Recently, I made a whirlwind trip to the States and in addition to working longer and harder than any other twelve days in my life, and mamma-worrying constantly about my kids, I had a chance to catch up with a few old friends. One asked me why I wasn’t writing more on this blog. I stumbled and mumbled a few excuses about how busy and exhausted I’ve been and then I came clean. This move has been hard. Like, r.e.a.l hard. Most of what I’ve been writing sounds so sad and depressing that I haven’t wanted to share it and let the record reflect it. A lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling would be a bit of a buzz kill. As a family we are making wonderful memories and stretching ourselves in lots of directions with travel and adventure, but also experiencing our share of homesickness, culture shock and adjustment issues that come with such a big change. I promised my friend that I would write more often, and maybe even share some of the sad bits, but that my goal was to be fully honest while staying positive. So for today I will keep it peppy and tell you about a few of my favorite things….
Singapore was Christmas crazy!
Literally, everywhere I went from November til mid January, I saw tinsel, sparkle, lights and flashy motifs. Even the most off-the-beaten-path shops had outdone themselves in holiday garb! At home, I always felt as if the month of December was a mash up of celebrations, and so “Happy Holidays” was our inclusive way of recognizing that not everyone believes in Christmas. NOT HERE AT ALL. Everyone’s holiday happens here and much ado is made about each one. Christmas is definitely the biggie and it seems lots of people get in on the fun whether the Christmas Story holds religious meaning for their families or not. The Christmas season felt fun, upbeat and joyful and not a bit political. And it’s really, really hot. Imagine Christmas lights, Christmas music and sweat rivulets at all times. I went to a fancy Christmas Ladies Luncheon and had such a hard time finding something to wear. All my normal holiday dresses and outfits felt too heavy, so I settled on a silk blouse and a taxi but after the walk home that blouse should have been burned.
Traditions are still traditions, even in a new place.
We bought a live(ish) tree and decorated it with the same bundle of hodge-podge ornaments we’ve been carting around and adding to bit-by-bit for 19 years. By doing this, we connected this life of “after” to the life we’d been living in San Francisco, otherwise known as “before.“ One of the difficulties about moving that caught me off guard is the blank slate feel. We arrived hopeful, but without a sense of what to look forward to and be excited about. Turns out, it’s exhausting to enter each day and situation with no sense of expectation. We are learning so much about what the calendar year looks and feels like, and beginning to relax a bit. I had not realized that in the past when I anticipated Thanksgiving, dishes, smells, table linens and dinner guest’s faces would all subconsciously flash through my mind. And if the event or holiday turned out a little differently, that was okay; it was just a variation of what I had been expecting. This move made it so we expected nothing. There was nothing to look forward to, only the present to appreciate. And that’s good and grounding in a way, but hard to live every single day. Now that we’ve had six months under our belts, we are beginning to feel a rhythm, and especially now that we’ve had one Christmas season to walk through, it feels somehow connected to past Christmas seasons. My children have each celebrated a birthday here and they got to pick their breakfast and their special dinner and we dragged out the numbered candles we’ve been using since they turned one. Honoring family traditions has helped stabilize us a bit. Even attending a Lessons and Carols service did its part to heal the hearts of our holiday homesickness. Scroll to the bottom for a glimpse of St. George’s Lessons and Carols and the opening song.)
Fresh start syndrome.
As much as the blank slate can cause me anxiety, (who am I without a full calendar?) I wouldn’t trade it away. I’m really starting to dig my Singapore self. Obviously, I have the same personal habits and character traits as before, but I have much more freedom to choose my actions and how to fill my days. I pace myself better here. I am taking better care of my family and I’m being much more intentional about friendships, both keeping up with the ones from home and investing time in new ones here. I do have a slew of lovely ladies here in Singapore that I’d like to get to know better in 2014. There are about ten women I just know I will like, but we’ve had trouble getting on each others’ calendars. The old Joy would feel super stressed out about this and create ridiculous scenarios to fit in a coffee, a walk, a tag team grocery shopping trip, just to make sure we got it checked off the list. The new Joy just believes it will happen as soon as it can and relaxes into knowing that those women, or others will eventually become my people.
Guys, I’m not gonna lie…. it was rough in the beginning. I felt like the four of us were spinning in different directions and I was just trying to hold onto the metal bar of the merry-go-round. But yesterday, I had a really bad day and let a lot of anger fester for hours. (I won’t bore you with the story, but it involved getting the total runaround about how to repair or replace this tiny remote key that is supposed to open the electronic gates to my house. Can you think of a more boring way to spend your morning? Me neither.) Yesterday was significant because it made me realize I am beginning to acclimate to this country and its habits because that down, blue, I-hate-the-way-Singaporeans-don’t-give-straight-answers-or-offer-helpful-suggestions sulk felt odd, like it didn’t quite fit me anymore. It was a feeling I used to live with and now it’s a rarity. (Except when we eat out at restaurants I usually feel it for the entire meal. I don’t think I will ever get used to restaurant service here, so we eat at home most nights.) Once I processed the anger away and remembered how much face-saving is at play – always and forever it’s there in the conversation and my western mind tends to forget that – I was able to brush past the experience and enjoy a night with my son. That’s some serious acclimation, friends.
Friends who visit
Yeah, we kinda run a B&B around here. Book your trip now or there won’t be room for you in 2014. In the space of three months, I will only spend a handful of nights on my own in Singapore, and I am loving it. There is nothing more fun than finally getting out and exploring my new city with people who really just want to see me happy. When I gleefully point out a temple or a chicken rice stall that I’ve come to love, my guests are tickled pink to experience it all with me. And it makes me happy to be here in this new life, sharing it with my old life. Somehow showing it all to someone who knows me really well helps me believe it’s really true. I have moved to the other side of the world, see? Here are the Chinese characters on the street signs to prove it. It’s been affirming to share my new life with old friends.
The kids I brought here.
They were amazing individuals before we moved and the transition has helped them blossom even more. I see these tall, tan, semi-adults sharing my house and creating the lives they want and I think… Wow, Singapore has grown them up. They are both taking athletic, social and academic risks that make my head spin, but somehow they quickly realized, we’ve got this opportunity and we can make the best of it if we don’t hold back. And they are taking the bull by the horns in every direction. I just sit back and watch it happen and feel honored to be close to the flames. If I were forced to give each of them a new middle name I wouldn’t hesitate; Confidence would stick.
Being in the club
No matter where we’re from or how long we’ve been here, whether we have children, or if we are blue or afraid to drive on the left, or if we work full-time, we are all living away from our home country. The expat club is inclusive and has embraced me. I am grateful. I met a sweet gal named Charlotte at church recently. She’d been here all of nine days when I walked up to say hello. I lost track of her and bumped into her about eight weeks later and she said “Thank you for being so warm and welcoming to me when I first moved here.” For real? I’m already on the welcome wagon? I can tell someone where to grocery shop, where to buy new soccer cleats and a wallet for your son that will fit the odd sizes bills. Looks like it homies – I am an old timer round these parts!
My CAbi work has been a lifeline. When I could have stayed at home in my jammies all day watching Netflix (who am I kidding, of course I did that a few times in the Fall) I had a business to focus on. There are CAbi consultants across the US who need me (or at least pretend to and I am grateful for their trickery!) and customers who eagerly await my return trips to San Francisco. Guys, this is HUGE for a woman who went from an over-engaged life to a quiet one. And CAbi has helped me meet women here. Clothes are very expensive and cut for a smaller body, so it turns out that there’s a market here for my work. So far, I’ve mule-d some CAbi orders back in my luggage for pals here, but time will tell how fast this business grows.
I might have to save this topic for a future post because there is just too much to tell. But for now… omgoodness we adopted two of the cutetest littermates on the Earth. Go ahead and Google “how to potty train two puppies at once” and you will know a little about what my life is like right now.
