Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Divorce Insurance*

When I was young, my father traveled frequently for work. When I was very young, he prided himself on never spending the night away from home—but that rings hollow to a child whose father arrives home after she’s in bed and leaves before she wakes up more often than not. When I was a little older, his trips became international instead of regional, so not staying overnight wasn’t an option. For a while, he would be gone for one week out of every month. During another while, he only traveled every other month, but he was gone for two weeks at a time. Either way, it boiled down to him being gone 25% of the time.

My father’s travel was not extreme in the grand scheme of things; after all, military families endure much longer separations, and several professions require more frequent travel. But I still didn’t like it.

I remembered that dislike when Jeff and I were considering marriage. At that time, Jeff was traveling a lot, sometimes for months at a time. That didn’t matter for our dating relationship; we were long distance anyway, so his travel meant only that we’d talk every few days rather than every day and with a worse connection. But I wanted to marry him, and eventually have children with him … and then his travel would become a very big deal.

Even then, I knew that the time for me to decide whether I wanted a life with Jeff, with all the positives and all the negatives, was before the marriage—even then, I believed in covenant marriage, with divorce a possibility only in the case of adultery. If I married Jeff assuming that he would stop traveling so much after we had children, and then he chose to continue the travel, I would be stuck. There would be nothing I could do about it. In my worldview, when a woman marries, she hands virtually all the power over to her husband. Overall, I had no doubts that I was willing to give Jeff complete authority over me. But the possibility of having children and raising them without the daily presence of their father … that was a scary thought. So I talked to him about it.

I don’t recall all the details of the conversations that Jeff and I had about his travel, though there were several. I do recall that Jeff was very clear on two points: (1) “Once I have a wife to come home to, I want to come home to her,” and (2) it was impossible to eliminate travel completely and still continue on a career path that would allow him to meet his goals. Eventually Jeff decided to leave his current position—a difficult decision for him, because he truly enjoyed his job—and move to a position that involved less travel and also better positioned him to take advantage of any future opportunity to make the jump to the State Department. I appreciated his sacrifice and the importance he placed on my needs and desires. He embraced the move partially for my sake and partially because it was a good career move for him, albeit one that he’d have been happy to delay for a few more years.

For the first four years of our marriage, there was very little travel. I think he went away for a week or two maybe once a year. We both were happy with the situation—we were together almost all the time, and on those few occasions when he had to travel, I viewed it as a cloud with a silver lining: I didn’t want to be apart from him, but at least I could spend a whole weekend day watching the long version of the BBC’s production of Pride and Prejudice.

Then Alexa was born. We had accepted that there would be a period of time (it turned out to be two months) in which Alexa and I had to stay in the States on our own while Jeff had to return to Egypt. That just goes with the territory when a child is born into a diplomatic family. Still, it was hard, despite all the help that I received from my mom and the rest of my extended family. It may have been during that time apart that I first uttered the phrase “I was not made to be a single mother.”

I would have opportunity to say it again many more times.

First there was the evacuation that resulted from the Egyptian Revolution, when Alexa and I unexpectedly spent another three months living in my mom’s house while Jeff was in Egypt. Once our family was reunited after that, life was chaotic for a while, but at least we were together. I was grateful all over again for the wonderful husband and father that Jeff is.

Not too long after we arrived in Cambodia, Jeff told me that there may be a need for some travel during the coming year. Jeff’s office here isn’t large, but it’s well staffed, and it can afford to loan people to less fully staffed offices in other embassies. A call for volunteers had gone out, and it would be a good career move to volunteer. He would be gone for a month in spring 2012. I wasn’t thrilled, but I knew that Jeff was right—this trip would benefit our family in the long run, even though it wouldn’t be fun for any of us in the here and now. Jeff didn’t need my agreement, but he does consider my opinion, and I reluctantly voiced my approval. Twice more this year, Jeff and I agreed that he needed to travel. The last two times were for training, the first for three weeks, the second for four.

Each of this year’s trips has gotten harder. During the evacuation last year, it was hard on Alexa, but that was due to the stress I was unable to keep to myself, rather than from her own understanding of being apart from Daddy. This year, she’s old enough to know that Daddy is gone. The first trip, this spring, was ok. She didn’t much mind that he was gone, and she didn’t much care that he’d come back. The second trip, early this fall, was harder. She displayed some sadness and asked for him a few times. When Jeff returned, Alexa was thrilled. When he left again just a couple of weeks later, she was heartbroken. When he returned, she was over the moon with joy.

