Monday, 9 February 2015

5 Expat Life Lessons From 'Global Mom'

Melissa Dalton-Bradford has lived in more countries than most of us would even dare to think about moving to - eight to be precise, and has had twice as many addresses. Her memoir, Global Mom, published by Familius, starts in Paris with a beautiful pine Norwegian table that proves to be a family anchor during twenty years on the move, two decades during which her family grows, as does Melissa, as am individual, a wife and as a mother.

From a typical Norwegian barnepark (a word and a concept I will never forget) to desperate poverty on Tonle Sap Lake in Singapore, Dalton-Bradford takes us on an unforgettable journey.

Global Mom is the story of one family physically moving from one country to another, about Dalton-Bradford's journey as a mother, about how a family grows and moulds together. It's a book about community and about home. It's about thriving with no roots. It's about loss and living and surviving in the frightening, dark land of grief. And it's about everything in-between.

(Amazon UK link)

Here are five life lessons I took away from reading Global Mom:

1. Expats Need to Adapt to Thrive 

What resonated with me more than anything else was the fact that living overseas is a story of adaptation. Dalton-Bradford illustrates beautifully that thriving abroad is about resilience, about going with the host country flow. It's about accepting an alternative culture, learning the local language, and fitting in as best you can - embracing the local way of life rather than shunning it and trying to live like you would in your base country.

This is no better highlighted than when Melissa's family move from Norway to France. From a Norwegian barnepark where a child's independence is a priority, where people co-exist with the dominating force of Mother Nature and where no-nonsense and practical goes above appearance, the Bradford family suddenly finds themselves immersed in a school system where restrictions, bureaucracy, rules, regulations and traditions are everything, where the imperfect loops a child makes when learning to write is cause for more teacher concern than it should be.

A fiery Norwegian winter dawn - where Mother Nature rules
Photo Credit: Grethe Boe
Melissa's experiences of child birth in the two countries also serve as a mirror for the contrast between the Norwegian lifestyle and the French way of doing things. Describing her natural birth in Norway with the assistance of her earth mother to her French friends made them "slap their foreheads and drag their hands over their eyes in disbelief" she recounts.

"Those poor Nordic women are too naive to know they have modern options. Right?" said one French friend.

Two worlds - set apart by culture, yet the Bradford family adapt to both, Paris in fact transforming into a haven for the family, a place they could later picture themselves permanently living.

2. Living Globally is Not Easy

To be able to travel around the world and set up home in several countries, to live globally, is an honour. However, it is no bed of roses when a family has to pack up and relocate time after time. Melissa sums it up wonderfully (P168),
"Every time I built something - established myself and our family in Norway, penetrated Versailles with my children in local activities, or renovated our first home ever and buttressed and held up my children - in the very instant I'd gotten to that spot, this international job track levelled what I'd built."
Saying goodbye to friends that have accumulated over the years, feeling rootless, the stress of organising a move and re-establishing a life. Melissa dealt with stress-induced depression on more than one occasion. A global life is about falling and then picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying all over again.

3. Retaining Your Personal Identity Needs Work

A life on the move means putting a tremendous amount of energy into setting up the day to day every few years - and then building on those foundations. As a mother of three, Melissa was busy setting up a home, helping her children establish themselves, emotionally and physically, getting the practical things organised in each new country they moved to. She orchestrated re-building a life from the ground up with every new address; she was the driving force behind reshaping their lives to adapt to their new surroundings.

That takes a lot out of a person, but Melissa, once the basics were in place, learnt to look after herself too. Eventually. She reached out to those around her, busied herself with the local church community, continued with her singing where she could (having left a stage career behind in the US when the family first moved overseas). She embraced her musical talents wherever she lived, and used them to build up a community around her. Melissa put herself out there, even when she didn't have the heart or energy to do so. And by doing so it felt whilst reading that she retained her identity - albeit reshaped and adapted. 'Be true to yourself' I hear her whisper from the pages of her memoir.

4. We Make a Home Wherever We Go

A home is more than bricks and mortar
Photo Credit: vannmarie

Melissa reminds me, in a poetic way, that the extraordinary lies in the ordinary. She reminds us how important it is to appreciate the beauty of where we are at this point in our lives. The memorable moments of life lie in our struggles to get through the day to day, particularly when you are doing it in in an unknown culture, in a foreign tongue, in a country you don't know well.

And every time we leave a place we take a little of that place with us, and we leave our mark on the place we left. 'Global Mom' reminds us that home is a place we create in the most unexpected of circumstances. It is so much more than the bricks and mortar that give us a place to shelter. Home is about family, about people, about cultures and history, about traditions - about coming together to grow and learn. Home is the place we are surrounded by those we love, no matter where on the globe that physical address may be.

5. Tragedy Takes You to a New Land

When a family tragedy strikes it takes you to a new unchartered land, to the land of grief. Once entered, life is never the same again. This book is not a light read, it is heartbreaking. You will cry, but it is an integral part of the journey that this beautifully written memoir takes the reader on. It is a brave and courageous account of a mother's loss, of a family torn apart.

Melissa tells us how grieving whilst on the move means travelling on a lonely road - surrounded by new faces that do not know or understand what you have been through, who did not live through your life stopping tragedy with you. The grieving process knows even more complications because of a life lived in different countries. The memories are based elsewhere, the connections to your loss in another country.

"The nomadic lifestyle, with all its pluses has one glaring lacuna: community. You are again and again ripped up, ripped out, and replanted amid strangers. There is little if any continuous community. Now, as never before in our life. our family needed people who had more than a vague inkling of our story....." (P236 Global Mom)

To end, for me,  'Global Mom' is how you write a memoir. It is set apart by the weight it carries, by the emotions it instills in the reader - from smirks and giggles to floods of tears.

There is a sense of history, culture, and a feeling of the sights and sounds of every country the Bradford family lives in. There is the reality check that a nomadic lifestyle is a double edged sword, and a life lived well overseas takes work, emotional resilience and a lot of adapting. There is friendship, community, family and most of all, love.

This book is a great read for expats, wannabe expats, global nomads, parents and those with a curiosity for the power of the human spirit.

You can get a copy of Global Mom from the following outlets:

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