When I divorced the father of my three kids and was granted full custody after a hellish, drama-filled year in court, I consciously crafted a life for the kids and I that I thought would be idyllic. We live on a farm high in the Andes of Argentine Patagonia, raising our food, and are building a house out of adobe, with chickens and honeybees and no debt in a country that offers us free university education and health care. My cost of living is so much lower than it was back in Michigan that it allows me to support my kids through my work as a travel writer and still have time to paint, learn to drum, and go for as many hikes as I want with the kiddos.
We live in a place where no one we know has debt on their house or their car or their education (or the stress that comes along with such debt). Where neighbors still hug and kiss each other warmly when they swing by to drop off gifts of organic raspberry jam or homemade tomato sauce. Where human connections are valued more than things. We don’t have internet or television at home, so we are not bombarded with heavy news or ‘fake news’. The Argentine school day is shorter here than in the US, so the kids have time to be kids, going with friends to the nearby lakes or rivers, going skiing, longboarding through town, or just hanging out in the town plaza drinking mate with friends for hours.
And then my kids go back and visit family in the US and come home all ‘Merica’ed up, suitcases full of military-camo clothes, processed food, and the latest Xbox and Grand Theft Auto games, and an addiction to screen time with Facebook and Netflix. They come back hesitant to speak Spanish and resenting me and their simple, rural lifestyle here, hating the fact that I drive a beat-up (but paid-off) 1994 Subaru as opposed to one of the flashy new leased cars that the rest of their family drives in the states.
It used to make me want to desperately keep them in this bubble I’ve created here in Patagonia. But as time goes by I realize more and more that’s not the best move I could make as a mom who wants her children to be analytical, open-minded, and resilient.
I doubt they will ever be able to fully appreciate what they have here until they leave it. If they go to the US and watch all of their cousins stressed out cramming every weekend for their SATs with their parents demanding nothing less than perfection from them, maybe they will enjoy those lazy afternoons in the park with their super chill school friends more. I just read that The American Academy of Pediatrics felt the need to launch a new website where teens can go and design their own stress-reduction plans to help cope with standardized testing. Also, a survey funded by Kellogg’s (that was originally done just to see how well kids ate before the exam) sadly ended up showing that 55 per cent of the 1000 kids polled said they worried that not achieving a high SAT mark would set them up for failure in life. Failure in life! By hanging out with intelligent kids here in Argentina who don’t even know what an SAT is, and seeing that adults here don’t all turn out as ‘failures in life’, I hope my kids can share a little perspective with their friends in the states when they go back.
On the food note, I can tell them until I’m blue in the face about high fructose corn syrup and white sugar, but you know what? Binge. Feel like shit. See how that feels. They will at least know darn well how to get back on track with whole foods. They want to be all flag-wavey patriots? Just because I don’t feel a strong connection to where I happened to be born, why shouldn’t they?
My current internal work as a mother is to trust that I’ve set a solid foundation for these kiddos. I’ve consistently shown them strong, healthy values. I have created a situation where they can go to university for free if that is a path they choose. They have had years of eating well, have grown up with long days of having to be creative instead of being stuck with their face in a screen, and they have had to learn to collaborate and work as a team as we clumsily try our hand at living off the land far from town. I’ve raised them knowing the power and beauty of community and simplicity.
It’s as simple as this: They are my kids, yes, but I have to start seeing them as individuals who, in order to find their own way in life, in order to clarify their own values and desires, need to experience diversity. They need chances to compare and contrast the two very distinct cultures they have grown up in, they need opportunities to feel uncomfortable, to challenge beliefs engrained in them by another person (namely me).
So instead of fighting against them leaving my bubble, I’m choosing to see it as something necessary in order for them to feel empowered to create their own path for what they feel is best for them. The more varied experiences they have, the better, and if that means me having to embrace them leaving my bubble, so be it. My job as their mother is to help them become the strongest, clearest, most authentic possible version of their unique selves, not to create mini-clones of myself thinking the same thoughts as me and living the same life I have chosen to craft for myself.