More soon from planet keeping it real and positive.
Your Singapore Joy
Oh friends… it’s been too long. Friends and family who rely on this blog to keep tabs on us, I am sorry for the delay. No news is good news in this case. Anonymous readers who connect with my heart and writing, I promise I will be back soon. Who was that girl who thought moving to the other side of the world would give her the time and focus she needed to write?
Here’s the quick update for friends and family (anonymous readers you can skip down a few paragraphs; it won’t hurt my feeling a bit):
We finally moved into our “permanent” house and simply adore it. Boxes are still scattered here and there (my office just got unpacked this weekend and mornings find me sitting at my new desk typing away!), but we’re making good settling-in progress each week. We feel really fortunate to be in this house. It’s not fancy, but it’s centrally located in an area of mostly high-rise condo buildings. We can walk to the American Club, the main shopping district and tons of restaurants on Orchard Road, and to the most expensive grocery store I’ve even seen.
Emma’s soccer team traveled to Bangkok and Taipei and eventually won the gold medal in the league. They broke a record for not letting in a single goal all season or something very bigtimish like that. Her soccer team fully embraced her and I adore the girls outside of sports who have welcomed her into their circles. I never see her on the weekends as she bounces from one event to another.
Louis played American football this season and his team will play in the championship game this coming Saturday. It feels very “Texas,” this football thing, and it’s been one big ball of fun. I love cheering him on and can see how much he’s learned over the last few weeks. His fitness and stamina are amazing and he’s gotten even taller! I can’t keep him in shoes that fit! He has a big boisterous group of friends from church and enjoys the novelty of being the only American.
Brad is exhausted. He travels somewhere each week, works really long hours when he is in town, and there is always something for him to figure out or fix for me at home. We hugged last weekend and he whispered into my ear “there is so much not getting done. I haven’t called my Mom in ages, I need to look at our US mail, we need another bank account, we need to set up US tax payments…” The list of things we need to do right now seems endless.
So that leaves… me. People, I am good. But, I still have ups and downs. Daily life continues to confuse me, but the days are getting easier and my routine is beginning to come together. I’ve been on a slew of first-dates-for-friends and am beginning to make round two with the women I liked. It takes time to develop deep relationships– even with women I really click with and admire!
A few weeks ago, I realized that my family seemed to be missing a deep sense of gratitude. Back in our old city by the Bay we loved our home, each other, our friends, our city, our church…. I could go on and on. It just wasn’t very difficult to wake up each day and feel a sense of blessing hovering over our lives. When we moved here it felt like the rug had been pulled out. We were struggling just to find anything to like a little bit! Everything smelled and tasted unusual, the heat and new rhythm sapped us of energy and we missed home viscerally. Before meals we’d join hands to offer grace and honestly, some nights I could barely say, thank you for the food we are about to eat and I’d have to leave it at that. During my round of dates, I met a few women who’ve been here a lot longer than me and they hate it here. They are deeply unhappy and spent the time we had together expressing their disgust at local customs, the heat, the food choices, the prices and everything else that takes getting used to. Over an American steak house date night with Brad, (highlight of the month!), I recounted some of their words and said, “I don’t want to end up like that.” It scared me to see that raw face of bitterness up close. All of their complaints resonated with me, but I think the way through this hard time is to embrace the difficulties with a sense of curiosity instead of judgment. So, I’ve been making a concentrated effort to get grateful in a hurry. I’ve never been good at faking much of anything. Faking one’s feelings only hurts the faker and usually doesn’t fool any onlookers. The gratitude I am hunting down needs to be the genuine kind. Some days it’s easier than others. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with so far.
After God’s grace, our health, my marriage, the particular kids I was given, our jobs and the love of extended family and friends, here are more just-moved-to-Singapore specific things.
Our House. I know I covered it already, but I feel like it was sent from heaven as a gift, wrapped just for us. In a confessional moment, our realtor shared her belief that this house represents God’s favor on our lives. I know that my happiness is not the intended end result of God’s blessings. This makes me curious to see how this house fits into His plan of work for me to do. We must be the only Americans in Singapore paying less in rent and living in a larger space than we had in the States. I have a guest room for the first time in seventeen years! We all have room to spread out and heaps of teenaged boys can play video games in the family room and we hardly know they are there. We’ve hosted our first dinner party and had seating for nineteen people. Emma’s entire soccer team slept over a few weekends ago. We are close to living the social hosting life we were accustomed to in the States.
Our non-car. Emma and Louis are very independent and can get themselves anywhere without my help. I don’t drive them to practices, games, youth group or sleepovers. Only a Mom who has eaten lunch in her car and picked up burritos for dinner three nights in a week can appreciate how liberating this is. I am very grateful for the opportunity this offers me and what it has done for my kids. In the same breath, I have to offer gratitude for the plethora of taxi-cabs. The drivers very often have no idea where my destination is, and they drive in a way that makes me very carsick, but they are usually very easy to find and cheap to pay.
The safety of Singapore. Dude, you don’t want to do anything wrong in this country. You’ll get caned and thrown in prison so fast you won’t be able to say can-can-lah. This means my teenagers can walk the streets at midnight with little fear and their mamma can fall asleep watching Law and Order without the frantic texting and cajoling them to get to wherever they will sleep now. We still have rules and curfews, but these kids have tons of freedom because it’s safe here.
Travel Opportunities: I’m a little ashamed, but I’ve never really had a travel bug. My parents took me to loads of places when I was a kid (Africa, Europe, all over the Caribbean) and I know it opened me up and changed me for the better. But as an adult, I just felt complete. Take me to Hawaii or Mexico and let me read by the pool. I certainly never had a desire to travel to Asia. But here I am and all of the sudden I am ablaze with desire. I research all the local airlines and places I can get to from Singapore in one flight. (There are many, many options!) I ask my potential new friends about their travel experiences and everyone has something to share. When Emma and I were in Taipei, we had one afternoon to see some sights and we were one hundred stories over the city looking down at the busy streets, mountains and mist, just pinching ourselves. Can you believe we are in Taiwan? In the near future, my kids we will go to the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia on vacations or service trips. That’s just the beginning. I have plans for this family!
Our helper: Nan-Nan came to live with us when her British employers had to leave the country suddenly. Some day, I will tell you more of her story, but suffice it to say we love having her in our home and she takes great care of us. We’re having tacos tonight with the corn tortillas I brought back from my last trip to San Francisco and I can hear (and smell) them frying right now. When the kids get home on the late bus I will turn my computer off and we’ll go downstairs to dinner. Yes, I am very grateful to have Nan-Nan with us.
Church: We are still spread out over a couple of churches, but everyone likes where he or she attends each week. We miss City Church down to our core, but we are all getting the reminder of God’s love and grace every single Sunday. We go for the reminder, Fred says. Gotta be grateful for that.
Tuesday Bible Study: This group is full of really loving women. It’s not anything like the Pause group, but it’s life-giving in its own way. Here’s proof that I am making friends and settling in. They met at my house this past week.
The American Club: Killer salad bar and a teen scene. Need I say more? I’m doing the final proofread by the pool today.
Real grateful living involves being thankful for everything, not just the fun stuff. I read One Thousand Gifts with everyone else and I believe it. But I’ve got to start somewhere and these were the easiest places.
I’m sure there is more… I will keep thinking…
I’ve been getting some cheery messages from friends in the US that say things like: Love seeing you all so happy! Glad everyone is settling in so well! Seems like Singapore agrees with you! I read these notes with confusion. Where are people getting this information?
After the fifth email like this, it dawned on me: Duh! I’ve only posted happy faces and upbeat statuses on Facebook! That’s common FB etiquette, probably – keep it real, but not whiney or complain-y. But it can give the impression that everything is super-duper when really it’s just fine.
