It’s been forever since I wrote a post that wasn’t merely summarizing our recent adventure. Busy busy busy, yes, but there’s more to it. Writing the ex-pat experience is at times painful in it’s tangle of emotions. I think I’ve been afraid to explicitly state my impression of how we fit into this new place, afraid that I will let down our family and friends who are hoping (in the most loving and supportive way, of course) that this won’t work out.
The thing is, it’s working out. We’re loving life, actually.
But then as quickly as I write those words, I want to plead with my friends and family back home to understand. I assume that this part of the plight of a recent ex-pat will seem familiar to a lot of people. I feel victorious and blessed that, of all the people in the world who are unhappy with their circumstances, we were able to find a way to something, somewhere that works. But that elation is tempered with guilt. How many ex-pats out there wrestle with the feelings of betraying the people who love us the most? Even on my best days,
when I feel at home in this new place,
when my heart swells at the sight of the rolling, green hills behind the rows of vineyards,
when my run takes me passed sheep munching the grass,
when I share a belly laugh with a new friend and feel happiness mixed with relief that I was being “me” just then and they liked me,
when I glimpse the night sky, and despite the stars’ strange southern arrangement, I fall into a void of wonder at their unbelievable luminosity and multitude,
when I see my daughter on a horse, grinning ear to ear,
when I walk passed my garden to dump our food scraps into our compost bin and again contemplate where we might put a cage with a couple guinea pigs,
… even on a good day, I hear a muffled voice down a long corridor in my mind, a voice that is so far away, yet persistent enough that I have to strain to understand. “Aren’t you being selfish,” it’s hollering, “taking your kids away from their grandparents and your only sister?” “Also, how can you have taken your kids from friends who were like cousins to them? How could you have taken yourself from ladies who were like a whole band of sisters to you?” “Also, how can you compare the opportunities that your kids could’ve had in Boston to what Gisborne can provide?”
That voice doesn’t quit. It merely recedes. It is drowned out by the thought that is forefront in my mind: How can we ever go from this to living anywhere else? And of course, by “this” I mean “the good life.” And by “the good life,” it comes down to one thing. It’s not about money, because we’re not in a vastly different financial situation than we were back in the states. And it’s not about sunshine and surf, although that doesn’t hurt. For us, it seems to have come down to reclaiming time with each other, or the beauty of the often-elusive work-life balance.
First, Sean’s work. Nine months after our departure from Cambridge, I find it striking how I’ve grown used to the comfort of knowing that Sean will see the kids and I every morning before school and he will be home for dinner every night. Compared to our life before, this is nothing short of a dream.
Back in our old life, it was not uncommon for me to pull myself awake, see that Sean was almost out the door, and for me to ask him to wait one minute, literally just one minute, while I woke the kids up so that he could say goodbye. But now, in our new life, he sits down with them and they eat breakfast together almost everyday. And that’s not even us really trying. I mean, I could kick Sean out of bed 20 minutes earlier to do his pre-breakfast run and I could wake the kids up 20 minutes earlier (which would mean setting my alarm 20 minutes earlier), so that we could have a more leisurely breakfast meal together. But I don’t. I sleep until the last possible second and then drowsily look at emails on my phone while trying to wake up. I wake up the kids later than I want to, almost everyday, and we all rush just the tiniest bit. And Sean runs into the house after his run and rushes to get showered and changed. While chopping up the fruit for his quite-involved bowl of muesli, he inevitably says, “Oh my god, it’s late. I’ve got to get going,” and then proceeds to sit down at the counter to eat food next to the kids. We all talk about our day ahead and the kids eat the chopped up bananas and apples out of his bowl and they perform this little dance wherein he tells them to eat their own breakfast and then shares with them one more bite. So, despite not making any effort at all, we still all have time together in the morning.
And at night, he’s home between 5-5:30 almost everyday. Anyone who knew us in Cambridge would know that this would’ve been unheard of. More common was Sean coming home while the kids were in the bath, or with 10 minutes to go before lights out, or calling to say goodnight to the kids because he wasn’t going to make it. The only time Sean was around at 5pm on a weekday was if he’d slept from 12-5 that afternoon in preparation for his weekly nightshift on the labor floor. Then, their time together that day would be the 30 minutes between when he woke up and when he’d need to be out the door.
