The family that forgot to create a village

Guest post by Deanna Niles McConnell

At age twelve, I saved my money and decided to visit my grandparents over spring break. In the bulkhead row of the plane, I inhaled recycled air and tried to look as cosmopolitan as possible as I sipped flat soda from a plastic cup. I was an unaccompanied minor, a young sophisticate with a mini-backpack purse en route to the impossibly glamorous environs of St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia) and I wanted to see it all. The bug bit me hard–this was the life for me. I knew that whatever else I did, I was going to be a traveler.

Flash forward fifteen years and my husband and I have created a life on the road. Along with our 18-month old daughter Maggie, we bounce around the globe like stones shot from a slingshot. At an age where many we know are feathering a nest, we’re scheming to suck as much time on the road out of life as we can. We are both passionate about fostering life-long curiosity and a desire to learn, and we think the best way to encourage that curiosity in Maggie is to experience culture and history at the source. We move every few years and take trips as often as the budget allows. Even though Maggie is too young to remember feeding deer in Nara, Japan, we hope that she will always share our desire to seek and learn.

Most people seek out a village when they decide to have children. For reasons that I didn’t fully understand until recently, we decided to have our daughter after we moved thousands of miles away from our established networks of family and friends in DC, Maine and Florida. My husband’s job in the defense industry landed us a three-year tour in Hawai’i, and Maggie was born a little more than a year after we moved. In dedicating our life to bouncing from one spot to the next in order to literally give our family the world, it seems that we have neglected to build ourselves a traditional village.

It became impossible to deny: there’s just too much that we want to see for us to want stick around one place for very long. So though we knew we would miss everyone terribly, we were not sad to return to Hawai’i and begin planning our next adventure.

The fact that we lack that traditional village became more apparent during the last year, when an extended business trip took us back to the East Coast for six months. We spent several of those months with my parents in Florida, a month in Maine with my grandparents and extended family, and a month in the DC metro area. Being surrounded by such loving, caring people was wonderful, homey and familiar. And yet … we never snapped out of travel mode. There were lazy days, but we tried to get in as much exploration as possible. It became impossible to deny: there’s just too much that we want to see for us to want stick around one place for very long. So though we knew we would miss everyone terribly, we were not sad to return to Hawai’i and begin planning our next adventure.

Sometimes it pulls at us, having decided to make our home out in the world and not staying in one spot for the time being. We look at things differently than many parents we know. Take nursing, for example: I have no intention of weaning Maggie and it has little to do with the health benefits of breastfeeding or her attachment to the breast. It’s just that it’s my best weapon for establishing comfort and familiarity in a new place (not to mention being invaluable for immediate silence on an airplane). She’s pretty happy with the arrangement and with life in general, and therefore we’re happy too.

Despite Maggie’s happiness, it’s hard not to look at the homes our friends have made and worry that we’re denying her stability. She loves people and is very social, but there have been a few times in new places where she’s had anxious meltdowns. Sometimes its hard to know if that’s normal for her age without also wondering if we’ve caused it by uprooting her too often. And sometimes we feel bad that we may be denying Maggie what we had: the close family web, grandparents fifteen minutes away and cousins for playmates. Once in a while we think we should move home, settle down, and take advantage of the pre-made village of family and friends, especially now that all of Maggie’s grandparents live in the same Florida town.

But even if a job for my husband became available in the midst of that network, we both balk at the idea. That isn’t an insult to our families, Florida or Floridians, but not every place is a good fit for every person. As important as it is to know where you’re going and where you belong, it’s equally important to recognize when a place that you’ve romanticized (family barbecues! free babysitters! swimming in the family pool with the grandparents!) is not a good long-term solution.

Sometimes you have to listen to that irritating little voice that tells you the truth when you don’t want to hear it. That voice is the knowledge that no matter how nice it looks on paper and how hard you try to shape a life in a particular village, it just isn’t going to fit. It is telling us that we aren’t done traveling yet. Ignoring that voice would not be true to ourselves, and how could we teach Maggie to be true to herself if we did not do the same?

