The Art of Starting Over – Lena and Brian

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!

From Heartbreak to Blessing – Lena

One month ago, I was packing winter parkas and snow boots in anticipation of our move to northern Europe. The following week, I read the devastating email first, and Brian ran to my shouts of “No!” The children peered from behind him, frightened to see me crying on my knees. My gentle husband crouched down to hold me and tenderly lifted me up. Together we carried our toddlers to the couch and nestled them into our laps to explain that we would not be moving to Russia. We shared openly about our sadness and welcomed their litany of questions. They wanted to know if they could still build snowmen, when they would see their toys again, and why Bug couldn’t go to his new school. It was heartbreaking. The next few days went in slow motion as we held ourselves together for the boys, scrambled for jobs we didn’t want, and figured out the logistics of canceled contracts. Two weeks ago, we decided to halt the search and repack for Mexico. And last week, we stumbled into our new lives. 

Where we landed in Sayulita. A lovely little apartment aptly called the “Heart House.”

Through this whirlwind of deep emotions and drastic changes, I am beginning to embrace the blessings of this unplanned detour. Although quite nervous about how the year will unfold, I actual feel content most of the time. In a very short time of winging it in Sayulita, I can feel that Mexico is shifting something within me. Ironically, prior to accepting teaching contracts in China, I had actually tried to take time off from work, but we had been unable to negotiate a contract for Brian and three dependents. Two years later when we accepted our jobs in Russia, I wasn’t even considering not working. Now, as the last hints of baby-ness linger on my children’s cherub faces, my lost wish has been granted.

I love teaching. As most working mothers do, I often struggle with balance and guilt. However, I believe in the long run that it is important for my sons to see me as a multifaceted woman with gifts that include and extend beyond motherhood. Nonetheless, each time I went back to work at 3 or 4 months postpartum, a deep angst rested in my soul about being separated from my babies too soon. And I know it’s cliche, but I was beyond exhausted. The quiet joy that new moms feel during late night feedings and early morning wake-ups became shrouded in anxiety about how few hours of sleep I got and how early the kids needed to be up for school. Those middle of the night moments comforting my babies are once again making my heart full. I can just hold them, caress them, smell them. There is no underlying dread. It’s simply an intimate moment to treasure. And at their ages, I know full well that these moments are fleeting.

Now I am excited to just be a parent at school. Not a teacher-parent. I can actually spend time engaging in my own children’s classrooms, connecting with their teachers, and getting to know classmates’ parents. I can pick them up from school on time. Take them to the park. Or meet up with new friends for a playdate. I don’t have afterschool meetings and unfinished work looming over me. Of course, Brian and I will need to navigate some online work and the creation of this blog, but one of us can and will be there for our children. This is such an unexpected relief.

We have been truly grateful for the love and support of amazing in-home childcare that we’ve afforded up to this point. In Mozambique, our nanny and housekeeper, Sonia and Julieta, not only steadied me as a new mom but enveloped my babies in meticulous care and genuine love. In China, Aliu brought the boys to and from school, cooked nutritious meals, arranged playdates, and contributed significantly to their upbringing. Not to mention washing dishes, doing laundry and mopping floors. These women were the glue that have allowed Brian and I to commit to our professional growth and given us peace that our boys have had a village raising them. Despite my gratitude, there is often a twinge of sadness about the special moments shared between nanny and child that do not include me. Yet this is the guilt I swallow in an attempt to balance motherhood and with intellectual fulfillment. 

I’ve always been a writer. And a night owl. As a teenager, my poetry flowed as my family slept. As a university student, my thesis was born through late nights in the library stacks (which dates me!) and around-the-clock writing binges sustained by microwave popcorn and instant coffee. Once I got a “real” job and became a mom, I said farewell to that impulsivity and the creativity that came with it. I occasionally reminisced but cringed at the potential exhaustion. Interestingly, since arriving in Sayulita, my old rhythms are resurfacing. Blog posts are flowing into the wee hours (including this one), and consequently Brian feeds the boys breakfast and plays with them while I sleep in a bit. I’m not consumed with guilt that he’s doing more than me (because we I have often been overly sensitive about having equally demarcated parenting responsibilities). I’m content and well rested, which makes me a more engaged mom and partner overall. And if I need a bit more sleep, I just siesta with the kids in the afternoon. I could never nap with the kids in my past life or else the evening would have fallen to pieces and a late night would have destroyed the morning and so forth. Now it just is what it is. 

