Most moms cry when their kid leaves home. When my younger brother left home, my mom looked like something had died. I understand that now. You give birth to children knowing they will grow up, become adults, have families of their own. You work hard and pray like mad that they will become self-sufficient, trustworthy, honorable people who have whatever it takes to live meaningful lives, to see their dreams fulfilled, to be happy. But if you're a parent and you haven't experienced it yet, don't let anyone kid you: when it’s time for them to leave home, there is grief. And there are additional layers of grief for ‘expat’ parents.
Many people who’ve raised their kids outside their own home country are taken by surprise when their children have difficulty adjusting 'back home’ or who choose not to go to college or live in their passport country. Understandably. It’s not ‘home’ to them. Those parents experience a grief of separation of identity. The parents are American or British, Indian or _______ (fill in the blank). But their children see themselves as something else.
Some parents fear for the well-being and the future of such children. Other parents feel rejected, distressed that they have somehow raised rebellious, ungrateful children. While I understand their worry, it seems to me that something my mom (my first cross-cultural coach) used to tell me, applies: "It's not bad. It's just different." These parents have successfully raised 'third culture kids' who may not tied to their parents’ place or identify deeply with their parents' people, but who are blessed with broader relationships, bigger perspective, and a greater capacity to experience life.
But my son can't wait to get back 'home'! I asked him one day, "Has living in Dubai been so terrible?" With a look that let me know I must be a crazy woman, he replied, "No, Mom. I'm going HOME!"
Did we do something wrong as parents? (Well, yes. But this is not the place to write about all of that!) But one thing we did well was to grow him up in a big world. Born into a cross-cultural home, to parents who were blessed with cross-cultural jobs, our son’s life has been filled with all kinds of people from all over the planet. He’s traveled internationally since he was a toddler. He’s eaten – and enjoyed - food from everywhere. He’s met – and loved – people from everywhere. So why is he so happy to ‘go home’ to the U.S.?
Did we wait too late to live overseas? Maybe. But couldn't be helped. Would he have been different if he'd have grown up in Madras instead of Madison? Surely. But what would not have been different, I see now, is that my son is tied to a place. He feels rooted to a particular country and culture. And that's not bad. It's just different. (Different from me anyway.)
It makes me realize again that this life we have chosen to live as foreigners in a country not our own is not for everyone. A lot of expats live overseas to pursue a dream or a lifestyle. Some have simply followed work. Or a spouse. But some of us are here because it’s who we are, what we're made for.
So there’s an added grief for me as my son leaves home to go home. I'm an expat at heart. He’s not. I feel as if I was born to live cross-culturally. He’s an all-American boy. Yes, I'm grieving for all the 'normal' reasons as my son leaves home. But there's another grief. As I accept that we’re made for different lives, perhaps destined to live on different continents, I’m grieving because I'm losing my son to my own country and culture.