Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Step away from the children

We moved to Budapest when Finn was nearly two and Aiden was three-and-a-half.

I'm not sure I can appear any more crazy than I did in my last post.  But in case you still think there are rational thoughts in my brain, I offer you this...

My biggest fear when we left our safe, American home for the dangerous wilds of Europe was that someone in my family would die.  And, more so, that I would forever regret the one, giant decision that led us here.

Actually, this is how I tend to view all my decisions.  Life or death.  But I won't get into that now.

When the plane finally touched down in Budapest I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We made it over the ocean.  Survival step one: check.

But the next morning I fell down the winding staircase in our host house while carrying Finn.  He hit his head, but was fine.  I, on the other hand, was distraught.  My leg really hurt.  And if we knew who to call or how to get places, we may have ended up in the hospital.

But I sucked it up, mostly because we didn't know either of those things, and because the only person we did know, our landlord, was big and terrifying to me.

So when he pulled up to bring us to our new house I limped subtly to the car and shut my mouth.

We stopped first at the school to pick up our car, which we purchased months prior to the move, and found that the tire was flat.  Our easy mode of transportation turned complicated, quickly.

Our big, terrifying landlord didn't have time to help.  So Joel had to walk from the school to the repair shop.  Which I know now is an easy distance, less than a mile, and a straightforward walk.

But I didn't know those things then.  And Joel was gone for what felt like hours while I shoved crackers in my hungry children's mouths and my heart thumped in my throat.

This was it.  Joel wasn't coming back.  This was the moment I would regret it all.

But, as you can guess, Joel did come back.  And, if I remember right, I cried I was so relieved.

Somehow we survived the transition.  School started and we met new families, a surprising number with small rugrats of their own.  At which point I thought, Wow!  This is something people actually do.

Eventually we were invited to a few get-togethers.  I still hadn't learned to cook here, or really learned to cook generally, so my food offerings were embarrassing to say the least.  You can't bake from a box here like you can in the States, and the results often tasted like chocolate-flavored Styrofoam.

After I slid our plate on the table, with enough flourish to draw attention to the fact that we did bring a dish, but not so much to reveal exactly what, we inched our way through the house and started to mingle.

Mingling at a party full of new people is like a cruel form of torture to me, but once again I sucked it up and pretended that I love making small talk and will definitely remember your name once you walk away.

But this crazy thing kept happening at these gatherings, and I just couldn't quite wrap my head around it.

The kids played.

Not only did they play.  They went off and played.

And get this.  The parents didn't follow.

Not even to check on them.  Not even to make sure they were safe in the gated yard.  Not even to ensure they were being nice.  Or that others were being nice to them.

I couldn't handle it, of course.  I kept such a close eye on my kids.  All the time.  If not me, then their grandparents.

But there were no grandparents here and I quickly realized that if I ever wanted to make a friend then I couldn't watch my kids every second.  I had to let go.

I didn't at first.  I made excuses to go see that Aiden was safe and taken care of.  My heart would leap into my throat if I saw him do anything slightly dangerous and my natural instinct was to take off after him and scoop him into my arms.  Where he belonged.

But the other parents just kept on talking.

What are you doing? I thought.  Can't you see your child is definitely going to fall from that (miniature) hill and break his leg?  What if someone is being mean to your kid?  Who is going to stop them?  And, worse yet, what if they get ahold of a grape before you can cut it?

They seemed like nice people, though, and loving parents.  So eventually I started to ignore the voice that said you must watch over your children, and I kept talking.  Or eating.  Or drinking.

But I stopped hovering.  (Or I tried to at least.)

Sometimes my kids did get hurt.  And they came crying to me with a skinned knee or injured feelings.

But they survived.  They survived me letting go.  Just a little.

And now when we attend social functions I don't see my big kids, unless they want to eat, or Aiden decides to be shy for five minutes.

