The thing about moving to another country is that everything seems hard – going to the grocery store, trying to talk to the guy in the elevator, paying for something in cash – and it’s doubly hard with kids in tow. We’ve been in Colombia for about a month now, and while some things have gotten easier, every single day I’m pretty exhausted by the time dinner rolls around. Of course, I have plenty to be grateful for, but also…it’s just a lot.
Take school. The kids are going to a bilingual school, so many of the parents speak English, and yet the text threads that I’m on for each of the kids’ classes are all in Spanish. Every morning I take a deep breath and painfully try and figure out what’s going on. By the end of the second week, I figured out how to ignore a lot of it (for example, I don’t need to know about carpool pickup lines, since our kids take the bus) and how to effectively use Google Translate to get through the rest. I’ve simplified it, but it’s still a lot of time and brainpower.
Still, after a few weeks, I felt pretty good about how things were going for our family overall. Yes, I was still exhausted. But the kids seemed (mostly) happy and I was managing to cook dinner again and we even got a few houseplants. “I feel like we’re really winning,” I said one night to Chris, and he agreed.
The thing is, hubris is a serious character flaw when living as an ex-pat.
Literally the next day, it all fell apart. First, it started with Chris’s cedula, which is a national identiy card. He needed it to open a bank account here, but when he got to the bank they told him that the cedula was faulty and he’d have to get another one before he could get a bank account. This, we realized, could take months and could have all sorts of negative implications for us, but the first thing I said was, “we need that bank account to get Claire’s volleyball uniform!”
I’m not always great at seeing the big picture.
In any case, we figured out a temporary work-around for (much more important) things like paying for our rental car, and Chris headed back to the bank to try and figure out what next steps he needed to take. I stayed home and tried to be cheerful for the kids when they arrived from school. We were saving the day and things were going to be okay, I kept telling myself. And I believed it until I saw Claire, who said the dreaded words, “I don’t feel good.”
Do you know what she had? COVID.
Since we live in a tiny apartment, we couldn’t isolate her very easily, so instead we threw open all the windows and tried to keep everyone apart. Tommy felt bad for Claire and kept trying to hug her which was sweet but not what we needed. I tried to appease everyone until Chris came back, and when he walked through the door I could tell he felt defeated from the bank interaction. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get some good news,” I said, hopefully.
I tried to prep dinner, but I realized as I opened the defrosted shrimp that they were already cooked, which definitely wasn’t what the recipe called for (yes, I should have known that “precoinado” was “precooked” but there’s just so much information in a grocery store and well, I didn’t pick up on that. It was shrimp designed for shrimp cocktail) and I don’t know why, but this tiny little thing almost made me lose my mind. I groaned loudly.
Chris leaned back in his chair and looked at me and said, “if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, it’s that some days, you don’t win.”
I laughed at that. “Today, we definitely didn’t win,” I said.
Chris came to the kitchen and we both tried to figure out what to cook, while Claire sat on the patio wining about having Covid. At the table, Austin worried about whether or not he had baseball and whether or not he needed a uniform that we now couldn’t buy and whether or not he would ever understand how to do his Social Studies projects because the whole class is in Spanish. Tommy hummed happily, because he’s 8 and somehow still untouched by the stress of the rest of the family.
“It’s been a hard day,” I said to the kids, as everyone slumped in their chairs. “Dad and I also had a hard day and couldn’t get a bank account yet. So you have to wait on the uniforms, as we can’t order them without a bank account. We just haven’t been able to get everything worked out.”
Tommy stood up. “YET!” he cried.
I asked him what he meant. He told us that in school they were working on “growth mindset” and “the power of YET!” He became really animated. “Mom, when there’s something hard, like when I can’t do a math problem, I might say, ‘I can’t do it.’ But really, I can’t do it….YET!”
He went on and on about this. It made me think of how much time I once spent convinced that life would never get easier. Yes, I’m an optimist at heart, but when things were the hardest (in those first few months of widowhood, and at the first anniversary of Shawn’s death, and at month 14 when I still didn’t feel better) I often thought my fate in life was to be unhappy. I couldn’t see the joy.
Tommy’s pep talk that night perked everyone up. Austin turned on the music and Chris and I tried to salvage the meal. I was turned towards the stove, cooking and ignoring everyone, but after a few minutes, I could hear commotion behind me. The kids were yelling about something.
I shook my head. “Turn around,” Chris said to me, “and look at this chaos.”
The kids had turned up the music and were dancing. Well, Tommy was dancing and laughing and then it seemed to catch on to the other two. Claire directed everyone from the porch and Tommy did his hilarious moves and even Austin joined in. They were all smiling, and then Tommy did something really funny and they all couldn’t stop laughing.
At that moment, Chris gave me that look, the one I once thought that I’d never see again, the one that says: our kids are the cutest and the best and we are so lucky to have them.
I keep thinking back to this moment, when my kids – the ones who’ve continued to be resilient through so much change – made me remember that there is always so much joy around me, even when things are hard. Yes, life (and logistics) here may continue to be a shit-show and yes, I may never find friends like I have back in DC, and yes, we might have lots of really hard days in our future. But as I feel these doubts, my son’s voice also rings in my head:
It’s not easy….yet.