Alexa’s reactions verified that my instincts were right all those years ago when I decided that my children deserve a father who is present. This year, I saw the sadness with which Alexa told me that her father was “at work” in some faraway city. I saw the hopefulness that turned to sorrow when she thought her Daddy had returned in time to participate in her bedtime routine, only to be told that he hadn’t. I saw her choose to skip her favorite part of the bedtime routine because Mama just doesn’t do it quite like Daddy. I saw the joy with which Alexa greeted her father’s return—and I heard the fearful cry of “No Daddy go work!” when she didn’t understand that “work” today is at the embassy, not in some distant city. I see, since his return, Alexa’s insistence on Daddy being the one to read her a story every night, to help her dance in order to make her body tired enough for sleep, to play with her and draw with her and watch “Uh Oh Curious George” with her. I see the appreciation that Alexa has for her father, for his presence, and for his attention. I’ve seen the negative effects that come with his absence, and I see the positive effects that come with his presence.

Jeff was the one who first called his trips “divorce insurance,”* based on my repeated declarations that I was not designed to be a single mother. And he's right, though not because of my comfort level with single motherhood. Even if I were to decide tomorrow that I'd be a great single mother (I wouldn't), even if I were to decide that I don’t care that God hates divorce (I do), even if I were to decide that Jeff isn’t the one for me after all (he is), even if I were to decide that I’m not happy and never will be so long as I’m married to Jeff (I am, and I will continue to be), one fact, overwhelmingly demonstrated this year, would trump everything else: My daughter needs her father.

Hopefully next year will provide fewer opportunities to prove it.

*I know, “divorce insurance” isn’t really the best phrase—insurance is something that helps you pick up the pieces after something bad happens, and I’m talking about preventing the something bad from happening at all. Still, I couldn’t come up with a better phrase. If you can, tell me in the comments. And Jeff wants me to point out that every time we use the phrase, we always add the disclaimer "not that we need it."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Our Lives in Ornaments: 2012 Edition

Long-time readers of this blog will know that when Jeff and I married in 2006, we began participating in an annual tradition begun by the family of my mother-in-law’s husband when his children were young: the annual Ornie Competition. I first mentioned it on this blog back in 2008, the year I started the blog. That year, I showed pictures of all the ornaments that were entered into the competition and even had an online poll about who should have been the winner—Jeff won the online version of the competition, and I won the family one. In 2009, I only shared my own ornament, which represented a special moment at an orphanage where I volunteered. For some reason, I did not post about the competition at all in 2010. In 2011, I described Jeff’s, Alexa’s, and my ornaments, but not the others.

This year was a big one for the competition—my mother-in-law and her husband visited her “bonus” (i.e., step) daughter and son-in-law for Thanksgiving, and the scheduling worked out so that we Skyped with them for the competition during an open house in which around 30 guests were present. We had a total of 14 ornaments entered into the competition—I couldn’t describe them all if I wanted to now, just a few short hours after the competition’s end. My favorites were ours of course (which I’ll describe below); the picture of the new grandson’s first smile, directed at the happy grandfather;  and the winning ornament, presented by the new mother, who tearfully described her empty heart as she searched for her son (he’s adopted) and the joy and love that filled her heart when she first touched his hand and realized he was hers—her ornament was a clear heart, previously empty, now containing her son’s newborn hospital bracelet.

But enough about other people’s ornaments. Let’s talk about ours.

Jeff's 2012 ornament

 Jeff’s ornament this year was purchased very early on, in March. His favorite college basketball team, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, won the NCAA Championship. Before the night was out, he was online, ordering commemorative cups and his ornament. As he explained today, however, the ornament represents more than a single team’s victory. It represents the slower pace of life that we’ve enjoyed this year in Cambodia and the time that we’ve had to relax and engage in hobbies after the craziness that was last year.

Alexa's 2012 ornament
Alexa’s ornament, in my less than humble opinion, is perfect for her this year. She loves it so much that she's already broken it by trying to play with it, as you can see in the picture. (Don't worry, though; a replacement--with which she will not be allowed to play--is on the way.) 

So why is this ornament so perfect for her? Here’s my Facebook status from 3 March 2012: “Alexa watched her first episode of Curious George today. She danced to the intro music; laughed, pointed, and exclaimed 'Uh-oh!' at all of his mishaps with wind, papers, and kites; and then, at the end, looked at me hopefully, pointed at the TV, and said ‘More uh-oh?’ I think she liked it.” Ever since then, she’s been obsessed with Curious George, or Uh-Oh, as she calls him. Her plush Curious George doll gets carried around the house constantly.  She has two anthologies of Curious George books, and the 15 stories contained in them are the ones she wants me to read over and over. One of her favorites is “Curious George Flies a Kite,” which opens with George playing with a ball—and Alexa loves to throw and chase balls, too. This 2011 Hallmark ornament perfectly captures all three of Alexa’s major loves: Curious George, books, and balls. What could be more fitting?

