When you Step Away From a Life You Had Planned
There is a path that you are supposed to follow. For a well-led life. A path that takes you from the boisterous enthusiasm of your sometimes pimply-faced youth through high school and on. To the expectation and rah-rah of those determined and dedicated university years. A path that is supposed to launch you into the world, on newly emergent adult-type wings still wet and unfurling, fluttering, and trying to fly. On your own.
The path may take you through first jobs – possibly slinging pizzas or bussing tables. You’ll find first apartments and first loves and then second loves or third dates and likely devastating breakups, but then when the time is right, the path might propose marriage. And maybe next, a first home. A small painted brick saltbox in Cincinnati, Ohio. You didn’t know when you started on this path where the house might be, but you knew you would likely be in a house. Then potentially another. In another space. With another move. Packing up and moving a life from each place to each place. But it’s still part of the plan.
This same path potentially brings a dog. Then a family. The 2.5 kids. The path is supposed to be stable and for the most part, secure. If you walk it. If you want it. If you ascribe to the unspoken rules. Follow the path. Work hard, raise your kids, buy a house, save for retirement, send them to college, and launch them on their own paths. Work some more. Retire. Happy. Fulfilled. Knowing you followed the path. It is what you were supposed to do. It’s what you are supposed to do.
Aren’t you? As a white middle-class American, it’s the standard path package on offer. Didn’t you get the brochure? Don’t worry, there is room for upgrading or places to cut costs. Opt for the cat instead of the dog. Move into a ranch in coastal California. Buy a brick brownstone in back bay Boston. Or pick from a plethora of value-priced McMansions in suburban Plano, Texas. The where truly less important than the ticking of boxes on the plan. House. Check. Dog. Check. Kids. Check. The basic path options on the plan pretty similar. But follow the path. This is what you are sold. And this is what you chose.
So what happens when you walk off the path? Don’t follow the rules. Don’t like the fine print. Of what that path requires. So you change the course. For a minute – all hell might feel like it has literally broken loose. Your choices are questioned. The gaslighting might begin. You’re doing what? And when? And why? For how long? Suddenly, the proverbial path gets erased. Evaporates. Dissipates. Or perhaps, for a while, you can just put it on pause. Moving your family around the world is a little bit like this. What the heck happened to my path? You look for it. Scramble for it even. Clamber for it.
Or you don’t. You might veer off with all intentions of returning to that proscribed path just to experience this pause in a new place. This choice for a life lived abroad becomes a parenthesis in your path. You justify it. Point out the pros. Take advantage of the time. Post photos from all the opportunities to travel. Start a travel blog. All the while, still trying to make the path accommodate this exception. This life abroad blip.
So, you set limits for the pause. We’ll get back to that path in 1, 2, 3… x # of years. Then we will return to the regularly scheduled programming. Yes. That’s all it is. A slight curve in the path. No big deal. The same path to be followed. Soon. Secure. That’s what we are sold.
But what happens when you extend your self-imposed time limit, push out the parenthesis, and watch the veer widen on your personal path. That blip starts to bulge. Then it might burst. And this becomes some new and unknown path. The old one too narrow or too difficult to recover and reconnect. The zipper has broken. The teeth no longer fit. The chasm too wide. You can’t get back on that path. It was a limited time offer. For only some people. I’m sorry. Your coupon has expired.
What now? This. Now. Is where the terror can set in. The self-doubt. This new path too vague. Too many unfamiliar options. Too many questions with no answers. Did we make the right choice? Did we stay too long? Have we impacted our children? These are the constant questions you ask. That keep you awake at night. Is this new path – the “right” path.
At first, this path is covered with vines – not yet built and feels more than bumpy. Careful where you walk. It’s difficult to see to the end. What’s even at the end? Where is the end? I still don’t know right now. But, I can tell you that we have chosen to stay. In our life in Denmark. For now. Like that saltbox in Cincinnati, I couldn’t have told you that our eldest would complete high school in Copenhagen. And soon our second son. All four years.
And we all know there are things that we’ve missed. As well as missed out on. From our lives in the States. A giant jar of Skippy super chunk peanut butter for one. My husband might add a west-coast IPA. I’m craving fresh Dungeness crab plucked straight from the sea served at an extended family dinner followed by bubbling and warm Oregon berry pie on a summer night at the coast. But really, we’ve missed out on the regular family celebrations and gatherings of close friends. The barbecues and birthdays and all the school dances. Thanksgiving with days off and all of the fixings.
Here, my Danish high school sons don’t drive. Convenient on the one hand, since we don’t have a car. But, we catch the photos of friends’ kids flashing their fresh brand new licenses. See them sitting behind the wheel of the family vehicle. And we wonder about choices. We watch the same friends lauded on the field after Friday night’s lights. Picturing ourselves in those shoes. We witness families gathering in great numbers to greet and snap and clap on their sons and daughters before heading off to homecoming or to prom and wish we were there too. It’s impossible not to.
