A Third-Culture Parent Grows Up

A Third-Culture Parent Grows UpOne of the advantages of growing up between worlds as a third-culture, modern-day nomad is that you can manipulate your emotional growth according to your needs and desires.

Let me explain. As a girl, I always felt that moving away from one best friend to finding a new friend in the new country we were moving to meant that I had to put the past on hold. It wasn’t deleted, just on hold. Somewhere out there to be continued at some time in the future – a past meets future of sorts. I always imagined it to be something like time-travelling. This meant that I could move back into the past whenever I met any childhood friends again later on. Of course we would resort to behavioural patterns of the past, as that was what we knew and had in common. The only time the present broke off with the past was when the friend I was meeting as an adult ignored those rules and actually stayed in the present, thus breaking any time bridges we might have had or developed. We therefore had nothing in common anymore, and I would never see her again.

In this kind of setting it is hard to grow in an adult sort of way. That is if, as in my case, you move every few years: it amounts to a lot of past and future criss-crossing. You spend ever so much time catching up with the past, and growing up becomes difficult.

It’s like when you’ve grown up and left the house to study and live on your own, but when you come back everyone falls back into their old roles: I’m the bossy big sister, my younger sister is the little darling and my middle sister brings up issues about how she always felt like the “sandwich kid.” With past best friends the intervals recur repeatedly over the years, whenever you see them, and this allows you to hold onto these easier and more familiar of your character traits as that is how you have defined yourself within the relationships up to that point.

This is where having kids comes in handy: it’s OK and even fun to express this childishness. However, you can only spend so much time being a kid with your own kids, really. Of course it’s lovely when they’re little. But it’s when they become teenagers that they demand that you snap out of it.

The other day my older daughter responded to one of my feeling-sorry-for-myself-because-I’m-the-general-household-slave outbursts snippily:

“Ach, Mummy we all know you’re such en Armi, (a poor thing), and we feel really sorry for you.”

It was at that point that I knew I had to buck up and grow out of it – the sarcasm bounced back at me and jostled me awake. It was then that I realised I was doomed if I didn’t change. It was now time to grow up or die, so to speak. Rumpelstiltskin needed to leave – those temper attacks now no longer had any effect. The kids weren’t taking me seriously – and rightly so.

It’s the sassy “gotcha” grin that put me in my place. It was at this point I knew I had to do something: to grow as a person, as a parent as an example.

I decided to let go of my time-travelling self. There are not many friends left from the past anyhow. My old self is still there somewhere in the photos and the memories, and she comes out at times. Like when planning a class reunion. It’s 30 years since my graduation and the first reunion I have agreed to go to. And I’ve really enjoyed exchanging preliminary emails and am looking forward – though with some apprehension – to putting present-day faces to names from the past.

But I’ve noticed the greatest change through my children. They’ve made me grow up so that they can be teens. They’ve helped me realise that kids are not tiny versions of adults at all. It’s my responsibility to teach them how to organise their daily orderliness – getting homework done, making personal hygiene a habit, and tidying up one’s own living space.

So now we’re growing together, hand in hand. I’m saying a nostalgic goodbye to my own familiar teenage years (merely a blink away in my mind), and maybe the fact that my teen years were so turbulent will help me guide my kids on their way as they grow into theirs.

At the same time, I can always sneak off for a weekend with old friends, where I can slip back into the familiar old time-travelling part of me that the kids don’t need to and certainly don’t want to see!

By Karin Mohler

Karin has lived in between cultures for her entire life and has come to the conclusion that this will always be a big part of her. Having no roots doesn’t bind her anywhere in particular, but she is careful not to impose that sense upon her children, who have been born and bred in Switzerland. She has taken a lot of inspiration for understanding her “in-betweenness” from the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by D. C. Pollock and R. v. Reken (2009).

Illustration by Susana Gutierrez

Susana is the mother of two little girls and a freelance illustrator. She can be reached at s.escapa@gmail.com

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