I don't know exactly what they do all the time.  I do know, however, that they always come back.  Usually in one piece.  And that my life is somehow better for not revolving around theirs for two or three hours.

We went home this summer, for nearly a month.  A lot of things surprise us when we return to the States.  Especially after being gone for a while.

But this time I was most surprised by the pressure I felt to watch my kids.

In the States, it turns out, I think you're supposed to watch your own kids.  Like, all the time.

 I don't know if it's cultural or if I'm just too tired now with three kids to worry about following them around all the time.  But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I did feel bad about it, though.

I felt so much pressure to hover over my children and make sure they were safe and behaved themselves all the time that it was a little suffocating.

Maybe I was just extra sensitive, but I've heard my American friends talk often about this pressure.  That children can't throw tantrums or rocks, that they have to be on their best behavior all the time.  Especially in public.

I've read so many horror stories recently of children having meltdowns in Target that I have to wonder if they actually hire people to stare down misbehaving children and offer unsolicited advice to their parents.

Maybe it's everywhere.  In our small community here nearly everyone lives a plane ride or two from family.  From help.  So if you want a break from your kids (and I do), you just have to take it.

And no one's judging.  (I think.)  No one's watching you sip a glass of wine, wondering why you're not pulling your child down from that tree or instructing them to chew with their mouth closed.  They understand.  You need a break too.  And so do they.

But I think all parents do.  Expat or not.  Whether help is right next door or thousands of miles away.

You need a break, mamas.  You really do.

Only I don't know what to tell you.  Because I think I'd buckle under that pressure too.

So, I don't know, maybe it's just finding a friend or two that you can not care with.  And also, get gates.  Or fences.  Or anything that can contain your children while you chat and the kids run wild.

Have a beer while you cook dinner.  I can tell you, for sure, my children always appreciate when I do.

It was a kind of detox for me.  Stepping away from my kids.  And I relapse sometimes, mostly in regards to the littlest one.

But it feels good.  To not care sometimes.  To let kids be kids without worrying about them being perfect.

I love, love, love the bible story where the parents are trying to take their kids to Jesus.  And the disciples are like, get away kids, this is Jesus here.  But Jesus is like, no way, let them come.

Those kids were probably stinky and restless and wild.  I'm sure they weren't standing still, waiting patiently in line for Jesus to lay his hands on them.  But Jesus still wanted them.  He didn't lecture the parents or instruct the children.  He welcomed them.  Those dirty, wild, un-mannered, full of life kids.  He loved them.  Just how they were.

That's my favorite.

When Aiden was three or so he always wanted to know about heaven.  It was a little scary for him, particularly the leaving mom and dad part.  It's scary for me sometimes too.

But one time I told him that Jesus would spin him in heaven.  And that he wouldn't get tired and have to stop like Mommy and Daddy.

He loved that.  And he stopped being so scared.

I still have so much to learn about letting go.  About enjoying my children instead of always trying to raise them.

But it's one step at a time.  Sometimes it's a step towards them and sometimes it's a step away.

But it always starts with just one.

This was literally the most risky picture I could find of my kids.  Probably because I'm too busy readying to catch their falls to be bothered with picture taking.


  1. You would have enjoyed the layed back child rearing we enjoyed 30-40 years ago. We had the be home when the street lights rule in force. I often did not know exactly where they on their bikes. I hope they appreciate how free they were. Perhaps they were the last American generation to enjoy that freedom.

    1. I would have enjoyed that! Although, sometime I feel like life in our village here is a bit of a throw back to the States 30 or so years ago. With the milk truck and the butcher and kids running and biking around the village square! I love that about life here.

  2. How cool to have found another expat with 3 boys! Although our expatriate days in France are over, I look forward to reading about your adventures, which seemingly have just begun.

  3. That is really neat! So I'm guessing your household is wild too (I say as my boys run screaming through the living room)! We have actually been here for three years, although sometimes it definitely feels like we're starting over:)