As I celebrated my 30 something birthday this week, one thing became abundantly clear. Ok two things were abundantly clear, one I am now officially in the realms of late thirties ( how the bloody hell did that happen?!) and two (once I got over point one) was that I had not celebrated a birthday at home, with family and friends, since my 30th. I used to be one of these people that would obsessively insist that I had to have my birthday at home in Jersey, even when I was a student in London I went back every year. So now here I am 3,000 miles from home and celebrating my 4th in Kuwait and 7th abroad (ah shit, the cats out the bag on my age now!). This got me thinking about as an expat, how do I cope with missing and hitting milestones without my loved ones?
Each year when my birthday comes around, I go into my cupboard and dig out the handful of cards and gifts that come back with me in my suitcase. Since moving to the desert, the lack of a reliable working postal system, makes my summer trip back to Jersey the only viable opportunity for my family to give me a part of them to take home. This can be months ahead of my birthday and always seems a bit strange observing them, as they frantically try to get things last minute, working within the realms of what can be sequeezed into a luggage restriction and watching mum scribble a card over the breakfast table the day I leave. It sort of takes the magic out of it (I know I’m still one of these people that loves birthdays) but I know they just want to be part of my day regardless of where I am.
It’s a weird time for me, I wake up and it becomes very apparent that distance does put you out of mind. Although I get a call from my mum as soon as she wakes up, she even sings down the phone for that extra special birthday moment, there are many that simply forget and that can cut deep. Out of sight out of mind. Hubby always makes the day as special as he can, as he is aware that he is married to an neurotic, sentimental woman, who regresses to a 5 year old who wants to be spoilt and fussed over.
As a kid, having a birthday at the end of August, usually around the bank holiday weekend, meant my princess parties lacked an ensemble. Everyone took family holidays , then it was booze fuelled city breaks as we hit late teens and then family holidays occur again, this time with their own kids. This makes my birthday a deserted one, fast forward to 2014 and the summer expat exodus is yet another reason that I normally spend this day alone. So it becomes even harder being away from family, as they are usually the only ones around to rally around and celebrate. This year was different. Firstly it fell on a weekend so hubby wasn’t working and had planned a wonderful weekend, of mainly eating! Some friends were back and fussed over me, like the big kid I am, making me feel like I wasn’t alone and I may not be with my family in Jersey but I had a desert family right here.
I know a lot of my expat friends feel the same away, especially when that first milestone comes along into life abroad. There is an element of wanting to celebrate, but wanting to wallow in the emotional side of missing loved ones, and then embracing the situation and realising that there are people around you that care and who are there in that moment and hankering after what used to be, isn’t helping anyone. Of course there is a flip side to all of this, where we are the ones that miss out, where distance compounds itself, when Facebook fills with photos of weddings, engagements, births, big birthdays which you simply can’t be there for.
For instance I know I won’t be there for my niece’s 1st birthday. There is nothing I can do about that, it’s too close to Christmas for an additional cost of a flight back and to be honest she won’t have a clue whether I’m there or not! But it’s hard for me, I know it’s impractical, I know there are more important times ahead, but I hate having to say no, even when I know it’s the right decision.
I just wonder what the other side of my expat journey think? Yes I made the decision to be an expat to be in this random corner of the world, but my family didn’t. Do they get as torn as I do, knowing I won’t be around for their landmark occasions? I guess there is never going to be a solution.
With distance, comes great responsibility
(little geek quote there). You have to be aware that emotions will creep up on you, but you have to be responsible to own them and not allow them to take you over. There will be days that you will miss out on or days that you miss your family being part of, that’s always going to happen. That bit of water and land creates a physical distance between you but it doesn’t have to create an emotional one.
So, each year, I will continue to dig those cards out of the cupboard and know that they are so much more that bits of paper, but messages of love that came across the seas, being there when people can’t.