Biting off more than I can chew

I am careful.  I always “look before I leap.”  In fact, I look, double check, assess and then maybe, just maybe, I will leap.  (Okay, okay, hop)  I can still clearly recall my complete mortification when my younger brother bounded off the end of the diving board at the local pool into my dad’s arms.  Not two minutes before I had been on the same board.  To me, it seemed like my father was treading water about ten stories below me.  I wrapped my arms around my shivering ribs muttering, “No, no, no, no” as I skittered back the length of the board and down the ladder.  How could my baby brother do it so easily?  I was the older sister after all!  I started to cry.  My dad said it was okay and that I would do it when I was ready.  He was right.  Eventually, I did do it, but it was mostly because I didn’t want to be outdone by my little brother!  (Did I mention that I am ridiculously competitive?)

Since then, not much has changed.  I still am a very cautious person.  That is why some days I still marvel at the extreme change that I made in my life.  This time I jumped off the high diving board and Dad wasn’t there to catch me.  Nobody was.  This time, I had to get myself out of the pool.  I was so bored and stressed that I didn’t really think about all the consequences of my decision and that is perhaps a good thing.

Had I truly known how challenging it would be creating a new life for me and my family in a new country, I probably wouldn’t have done it.  The culture shock, temporary single parenthood, and new job combined to create what I lovingly call “the perfect storm”.  In the end we all survived and everything fell into place, but what a ride!

Without getting into the boring details, my husband and I decided to “divide and conquer”.  My son and I moved to Mexico alone to start our new life, while my husband remained in Canada to sell our home of seventeen years.  Looking back, I think I must have had my head up my butt, because I thought the move would be the least stressful on me.  My husband had to make all the decisions about our house and belongings.  As well, when he arrived in Mexico he would need to learn Spanish.  I on the other hand, already spoke the language and had gotten a job in my field.  Of course, I reasoned, it wouldn’t be easy, but I could handle it.  “BIG mistake.  Big.  Huge.” (If you don’t know the movie reference, I’ll tell you later.)

I had no idea how many aspects of my life that I simply took for granted.  The essential knowledge base that formed the foundation of my daily life was almost gone.  I was familiar with the sensation of being in a new city and not being certain of where the library is, or the nearest pharmacy, or where a particular road goes.  What I was not prepared for was feeling—stupid.  I felt like I knew nothing.  How did one find out the bus schedules and routes?  When did banks open?  What was a fair price for a cab ride?  Where and how did one get a cell phone?  (I lost mine in a cybercafé 3 weeks after arriving.)  Where and how did one pay the utility bills?  The list of things I did not know how to do seemed endless.  Luckily, I spoke Spanish, but there were days that I even felt unsure of my linguistic abilities.  When I went to buy my new cell phone I discovered that the vocabulary I cultivated for my degree in Hispanic literature did not exactly match what was needed to buy a phone.  The lovely woman serving me assured me that I was doing fine, but it was humbling.

In fact, the entire experience of moving to Mexico has been both humbling and enlightening.  I’ve actually learned a lot about my family giving me a renewed respect for some of the most important people in my life.  My paternal grandfather moved from England with his parents at the age of four and then homesteaded in Southwestern Alberta.  My maternal grandfather moved from the United States to Edmonton, Alberta with his brother and mother.  She drove them the entire way in a Ford motorcar back when cars were still called motorcars.  (Yeah I know, cool!)  And my father and mother-in-law, who were born in China, emigrated from Hong Kong along with their very young daughter, my husband’s older sister.  They did not even speak the language when they arrived.  I knew that they all had faced challenges, but I did not truly appreciate how hard it was until I lived it for a while.  Moreover, they all did it without Facebook, Skype, computers, and for some, without airplanes or telephones.  They were completely cut off from their families and everything familiar.  All of them pushed through and fashioned new lives for themselves in a new country.  I remember sitting in my little studio apartment marvelling at their resilience and tenacity.  I had no idea that this phase of my life would teach me so much about them.

Our family lived apart for about 2 months and I hope that I do not have to do it again.  Both my son and I missed my husband horribly.  Awful is a good word, but it doesn’t do justice to the feeling that I would get in my throat when I would have to say goodnight to my husband and click off my screen in Skype.  It always felt wrong to just push a button and have him disappear from me.  Some nights I would sign off of Skype and do my best to cry quietly so I wouldn’t wake our son who was sleeping in the loft.