As we wrap up our three years in Hawai’i and prepare to move to an as yet unknown location, we know one day we’ll pick a place to stay for a while; somewhere to give Maggie a consistent spot that she can call her home base. Until then, we’ll travel, and the best part of that is that we can create a new village wherever we go. It’s hard work, but for the chance to see the world? Absolutely worth it.

Comments on The family that forgot to create a village

  1. This made me want to grab a bag and go! Every few months we entertain moving to Spain (where we would speak in internal rhyme all of the time). The truth is, our village isn’t so tight that we’d be turned on our heads if we did it, and we live in my husband’s hometown along with all of his family. So I can attest that sometimes the promised village doesn’t pan out.

    And your statement “Sometimes its hard to know if that’s normal for her age without also wondering if we’ve caused it by uprooting her too often” is a touching point… I think you could replace the latter half of that sentence with many parenting choices, which leave parents wondering, “Is this the way my child is, all children are, or something I have caused?” And the glory and frustration of people is that we can never narrow it down, and that it is probably all three in a lot of cases!

    • Our village didn’t pan out so well either. Weirdly enough…my mother who lives across the country, is the one who knows my daughter best. Funny how that can work out. My father lives next door but is so caught up in his own life (not faulting him for it) to really bond with his grandchild. My in-laws live a mere 45 minutes away, but are often a point of contention in our relationship. Fun times. Makes me want to pack up and be alone as a family, since I feel that way most of the time anyway.

  2. Dear Deana,
    I grew up this way and cherish it. Turns out that my kids have been/will be raised too. It’s different from nesting and has its own downsides as you mention but I just wanted to let you know that I, my three siblings and most of my former classmates have grown up traveling and I think most of us appreciate it. We are definitely doing ok as adults.
    Enjoy, I wish Hawaii had been or could ever be a pit stop for us!

  3. I enjoyed your article and think it’s a great perspective. I remember Angelina Jolie saying that she wants her children to think of themselves as “citizens of the world,” which I thought was a wonderful mindset (regardless of your opinion on Angelina).

    Also, somewhat unrelated, I loved feeding the deer in Nara – until it got awkward when ALL the deer start following you….LOL. 🙂

  4. My kids are growing up this way too – my 4 year old has lived in 3 countries, though my 2 year old has lived in only one – it’s a wonderful eye opening experience for children – my personal opinion is that it will make them independent, and yet connected. Connected because we have always taught our kids that home is where WE are – the 4 of us, it’s not a physical place (all 4 of us were born in 4 different countries so it’s hard to define a country as home in any case). Yes, I feel I’m depriving them of a chance to form strong links with family members, but with skype we can deal with that.
    My kids are growing up as citizens of the world, with an understanding of different places and cultures, and as the world becomes a smaller place I can only feel this understanding will stand them in good stead for the rets of their lives.

  5. I found this so fascinating! I would really like to give my daughter the experience of traveling the world and living all over! Hell, I’m still young, and I want to experience it all!

    It’s really nice to hear that it works for other people!

  6. I hope you enjoyed your years in Hawaii! It’s where I was born as well, and my “village” is spread between there, Oregon and Alaska.

    Your post makes we wistful for the excitement you have for travel, but comes with the realization that I don’t think that will ever be me. However, I don’t want my homebody status to deny my daughter a life of exploration. We might just have to start smaller and work up to globe-trotting.

    My comment seems a little disjointed, but I really loved your post. 8^)

  7. Ive actually dreamed of living that life! I love traveling and experiencing different cultures. But for us its not feasible. We would have no way of making an income (at least with the job my husband has now, and im a SAHM). but i love that you can and are. there are always downsides, but your child will learn so much from experiencing different people in all walks of life and hopefully become the compassionate people that this world needs more of!!