All those posts and pictures are true; we’re not forcing smiles out of the kids or ourselves. But in between those smiling moments, we’ve been living a lot of regular life too, the kind that sometimes feels like a grind. Except here, it’s a brand new grind where everything is different, overwhelming and exhausting and although the language is supposedly the same, no one can understand me when I ask for help and I certainly cannot understand the answers they give as they are trying to help the poor, sweaty, befuddled woman.
So, for real, we’re all OK. We laugh around the dinner table, tuck each other in with kisses at night and we’ve even gone to a movie and found a great steak frites restaurant. But life here in Singapore is not exactly what I thought it would be.
The weather: It’s easier because, as it turns out, I like the heat! I’ve spent too many June nights at Off the Grid in my puffer coat, shivered through nearly every single Giants game I’ve been to, even with a wool blanket wrapped around my shoulders, and forced myself to go down to the nearby beach, bundled in a sweatshirt. I am ready for warm weather! Here, I sit and read by the pool in the late afternoons and marvel at how comfortable it is to be outside in a bathing suit as the sun goes down. I never have to look outside or ask Brad – what’s the weather like today? Do you think just this cardigan will be enough? It’s always warm. But it’s harder because it’s impossible for me to look pretty in this weather. Imagine that you’d just gone to your favorite spin class or bikram yoga class for a solid ninety minutes, and then added an extra twenty minutes of high intensity cardio. Afterwards, you’d skipped the shower and instead donned your favorite silk blouse. Then, you’d walked next door to lunch with friends and noticed that everyone is non-sweaty, their hair is coiffed and their makeup is right where they put it. This is me, everyday, except there is no workout involved. I’ve just left my house and walked ten minutes to the American Club, down to the grocery store or to a coffee shop to meet new friends. Brad and I almost had a fight one Sunday because I wouldn’t walk the two blocks to a better intersection to hail a taxi. We were on our way to meet new friends who’d graciously invited us to lunch at their club and for once I wanted to appear cool and calm. Looking pretty is much harder than I imagined. On back-to-school-night for my 8th grader I accidentally exited the subway a stop early. The ten-minute walk turned into a rushed thirty-five-minute one once I realized my mistake. I entered the school theater a red-faced, splotchy, soppy mess with teensy bits of tissue sticking to my skin from my brief mop up in the ladies room en route. Hi, I am Louis’s Mom and I’m looking for friends… It’s cool; we don’t have to hug hello.
The air-conditioning: It’s easier because it’s everywhere and for the first minute after I enter a room it feels like heaven, but it’s harder because before the sheet of sweat even dries, I start to shiver. I carry several cardigan options in my purse at all times for the quick added layer inside, but then I immediately strip off outside. When I work in the business center of our apartment building, I have to bring a sweatshirt with a hood because it’s that cold and I cannot think with my ears stinging. I have a constant sore throat and I think it has something to do with living in air-conditioning.
The bureaucracy: It’s easier because I am not required to think. There is a method and a way of doing everything. But it’s harder because there’s only one way to do it, and the game is to figure out that right way. I filled out an on-line form and entered my name as Joy Elizabeth Libby and it was rejected without stating a reason. Days of research later I learned that it was because in that particular system, I am listed as Libby Joy Elizabeth. Now I understand how corruption can flourish (not here! Too much caning, I think) because I would gladly hand over $100 to anyone who could help me figure out why Brad’s local debit card from Citibank cannot be used to make government fee payments online, but my Citibank debit card from California, the one that will incur a foreign exchange fee with every transaction, works just fine. Anyone? Bueller? We’re fortunate to have relocation experts helping us with various aspects of the move (handling paperwork for the employment and dependents’ passes, overseeing our container clearing customs etc.) and a fabulous realtor handling the reams of paperwork needed to rent a house, but in other areas we are on our own. It took Brad three weeks and lots of frustrating phone calls with Citibank to open a local bank account and as I mentioned above, the card really only works to get cash from an ATM (and not just any ATM; it has to be a Citibank one.) And apparently there is no way to connect us to our Citibank account in the US, even though Brad first opened an account with Citibank in 1986! (I know, right! I was only 13 years old!) I’ve been here for a month and we still haven’t had the wherewithal to add my name to the account; we are dreading the process. So, Brad gives me cash and I dole it out to the kids. If he travels, he leaves his debit card just in case we need more, and that means that while he is in India and needs cash himself, he has to take it from our US account which sets off a trip wire of potential fraud and then our US account is frozen and not even my US debit card will work for a simple $30 transaction. These things are sort of wearying.
The relocation company has given me a deadline to move out of our serviced apartment but the same company cannot confirm a definite move-in date for us for our new house, and no one sees that this is unsettling. I’ve asked them five different and creative ways why they’d secure an end to the temporary housing without first securing the date the container will arrive at the door of the new house, but this is the clearest answer I have been able to get: Kindly be informed that the custom [sic] clearance & delivery of shipment will takes [sic] about 2 to 3 working days from the date of shipment arrival. The earliest delivery date for the shipment would be 05 Sep 2013 if shipment arrive [sic] on schedule as [sic] 02 Sep 2013. So, yeah, whatever you can make of that.
While we’re on the topic, communication is harder. Though English is the official language, Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, so English is spoken in many accents and with different phrasing. Singlish, local colloquial English, is what’s spoken by many taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hawkers, security guards etc. (Someday soon, when I comprehend more, I will write about Singlish). We’ve already discussed the bank people. The housekeeping staff at the temporary apartment don’t speak much English at all – they come from all over Asia and are likely new arrivals. Then there are the expats: the number of accents coming at me in a school meeting or at church is remarkable: we have Kiwis, Aussies, South Africans, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh, plus tons of non-native English speakers from all over Asia, India and Europe. And of course there are American accents, from Texas to Maine.
The Expats: It’s easy because they were all new to Singapore at some point, so they all understand what we are going through. Any question I have, someone has asked it before me. There are forums, associations, clubs and Facebook pages galore to help get me settled quickly. One church we’ve visited even offers a class each fall for new families to Singapore. It’s hard because, well, some of the ex-pat women are so … smugly settled and know-it-all-happyish here. I heard before I left that the expat community would be very welcoming and warm. Well… I dunno. Jury’s out.
[Side note: One of the signs of culture shock is constantly making comparisons to your previous city. God bless our realtor, Woon, who had to listen to me do this at every single house we viewed. In San Francisco, the landlord would probably have done this, and oh boy this is what would happen in San Francisco. Ha Ha (knee slap) let me tell you about this one time in San Francisco …” Gag, I know, but she endured it all with a smile.]
I make (what I think to be) interesting and curious comparisons between Singapore and San Francisco and no one here is the slightest bit interested. In my current state of adjustment, it feels as if some of the gals might be forcing themselves to like it here. Like, methinks thou doth protest too much, pale blonde perfectly made-up dearies … Frankly, there are moments of some days when I don’t like Singapore at all, especially when I am sweaty, late, using the subway system at rush hour, or staring in disbelief at the prices in the supermarket. And I want to say, Nope, not gonna jump on your fake cheery band wagon sista, I’m digging my heels in. But last week I met a room full of (mostly) British women and they were just as expats had been described to me. They were vulnerable, genuine and generous with their time and stories. They were clearly my people and I know as time goes by, more of my people will cross my path until I have a tribe of women around me again. And then I will be telling the next gal who moves here, expat women are the best and life in Singapore is greaaaat!
Singapore American School: It’s easy because it’s American and the accents are what we are used to hearing, the curriculum follows the same path my kids have been plodding, and it’s just a really great school with really fabulous teachers. It’s harder because many of the American kids have never lived in America and there are significant cultural differences that are nuanced and difficult to name. Some of the teachers got this gig because they want to see the world, not necessarily because they want to nurture the next generation, but for the most part the teachers are incredible. At back-to-school-night it was unclear if we parents should stay to the right while walking (as we do in America) or to the left (as people kinda, but not really, do here). The stairwells and hallways were mosh pits of parents trying to get to the next class. It’s easy because no matter where kids live on the island, the school will send a bus. It’s harder because that bus might not take a direct route to school and kids can be on a bus for a really long time very early in the mornings and very late into the night.
