want to take pictures but the church lights are low, the names read at lightning speed, and his brown head is hidden in a sea of 120 others. You catch a glimpse of him between two friends, and you know that even with the foibles and missteps, he is exactly where he should be.
When you parent a child overseas, you track down his teachers, his mentors. You hold their hands, clumsy with your words. “You have no idea,” you say to them. “Just thank you. Thank you.” The thought of how they cared for, shaped, taught your displaced child leaves a lump in your throat. You hope and pray for the teachers yet to come, worrying they won’t be up for the task. This fear is always first on the list, and yet you are almost always proved wrong.
When you parent a child overseas, you stick close to those who’ve gone before. You find a friend in another mum whose child will move on with yours. She offers you advice, wisdom, and shopping lists, and together you watch your boys walk the room together, proud of their work. They drink tea and eat biscuits and feign mild amusement as their classmates goof off for the cameras. You and she chuckle together, and you hope for a few more years of this camaraderie. You like her a lot, but the future is never certain.
When you parent a child overseas, there is no graduation party. Or maybe there is, but the introvert in you is just not up for the task. The weight of a long school year, hours of homework (x3), more than a few tears, missed cultural cues and, finally, the expensive transition to a new, bigger, older school leave you a frazzled mess. You want to celebrate, but you don’t know how.
What you do know how to do is fill the car with your brood and drive through McDonalds at 9:30pm. You order five ice creams, you eat in the car, you tell your son how immensely, immeasurably proud you are of him, and you ask him if he is happy.
“Yeah, I am,” he says. “This hot fudge sundae is so good.”
He has already moved on, ready for the next thing. And, unsurprisingly, you are, too.
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