Parenting Overseas (for two weeks)

My youngest daughter and my grandparents

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, At times I’ve felt a bit ambivalent at times about the whole concept of parenting. Sure there are good moments, but those tend to be quickly forgotten when the hassles and stresses of parenting come roaring back. I’ve felt somewhat redundant as a parent at home, perhaps this leads to my ambivalence? In my more gloomy moments I feel my sole contribution is bringing home money(grant is running out, so for how much longer?). The kids go to their mom by default since she does such a good job with them, and I often feel useless and ignored. However, for two weeks this past December, I had the amazing opportunity of being the sole parent to my kids while on vacation in Chile. That experience changed my idea of my abilities and enjoyment of being (at least under ideal conditions) a parent.

The reasons I went without my wife are several and complicated, but a major factor was the desire to be the sole parent to my kids. I thought it would be an opportunity for me to bond with them. My family (mom, dad and sister) were coming along, so I felt that this was the rare chance to not only give the kids the chance to learn more about their family origins, but to do so with support. I had considered doing a trip just with my wife and kids, but I felt a bit nervous about getting around Chile on our own. Despite the fact that my parents are separating and knowing that other than Christmas and our last weekend my parents were not with us at the same time on this trip, the thought of having at least one of my parents and my sister around was reassuring; I could focus strictly on the parenting and not on the “survival” aspect of the trip. Not that Chile is hard to get around, in fact it’s quite the opposite, but it made me feel more comfortable.

The trip itself was wonderful. We arrived in Santiago and stayed at my aunt’s for two nights. We saw some of my dad’s cousins and his sole remaining aunt. Then with my dad, aunt and sister we drove south to the Lakes Region in the south of Chile and stayed at amazingly kid friendly accomodations in Lican Ray. The kids got to see a volcano up close, go swimming, and of course play at the playground(they LOVED that playground). From there we drove back up north to meet my mom and spent Christmas with my grandparents (my mom’s parents). From there we drove to the beach town Algarrobo, home of the largest pool in the world (although we didn’t get to see it because it’s a private resort) and stayed at my mom’s cousin’s beach condo for about 4 nights before coming home.

For me there were several aspects of the trip that made it truly wonderful. First was seeing how resilient and adaptable the kids were. Before going on this trip, the idea of longish car rides with the kids had been pretty scary. We’ve done long trips a couple of times, but tend to avoid them. Here, at home, my oldest daughter is prone to start whining and complaining after 15 minutes in the car. My wife actually thought I was being irresponsible for planning the trip with long car rides. During the trip to the south, we were driving about 4 hours each day. There was some whining, but I found that it wasn’t too hard to distract the girls by playing a game or putting on a movie on the portable DVD player. They even were fine when our rental car broke down on the side of the road and we spent several hours waiting for a tow truck and cab. We ended up turning it into an adventure, playing near the railroad tracks, watching movies. Even trying to squat while peeing was an adventure for them! Importantly, throughout the trip they were fine. They weren’t traumatized by the time in the car and once we reached our destinations were full of energy and ready to go.

Interestingly, spending all that time with the kids made me appreciate them more. Before this trip, the thought of spending 24 hours a day for 2 weeks straight with the girls would have probably been overwhelming. However, I found I really enjoyed it. Granted, we were on vacation and we avoided any major illnesses, but I still had to manage minor flare-ups and and bouts of tiredness. I found that I really enjoyed being able to soothe them, and being the person they went to when they needed something. I also feel that I gained a better sense of their individual personalities. My younger daughter was so outgoing and chatty and friendly to everyone she met. My older daughter’s resilience surprised me as did her sharing and observational skills. I also loved how good they were to each other, taking turns, sharing toys and objects, playing together; it was just a joy to watch. They also have such a great sense of humor. My dad is still in awe of how well the girls did on the trip.

I also got to be the person standing up for the kids. There weren’t that many chances that I felt I had to step in and make changes to plans because of the kids, but on the few minor occasions that It was required I was able to, and I felt fine doing it. I also think I was able to accurately judge how much the kids could handle (the car break down being a case in point). I’ll even go as far as to say that I think I did a really good job as a parent (I almost never say I’m good at anything). It was empowering to feel good at something for once, and to get such positive feedback from the other adults around me.

I’ve also gained much more appreciation towards my family, which makes my parents’ separation harder. Everyone was present and helpful, but my dad and sister really did an amazing job. My dad was fantastic at getting us around and making the necessary arrangements, and was also available to help with the kids. My mom was creative in finding ways to entertain the kids, especially over Christmas at my grandparents house. My sister was the best aunt a kid could ever hope for and the best sister I could ever wish for. She was such a huge help with the kids. She was always there for me, and could take care of one of the girls if I had to attend to the other one. She helped me entertain them during the car trips, and was just a soothing presence all around.

Spending time with my grandparents was also very special. My grandmother has been in love with my girls since they were born. She got to see them nearly four years ago, but my youngest was only a few months old at the time. On this trip, we were at the house for almost 3 days and they are old enough to interact with her. The kids spent a lot of time running around the house exploring the rooms, but they also spent a lot of time with hanging out with grandparents (my youngest particularly). My grandmother got to practice her English with them, watch TV, just spend time together. My mom later told me that my grandmother was ecstatic after their stay and even weeks later can’t stop talking about them or showing pictures to her friends.

For me spending time with my grandparents feels like coming full circle in some way. They have lived in the same house my entire life and it has always been kind of a base of sorts during my trips to Chile, the sole exception being our trip right after the 2010 earthquake because it was being repaired. My grandparents are both in their nineties and are beginning to show their age, as is the house. During my last trip, I was convinced that I would not get to see them again. The chance to share my grandparents and the house itself with my kids was important. It was a joining of two very important parts of my life, my kids and the family in Chile. I don’t know if I’ll get to see them or the house again, but I take comfort in knowing that I got to spend one last Christmas with them and the kids and that my grandmother got to enjoy her great-grandchildren.

Coming back has been a bit harder. Almost immediately the girls have gone straight back to wanting “mommy” for everything, even to the point of telling me to go away since they don’t want me. I don’t take it personally, but it’s still hard at times. They’ve also reverted back to the usual whining. My wife and I had some issues to sort through, I think stemming back to me asking to take the kids without her. I’ve also noticed that my patience and engagement is not what it was on vacation. Obviously it’s more stressful at home with school and cold season, but beyond that there is something different. Thinking about it some more, I wonder if the reason I enjoyed “parenting” so much was that it was my sole focus during the trip. At home there are usually a million competing things I want to do or feel I have to take care of and I’m often tired and feeling rundown. It’s harder to be patient or fully pay attention if I feel something pulling me away. During this trip, other than having arranged the main destinations I didn’t have an agenda. I brought along my wetsuit in case I got to so surfing, but I didn’t make it a priority and was not upset that I didn’t get to use it. At least for those two weeks, focusing on the kids, and mostly putting my wants aside was somewhat liberating. Being so attentive to them I guess I couldn’t help but get to know them better and gain a better understanding of who they are.

In the end, I hope the girls look back on this trip fondly and that they learned a bit more about the Chilean part of their heritage. Now that I’ve had the practice, I’d be happy to do it with my girls and my wife. They asked several times during the trip if we could come back with mommy so I know the enjoyed it at least. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been back, but I hope the memories and the discoveries about myself and my girls will stay with me for a lifetime. At least for now, even though I get stressed out a lot at home, I don’t feel so ambivalent about being a dad anymore.