Moving with teenagers is harder because they have opinions! They want to have a say about where we live, where we go to church, what we do on the weekends and where we eat dinner. They are super polite about what they like and dislike, but we are more like four adults re-settling in a foreign country than anything else. My little kids just went along with my plan, but my teens help create a plan. It is easier because they’re mature enough to make a go of this huge and un-asked-for change in their lives. They’re really our heroes at the moment (not least because the bus picks them up at 6:48 a.m. and Emma returns home after soccer at 7:15 p.m. and Louis returns home from football after a long walk from his bus stop, at 8:15 p.m.) It turns out we’ve raised troopers!
Finding a church is harder; of course we were spoiled in San Francisco, so we have high standards. We’ve visited two so far and Brad and I would be fine at either one. During our visits, each of our kids found a church they like, but not the same one. Brad and I prefer the music at “Emma’s” church, but the sense of community at “Louis’s” church is stronger. I prefer “Emma’s” church because it has air-conditioning; “Louis’s” church is literally open-air, with ceiling fans that don’t do much, but the place is strikingly beautiful. The building has a roof and some walls, but no windows! Given that we are more like four adults now, having everyone choose a church on his or her own doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It’s good practice for college when I won’t be around anyway to make that choice for them, and at both of these local churches, the teens go directly to a separate service, so they’re on their own anyway. After a Saturday night sleepover, text a taxi and get yourself to church. We’ll meet you at lunch, kids.
The American Club: It’s just easy. Tacos, diet cokes, salad bars and lounge chairs by a pool. Seriously, the only downside I’ve discovered is that it’s a bit of a teenage hangout on the weekends and I cramp my kids’ style when I go there for dinner on Friday nights.
I could go on, and I will soon, but for today I wanted to give you just a bit of the real deal of my life here so far.
Singapore-Joy (this is the name my mom has entered into her phone with my new contact information. I think it has a good ring to it.)
Consider this hypothetical situation: While living your normal life – coffee in the mornings, sunset walks in the afternoons, backyard BBQs when the weather is nice – your bestie walks in and tells you she is moving to the other side of the world. There are so many ways for you to deal with this information and whatever you feel; you gotta know it’s okay. You might feel mad, deserted, jealous or simply sad. Or maybe you will feel excited, hopeful or eager-to-go-visit. Likely your feelings will bounce around a bit and you’ll experience a touch of mania: This is the best decision for your family and I am soooo happy for you! And depression: How could you leave me? Why don’t these opportunities come to me? When will I ever see you again? Rest assured that whatever you are feeling, your bestie is feeling that same thing, but on steroids.
For this column, we’ll agree that no matter how you feel, you definitely want to do what is most helpful to your bestie right now. The good news is that there are so many ways you can make this massive life transition a little bit easier for her, and if she’s lucky to have lots of friends, you don’t need to do all of them. You can pick the one that seems the most logical and know you are helping her more than you realize.
You might be the friend who lists with her….
Two months before my move, listing became my daily chore. Shelly came over and saw my scribbled post it notes falling all over my couch, entry table and kitchen counter. She opened a notebook and methodically copied all of them down in a central place. Then she followed up with me about each item until they were all crossed off. If we were chatting on the phone and another action item revealed itself, she’d yell, Put that on the list! She even taught me the secret thrill of writing down something I’d accomplished just to be able to cross it off.
You might be the friend who throws a goodbye party…
I read an article that shared how to make an international move easier on teenagers. Overvalue what a goodbye party will mean to them, it suggested. In response, I dutifully planned, executed and paid for some amazing events to mark the farewell between their friends and them. But for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable doing that same thing for myself. So a few friends stepped up and offered their ideas. They had to twist my arm for me to agree, but I am so glad I did. The sustaining memories from those parties, surrounded by women who love me, made leaving so much easier. One friend mentioned she might skip the party because I’d be surrounded by people and wouldn’t notice one who was missing. Hear this: Don’t skip the party! And if you hear about a goodbye party and are sad you were not invited, just invite yourself. It’s impossible for someone who is throwing a party for someone else to know everyone who should be invited. And if you are sitting around assuming there is a party happening without you, there may very well be, but by golly your bestie could always use more than one so throw her a party yourself! Thank you Lauren, Terely, Ti and Melissa for giving me awesome leaving memories.
You might be the friend who cries with her…
Yup, your bestie will need to cry. And she’ll probably need to cry a few different times and about different things. Just let her be the one to open that door if you can help it. Cry on your own but do your best to pull it together when you see her. But if in the middle of sipping her diet coke she chokes up and shares her mourning, worry, or sadness, you should feel very comfortable letting ‘er rip alongside her. No need to placate her with It will be great! You are making the best decision! Just listen to her heart and cry too.
You might be the friend who refuses to ghost…
Do you know about ghosting? It’s leaving a party without saying goodbye to the hostess. Public opinion is divided on the topic: Some think it’s rude and others think it helps everyone avoid something no one likes to do. Ghosting when your bestie is moving is the easy way out, but it will only feel good in the short run. Your bestie needs a memory of that last hug with you and she will want to know when that hug is happening. We left in the summertime and some of my friends were still on vacation. They didn’t ghost on purpose, but when I saw them for the last night neither of us knew at the time that it was the final goodbye. And I wish I had a moment to look back on and remember we held each other and said what we meant to each other and then we wished each other well. If you have a choice to ghost or give a final hug, go for the hug. Thank you Linda for resisting the urge and joining the madness on packing day. Thank you Joyce for stopping by as I was handing the keys over to the agent. Thank you Ti for meeting me for a hug on the side of the road and Nancy for coming down in your PJs when I woke you up. These are my final moments in San Francisco and I cherish them.
You might be the friend who connects her to someone you know in her new town…
Forever, I will be indebted to the San Francisco people who thoughtfully connected me to the Singapore people. You graciously shared your besties with me and they have helped me immensely. Life is so much easier to navigate with friends who have already walked the path that is new to us. Julie, Annie, Ling, Roxanne, Kimberly and Dan: Your besties are taking good care of me!
You might be the friend who organizes thoughtful group expressions for her to cherish later…
Shelly asked many of my friends write me a letter and then she compiled them in a book. I looked through it when she first gave it to me, but right now I can’t remember what many of the letters said or even who contributed. But you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be grabbing it out of the movers’ hands as they unload the container and reliving those words as often as I can. Jane bought a box of gorgeous metal fortune cookie Christmas decorations and had all my friends write wishes for me. I have shown exemplary self-control by agreeing not to read them until December. I will enjoy some emotional income on Christmas tree decoration day, for sure.
You might be the friend who shows up at the door and says What errands can I do for you right now?…
Shelly, Craig, Nini, Karla, Kristin, Terely, Jackie, Meg, Linda… the list goes on. Swing by a garage sale to say hi and work it for the rest of the day? Drive around town looking for a light fixture the movers broke? Take my cable boxes back to stupid Comcast? Buy and install a new toilet seat because the old one chooses this exact minute to crumble! Take my list of over the counter meds and travel from Walgreens to Walgreens until you find all that I need? Hear that my kids haven’t had a home cooked meal in two weeks and show up with a shrimp boil? Come fix my thermostat and refill the picture holes with a mixture of toothpaste and cover-up? I’ll never be able to thank everyone enough.
