I’D BEEN LIVING DOWN IN Argentine Patagonia for a little less than a year when I decided to separate from my husband. We had three kids together, ages 9, 7 and 5 at the time, and, long story short, he didn’t handle the separation with much grace.
I was left with not one cent. He moved the kids back to Michigan without asking or even warning me (surprise!), where he then went on to hire an aggressive lawyer and demand 100% physical and legal custody.
After a year in court, the judge granted me full custody and the permission to live or travel anywhere in the world without having to ask the father’s permission. Due to some very questionable decisions the dad made (then continued to make after plenty of warnings), the judge in the end took away all of his visitation rights.
So there I was. 34 years old living back with my parents, feeling like a loser sleeping in my childhood bedroom. Three kids counting on me. No savings. No involved father to my children. No trust fund, unfortunately.
Family, friends, and random people offering their unsolicited opinion on the situation all decided that to get my footing, I needed to stay in Michigan near family, get a job or two or three, and rent a cheap apartment or townhouse.
Fuck that noise.
I did the math. The ex made it clear he was not going to pay child support (he’s $30k behind and currently facing criminal prosecution from the attorney general himself, so that wasn’t his most genius move). Counting on that monthly income was out. Money earned from even a decent job would vanish after rent, health insurance, car insurance, groceries, school supplies, gas, and utilities, and I would have to work so much just to make ends meet that I would never get to hang out with my kiddos. I have no idea how single moms or dads in the US pull it off — y’all have my full respect.
Much to the horror of many people, I made the decision to move back to Patagonia with the kids.
In Patagonia, I can work part-time online getting paid in dollars and get by. I can be home when the kids get home from school. When we first landed back here in 2013, I rented a 4-bedroom house in the Andes on a river and 20 acres of land for US$180 a month — I’m scared to see what housing situation $180 a month would get me back in the US. Medical care was fully covered by the government. I didn’t even need a car right away because it’s common practice on the mountain to hitchhike — any neighbor who passes is pretty much guaranteed to pick you up.
Here, my kids have freedoms that they wouldn’t have in other places, which, as a single mom, frees me up. It’s safe and culturally accepted that my 9-year-old could walk alone 8km through the forest to head to a friend’s house. My 11-year-old wanted to go to the skate park in the town 25km away? Hitch down the mountain with the neighbor then take a bus to the park. Be home by dinner. I couldn’t exactly get away with that in the US. My son can drop by the neighbor’s house every single day after school and here I’m not ‘the irresponsible mom who wants to dump her kid off on someone else.’ I’m just the mom of the boy who likes to play with her kid.
Even though I don’t have blood family here, there’s a genuine sense of community so strong that I never feel alone or in over my head. The local butcher sat my kids down once to let them know that if they ever need to use the phone, if they need a ride home, if they are hungry and want a sandwich, he has them covered. If my kids ever forget their bus money, I don’t have to worry. The local bus driver would never not take them anywhere they needed to go. If I’m standing in a long line at the bank with kids, everyone will usher me forward in an attempt to make things a little easier for me. If my kids want to go on a trek alone, I can radio ahead to the caretaker at the mountain refuge and let him know to be on the lookout for a couple of young kids in a few hours. He’ll reassure me that if he doesn’t see them in three hours, he will start hiking down to meet up with them on the trail and will take good care of them. If we get a flat tire, I am more than capable of changing it myself, but no one will give me the chance. It will be immediately changed by a helpful stranger. And this isn’t weird or me asking too much of people here — lending a hand however you can is just what you do in this culture. I’m living the whole ‘it takes a village’ thing.
We’re even building a house, all-natural construction of wood, straw bale and adobe, which has been a dream of mine for quite some time. In the states, that most likely would not have happened anytime soon, and even if it did I would be tied to a hefty mortgage after. Well, no mortgages here. I save up every month, buy the materials that I can, and go from there. It’s slow going, but a year in and we have a foundation, walls, electricity and a roof, all paid off. Another year and the house should be fully done. I’m a single mom designing my Eco-Barbie dream house on a lovely farm in the Andes, and it will be free and clear by the time I’m 39. A lot of this is possible due to the generosity of my neighbors. People actually still do roof-raising parties here. On a big project such as setting the foundation, putting up massive 30-foot beams, insulating the walls or finishing the roof, people come from all around to lend a hand and partake in a big potluck barbecue at the end of the day. This really will be the house that love built.
So when people from the states tell me that I’m crazy for raising three kids alone in Patagonia, two things come to mind. Honestly, I’d be a little crazy not to. And I’m definitely not alone.
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