From the time I was a child in France, I knew I wanted to travel and live in another country. However, the reality of it didn’t hit until I stood in the boarding line ready to cross the Atlantic, alone with my 1.5-month-old daughter.
She was tiny and fragile. I was a terrified first-time mom, but my sister was getting married. Missing out was simply not an option. My dad and my sisters had not met my precious little bundle of joy yet, and I could barely contain my excitement at the idea of showing her off. For the first time since I’d left my parents’ home over a decade before, I wanted to be among my own and to return home.
It’s easy to forget the nitty-gritty of living abroad once the appeal of the unknown dies out. It can be heartbreaking at times, but it’s also the most enriching experience you can have.
How It All Began
I met my now-husband while studying abroad in Budapest. He is American. I am French. Having gone to college with hordes of polyglot drifters and third-culture kids who moved across continents as quickly as others move across a town, the idea of an international romance wasn’t too far out there.
Everything changed once my daughter was born. All of a sudden, I desperately wanted her to become half-French. It was a struggle that raged inside of me and sometimes kept me awake at night.
Getting Lost in the Mix
Strangely enough, as time progressed I realized I didn’t really know how to be French myself anymore. It had been about six years by the time I had my daughter, yet I wasn’t American by a long shot. My native tongue began feeling foreign.
I didn’t know how to go about transmitting what it meant to be French to my daughter. In an ideal world, I would have shared national French celebrations with her, but I didn’t have the enthusiasm I thought I’d have when I was the only one in my community celebrating.
Most expat communities grow in big cities. Nationalities stick together thanks to a network of international schools, cultural centers, and local eateries. But we lived in small-town New England, and I hadn’t found a large French contingent. Instead, my community included a mix of nationalities and circumstances.
Although my friends offered great moral support in times of need, they were little help when it came to convincing my high-spirited toddler to answer in French (which she definitely understood) rather than in English. Or to celebrate the French part of her being.
Children want to fit in even more than adults do. I really couldn’t blame her for resisting something that seemed very abstract, at best.
It took me seven years to realize I needed to hunt for some French expats for support and connection — those who could help my daughter realize that, no, mommy isn’t the only one who speaks weird.
Juggling Between Two Cultures
As I dove into searching for French connections, I found that Boston and its French cultural center, French high school, and a good half dozen bilingual kindergartens were an hour away.
This was too far (and not in the budget) for school, but close enough to make the trek on Saturday mornings to attend French classes for bilingual children at the French cultural center. Close enough to borrow books from the French library. Close enough to make friends who, like my daughter, juggled between two cultures on a daily basis. In that, we’ve been extremely lucky.
Relaxing Into It All
I now have two children, and over time I’ve come to accept that they won’t grow up as I did. How could they? Going to see their grandparents requires two plane rides and a fair amount of jet lag. Celebrating the holidays gets adventurous and inventive.
I never thought I’d be serving the combination of tamales and crepes for Candlemas as we celebrate with our Mexican friends, but my life has expanded in ways that I never expected.
I’ve made the decision to make celebrations intentional, not something we take part in just because everybody else does. Rather than sulk over the idea that I’m not connecting enough with my French heritage, I research the “how” and the “why” of the traditions I used to take for granted and bring it all together.
Looking Forward to the Future
Since the day I stood in the line at the airport with my daughter four years ago, I’ve boarded many planes with my children.
Traveling across the massive ocean isn’t always fun (red-eye flights with toddlers in tow rarely are), but I have gained a new appreciation for those hours of in-between, as we transit from one country to the next.
As we jet toward France, I use the time to speak more French so that we can all be prepared to ease into life when we land. We talk about the people we will be seeing, the places we will visit, and the food we will eat.
Sitting for hours with two wiggly kids on a plane can be uncomfortable and tiring at times, but just like the discomfort of overthinking everything I want to transmit to my children, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have faith that in due time, my children will embrace both cultures and make their way in the world as global citizens.