You might be the friend who takes the bestie’s kids on awesome timely outings…
Do you know what teenagers do all day while the movers pack a house? Well, when the mother can think of no other ways for the teenagers to be helpful, they sit on the hardwood floor waiting for it all to be over. But if Kristin will take him to the movies or Vanessa will take him to a water park, or Shelly will take her to lunch or Hilary will offer up a last minute trip to Mexico, life will get easier for your bestie and her teenagers will have another memory made with friends.
You might be the friend who agrees to exhausting, outlandish outings just so your departing friend can cherish the memory…
Seriously, it was just a regular Wednesday night. I was set to fly the following morning. We were all exhausted from our own lives of work, constant moving, hosting my teens and me as houseguests, needing to pack for their own vacations etc… And I insisted they take me to a fancy dinner, then to bi-rite ice cream in the mission because that’s the one that has salted caramel, and then because it was a clear, but freezing night, I made them take me up to Twin Peaks. One of them had to drive a motorcycle up there with my son on the back. And they agreed because they cared about their bestie and they wanted to send her off the way she wanted to go, with awesome memories of her city and the people she loves and with tears streaming down her cheeks afterward. Dan, Kimberly, Gretchen, Shelly and Craig – thanks for the final hurrah.
You might be the friend who keeps in touch…
Yup, I know it’s easy to go with the out-of-sight-out-of-mind plan. Seriously, I get it. I’m the one who moved, after all. You need to pick up your life and move on. But if you reach out via skype, whatsapp, viber, facebook or even old-fashioned email, your bestie will appreciate it so much.
And finally….you might be the first friend she makes upon arrival!
I keep reminding my kids (and myself!) that friendship building takes time. You can’t know someone deeply right away. It will take a while before we have those belly laughs we shared on the final hurrah. Give it time! I’ve heard the advice: accept any invitation you receive, extend as many as you can, go on walks and coffee dates, learn to play Bunco and take up flower arranging. Do whatever it takes to be around other people. I promise, I’m going to follow all that advice! But sometimes you just get lucky! Twiggs and Michelle Reed, thanks for being first besties for all of us. We are so lucky you were sitting around in Singapore just waiting to know and love us!
You’re welcome, because now you’re prepared. When your girl walks into your kitchen one day and shocks the predictability of your life, you’ll know what to do. Wrap her in a big hug and tell her how happy you are for the adventure she’s about to take and assure her you will be around to help make it easier.
The danger in naming names is that I might forget some. Am sure I did. Please forgive your girl.
Tony Bennett got it right when he sang, I left my heart in San Francisco. This city, with its sweeping views, outlandish political and social antics and inspiring friends-who-are-more-like-family has become home to this East-Coaster. Walking away feels more like tearing the fabric of my soul in half.
I remember my very first whiff of what would become my life here. Between semesters of my junior year in college, I drove from Washington, DC to San Francisco. I turned 21 years old mid-trip while in St. Louis, Missouri and crossed into California a few days later. Cresting Highway 580 somewhere near Livermore, I saw the hulking, Cyclops-like, bright-white wind turbines covering green-like-I’d-never-seen-green rolling hills, and I burst into tears.
I pulled over and leaned across my steering wheel and let the sobs come. I could sense the change that was coming. I was entering adulthood, about to experience the grown-up me and life was pregnant with opportunity. My boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), new friends, new food, new landscape, new classes and new jobs lay just on the other side of those hills. What I couldn’t have know in that emotive moment, was that from my very first glimpse of this city my heart would break into a million little pieces of love for it and its inhabitants.
Brad and I married the following summer (yes, I married him before I even graduated from college – gasp!), and other than very short stints in Washington DC, New York and London, we’ve managed to plant ourselves here in the city where love is everywhere.
Company transfers, better job opportunities and the recent financial crisis have all provided us chances to leave. Heck, just paying private school tuition for so many years has led to many conversations about the golden, sun-drenched county just north of us. But our hearts were inexplicably tethered to this place and what we wanted for our kids was to know and love this city like we did. And they do. This is home for all of us. Though we have no close relatives anywhere near us, we have managed to fill our dining room on Thanksgiving, year after year, with thirty or so people we call family. And that’s what makes this next chapter so heart-wrenching.
In case you haven’t heard, I’m moving to Singapore this summer. My husband is already there working and building the beginning of our new lives. The time difference makes it somewhat difficult to connect, but as he is waking up and I am picking up the kids from school, we video chat. It’s hectic and chaotic on our end, but we’re happy to see his face and hear bits about his day. He always mentions the heat in Singapore, and I talk about the fog in San Francisco. We’re moving from a city that is too cold to one that will feel too hot for us. We’ll deal with it, like we’ll deal with the new food (last night I asked him if he’d spotted any sort of taqueria – even something like a Chevy’s. No. Ugh. Knife to the heart.), new friends (I’ve already have phone dates with friends of friends and a few people from Singapore will be in the states this summer and I’m going on blind dates with them) and a new environment full of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and a blending of languages and cultures. We’ll deal, and slowly our hearts will open up to that gateway into Asia. We’ll meet interesting people, travel to places I never thought I’d see, expose ourselves and kids to cultures, needs, lives, sights, smells and sounds and we will fall in love with what’s next for us.
But be clear: pieces of our hearts will be planted here forever. In Shelly and Craig’s backyard, on the fourth row and in the balcony of City Church, around the Pause circle, on the walk from downtown to the Marina, in the living rooms of women all over, at Gordos and Panchos, at the Bruce Mahoney, at AT&T Park, in a classroom at Herbst House, one across the street teaching Latin and another in the basement where math is made exciting, wherever flan is homemade or Diet Coke from a fountain is on offer, on the stoops of 7th Avenue, in the arms of hug-giving teenage girls, in pods-for-life and cabinet, in the heart of one Salvadorena wherever she goes, where the meatballs, roasted chickens and lemon bars are made, where the hearts beat huff, where children remember that nothin’, nothin’, absolutely nothing can separate, in a hot tub in Mill Valley and another in Sea Cliff, and especially, especially at one house on Broadway. A million little pieces is the only way to describe the heartbreak we feel right now. Like maybe, this thing here (however to describe it? Life? Love? Investment? Work? Time?), it’s just not finished. Some relationships feel as if we’ve only just begun! We’re spread too far and too deep here in this city to know how to begin to pull out.
Like with a band-aid, we just need to rip it and know we will sting and maybe even bleed, but time is on our side, as it always is. What seems hard today will feel possible tomorrow.
So …we’re leaving. Many of you have asked questions I will try to answer here. I will keep the heartache and emotion out of the answers as best I can and just try to stick to the facts, ma’am.
When? Brad is there already. Kids and I fly August 1st.
Why? The short answer is that Brad took a new (great!) job and the kids and I are so thrilled for him that we jumped up and down congratulating him and beaming with pride. The longer answer involves his leaving a job not worthy – or welcoming – of his character and moral compass. To say that he had been managing a stress level in code red would be an understatement. So, yes, a new job in Singapore is a wild, big change, but one we are all embracing for him.
Why now? Our kids are breaths away from being launched, so why inject all this change and transition into their lives, right? Well, I guess because opportunity knocked in such a way that suggests there is work for us to do there. As much as I wanted to give my kids a full childhood here in beautiful San Francisco (I’ve clung to this dream so hard, fingers clenched, knuckles white, holding on for dear life), I am choosing to believe that offering them this chance to see a different part of the world, to know a different life and to see their parents in action with new people, places and things is just what The Good Doctor is ordering. So, we’ll board that flight full of hope and expectancy, searching for the stones signaling our path.
