The movers came today. Again.
Looking on the bright side, we still haven’t unpacked all our boxes from our move last October, which means fewer boxes to worry about. Of course, if we went without the contents of these boxes for the last eight months, there’s a good chance we don’t really need them. My inner minimalist wants to just get rid of all this stuff we’ve been lugging around, and yet my inner sentimentalist, so conscious of living an ocean away from my birth country, wants to hold on to it all.
So we have a large heap of boxes. I’ve been advised that if I can’t remember what’s in them, I should just give them away, unopened. I’m tempted, but I peeked in the first box anyway: My deceased mother-in-law’s hand-embroidered linens which we do, in fact, use (when they’re in sight). Enough of that idea.
Instead, I sat down on my staircase and contemplated how I got here, so far from home, in the middle of yet another move. That’s right — I fell in love. And I am still very much in love. But marrying and having a family with someone from another country is much more complex than I ever imagined. I failed to really grasp one the most obvious facts inherent in this kind of relationship: Marrying someone from another country means that one of us will always be living in a “foreign” country. At 26, that idea sounded more fun than anything else, but now, a little farther down the road, with kids and aging parents, things are a little more complicated.
We all have our alternate lives, our roads not taken. What if I had married my college boyfriend and stayed in Nebraska? What if I had followed my dreams and pursued a career as a rock star/actor/professional wrestler instead of wasting the last few years as a campground manager/corporate middle manager/7-11 cashier?
But as a bi-cultural family, our particular road not taken still exists — in fact, we can visit it: what if we lived (in our case) back in the US? And unlike the college boyfriend, our alternate life is still waiting for us, even calling us: “Try it, just for a little while. Your life might be better here.”
After our unexpected move last fall, my husband and I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating our future. The new rental we found would hold us over for a while, but it was time to make The Decision: Do we buy a house in Sweden and plant ourselves here for the foreseeable future? Do we move back to the US and do the same? Or was there some sort of middle road that didn’t require independent wealth and wouldn’t traumatize our kids forever?
We made the chart, with pro-Stockholm on one side and pro-San Francisco on the other. We put down everything we could think of: schools, walkability, diversity, acceptance of difference, friendships, future work possibilities, relationships with relatives, climate and many other factors, large and small. But when we finally finished the list, there was no clear winner. If anything, the chart showed that, after experiencing both countries, our decision had become more complicated. We now knew we could be happy in both places for very different reasons.
When we moved here over three years ago, I assumed that the answer to the puzzle of our family’s future would become clear to us. The chart would show us an obvious answer. All lingering what ifs would be resolved. We would then make The Decision and then live happily ever after. Of course, real life doesn’t work this way. Even after we had come to an answer, new information kept cropping up, clouding our resolve.
We finally came to our own Existential conclusion, though admittedly a little more mundane than Sartre’s version: In the end, whether we choose San Francisco or Stockholm matters less than the fact that we’re (finally) making The Decision.
So we just did it. We made a choice. We are saying goodbye to our alternate life forever.
But that’s not the hardest part. Most painful is the knowledge that, in choosing San Francisco, we will cut ourselves off from the close and deeply rewarding relationships we have formed here. I will always feel the ache of missing my Stockholm friends in the same way I still feel the absence of the people I left behind in San Francisco, New York and Michigan so long ago.
This was all part of the package when my husband and I got married; it’s a piece of every bi-cultural family we know. At a cocktail party we attended a few weeks ago, every couple there had their own version of this same story. And even the “lifers”, as one woman called herself, still felt the pull of their family and friends in their country of birth long after The Decision.
The pulls of both countries will always be there. It’s time for our family to make peace with this knowledge, put one foot in front of the other and take the next step forward.
Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American expat writer, translator, and editor who is now saying goodbye to Stockholm after three years. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here