Monday, April 26, 2010

"My Pom-Poms are Tired"

Our good friend Dave lived in France after college as an au pair, mastering not only the French language, but also the technique for making a really killer tarte tatin. He was my classmate in college, and married Megan, one of Bill's classmates, an American who was brought up in Paris. So back when we were in the idle chatter phase of planning this trip, we did a lot of our musing in their direction. They had introduced us to a whole bunch of great French words, French foods, and French wines, and had generally made France seem awesome -- certainly more real, less pretentious, and more enticing than anyone else ever had.

Dave could also give us great advice about this trip because his brother, a world traveler like himself, had just finished his own family sabbatical. Like me, Dave's brother kept a blog about their adventures, in which he explained the joys and the reality of relocating one's children to a foreign country.

At the end of his time away, he said about his experiences overseas supporting and nurturing his children, "My pom-poms are tired." Dave, wise man that he is, passed this comment along to us -- in part because it was so funny, but also by way of a gentle, warm warning: it might not be so easy to uproot our kids and hope they would grow where they landed.

Dave is the best kind of person to provide advice. His brother had clearly lived through exactly what we were setting out to do. But, true to form, Bill and I didn't really listen to him. Or if we did, we didn't believe that we'd have the same problem, and so we failed to take some of the precautions we might otherwise have taken.

You know, like being a little more systematic about teaching our kids French, or finding them a decent bilingual school, or living somewhere that feels a little less rurally woebegone in the middle of winter. Or airlifts of bagels.

Bill's and my decisions are frequently driven by our theories about things, rather than by actual evidence or learning from the smart things that other people tell us. Which is why Dave's brother's strange condition -- Tired Pom-Poms, or TPP -- struck us only as strange at the time.

Or perhaps it struck us as something that a different sort of parent might say, as we simply couldn't imagine it could be all that tiring to take care of our own two kids. Back in Brooklyn, when we both worked full-time, we both got awfully tired. Bill sometimes got so tired, in fact, that he would spend an entire weekend lying on the sofa. But back then, we weren't exhausted from cheering on our children, but rather from the competing demands of our lives at work and at home.

How hard could it be to help our kids through a single year away? We set what we thought would be entirely reasonable goals. Each child would learn French. Their math skills wouldn't atrophy. They would each make a friend. When we put it that way, it seemed nearly impossible that we couldn't achieve what we set out to do.

So here we are, nearing the end. Neither one of us has a job. We have had acres of time to share with one another, punctuated by remarkable trips and really wonderful visits from our family and many of our closest friends. And what do we discover?

Our pom-poms are so tired that they feel like barbells.

Because of our initial lack of understanding of Dave's brother's malady, TPP, it took us an awfully long time to admit it. As stubborn as our children are, we are only moreso, and we had to come up with a whole bunch of ways to justify that the challenges we had set for our kids were not beyond them -- or beyond ourselves.

But very recently, our kids had been driving us nuts, in the way that only kids can – and that kids who have been trapped 24/7 with their parents for nine solid months really must. In the last week or so, we temporarily lost patience with them, and to some extent we had even lost sight of the reasons we are here.

We lost patience as a result of committing the unpardonable sin of letting ourselves get frustrated by who our children really are. Instead of seeing their qualities are positives, we were starting to see only the negatives. Rather than "persistent," Abigail was seeming "stubborn." Rather than "creative," Grace was seeming unfocused and impossible, unable to finish anything useful. And, as awful as this sounds, we were both angry at them -- so unfairly so -- for not having made close friends here in the village.

As the date of our departure approaches, we have to face a number of unpleasant minor realizations, including the fact that not everything we thought would happen really has. My French never got awfully fluid. The girls never really got comfortable enough to make strong friendships here in town. Bill had to recognize that several mountains in the Var will have to go unclimbed, and that he has not yet learned to play the bass guitar like John Entwhistle. At the start of things, a year feels like forever. Now our year is a memory and a month.

When I started this blog, back in a hotel room in Dublin on our way to France, I named the purpose of our adventure "taking a year away to get back home." I assumed that the year would be all about gathering ourselves together in the face of a foreign world, about pulling together in the face of challenges. About becoming a stronger family.

And then Bill and I discovered, we like it here. We really really like it here. Bill may not be able to play the bass line to "My Generation," but he has joined a band, fallen in love with the landscape, and become a full-fledged expert in Cote de Varois wines. I've learned to cook, learned to love homeschool, and become utterly comfortable here (except for that whole portail thing, and all those frowny faces.) We miss Brooklyn like crazy, but we've made some lovely friends, and feel we've only started to explore everything we could learn here.

We've found a home here, in ways we never expected. But the whole truth is that the girls really haven't. Grace is happy enough here, despite missing her friends something fierce. But for Abigail at least, this isn't home, and will never be.

From her perspective, we took away her home, her friends, her language and her dog. She even was strangely attached to our jobs, seeing them as status and stability. While this year she has learned, and grown, and experienced remarkable things, she has stubbornly clung to a spar called "America."

"It's hard to be in another culture where nobody cares about you," she told me today, during the usual Monday morning school-induced misery. "I won't live anywhere but America for the rest of my life."

Thus our pom-poms are tired from cheering the girls through all this solitude, all the challenges that we set before them. As much as we have loved watching the girls grow and change from little into big, from monolingual to bilingual, at times it has all seemed just too hard. Mostly for them, but more recently, even we cheerleaders are a little bedraggled.

Don't cry for us, Argentina; this really isn't such a huge change. We had hoped to get in one more adventure before we left, and went so far as to make a reservation for an apartment in Paris for the start of June. (Anybody want to take our place? We've already put in the deposit.) But the more we thought about it, the more clear it became that "family" means "we do things together." "Home" has to be where we all can thrive, where we all can find a place.

So we've made the call. It's time to go home. Tickets changed, airplane booked. One French month to go.


  1. Such wisdom here, and generosity.
    Your girls are so very, very lucky.

  2. I agree with Lindsey. Your children have wise and caring, loving and honest parents. Not many would do what you have this year, and even fewer would be so open about their imperfections. Thank you for sharing all these stories and confessions and experiences with us.

    May this last month be merry and bright.