School? Kids will be going to Singapore American School with loads of expats from around the world and some local kids. Close friends of close friends run a Christian youth group organization there and have invited my kids to join a group at a camp in June. Yes, literally thirty kids from the new school in Singapore are coming to Oregon for summer camp and we happen to know the adults chaperoning them and they extended an invitation to my kids. Fer realz. I can’t make this stuff up. One of the stones laid for our path …
Housing? We are not at all sure. Brad is hotel living for now, and we’ll move into temporary housing when we arrive, then the housing search will begin. Choices include high-rise modern, possibly smaller, apartments, a multiple-level “cluster house” (growing up on the East Coast we called these townhouses, but here in San Francisco this is just the way most houses look!) where we’d share walls with neighbors and common grounds, or a “landed house” which is free-standing, has a yard, etc. I could be wrong about all of this. I’m getting it from the interwebs. I’ll figure it out when I get there.
How long will I be gone? Lots of families moving to Singapore have a definitive amount of time they’ll be “stationed” overseas. We don’t. His new job is there. Like, right there. His region is vast and includes all of Asia, including India, and Australia. He doesn’t have a contract to return to the States, but if there is one thing any of us can depend on, it’s that everything always changes. We’ve agreed he’ll be in this role for 3- 5 years and I am hoping for five because that would get both kids through high school and launched (likely) back in the States. (My heart just oozed a little with that reality. In five years, both of my kids will be gone)
Language barrier? Singaporeans speak English, often referred to as “Singlish” because of its unique lilt and vocabulary. Most of them also speak Mandarin, Malay, or various Indian dialects. We’ll stick to English and probably come back with a little Singlish as well.
Our Stuff? This is by far the most frequently asked question. After some massive purging efforts, we will bring everything we own. The way we figure it, if we store it for five years and that becomes ten years, we probably won’t want it and don’t need it. And seriously, why own something I can’t use? So the furniture, the bedding, the china, the silver and the crystal are going to float at sea and make their way to us in a container.
Me? How do I feel? I’ve already covered that I am heartbroken, right? Like torn in two, hung from the rafters, gnashing of teeth, devastated to leave my people. Two hours after telling my 15-year-old that her life will radically change, she turned to me with sudden beyond-her-years insight and said. “Mom, Papi will have a new job, Louis and I will have a new school and friends, but I am worried about you. You will have to give up Pause and CAbi and you will have nothing.” Uh-huh, way to name it, sister.
Pause is my third child. Literally my actual heartbeat can be traced to Wednesday mornings and the brave group of women who show up on my doorstep and work through all their questions, confusion, hurts and hopes. Sometimes we sit in a circle and pray out loud to a God some aren’t even sure exists … it’s a slice of heaven right here in the Marina District. The last Pause gathering was beYOND emotional. Shelly called all the ladies who have gathered in my living room for the last eight years – some for a short time, some while they job-searched, some only when they could and some every single Wednesday – and together we had a two-hour sobfest. I am still recovering because, Oh! the words that were spoken. It was the closest I will ever come to witnessing my own eulogy and hearing, feeling and knowing what I mean to people. It was wrenching and inspiring and none of us had any mascara left and our faces were swollen and red and I’ve never seen a room of women so stunningly beautiful, whole and connected in all my life. I’ll miss them desperately and I will think of them each Wednesday, all off on their own paths, continuing the work we used to do together.
CAbi is encouraging me to keep my business thriving. (If you are a client or hostess, you’ll get a note from me soon with all sorts of details.) Because I won’t be able to sell CAbi in Singapore (yet), I’ll be making regular trips back to the US to hold shows in jam-packed days and nights. (I get a thrill just thinking about those return trips!) I met a client at a show last weekend and I explained my plan and she raised an eyebrow in confusion, Whaaattt? You’re going to fly for 20 hours around the world to sell clothes to women who could just order them online? Later in the evening, after hours of laughter and connection unique to CAbi shows, she sidled up to me and whispered, “Now I get it. If I had this job, I’d fly back from Singapore to do it too.“ I’m doing it for myself and for all the women I get to love on at each show.
Finally, you know how I say I like to write, but it seems like what I really do is think about writing all the time while actually doing a whole bunch of other things. After the initial hubbub of moving and settling in, and in between my CAbi trips, I really won’t have much to do. Like a peeled onion, the obligations I carry now will be stripped away and I will be left with a big choice: To write or not. And I hope I choose to honor this passion and write the essays, book or manifesto that’s waiting to come from me. It will take some courage to face down the fear, so Plan A is to be brave and show up for the stories that want to be written.
I’ve heard the kindest, most generous fare-thee-wells since we announced our imminent departure. I hold each one in my heart and keep replaying them like a soundtrack stuck on repeat. At one of the many goodbye gatherings we’ve been privileged to enjoy, my dear friend, Dan, gave a toast and offered up a challenge. “You are leaving a crater sized hole in San Francisco. Go make a crater in Singapore.” We’re going to try, Dan, we can promise you that.
Dear God, please hold all of these loved ones here in San Francisco in your tender embrace. And show us who needs love in Singapore.
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Recently, I told my closest friend, “I don’t know why women have a reputation for back stabbing and competing with each other. I couldn’t survive without all the women in my life who love and support me. I know nothing about this female combat everyone refers to.” She thought my outlook indicated that I had been pretty blessed in life and that I probably send out a vibe letting women know that I won’t be participating in that kind of play.
But a few days later, I was listening to school-age girl friendship stories, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that. That, I do remember. And it hurts. ”
I’ve been tossing around ways to support my daughter (and her friends who have trusted me with their stories) through the crooked path and rough terrain of friendship. Should they grow a tough exterior and keep their guard up never trusting each other? Should they keep their heads down and focus on their work? You probably remember versions of these stories…
Anne: We were sixteen, best friends and at sleep away camp. She borrowed a dress, but when she tried to zip it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was too small. She got red in the face and sneered, “Well, I guess this settles the debate; I am bigger than you.” I froze. I had not been aware of our unspoken competition. She was cold to me for a few days. I heaped my plate full for her to see. I complimented her endlessly. I tried to make myself less pretty, less desirable. Eventually, we grew apart.
Kirsten: We were in college; I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both were recommended for a leadership role and she hated that I was on the advisory committee with her. Before I came along, she’d been the star of department. She stared straight ahead when I took a seat next to her. When I spoke in front of the group, she rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She refused to laugh when I made jokes during meetings. Later in the school year, overwhelmed by my full load, I missed a few meetings. She cornered me in the cafeteria to confront me in front of other committee members. “You think you’re entitled to do this any way you please?” she hissed. “Now it’s clear you are not who everyone thinks you are.“ I can still feel the sting of those words as I type them. Humiliated, I tried to explain that I wasn’t slacking; I was just a little under water. I mumbled apologies; I shuffled my feet. I promised to try harder. I still remember her smug smile as she saw me become smaller, less confident and dynamic.
Kathleen: I was working my first post-college job. She’d been at the company a year longer than me. She was sparkly, funny and the most likeable gal on the floor. I spied her on my first day, noticed our similar dispositions and thought we’d be great friends. She created distance between us. She belittled me in front of superiors, brushed me off in front of clients and was dismissive when we were alone. I was miserable around her. At some point we reorganized the department and I answered directly to her. I learned that if I acted dumb and confused she was kind to me. If I had a great idea or suggestion, she was mean to me.
Victoria: For my 35th birthday I had five celebrations. I had a widespread friend base, and several of them, unbeknownst to each other, hosted little somethings special for my big day. Everyone who threw me a party invited her. After the third one – two lunches and a dinner – she sniffed and loudly said to me, “We sure are doing a lot of celebrating of Joy these days, aren’t we?” I apologized for the attention. I joked about it and acted as if it were all such a bother, all of these parties, all of these moments about me…. A month later we had a small misunderstanding and she hasn’t spoken to me since.