Community and camaraderie become a little more complicated when your comrades come from around the world. And live spread out all over this capital city. For perspective, my son travels 40 minutes door to door each day to school. Which is cool, but different. And while his world widens, it is considerably smaller at the same time. A concentrated community of internationals and aliens living abroad. A potentially transitory tribe of friends that ebb and flow. Moving in. And away. These are the plusses and minuses of putting your peeps in international school programs.
So why do you stay? I can hear you say. For us? The pros still outweigh the cons. We’ve made the list. Many times. And I’ll never stop feeling so very far, far away. Something our European friends here try to empathize with, but really don’t understand. Nine time zones is far away. And tickets to visit expensive and tedious. This is the biggest con. But it is balanced by the myriad pros of this place.
Living in Copenhagen is pretty darn positive for the most part and lends us the ability for a life well lived. Here, our children are afforded an independence unavailable in America. Here, it is ok to let them maneuver life without fear. I don’t worry about how they will handle armed shooter scenarios when they head off to school. Here, they can ride public transportation safely on their own. Here, they can meet a friend across town. By themselves.
In general, our choices as parents aren’t judged. Less – “you let your child do what?” And more – an assumption that you will raise your kids to do the right thing in your way. If and when they ever might fall, you as their parents are the ones who will help them adjust. We accommodate Danish cultural norms and expectations but are grateful for the privacy to handle them in our own home.
There is a freedom in this. For our family. I know that the safe haven of this house, this oft-messy, a bit disorganized, but full of love home is the place where they can share their mistakes. Every time I send them off somewhere where kids will be kids, I encourage them to have fun and to make good choices. And while I’m aware how mom-speak this may be, I am comforted that my Danish friends have a similar saying, “Ha’ det sjovt, men tænk dig om.” Have fun, but think about it.
Children here, especially teens, are afforded freedom with responsibility. “Frihed under ansvar.” You are free to make your own choices, but you are still responsible to your family. For us, this means our kids are responsible to let us know where they are going to be. That we are aware of the plans. And if those change, we will be notified. Being open and honest goes both ways.
And this may not be so distinct from parenting in the States. But the difference here is tolerance. Kids are not condemned for stepping a bit out of line or making bad choices. And consequences for actions (that aren’t illegal or immoral) are commissioned between you and your child, not the community.
Here the pressure to succeed is second to a commitment to that community. Joining in, being part of society, contributing to the whole – these are prioritized over personal achievement. Call it Jante Law. That oft-referred-to Scandinavian ethic that can be seen by outsiders as forced egalitarianism. You shall not think you are better than anyone else. And while chopping down the tall poppies, so to speak, does happen in Denmark; the flip side of the coin is that there are equal opportunities for all. Who contribute. To Denmark. Attending universities available to everyone who is accepted. Not just those whose parents make enough money. And available to us. You heard me. My children can attend university for free in Denmark. This is big. For us.
And how you contribute does not have to follow one path. Quite the contrary, I have never lived somewhere where allowances for private ideation are so evolved. You want to try what? Sure. Go ahead. It doesn’t work? No worries. We’re there for you. Social support systems for education and employment allow for that freedom. Want to spend a year of school exploring music or theater or athletics or film? Feel free. To see what it is as an individual you want to be. To figure out how you can contribute. This affords a creative and collaborative and communal society that can produce darn pretty and tasty and innovative things. I appreciate this.
But before you think that I can’t see the thorns for the smell of the roses – this place is nowhere near perfect. And we, as “hidden immigrants” – who look like the locals – are afforded a somewhat easier time living here in Denmark. Given wider berth when we butcher the language; our personal choices less challenged when it comes to religion and clothing. Living in an “ex-pat bubble” in the suburbs more acceptable than clustering in comfortable cultural enclaves in the city. I do take this into consideration when appreciating our life lived abroad.
And while I sometimes pine for parts of that former perceived path, I have accommodated the potential of building this new one. Be it here. Or somewhere else. What once seemed like something unrecoverable and split, I now see as branches. Of possibility. Like a world, wide open. As my son ponders his options after his Danish graduation, the path doesn’t feel as narrow anymore. Not something to be recovered. There is no one right way to go. We hope the branch he grows will always have roots in our home. But know that his path is his own. And we are excited to watch it grow.
Is it the right path? I don’t know. It remains to be seen. But what I do know is that there is worth and value and love on this path. And it is mine. Ours. Theirs. I will leave you with the words of Oregon poet and pacifist, William Edgar Stafford, who I often turn to when I need to understand the way it is.
“The Way It Is”
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford
Still holding on to my thread. Cheers from Denmark. For now. – Erin