Unpack: The Story Behind The Writing
All good things have beginnings that if traced back tell a larger story—the BIG picture of life. This is a post about a book I co-authored, but it’s also about how we sometimes go “off-track” to find where we need to go.
My story begins in California, in the foothills of San Ramon, where I endeavored to complete a Master’s Degree in secondary education. For some time, I’d been pondering how I could live a meaningful life and if felt like becoming an educator was the right decision. I knew we’d be moving back overseas soon and with a degree in education I could work and teach at an International School.
Previously, my titles had included “Moving Coordinator and In-House Relocation Specialist,” resettling and settling our family in Virginia, Greece, The Netherlands, Austria, and San Ramon. I was busy, most definitely, but not sure my days were always meaningful. I wanted to make more of a contribution and felt my purpose was yet ambiguous. Going back to school would change all that.
But after a year into my Master’s program, Cooper was assigned to a ‘War Zone’ in Pakistan and we were on the move again. My master’s program was online, so theoretically, I could attend school wherever I lived. But the reality of ‘solo’ parenting, selling our home, and moving to Pennsylvania, AND having a baby on my own (did I mention I was pregnant?), meant school was necessarily on hold.
Still, I took measures to continue my progress. In Pennsylvania, I passed the Praxis test and felt well on my way to becoming a teacher, but a year later when we moved to Virginia, my program requirements changed and I had to take Virginia’s state testing. As luck would have it, less than a year later we moved to Irvine California, and again, I encountered the same issues—new requirements, new testing.
Then came our next international move to Sweden…
By now five years had lapsed and my Master’s Degree was essentially invalid. The only thing I had to show for my efforts was a binder filled with classroom observations—over a hundred hours of watching teachers teach—and a dozen or so research papers and essays. That, and a shelf full of books on how to be the most awesome teacher on the planet, (I’d had plans).
With my goals unfinished, I carried a nagging sense that life was “off track.” I was over forty and still without a higher degree or credentials. And as if life wanted to confirm that everything was all “wrong,” our expat resettlement in Sweden proved difficult. We couldn’t find housing, then when we did, our house had plumbing issues so we had to move again, AFTER I’d hung the artwork. Three moves in thirteen months occupied all of my time and left me feeling less and less purposeful.
In the meantime…
I’d met a lovely dark-haired woman named Karen my first week in country, at a bakery on the island of Lidingo where we both lived, (I was still in temporary housing). She spoke American-English, ordering macaroons at the counter with her three daughters. I was with my kids, hunkered down in a corner of the café eating sandwiches, jet-lagged and not feeling particularly sociable. I didn’t get up to say hello and when she walked out I felt a twinge of regret.
But as fate would have it, that afternoon we ran almost smack into each other on the sidewalk, both of us recognizing the other from the café. We started talking, exchanged phone numbers, and promised to meet up again—because that’s what expats do. To recall it now, I can see there was fairy dust and a glowing light all around us at that first encounter–the magic of hope and friendship. It was the start…
Shortly after, we launched “Fika Friday” and invited other expats to join us. Fika, in Swedish, is a word to describe the ritual of sitting down for coffee in the company of friends. Our idea was to get expats together to meet for friendship and conversation, and of course, kanelbullar—cinnamon rolls.
We met weekly in the same bakery coffee shop where we’d first seen each other in Lidingo. Our first Fika Friday was a huge success. Seven people showed up! I now had six more than when I started.
And one of them was Tanya.
Tanya was a lovely unassuming American-Belgium woman with two kids, similar in ages to mine, and a background in theater. She was also an international speaker and passionate about helping expats, but I didn’t learn that part until a year later, when Tanya invited me to attend one of her lectures.
Soon after listening to her speak on how expectations and attitudes effect expat life, we began musing, wouldn’t it be great if there was a book that supported expat women, specifically the spouse—the one who carries the emotional work and task of caring for the family? We’d both gone through challenges as the expat spouse. We’d both made sacrifices, changed our goals and adjusted our expectations. We had each felt, at times, our expat life had gone “off track,” but at the same time, we knew there was so much to love and embrace about the expat adventure! We’d grown as individuals, as women, and as mothers. The expat lifestyle afforded us opportunities to learn and expand our understanding of cultures, people and the world. My purpose began to crystalize.