Once I began to think about it, I came up with many stories of my own that show how tough we women are on each other and how tricky our relationships can be. No wonder a friend of mine recently wanted to keep her professional success quiet. “I just don’t want to give anyone a reason to hate me,” she said. Even Sheryl Sandberg once asked her friends to stop mentioning it when her name showed up on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
As I’ve grown, I’ve been lucky (or intentional enough) to find ways to navigate around these women and make room for the ones who love me – all of me. Now I can hardly remember the me who willingly made herself less-than so that others felt more secure. But I did, Lord knows even though it never really worked, I tried. When I think about those gals now, I still feel a little sting, but I also can muster up some compassion. Common threads in the stories of all those women are childhood pain and fearful outlooks. Deep down they just didn’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, or liked enough unless they put me down. Seeds of insecurity grow into large roots or even tree trunks of poor behavior. I happened upon them before they figured out the universal truth that brings peace to all women: I am enough. There are enough slices of pie in every area of life to go around.
How about those girls of all ages who are getting the first taste of the underbelly of female friendships? They are experiencing the this-is-a-two-person-game during recess, the gossip, the put-downs, the you-are-my-best-friend-today-but-tomorrow-i-will-inexplicably-shun-you, the friend-until-a-boy-is-around behavior. I dunno…. It’s so clear from a distance that those girls are sad, lonely and scared, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to be around them.
If I could speak to the girls on the confusing, receiving end of this treatment, I guess I would say that if you have a friend who needs you to be less than yourself in order for her to feel good about herself, tread lightly. Love her from whatever distance you need to create so that you can still feel comfortable being fully you. Know that somewhere deep within she feels wrecked and from her wounding comes all the dark, ugly stuff you see. With enough love and support, someday she’ll heal. For now, you can be a beacon of hope in the love you show her, but go forward knowing it’s probably not a two way street. Someday she’ll look back and recognize that you were true blue and maybe that will serve as a guide for her. But for now, pick your head up and look around, my darlings. There are so many other girls and women out there for you. Most all of us are broken in big and tiny ways – you are too – but that’s why we need each other especially more. There are girls who will inspire you and who will feel inspired by you; there are girls who will feel lifted up as you soar and who will drag you even higher. Run as fast as you can in their direction, wrap your arms around them and spread your wings together. I love how Paul F. Davis instructs us with such clarity, “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”
But look with compassion on the mean ones. Someday you will realize that in a particular relationship you are the mean one. Shocker, I know, but it’s likely to happen. Insecurity does not discriminate; it seeks us all out over time. If you see mean girls now through the eyes of grace, you will have an easier time showing it to yourself and changing your course later.
We girls are complicated and hold the capacity for a full spectrum of emotions and behaviors – love, hate, greed, passion, loyalty, honor and betrayal just to name a few. But we are all also yearning for the same things – grace, mercy and sanctuary. Sweetie Pies, do your part to offer these gifts to the world around you… even to the mean girls.
PS – What’s your friendship story? Tell me tell me tell me!
A few weeks ago I launched a spring clothing line to a rowdy crowd of women who love fashion, love each other and love any excuse to join in a party. We had a loud, fun time, and later that night I fell face-first into bed, exhausted and happy. In the wee hours of the following morning, I relived some of the funnier moments of the evening and began to count how many teachers – from different schools and various grades and specialty subjects – were in the room. When I examined the guest list, most were teachers I count as friends. Only some had taught my own children over the years. There was a clutch of preschool teachers who get in the trenches of the sandbox and have a bottomless well of creativity and there were brave middle school teachers who face hormones and high-stakes social scenes while trying to teach algebra. I love all of them but wouldn’t want to be any of them. I am not made of tough enough stuff to face their days.
As I understand it, teaching is more of a calling than a vocation. Exceptional teachers, who realize this and lean into the insanity of the job, show up each day ready to minister. Here’s the understatement of the year – teachers make an actual, measurable difference in our world.
My child saw an enrichment teacher once a week for five years of elementary school. When we realized her program wouldn’t be offered the following year, we both cried. “Your class has been the only place I could be myself other than home,” said the final thank you note. In a string of great homeroom teachers, one was a particular stand out. All I needed to do was type “mayday, mayday” in the subject line of an email sent at midnight and she’d find my kid first thing in the morning and offer a hug, a chat…love. This cycle went on for years, well after my child was no longer in that teacher’s class.
Of course I’ve been disappointed in teachers as well. I was upset by the second-grade teacher who literally screamed in the ear of a crying boy on the very first morning of school as they were lining up to go into class, “You are in second grade now, dry up the tears!” as well as the clueless teacher who tsk-tsked, “I am disappointed in you,” to the perfectionist child who had mustered the courage to challenge a perceived unfair grade. Then there was the tough teacher who spoke the word “hefty” into a sensitive (and beautifully curvy) girl’s soul. Yes, teachers make a difference, and it’s not always for the good.
But in quiet conversations with my teaching pals, most of whom teach at private schools and see their work as inspiring and impactful, I hear one main obstacle that always floats to the surface. This consistent problem keeps them from job satisfaction, from joyfully bettering students’ lives, and from creative educational experiments. This hindrance makes them want to keep their heads down, their voices quiet and simply get through their days. Drum roll, please: it’s the parents!
Sadly, it appears that two really huge and helpful groups of people – parents and teachers – are both loving our next generation and resenting each other in the process. Although I am technically only in the parent camp, I think my friendship with particular teachers has allowed me to comprehend both sides. The truth is that everyone wants the same thing: to support children as they grow and learn. I offer here a few thoughts to chew on for both groups.
What teachers wish parents knew
Teachers are real people with real lives – they buy alcohol and sometimes they get cancer. When the bell rings, teachers have other things going on. At BevMo, I ran into a first-grade teacher with a cart filled to the brim with bottles. She acted like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar and was red with embarrassment. “I’m throwing an engagement party for my roommate,” she finally stammered. I tried to put her at ease by saying I had assumed all the alcohol was for a purpose, and not for her to drink during the school day. She laughed and told me how she always fears running into parents around town because they seem surprised that she has other parts to her life and make comments that make her feel ashamed of things like throwing a party!
One year, while a teacher friend faced diagnosis, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, tender skin, and reconstructive surgery, her biggest challenge by far was how the parents of her fourth-grade class treated her. They made her feel that her illness showed a lack of consideration for her students, and was an inconvenience to the parents. “Not on my tuition dime,” was the sentiment from a father who was mad the school hadn’t fired her for missing so many days. (What a self-centered piece of shizzle, huh?) She was essentially asked to apologize for having cancer. I asked a friend “If your single-mother, sole income-provider best friend or sister had cancer, can you imagine feeling anything but compassion for her?”
Teachers understand that parents comprehend on an intellectual level that they are real humans, but our treatment of them implies that we see them as one-dimensional and always at our disposal.
The pressure and tension you create when you call the dean instead of speaking directly to a teacher makes it much harder to partner with you. It feels as if a quiet war is being waged between parents and teachers – a battle for power. Parents are wearing down teachers, draining them of their confidence, grasping for the upper hand, creating burnout, and slowly sucking the joy out of their jobs. Unfortunately, as parents win this battle, their children lose. Imagine going to work every day in an environment where every move you make and comment you utter is scrutinized, filtered through the ears of children first and then reported to your supervisor. How much personal fulfillment and joy can you imagine feeling at the end of six months? Teachers wish parents would stop talking to each other about their disappointments or questions about what’s happening in a classroom and stop firing off emails to the head of school or the dean. How about just speaking directly to the teacher in question? This simple change would replace a critical, nervous, fear-based atmosphere with one of openness and trust. Parents can still have gripes and even disagree with a teacher’s course of action, but they’d stop treating the teacher as if he needs to be tattled on and involve him in the discussion.
Side Note: One brilliant dean told a group of parents at back-to-school night, “This year we promise that we won’t believe everything your kids tell us about you, if you promise not to believe everything they tell you about us.” Seriously, parents need to sift through the stories and realize a child is talking. A possibility exists that even though your child truly believes what she is saying, she may have misinterpreted what actually happened.