Deborah's 2012 ornament
Finally, my ornament represents Cambodia and the adjustment process that has resulted in me feeling at home here. I was warned before I came here to expect bugs and ants. I do not believe that I was told about geckos—little (usually) lizards that eat bugs and that therefore like to live in areas where there are lots of bugs. Geckos were around in Egypt, but honestly, I don’t recall seeing them. Here, however, I saw them a lot, especially at first. Once Jeff explained that geckos eat bugs, I intellectually was okay with them being in my house. Emotionally, however, I still shuddered at the thought of them, much less the sight. But I adjusted. Now the sight of a gecko prompts no shuddering at all, merely a warning: “Just stay high enough that the cats can’t get you; I don’t want to clean up cat vomit later!” Geckos are just a part of life now, although they come into our house a little less than you’d expect. They’ve become almost a symbol of Cambodia for me. We even decided to put geckos on the wall of our playroom as a whimsical salute to the little creatures that eat the bugs. 

Those are the ornaments that best represent our lives this year, be it specific events or overarching themes. What about you? If you were participating in this competition, what would your ornament be, or what event or theme would it represent? Please, share in the comments!

Geckos in the playroom
A real gecko, in the living room

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Change in Plans

Several months ago, Jeff and I were notified of a pretty significant change in our plans. The day we received the news, I wrote a blog post entitled “You Never Know,” but Jeff asked me not to publish it until some details were finalized. Finally, I am able to publish that post, more or less as I wrote it back in July. At the bottom will be an update of what’s happened since then.

26 July 2012

If there’s one thing that I learned during my time in Egypt, it’s that you never know what will happen. The last thing we expected to live through in Egypt was a revolution. We repeatedly emphasized to worried friends and family that yes, Egypt is in the Middle East, but it isn’t the stereotypical Middle East—Egypt was stable, there was little threat of anything major happening during our time there. The one thing that could cause problems would be Mubarak’s death, as there was no clear successor, but that was unlikely. A popular revolt? Never. Mubarak was too strong. Then things changed overnight.

I am not a fan of change. I like stability. Even when things do change, I like a plan, preferably a well-thought-out plan that slowly unfolds over a period of many months. And I do not like it when plans change. My plans tend to be elaborate constructions, full of caveats and contingencies, so even if situations change, the plan doesn’t change: we simply move from version A to version B—no fuss, no bother, simply following an if-then line of preparation.

That sounds completely backwards, doesn’t it? After all, I’m a global nomad, moving every two or three years to places that are as different as possible from everything I’ve ever known. The key part of my preferred lifestyle is change. But the changes are anticipated well in advance, and I plan for them, and my plan unfolds gradually over a period of many months—truth be told, in both of my two international moves so far, I knew over a year in advance not only that I was going, but when I was going.

Not so this time.

Jeff got word today: Things have changed for us, dramatically enough to require a change in plans—a real change in plans, not simply a move to Contingency Plan B. I have no plan and have to develop one now—in fact, I’m developing one as I type. No, we didn’t “lose” Kosovo. We’re still going. We’re just going much earlier than anticipated. Almost a year earlier.

Based on our arrival date here, we should be in Cambodia until October 2013. When we found out a few months ago that our next post would be Kosovo, indications were that we’d be asked to leave Cambodia maybe a month early. Ok, no problem. Since then, there have been vague rumblings that maybe, just maybe, we’d be asked to report to Kosovo even earlier than that—no time frames given, just a feeling in the air. Nothing concrete enough to allow for even loose contingency planning.

But today, the word came down: Jeff is needed in Kosovo more than he is needed here.  We’re not being asked to leave immediately. No dates are set in stone, but preliminary indications are that instead of going home at Christmas on R&R, we’ll go home at Christmas on home leave, reporting to Kosovo early next year. Six or seven months from now. Our departure date from Cambodia has zoomed forward, from over a year away to a mere five months.

I know, I feel like a whiner for lamenting this news. I mean, really—I can plan a move in five months, right? We can organize and purge our possessions, arrange for cat transport, plan our home leave, plan a hopefully-it-can-still-happen visit from friends, and make our three remaining planned purchases. We can do that in five months. But that part, although it will be stressful, is not the problem. I was planning to do most of that in an only slightly longer period of time next year anyway.

