“LIFE doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with a mother,” they say.
In the early days of motherhood, I thought this proverb was about changing diapers, preparing milk formula and adjusting the bath water temperature. Little did I know how much deeper the commitment was meant to reach. As the years past by I wrote my own virtual manual; I would come to call it “The One Mom Show. An Expat Guide”.
There is also a saying by The Golden Girls — okay, I’ll admit, maybe not the most qualified source on the matter — “It’s not easy being a mother. If it were easy, fathers would do it.” As I am about to lose my male readership right about now, let me rationalise my point. While modern fathers all over the world are stepping up to the plate as far as their co-responsibility in child rearing is concerned, most expat families do not have the luxury of participating in this newfound, job-sharing equality. The majority of expatriate mothers are so-called trailing spouses. This means that we are not gainfully employed and have put our careers on hold for either the duration of our husbands’ overseas assignment, or for the better part of our children’s lives.
Holding regional positions, many husband miss most of the really exciting morsels of parenthood: the giant spider in the bedroom, the snake in the sink, the concussion at the end of an ill-fated bike ride and the stiches on the forehead. They also miss out on the flooded apartment, the water cuts, multiple car breakdowns, the tortoise lost in the garden and the goldfish in the party bag.
While they might secretly congratulate themselves for their excellent timing, travelling also keeps them from witnessing many cherished moments like multiple theatre productions, holiday season concerts, sports tournaments and in-class presentations.
As expat moms, we often have no choice but to operate as a one-woman show. While the fathers’ presence is sorely missed, we learn to explain math and physics concepts, which we didn’t understand back in our own school days. We are compelled to grasp the concept of car repair, or, at the very least, we stand our ground when the mechanic suggests that we might have run low on gas. We master the rules of games as complex as rugby and baseball — from our vantage point on the bleachers, that is. We become skilled pest exterminators and pet examiners. We fix a broken school project with the same ease as we mend a broken heart. As Roseanne Barr, American actress, comedian, writer, and television producer says, “I know how to do anything, I’m a mom.”
So tell me, when is my job as a mother done? When my children are old enough to prepare their own meals, or when they share their best-kept secrets with their friends rather than with me? When they start to be embarrassed by my company, or when they cease to mind my presence?
As an expat-mom, I embody the only constant in my children’s lives. Fathers are mostly at a loss when so-called third culture kids speak about their never-ending list of new best friends. Grandparents often lose the plot when youngsters explain why curry laksa is best enjoyed with chopsticks, while nasi lemak requires fork and spoon. Cousins don’t understand why flying across three continents is less daunting than taking a bus ride downtown. If it is true that mothers hold their child’s hand for a moment and their heart for a lifetime, it is even more so for an expat mother.
My children are grown up now, but my job as the “go-to-guy” is far from over. Like any young student would, they enjoy discussing term papers on subjects that far surpass my understanding. However, as my kids have not only fled the nest but they have also left my time zone, these discussions often take place during endless Skype sessions in the wee hours of the morning. So bear with me, if I’m out of sorts from lack of sleep. For as an expat mom, some days I amaze myself. Other days, I put the laundry in the oven.
The writer is a life-long expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition, and unapologetically insubordinate.