All of the challenges I’d gone through could now be used to help other expat women. And Tanya’s experiences and mine together could be organized in a meaningful way to give answers to the dilemmas expats face.
Neither of us had written a book before, although I’d been trying with a few fiction projects and a screenplay. So we met in my dining room, sat at the table with notebooks and laptops, and discussed just that—how to write a book. Our probing question and answer sessions began with chatting about the dilemmas we’d both faced and how we’d handled them, (or the dilemmas our friends faced). What had worked? What hadn’t? We wrote it down. We spent hours and weeks and months, and in the end, we had mined our 15 international moves for the best golden nuggets of wisdom. Our pages and pages of notes became woven into short chapter narratives to ensure the busy expat spouse would only need a few minutes to read and digest the issues that had taken us decades to learn. What we produced, in the end, were universal dilemmas that affected every expat spouse, whether moving to England or Ethiopia. We thought it was pretty good, then we found a publisher who thought it was pretty great.
It wasn’t easy. We didn’t always agree on everything. Tanya and I had to compromise to find our “our voice.” And we were both busy moms too. Mid-way through the writing process, I moved stateside to St. George, Utah, while my husband was posted to another ‘War Zone’ assignment in Erbil, Iraq. I was ‘solo’ parenting again, driving three kids to three schools, managing the family home and the emotional impact. But my small concerted efforts to write, helped the book take shape, and helped me feel purposeful. By the close of that year, as I prepared to move the family to Oman, the manuscript was nearly finished.
It was during this move, I experienced becoming an expat again as if for the first time. The book was suddenly a mirror, reflecting all the years I’d spent transitioning my family from country to country, back to me. When I looked in that reflection, I saw a woman, who though hadn’t fulfilled her other goals and dreams, had a life full of meaning.
“Unpack: a guide to life as an expat spouse,” revealed the contributions I’d made to my family and community–the contributions EVERY expat spouse makes. It seemed almost silly that I could have worried my life was “off track,” when all around there was purpose and value. Writing about the expat spouse for the expat spouse, led me to this conclusion–the expat life couldn’t happen without us.
The expat spouse is “essential;” she’s the one people count on when it counts.
The expat spouse takes care of the details, makes sure the kids are okay, that they have friends and are keeping up with a new school’s curriculum, staying engaged in good activities. The expat spouse packs lunches, makes dinners and volunteers in-between. She listens to her kids talk about their day as she tucks them into bed in a far-away country at night. She watches for expiration dates on the milk and on the passports, keeps track of when insurance is due and when it’s time to renew the visas. The expat spouse maintains ties with loved ones from a distance, while making time to connect with new friends in need of support close by. The expat spouse is the glue holding their homes together, until they are needed to disassemble the pieces, move, and build again.
The expat spouse is the architect of family life and an engineer of the most valuable kind—the human kind.
How I came to co-author, Unpack: a guide to life as an expat spouse, is a story of how I came to appreciate my own journey as an expat spouse and stand in awe of every other woman who willingly does the hard work of supporting her expat family. Yes, it’s a guidebook for first time expats moving outside their home country, transitioning family and supporting spouse, but really, it’s so much more. Unpack is the culmination of my years, and Tanya’s, written as succinctly and helpfully as possible—a crash course on living.
Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” For every woman who finds herself wandering, as I did, feel free to take a chapter from my book, and remember to look for meaning and purpose in everything and everyone around you. Don’t worry that your life doesn’t look like someone else’s or that the goals you’ve set haven’t worked out. Your vocation is always this present moment, and your purpose is to recognize the meaning in your life that is already there, and always has been. Find that and your journey may wander, but you will never have to wonder if your journey has purpose. You will see your value reflected in the people you love and care for–uncovering meaning no matter where your expat life takes you.