We went to a despedida (farewell) for two friends the other night. During the evening, I realized how “empty nester” Consulate officers or ex-pats experience life abroad differently than do their counterparts who have children living with them.
On the “benefit” side, I immediately recognize the lack of stress regarding where to send the children to school, either in the current city or at boarding school. I could never have faced with equanimity the possibility of boarding school for my kids. That simply would not have been an option. As empty nesters, Tom and I have no stress regarding where to send the kids, getting the kids to and from school, or dealing with unrealistic expectations at those schools with regard to IBD grading and preparing the kids for college in the U.S. Neither do we have to deal with the dichotomy of income between the locals and the ex-pats or Americans at the private schools, where lavish birthday parties often include weekend trips with the entire class, transported by private-hired buses.
On the “disadvantage” side, that same lack of school attachment immediately removes us from instant membership in “the club” of school parents, who get to know one another quickly, banding together with the common goal of supporting the kids in a foreign school. These parents join language classes together, interact through school activities, and unite behind their children. Those of us without children here have no foothold in that door.
On the “benefit” side, our lives are no longer dictated by the calendar/schedule of the school months (been there, done that!), which means that we are free to travel when we wish. (Which makes me wonder why we’re booked to leave Brazil on the same night as most American families in Sao Paulo, whose vacation begins that day? What were we THINKING?!)
On the “disadvantage” side, this means that the majority of our travel is back home to see our absent children, and our families, leaving little vacation time available for other travel around the world.
Definitely on the “benefit” side, we have the freedom of date nights ANY night, of weekends to relax or explore to our heart’s content, and the ability to sleep in (once we’ve taken the dogs out). We’ve been delighted to discover that we really enjoy being together, that we don’t need the kids to bind us or give us something to talk about. We’re best friends again.
Among other observations, I see that both at the Consulate and among the ex-pat community, those without children living with them must work a little harder to make friendships, either through international groups or at church or through the American Society. We have to dig a little deeper, and put ourselves out there a little more, to find friendships that can be based on personality and interests rather than on work or school activities.
Being among the older officers at the Consulate (most officers are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s: either single, just starting families, or with older children), we find that we don’t really fit any of the “cliques,” but are accepted by most as “guest members” in their groups. I’m aware that the younger officers look at us as “older” and “other,” but that’s life. We never see eye-to-eye with people even ten years older than we are — that simply seems so far away down the road of life for us to accept as our soon-to-be fate. It amuses me to see that they think our lives have passed (in our mid-50s), and that we are old enough to be surrogate grandparents to their children.
One things irritates me, however: the assumption that our dogs are replacements (for me especially) for our absent children. That is simply not the case. We’ve had dogs for 28 years. We’ll have dogs for 28 years more. They are part of our family, yes, but they aren’t my pacifiers. (Can you tell I hate when people make comments like that?)
One last enormous “benefit”: the joy of welcoming the kids home again!
We’ve made some good friends here who are in the same life stage, who have raised their children and now find themselves holding hands and looking to the future together as a couple once more. It’s a bit of a challenge, as it was when we were newlyweds, but now we have the grace of wisdom on our side.