During our separation I learned how much I relied upon the man who had been sleeping beside me nightly for over twenty years.  I don’t want to say that I took him for granted before the move, because I always appreciated him; but my understanding of how much I depended upon him became painfully clear when he wasn’t around.  Suddenly, I had to do everything.  I worked all day, maintained the household, paid the bills, and helped our son with his homework.  I know all the single parents reading this are saying, “Yeah, so what?  That’s my life everyday!”  Well, have you ever heard the expression that to truly know a man, you need to walk a mile in his moccasins?  Well, I walked about a quarter of a mile and that was enough for me!  I am completely awed by the sheer stamina that it takes to be a single parent.  I was mentally and physically exhausted all the time.  Overwhelmed is an understatement.

I was not the only one who was struggling.  I had taken my son away from his many friends and a school that he loved.  I then placed him in a bilingual Mexican school, making him the new kid.  Luckily, his Canadian school had been an accredited International Spanish Academy.  It gave him a good base and a familiarity with the language, but he still had to make a huge jump.  He was literally years behind his Mexican classmates.  Ethan had gotten “dropped into the deep end of the pool” as the saying goes, and I was the one who had done the dropping.  He was just as overwhelmed as I was in this new situation, but he had not chosen it and so, he rebelled.  Homework became a major sore spot.  Some days the battles were epic.  We used to live in an apartment above one of my coworkers who swears that she never heard anything, but I think that she was just being nice.  I am certain that people could hear us in Mazatlan!  I probably could have nipped some of the battles in the bud, but I was soft on my son.  I’ll give you all one guess why.  Yep.  I felt GUILTY.  I quickly learned, however, that my guilt wasn’t serving him or me.  Soon the strict homework rules that we had had in Canada reappeared in Mexico.  I was exhausted but I knew I had one sure fire bargaining tool—video games.  Mama could give ‘em or she could take ‘em away.  Nuff said.

Nowadays, I hardly help him at all with his homework.  We all hear about how fast young children assimilate a new language, but it is astonishing to actually witness it.  Although, his Spanish is not polished, he in effect became fluent in less than one year.  Soon, he will likely be correcting my Spanish and I was a Spanish teacher in Canada!

As I mentioned I am a teacher.  Ask the teachers you know and they will all tell you that changing subjects or grades means that a teacher’s workload will basically double for at least the first year in that new class.  The teacher is essentially learning the strengths and weaknesses of the texts and curriculum and, if needed, adapting them to be age and group appropriate for his/her students.  Although I had fourteen years of teaching experience, I somehow forgot this when I accepted my new job.  I not only changed age groups, but I also changed subjects.  Furthermore, I also was teaching in a new system with different expectations than I was accustomed to.  The upshot of this is that I was consistently working six days a week, (sometimes seven), and often until 11:00 or later at night.  Did I mention that I was tired and stressed out?

There were many days that I wondered to myself why I chose this.  How could I have been so bored and discontent with my life that I would inflict this level of stress on me and my family?  Although my husband didn’t talk about it much (I’m the chatty Cathy in our relationship), I knew that he was also feeling the stress of our separation.  He was alone and had an enormous amount of work closing up our Canadian affairs.  In November of last year I took our son to the hospital.  He had been running on wet cement, slipped, and fractured two bones in his left arm.  It was a very long exhausting day in emergency, but my day was nothing compared to what my husband went through.  I dreaded telling him.  He was stuck in Canada and had to hear the news via Skype.  He could only sit in our half packed up house and look at his son’s cast without being able to even give him a hug.

I know that there were many challenges going on in our lives, but part of me wishes that I had faced them with more of a steely gleam in my eye, you know, like John Wayne or Xena Warrior Princess.  Instead, I felt a lot like Fievel the mouse in the movie “An American Tail”, except that I didn’t burst into song to express my sadness and longing for my loved ones.  All kidding aside, I felt inadequate, like somehow I could have done it better.

I like to say that I am a recovering perfectionist, but apparently, I have not changed as much as I had believed.  I still clearly have not made peace with the way I managed one of the most stressful times of my life.  A few days ago my husband Clarence and I were watching Ethan happily frolicking at the beach.  Ever practical, my hubby told me, “Yes.  It was stressful, but we made it.  We are all alive.  Our son is healthy, happy, and can speak Spanish.  Look at him!  You are always too critical of yourself.  It’s done.”  He’s right.  Nuff said.

Here are some links to the pop culture references mentioned in the editorial.

“Big mistake.  Big.  Huge.” The quotation is from the movie “Pretty Woman”:


Just in case you feel like bursting into song, here is the link to “Some Where Out There” from the movie “An American Tail”:


Photo Copyright by Carl Carpenter – Creative Commons License

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