As an immigrant parent, I am also something of an alchemist. I have transmuted two of the most simultaneously difficult and wonderful things I've ever done – parenting and living abroad – into one big, simultaneously difficult and wonderful thing. In the great alchemic tradition, my discovery is remarkable, but not entirely what I expected. Sometimes it seems like it might be pure gold. Other times, it is as unpredictable as primitive gunpowder.
Then I hear my children speaking three languages. When I realize how living in different countries has transformed and refined my thoughts and perspectives. When I think of all that I have seen and experienced and all the opportunities to come. When I recognize that I am living in one of the most progressive countries in the world, especially where family life, women and children are concerned. These are the good times.
Then there are the times when I sit at my desk, alone at home while my husband is at work and the children are in preschool, and cry at how hard it is to get settled in a new country, learn the language, deal with the bureaucracy, restart my career, and be the best mother and wife I can be, all without the safe and familiar proverbial “village”. This is when all I want is a hug from my mother, a long talk and good cry over a glass of wine with my best friend, and someone I know well enough to leave my children with for an evening so my husband and I can be alone together for once.
I truly dislike the social media-perpetuated image of living abroad as a picture-perfect adventure or extended vacation. No matter how beautiful the pictures may be, the reality of day-to-day life in another country is not for the faint of heart. It was hard when I was in my 20s and left my corporate career and personal bubble to travel and live solo in Europe. It was hard when my now-husband and I teamed up and lived in various places around the world. Of course, it was also wonderful and exciting and everything else it looks like in the pictures. But it was everyday life with all the problems and challenges that go along with it.
Families battling the Swedish weather. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT
The same is true of parenting. Before I became a parent, I didn't realize just how indescribably challenging it is to raise children. I thought I did, but I quickly realized how much my idealized perception of parenting had made me underestimate the job. Not surprisingly, now that I am a parent, I have come to dislike the idealized portrayal of parenting as much as I dislike that portrayal of living abroad. Combining these two things is nothing short of a firework show that is so simultaneously brilliant and frightening that it shouldn't be obscured by an artificial image of perfection.
In our quest to carve out the life that is best for us and our family, my husband and I have put thousands of miles between us and the people we love and trust the most. We have isolated ourselves from all that is familiar and comfortable. This was the choice we made, and for all the challenges it presents, we don't regret it. I find that I rarely regret deciding to take the more challenging path. At the same time, I choose to recognize, not obscure, my journey of dealing with and overcoming those challenges with as much humor and humility as I can muster.
Not once in its millennia-long history has alchemy ever created gold or the philosopher's stone. What it has created, usually unintentionally and sometimes from unexpected sources, is a collection of some of mankind’s most significant, strange, and even ridiculously-useless discoveries. Alchemy created phosphorous from urine. The science of toxicology originated with alchemy. An alchemist mixing sulfur and saltpeter created the basis of gunpowder. Hiding any of those discoveries because they weren’t gold would have been to deprive the world of something more valuable.
Whether the result is good, bad, or indifferent, without exploration, nothing would be created or discovered. By staying safely inside our literal or figurative comfort zone, we miss out on opportunities to grow and develop. And when we fail to share our frustrations and disappointments alongside our successes, we deprive the world of a greater “village” that can provide comfort, support and inspiration.
In sharing my journey as it really is rather than as a beautiful picture meant for admiring eyes, I am creating a village that incorporates people I know and love in far-away places, people I am just getting to know here in Sweden, and even people I don’t know who are also immigrants, parents, or a combination of both. Ultimately, this is the spirit which has led me to where I am today and which keeps me going when I wonder if I maybe I should have just stayed close to home.
Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.
Read more from her family column on The Local here.