Another Side Note: This is nearly impossible for parents to do. I am neck-deep into a scenario with a teacher right now and I believe in my truest heart that everything my child is telling me is 100% accurate. I am desperately trying to conjure up another side to the story, but it’s not happening. I wasn’t there to witness what went wrong, but I believe my kid over the teacher. So there we are.
Parents, we wish you’d stop complaining to each other in front of your children. Last year I met a woman who was in the process of transferring her son to the same school that my son attends, and I asked to which teacher he had been assigned. She told me the name and then said, “I hear she has her favorites and only treats those kids with respect, so I sure hope my son can be one of them.” This mother’s child had not even started classes, yet she already believed and passed on an unfounded rumor. A few weeks later, I ran into a different mother from that same class. She had her son in tow so I asked how his year was going and what he liked the best. Sure enough, the 10-year-old repeated the same rumor with all the confidence of one who believes it to be true. Perhaps an individual experience caused one parent to embrace and share this idea, but how many experiences of other parents and kids were colored by it? I’ve watched children recount the deficiencies of their teachers while looking at their nodding parents for approval and affirmation.
I know every teacher can’t be a favorite, but unless the teacher is actively and purposefully hurting a child emotionally or physically, I just can’t see the upside of criticizing him in front of children. Imagine you signed up for a class at your local community college and in your enthusiasm you told your friends about it. If they only respond with negativity, it would be pretty hard for you to hang onto your enthusiasm for very long, and certainly hard for you to learn – especially if you were there to learn geometry or Latin conjugations, or anything really difficult. If all a child can think of when her teacher speaks is how much all the other important people in her life hate that teacher, I am quite sure that you, dear parent, are a barrier to learning.
Parents, we wish you’d focus on what your kid really needs. Teachers see the kid who routinely shows up tardy, without a jacket, forgetting to turn in the permission slip on time, tired from staying up too late, forgetting books left at the other parent’s house and with shoes that need new laces. Teachers notice the kid who is excluded and needs to eat lunch with them in the classroom, who needs extra help in English or extra time for an assignment, who really needs an evening tutor, who has anxiety and who has stopped eating. Teachers wish parents were open to hearing about these things. Instead, parents tend to focus on the final letter grade given (and how it compares to the grades received by others), who was picked for the play or the first-string volleyball team, whether there is enough enrichment in Math, or if there is too much or too little homework. Parents often focus on the 30,000-foot issues better left to the school, but miss the on-the-ground, day-to-day real-life problems of their children. Teachers are nervous about bringing these sorts of topics up because parents have sent a clear message. They’re happy to chaperone a field trip or send in cookies for a bake sale, heck they’ll even join a search committee for a new administrator, but don’t criticize their children or their parenting. So the teachers quake and a teacher-parent partnership remains impossible.
What parents wish teachers knew
We are parenting in a fear-based culture. Parents can’t choose to raise kids at a different time in history; now is what we’ve got. Current culture constantly sends parents messages of worry and fear about their children, and indicates that every single moment, incident or encounter might break them permanently. Parents have responded to this fear by hovering, owning, over-helping, and sometimes by accusing teachers of not doing enough for their kids. They are scared that their children will not succeed in life, because success has been re-defined as Ivy League-only followed by million-dollar-a-year-salaries. No longer are parents happy to let an eight-year-old enjoy second grade; they feel pressure to shape her into the next Steve Jobs. Parents really need teachers to help counter these messages. I know teachers yearn for the old days when parents handed their kids over and never questioned what happened at school – trusted the teachers to do their jobs – but those days are gone. Instead of scoffing at or mocking current parenting trends, teachers can help by simply offering parents the assurance that they care deeply about kids, that they understand how much parents love them and that they’ll let us know when to worry. It’s extremely hard to be the only parents not getting into a tizzy about the ERB scores, wondering why he didn’t place into the enrichment group, or verbalizing that our kid doesn’t have to be the best at everything. Teachers should cut parents some slack by acknowledging the pressure they feel from society and then gently explain how parents can trust the system and know their child will be fine in the end.
Most parents are afraid to say anything to you in case you take it out on our kid. Eek! I know this will sound ludicrous to most teachers, but parents really do worry that teachers will seek retribution with children for mistakes parents make. Guess what? Kids are afraid of the same thing! Some kids won’t vent or confide their challenges in the classroom, lest parents shoot off an email that will make their next day hard. A teacher once told my child, “Every time you tell your parents that someone is mean to you they send a mean email to me. So maybe you can stop telling them so much about it.” Something is very broken in this system. Because parents see their children as fragile and about to fail at every second, they will do anything to keep harm from coming their way. Sometimes that means not speaking up when they really should, but instead they stew, the resentment builds when they hear comments like the one previously mentioned, and they find it harder to trust that teachers are in their jobs because they enjoy and care about kids. Imaginations go wild and parents build massive cases against teachers, all without uttering a word. When the parent finally can’t keep it all bottled up, it’s like a match has been dropped into a gas can and teachers and administrators are left wondering where all the explosive anger came from. It comes from stewing and thinking kids will be treated unfairly if parents challenge anything, even in the most polite way.
You have the power to affect my kid’s life – forever. In our worst and most critical moments, parents can be convinced that teachers have lost sight of this and they are just getting through each day. Parents see them caught up in small little details – whether the kids line up quickly or talk too loudly. They fear teachers are distracted and not clued into the social scene. Parents want to be sure that teachers remember that their opinion means a lot to children, that one word of encouragement from them means more than a million from home, that when they do something exceptional their teachers notice. Listening to a bunch of kids at a party in June recount the highlights and lowlights of a school year, I was amazed by what they remembered. They talked about the day their teacher wore two different shoes by mistake, the week she had the flu and the substitute was awful and messed up the lesson plans and the day she brought in ice cream sandwiches for first period. (I still remember the English teacher who taught me to write from my heart and the physics teacher who came to my wedding and whose most important advice was, “Patience is a virtue to be cultivated.” He said it in every class – even tested us on it occasionally – and I never forgot it.) Students are watching, listening and noticing. They are impressionable. When a teacher shuts a kid down because she is exhausted and tired of listening to the same recess scenario, or when she offers some extra guidance even though she is beat, she is leaving a legacy, for good or for not so good. Teachers are powerful.
Also, a new weird dynamic in education is creeping in that feels very corporate. Especially in the private school arena, parents view the education of their child as a product to purchase and teachers as the service providers. Whenever I’ve been unhappy about a school-related scenario or problem (and disobeying my own advice about not engaging in chatter around the parent community), someone will say, “You are paying too much to have to deal with this.” And on the other side, when teachers vent their stories to me, my instinct is to tell them, “You don’t get paid enough to have to deal with this.” Money – with its sinister way of pied-pipering all of us – is there in the room with both camps at all times.
There is so much more to say, but I’ll end with this: When life has thrown curve balls at my kids, teachers have played the most significant roles in their recoveries. With this in mind, I try to start each school year with an open mind about new teachers, figure out what communication style works best, say thank you for even the smallest things, and (it never hurts!) occasionally send in my husband’s amazing banana bread. When I know a teacher has my kid’s back, feels comfortable telling me things I don’t really want to hear but need to know, I sleep better. And if you are as lucky as me, you might find that your kid’s teacher not only strips to her panties to try on clothes in your living room, but also becomes a lifelong friend.
If you are a teacher or a parent (or both!), leave a comment in the comments section and tell us anything else you wish the other side would know. Keeping it anonymous is OK!
- I know this post mostly reflects a private school experience. If you are a public school parent or teacher, please share a different perspective.
- I am guilty of all of the above behavior plus more.
- Thank you to the special teachers who helped me with this post and confided in me.
- Photo Creds go to ME! I found this card in a cute paper shop on Fillmore Street. It’s true: I really do ♥ teachers!