Mum in Transition
Expats are used to coming and going, but what happens when your children move country and you stay behind? In the first in a series of new articles, Ata Bos writes candidly about her confrontation with an empty house after her sons leave Finland for a new life in Holland, her country of origin.
In 2009, ‘Thorben,’ the first of our three boys—moves to study computers in Emmen in northern Holland. I find the separation heartbreaking and conduct two-hour telephone conferences with my seventy year old parents, who help him settle in. In August, our remaining children leave: the eldest, Yorick, to study nursing in Groningen; the city we left nineteen years ago before uprooting to Heidelberg, Calgary, then Oulu; and the youngest, Laurits, to pursue basketball at a sports talent school.
When the boys leave, we ferry them and suitcases of cds, books, and Bermuda shorts to the airport. “Call us when something bothers you!” I exclaim, trying to appear brave. “Bye mum! Bye dad!” they reply and disappear through the security barrier. It’s like something from a TV drama. They wave repeatedly, one with a computer bag over a shoulder, another with gel in his hair. My husband and I look each other in the eye. I cry; my husband smiles. “We’ll have loads of time now,” he declares.
We drive home and survey the house. Yorick, in typical style, has left us a messy bedroom drowning in sweaters, exam papers, textbooks, dictionaries, mugs, plates, and walls covered in revision notes. Laurits, again in typical style, has left us a neatly organised closet full of trainers, basketballs, cds, and tennis rackets. The beds need cleaned, winter clothes need packaged and posted to Holland, schoolbooks need returning, and excess clothing needs packed and deposited with the Salvation Army store.
This teenage legacy seems formidable, but we deal with the mess quickly, and one of the bedrooms is soon empty. The other room houses Ines, our second exchanger, a student teacher from Bremen, Germany. In a few weeks, the only remaining traces of Yorick, Thorben, and Laurits are the bikes, the skis, a trampoline, and fifteen basketballs packed away in the garage.
At first their absence seems easy. “We’re coping well,” I say when friends ask, ‘How are you doing now that the house is empty?’ or ‘Are you starting a new life?’ “Our jobs, company, clubs, and hobbies keep us busy,” I answer. “We don’t need to drive to music lessons, sports clubs, doctors’ offices, and argue with teenagers any more,” I continue. I come home to an empty house and deposit myself on the sofa with coffee and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Three weeks later, at the end of the berry season, the redcurrants in our back yard are ready. I go out to pick them, and suddenly find myself confused. We usually pick thirty boxes of berries; the picking takes days and has been a family habit for the last ten years. I wonder who’s going to eat thirty boxes now. In the next few days, in a steadily increasing flow of indecision, I also wonder how much milk to buy for two, how often I should dust the bedrooms, and if I should cook the dinner now that it’s my husband and I. Ines—the exchange student—barely eats at home.
At first glance these problems seem innocent and trivial. Of course I should have anticipated the berry issue a year or two ago. How silly. But the fact remains that I didn’t anticipate it, and other unanticipated events begin to occur with an alarming frequency. The realisation that my habits and routines no longer work begins to hit me often, and always as a surprise—when standing over apples in the supermarket, when vacuum cleaning, or when washing clothes for two.
It dawns on me that in saying goodbye to my sons, I’d said goodbye to the self I knew. A sense of belonging, of connection that I had known for twenty years had more or less disappeared. The Ata Bos I knew was gone, and the new Ata, a foetal, fragile creature, was being thrown into a world seemingly familiar but full of sharp edges and confusing decisions. I can do it, I think. Two apples in a bag instead of five? I can cope with this. I’ll spend more time at work, I think. I’ll be safe there, engrossed in the new but manageable challenges of a new project plan.
Then, in October, a large part of the old Ata collapses at work, in the office that was going to be the scene of my easily manageable new life, and like a flimsy old barn, the habits and routines I had thought would protect me from change suddenly gives way.
An abrupt email from a colleague, demanding I send her an email address, is the first blow. I’m hurt by her tone, don’t know how to react. Another colleague brushes me off five minutes into a fifteen minute meeting. And on the same day, a third colleague turns her back on me in the middle of asking how I was. The structure begins to fall. I go back to the office and my heart beats like a drum. My face feels cold, like I’m becoming ill. I start crying and can’t stop for half an hour.
‘Give yourself time, and don’t take the rudeness personally’ says my husband over dinner. I don’t remember who made the food. We sit in the living room; I have tea and go to bed. In the middle of the night I wake up crying again. My husband wakes with me, asking what’s wrong and what’s going on. I can hear concern in his voice. We talk all night. “You’re on the verge of a breakdown,” he says. “Stay at home,” he orders.
I text my boss in the morning to say I’m on sick leave. “OK,” he replies; the brevity is enough to make me cry again. Two days later, I go back to the office to prepare slides for a presentation, which I’m soon giving in front of a hundred listeners. I knew I wasn’t in a state to go, but I promised to substitute for someone, so I spend hours reading and preparing. I get hot, start sweating, don’t make eye contact with my listeners, and forget the order of the slides. It isn’t long before I’m back on sick leave.