I was visiting my daughter at college this past weekend. On the last day, as we were having breakfast on the campus of the University of Hawaii, it struck me how different life is now compared to when I first moved to the US some 20 years ago. Back then I was a new mom in a foreign country, with no family network or friends close by. I had a husband who worked long hours and traveled a lot. No wonder I felt lonely and isolated. There is a monotony to life when you are home with young children; sleeping and feeding schedules seem to trump everything else, and your own needs are overlooked at best and forgotten at worst. This is as it should be of course, but going through this period of life in a foreign culture without support can be especially difficult.
I feel fortunate that I have been able to stay home with my kids. However, sometimes I wonder: if extended maternity leave in the US had been a real option for me, and the cost and quality of childcare had been more attractive, then would I have stayed home as long as I did? I did work for a couple of years between my first and second child, but when number two came along it no longer made sense for me to continue – the cost of childcare was about as much as I brought home every month. That fact along with knowing that I would only be able to stay home for three months made the decision to quit work an easy one. I couldn’t imagine leaving my 3-month old at some anonymous daycare center.
Adjusting to staying home was hard. It wasn’t simply the isolation and the feeling of being overwhelmed by taking care of two young children, but I also felt a crisis of identity. All of a sudden I was a mom but had little else to put forward as “this is me”. I think I felt this way partly because I didn’t have a real tie yet to the community at large. I didn’t feel at home in the culture and the lack of support intensified those feelings. I wasn’t always sure of what to make of the very structured way children were supposed to play or how much parents hovered to make sure their kids didn’t “behave badly” while playing with others at the park. As the kids got older, I wondered about the intricate nature of playdates and what was expected. For example, was I supposed to stay for the entire playdate or go home and then come back? When I went home to visit, my parents thought I was way too structured and that I didn’t give my kids enough room to just play and be kids, to make their own mistakes and discoveries. My friends wondered about my need to keep them close and why I didn’t let them roam and explore. It seemed I was a foreigner wherever I went.
Back to that recent morning on campus with my now college-aged daughter, where we were enjoying fresh squeezed orange juice and açai bowls (very popular in Hawaii, by the way) and good conversation. She was telling me the meaning of some Hawaiian words and how she is looking forward to hiking a new trail when she has some time off of school. I was thinking that she is adjusting well; she is learning and exploring and finding her own way in this culture that is similar to home but definitely not the same. After breakfast, she took me to the airport, navigating Honolulu traffic like an expert. Later at the gate, I looked at all the families pre-boarding the plane with their young children, wrestling with strollers and diaper bags, toys and pacifiers falling to the ground. A short wave of nostalgia was quickly replaced by the anticipation of having several undisturbed hours of reading and watching movies. It was a good flight home.