These Gizzy hours are so vastly different, and better, it’s hard to imagine giving them up. Just one example: we eat dinner as a family EVERY NIGHT. And Sean doesn’t just show up with the dinner already on the table. (I’m not that good of a housewife.) He helps prepare the meal or play with the kids while I finish up dinner. His presence is immensely precious to us and I realize how lucky we are. Sean’s old schedule is nothing shocking to a lot of families all over the world. There was nothing special about the loss we all felt at his absence. This is the norm the industrialized-world over, where commuting time is long, where workers are expected to give more and more of their life to their employer, where both parents work to afford the ever-increasing cost of living. Sadly, it took moving across the planet to a place that’s pretty remote and therefore the pace of life is more relaxed, in order to slow down our days, to protect our time together as a family. Before we know it, our kids aren’t going to want to have anything to do with us. Their friends will be what matters to them. But until this happens, for this fleeting moment in the life of our family, while we are their favorite people in the world, I am so grateful for this gift: we got our dad back.
Secondly, the work-life balance applies to the kids, too. Thora’s school hours are 8:50-2:50. She’s well-rested everyday and not over-tired after school, something that despite my love for her former school program, I can’t say was true for her days in Cambridge. But most notably, there’s time to have a play with friends AND time to get school work and reading done, as well as the multiple extra-curricular activities. In fact, I have a hard time not over-booking her, not because I think we Need To Do Things Everyday, but rather I love that we can expose her to lots of different areas of interest and exercise (tae kwon do, swimming, horseback riding, and seasonal sports, like netball in the winter and surf lifesaving in the summer). And there are music and art and drama options available too, which I think are next on our list. We just have to carve out the time! My kids are relaxed and fulfilled, learning in playful, active settings. (Auric and a handful of his willing fellow pre-school students “went on a jog” with one of the teachers both Monday and Tuesday of this week. I love that!)
Sean is more relaxed as well, since he has more time with each patient over the course of a shorter work day. Back in Cambridge, he would regularly complain about the inevitable over-booking that would happen to him, and to all the doctors there, just one symptom of an over-burdened, and some might say broken, healthcare system in a large city. He would have 15-minute appointments with his patients, which is just absurd. In addition to that being simply not enough time, there are follow-up notes to be written on every patient, and as the day’s schedule grew crowded, rushed, and then inevitably fell behind, those notes would get pushed to the end of the day. And he would come home grumpy at 7:30.
Not only does Sean have more time with patients, a product of working in a small regional hospital like Gisborne Hospital is that Sean is the specialist. He sees a great variety of issues throughout his day and gets to work with those patients all the way to the completion of care. In his former professional life, he had to see case after case funneled off to the Maternal and Fetal Medicine specialist, or the Gynecology Oncologist specialist and he found himself relegated to the same procedures day in and day out. Now, his days have more variety, and are therefore more challenging and ultimately more satisfying. He doesn’t come home grumpy.
I’ve yet to carve out my professional niche here. Do I want to go into winemaking? Do I want to work for a farm? Do I want to re-position myself to start a career in environmentally sustainable living? Regardless, the appreciation for working parents here seems to be noticeably greater. If and when I re-enter the work force, I think it’s not overly optimistic to think that I could find a position that allows me to remain a full presence in my kids’ life.
While we’ve been the lucky participants in 2013’s Endless Summer, and The Easiest Winter EVER (for a non-tropical location), I like to think that we’re not merely blinded by new and pleasant circumstances. Obviously, New Zealand is not without its problems, and Gisborne is no exception. There is poverty here. Gambling, alcoholism, and domestic violence are major social concerns. And there are obvious hurdles to living in Gisborne, the isolation being the major one. Unless you can jump on the sale prices early (and even if you do, can you avoid getting the flu four months later with 48 hours before your trip? Can you tell I’m writing from experience here?), it’s expensive (like $2000 expensive) to fly a family of 4 from Gizzy to Auckland or Wellington, a distance that you can drive in around 7-8 hours. But this isolation is part of what has allowed Gizzy to retain it’s relaxed pace of life. Not all of New Zealand is a happy-go-lucky and chill paradise. People work long hours in Auckland and Wellington and elsewhere too, I imagine. People pay Boston and New York City prices to live in trendy neighborhoods in Auckland and Wellington, and perhaps some of the other picturesque and vibrant hubs of culture throughout the country. Sean just recently spent a day in Hamilton, working with a couple of doctors at the Waikato Hospital who regularly log 70 hour work weeks. But somehow, Gisborne is preserving this precarious work-life balance. And we are the very grateful beneficiaries.
I don’t know if Gizzy will remain the answer to our family’s needs ten years from now, even five years from now. But for the moment and the foreseeable future, it seems to be the answer to the question we’re asking ourselves, which is, how can we make the most of these early years of our family? It’s painful to acknowledge, frustrating, that the answer doesn’t seem to lie closer to home. Is it crazy to come so far for this balance? Will our loved ones still love us even though we’ve left them to find it? Is this balance reason enough to have left? Fellow ex-pats, how do these questions get answered? After countless hours of exploring our situation, it comes down to closing my eyes, clasping my hands beneath my chin, and pleading with an unhearing, uncaring destiny: “Please let this be the right thing. Please let them understand.”