After sitting alone and writing, I have been laying awake next to my sleeping husband each night, his rhythmic breathing stirring meditations about the distance in our marriage. Fundamentally, we are solid. We are co-parents. We are passionate teachers. We are a travel team. But we are often disconnected. In part, this is because I have often felt emotionally drained and literally over-touched by my babies, who rightfully cling to me like little monkeys and constantly engage in curious chatter. (They really are that adorable.) Need I mention the energy and patience needed to teach elementary school? I am ashamed to admit that I have actually recoiled at my husband’s touch. In defense, I was at the point where my stolen moments of seclusion were on the toilet – and even those were often intruded upon by toddlers. I truly hope that our break from teaching and experience co-writing this blog will facilitate a deeper understanding of how Brian and I arrived at this point in our marriage and how we can move forward with more intentionality and tenderness.

What I have come to realize is that this year is a miraculous opportunity to be fully present with my children, my husband, and myself.

Parenting and partnerships are always full of joy, contradictions, truths and uncertainty. One’s sense of self can be lost in the (often unrecognized) work of connecting to and sustaining the people we love. When we finally create spaces for solitude, they can be emotionally laden, rushed and unfulfilling. How are you striving to find balance? What are some self-sustaining practices you have learned along the way? Please share!

Change Of Course – Lena and Brian

We have spent the last decade intentionally building our careers as international educators. Gaining experiences with various curriculum, developing departments and programs, and financing professional development opportunities. The goal has always been to land a stable position at an established school that shares our pedagogical beliefs. We would grow as professionals and our children would receive a fantastic education in a nurturing community. This past winter, we shelled out thousands of dollars to fly to London for a week and engage in the highly competitive meat market/job fair for international educators. The investment worked in our favor, as we walked away with our dream jobs. Champagne on the flight home. Months of excitement and preparing our kids for the upcoming transition. 

Ready for interviews. Would you hire us?

It would be an understatement to say that wrapping up the school year, packing up our lives, and managing all the paperwork of moving to a new country were stressful. Once we arrived “home” in the US, where we planned to visit family for the summer, we were finally able to relax. Although we had no news about our pending visas, we were not concerned. We’d heard stories about them being approved at the last minute. It had never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be hopping on a plane in a few short weeks to put down roots in our new country, settle into our new jobs, and enroll our children in their new school.

Until we got the email. Our visas were not going to be approved. Not just ours but the majority of the other new hires, as well. The school was releasing us from our contracts. We were in a state of shock. How could this be happening? What were we going to do now? Were there any jobs still available at the end of July? Or ones that were a good fit for us professionally, financially, and as a family? We had many deep discussions about our path forward. We had wanted to settle somewhere for the long term. Four moves in ten years had taken its toll, and we truly wanted the boys to have a community of relatively settled third culture kids. 

The idea of taking a year off had been circulating through our lives for quite some time. Several colleagues with families had recently begun or were planning to embark on carefully budgeted and well planned gap years. However, we had decided that this wasn’t right for us. Our life was already full of adventure and travel. Of course, life often gives you exactly what you have not asked for. The idea of moving to Mexico came up early in our decision-making, but was always the second option. We spent the week after losing our contracts scrambling to find last-minute jobs. 

Finally, a solid prospect came through. But we both had doubts. As the kids played happily with their grandparents, we stepped outside to clear our heads. We decided to walk through the city in silence. For two blocks, we convinced ourselves that we were accepting the job offer and allowed all the thoughts and feelings to bubble up. For the next two blocks we convinced ourselves that we were halting the job search and moving to Mexico. Finding ourselves at a bar, we ducked in to reflect over a pint or two. Still not talking, Lena wrote down her reflections on the exercise. Then Brian had his go. As we drained the second pint, we arrived at the realization that although we had chosen not to pursue a year off, it was actually the best option.

We left China with 13 suitcases and a shipment of 63 boxes. Then we walked in the door of Lena’s parents house to find a mountain of Amazon and Zappos orders – winter parkas and snow boots – that we had meticulously chosen for our new job in northern Europe. Once we decided to head to tropical Mexico with as little stuff as possible, the excess was shoved into suitcases that Lena’s family graciously agreed to store for us. Then we worked for days sorting, deciding and purging our China detritus and got down to 3 suitcases (and a couple small backpacks). With a limited budget, we bought our flights with airline miles that we had been saving for years and began our transition from a fancy life of excess to a much simpler life focusing on what truly matters – experiences and each other.