The problem is what I won’t be doing during that time instead. The rest of this year was supposed to be my “enjoy Cambodia” time. I’ve made it through a rough adjustment, and I was anticipating a stressful “pre-leaving” period, but the rest of this year was supposed to be my “just enjoy being here” time. That’s the part of the tour that makes the difficult adjustments worthwhile. That’s when I have a comfortable routine, friends, and the mental energy to enjoy those crazy “Only in Cambodia” moments. It’s what I’m working toward when I struggle to adjust to a new home, a new culture, and a new language, and it’s what I mourn when I prepare to say good-bye.

I’ve had just a few months of feeling settled here. Just a few months of feeling comfortable with the shopping, with having a housekeeper around all day, with the easy rapport between my daughter and our tuk tuk driver. I’ve started some friendships that have the potential to develop into solid, lifelong relationships. We just found our church less than a month ago! And suddenly, it’s about to be gone. I have to figure out a plan for systematically dismantling my life here while I’m just starting to enjoy it.

That’s just the selfish stuff.

How am I going to explain to our housekeeper that the family that had planned to employ her for another 15 months has to cut that time by two-thirds? That her livelihood will be gone again, and her without a husband to support her or her son? Especially since we’ll be leaving at a really slow time, when there aren’t a lot of new expat families moving in. How will she deal with that again, after her last family had to leave a year early for medical reasons? Of course we’ll give her some severance pay to soften the blow, but there’s no mistaking it: it will be a serious blow.

I’ve been in a funk all day, ever since I heard the news. Jeff called to tell me right before I left for a monthly social gathering of embassy spouses. He asked me not to publicize this information until all the negotiations were complete, so I’ve gone through my day smiling when people are watching and letting it fade when they aren’t, pretending to be chipper while seeing everything around me through eyes that suddenly are aware of a rapidly approaching loss.

I will get better. I don’t like change, especially relatively short-notice change, but I can and do adapt. I’ve already ordered a guide book for Kosovo, and soon I’ll do another search for blogs written by expats in Kosovo. I’ll come up with a plan for sorting through our belongings in a methodical, efficient way. And I’ll be more purposeful in making sure I see and do all I want to see and do here, in Phnom Penh; I’ll just have to accept that we won’t be doing much travel in the rest of Cambodia.

But before I can get on with adapting to and dealing with the reality of our current situation, I just need a day or two to mourn what we won’t have: several months of simply living in Cambodia. After that, I’ll adapt, I’ll plan, I’ll enjoy what I can of the time we have left here … I’ll start doing that in a day or two.

Fast forward to the present:

During negotiations between our current management chain and our future management chain, the decision was made to let us stay here until April. We are returning to the States in December for R&R, and that time has been extended by a week to allow for some processing in Washington, DC, related to our move to Kosovo. We were granted permission to delay our home leave until next summer, so we will be flying from Cambodia directly to Kosovo in April, without the traditional time in the U. S. in between. These accommodations have made our financial planning much easier, as we have more time to save for the various expenses associated with the move and then, later, with home leave.

God intervened to take care of the terrible situation in which we expected to leave our housekeeper: Just a day or two after I found out about the move, she approached me and asked if I would be willing to help her find additional work on the weekends. I agreed—thankful that if I was successful, she would have part time income even after we left—and put an ad in the embassy newsletter. The miraculous thing was that it turned out that there was a glut of new embassy arrivals and a shortage of experienced, English-speaking housekeepers. We were able to obtain weekend work for Neth with a family who committed almost immediately to hiring her full time after we left, even when they believed that the wait would be over a year! When the family discovered that we would be leaving early, their determination to hire her full time only increased.

Finally, I adapted to the idea of leaving early just like I anticipated that I would. I was upset for a few days, and then I set about preparing myself to leave. At first, because we thought we were leaving in December, the emotional divorce from Cambodia happened quickly. Then there were snags in the management negotiations, and it became possible that we wouldn’t be leaving early after all. By that point, I was mentally gone from Cambodia and excited about Kosovo, so this news threw me into another tailspin. However, I re-adjusted over the two or three weeks of uncertainty, and by the time we got the official April word, I was in the place where I am now: I appreciate every day I have left in Cambodia, but I am looking forward to Kosovo.  This is a healthy place for me, emotionally—my short-term status here makes it easier to shrug off annoyances and difficulties, while also helping me to appreciate the beautiful things about life here.

Plans change. You never know in advance what life will bring. All you can do is adapt, keep going, and appreciate the journey. Apparently that’s one lesson that this global nomad has to relearn every once in a while.