Living abroad, making memories, and embracing disruption
The other day my nearly-five year old year old complained that it was taking “soooo long” to get to school. Excuse me? It’s a twelve minute drive. Every day. It doesn’t change.
I ignored him and kept driving. I probably rolled my eyes, irritated.
A few days later, my sister said something that stuck with me and helped give me a little perspective on my preschooler.
She said if we let our world get too small, things outside the scope of it will seem hard or big or even impossible.
It got me thinking.
Maybe after two years of a having a very big world and exploring it as best we could, my family’s been adjusting to a smaller world. That’s not only changed the way we as a family deal with disruption, but also reminded me how important is to engage in experiences that take us beyond our everyday life.
If you don’t know our story, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.
We’re a military family, so life includes lots of separation, unpredictable schedules, and moves. Most recently, we lived in Germany before moving back to central California.
While in Europe we traveled as much as we could. We spent time in over twenty countries, with repeat trips to several of them. Map that out over two years and we were on the road and in airports a lot.
Our world felt big and broad.
And while this pushed me way outside my comfort zone, I got the hang of the rhythm and certainly became less attached to my very limited concept of home (and lots of other things).
Fast forward to today.
We’ve been back in the States for a year, and it’s been an adjustment. The pace of life we lived in Germany ground to a complete halt when we returned “home,” which was more of a shock to the system than I expected.
Beyond having to completely re-make our daily life - friends, church, school, home - we’ve had to completely re-make our weekends, travel, family expectations, financial priorities, and work lives.
Although I’ve pretty much ignored the impact of this move on our family with a “grin and bear it” approach, there’s no doubt the immediate and extreme change took its toll on all of us.
In particular, I think as a reaction to this considerable change, I’ve let my world become a little too small and in the process shut down a part of me that was more adventurous, resilient, and willing to take a risk.
Having become a bit too consumed with myself, my four walls, and my kids’ activities, I think I’ve unwittingly become a bit oblivious to the bigger story happening outside of the little world we’ve built here.
And this lack of perspective has made the prospect of change or disruption or even “missing out” daunting.
Don’t get me wrong - I love being at home, doing our “normal” life. It’s the thing I missed most when we were in Europe, beyond my friends and family.
But becoming too attached to “the norm,” at least in my case, has started to feel a bit limiting.
From kids’ sports to school to work, I think my perspective has become skewed, making small challenges seem bigger than they are, and making outcomes seem like they’re in my control.
When you’re traveling all the time, you come to realize you can’t control plane schedules or the taste of new foods or the mattress at your weekend AirBNB.
You learn to roll with it.
When you’re home and doing the same thing day in and day out, working from home, constantly available, you develop a sense that you can control a lot of life.
So I think I’m out of practice on the “rolling with it” stuff. And my kids are, too.
Why does this matter?
Because soon enough, we’ll be back to the grind of military life and fully immersed in a deployment schedule that will take my husband and their dad far away for long stretches of time.
And whether we’re in the military or not, life throws all of us big challenges. I wonder if I’ve built a life back here in the States that has omitted too many of them and made the way so easy for our boys that they’re struggling to stay on balance over little bumps in the road.
When we lived in Europe, I watched our boys rise to every challenge we put before them: early flights, late nights, AirBNBs, foreign food, boring museums, long waits, and longer walks.
Of course now, like me, they’re out of practice. If we have to wait somewhere for three minutes, they’re itchy and impatient.
On our way back to the States after two years in Germany, we got stuck at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for eight hours. No one complained, not once. And our boys were three and six years old at the time.
I say this not to brag - surely, their great attitudes weren’t because they followed my example (you’re looking at the world’s most impatient woman, or top-10 at any rate).
No, it’s a reminder to me that when they complain about waiting for me to pump gas now because it’s “taking so long,” it’s because they’re out of practice. Their world is a lot smaller now, their routines really stable, their life incredibly predictable.
In Europe, disruption was the norm, so they grew to expect it and learned to cope with it. Their little patience banks were filled to the brim and prepared to pay up.
Now, their patience (and mine) wears thin. Tempers flare a bit when things don’t go our way or come as easily. We’re out of practice, so when there’s a disruption, we’re less able to handle it with ease.
Kids are resilient, so they’ll get the hang of it when the pace of life picks up again.
But me? I have to fight the inertia of adulthood that beckons me to safety and resists the unknown.
So, what to do? I love our ordinary life. I missed it when we were traveling. But now I recognize the value of those muscles of resilience and patience we’d all developed when we were forced to deal with the unknown on a regular basis.
It wasn’t easy, but it was valuable.
How can I expand our world, or at least keep it from being so small that we - I - get complacent and grumpy in the face of change?
I don’t have the perfect answer, but I know some if it has to be getting out there and making memories that take us out of our ordinary routine.
Inviting friends over for some lively conversation or a competitive game;
We can make some memories by going for a hike as a family or sitting through “big” church (I certainly remember doing that as a kid - and passing the time by playing hangman with my sister). We can load up the car and sit in Friday night traffic in LA to visit our family for a weekend.
We can take the boys camping and teach them how to fish. I remember my Dad testing my patience with that one as a kid!
Of course, these are wonderful things. We’re not talking about creating problems for our boys where there aren’t any. Life will be full of those. But at a time when their lives have become so predictable and comfortable, it might be worth stepping out of our comfort zone and doing things as a family that challenge our normal routine.
I think that’s as good for them as it is for me.
Making memories by taking on the unknown builds up those muscles of patience, resilience, and curiosity that make for a big world, no matter how close to home we spend our weekends.