  8. I live in a foreign country, and although we are stabile as far as “home” goes, we definitely take a lot of trips and our 19 month old has visited 6 countries already, with plans for a couple more in 2011. It’s tough to not have family support, because as great as friends are – they don’t really want to babysit! (Though I do have a babysit-swap with a few friends so that we can occasionally get a date night/haircut/etc!). Although it would be great to have family nearby, my family is all in the US in a very “red” state and it’s not a good fit for us and our ideals/values/etc. So, yes, it can feel lonely at times. And I still am not 100% “at home” here, mostly due to the language barrier. But I will get there eventually! Just know that there are lots of support groups for parents/families whether you are an expat or just in a new city. 🙂

    • This whole post, especially your comment, is very encouraging for me. I live in a foreign country (not one where they speak a different language, at least, unless you think American English and Australian English are different languages) and have been thinking of just saying “screw it, we’re having kids now instead of waiting until some unspecified time when we’ll be back in the States.” We definitely don’t have a huge support system (my partner has family here, but we aren’t close) so that’s been a worry!

  9. I joined the Navy to travel, but my family guilt trips me every time I mention expating or NOT living near them. My choices for permanent residence have been narrowed down to my parents or my husband’s parents. I love my family, but I want an adventure!

  10. Keep listening to that little voice inside you.
    By the time my wife was six she’d lived in the US and Sudan, and she says ‘x-y-zee’ at the end of the alphabet because that’s where she was when she learnt it.
    That said, we built our own village (family, bridesmaids, job, mortgage, cat) before we planned our forthcoming little one. We plan to travel as much as we can when our boy comes along. He’ll need to see Hong Kong.

    Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
    Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.
    (No hobo…)

    James

  11. Thank you all so much for your great comments!! I’m so excited that this resonated with so many folks. And to address the “I wish…” statements, there is no one superior way to travel! Whether it’s buying an around-the-world plane ticket or taking your kids to the local library every week, you’re still giving them the world and your love–which is the most important thing!

  12. I want both! Is that asking too much? I am really hoping to eventually have a “village” of friends and family where I live to help with raising my child and helping him realize that Mom isn’t always right (even though I totally think I am!) but I also want to travel and show my child the world.

    Do you find that you are creating a “village” where you live now (although not necessarily made up of family, or do you find with all the traveling that your home is your place of solitude?

    • Ohhh, we all want both! I want both too, sometimes. We do have a network of friends here; we have come back to a great group. That said, I’ve never made friends easily and building that group is always hard for me, unless I start in a great online forum such as this one. The things I write always come off so much better than the things I say, since I suffer from near-terminal Awkward.

  13. I think you do have a village. It may be long distance, but having a close knit set of relatives is important for all of you and you seem to have that. Also, sometimes a village is where you are, I think some of the villages I was part of growing up were the kids and parent at a campground were we might only spend a week or two one summer.

    I also think you are making a wonderful choice. As long as you and her daddy are happy and fullfilled and exploring, that is what is important.

    God bless and good luck.

  14. i found this post hugely encouraging! since I graduated from high school I have lived all over the place. I have the get up and move bug too and lucky for me I found a partner who feels the same…granted his ventures have been far fewer than mine. Now in a place in our relationship where we often discuss children and marriage I am so thrilled than this doesn’t, in fact, imply having to stay in one place for such a long time.
    How refreshing!

  15. Deanna, it has been an honor to be a part of your Hawai’i village. 🙂 I will miss you as you move on to the next adventure and am so excited to find out where that location will be.

    I want to say to the others, too, that there is no wrong way to do it. Deanna is right on when she says there are numerous ways to make it happen. Our family is similar to Deanna’s family, though our moving won’t be as frequent. Hawai’i will be our village for awhile, but we’ll see where the wind eventually takes us. The world is a very big place and I haven’t tasted nearly enough of it.

  16. I really loved this, I think for the opposite reason as most of the other commenters. I have done the exact opposite for my family, and feel exactly the same way you do about it!

    I have always been a traveler – I studied abroad in college, bounced around Europe, jetted off short notice to Ireland, hiked around Costa Rica, worked on an island in Greece. I always assumed that whenever I had a family, we would continue this way and be nomads. Instead, when I met my husband and we decided to have a baby, this completely undeniable urge to NEST struck – I didn’t just want a home, I needed one. And so here we are – in coastal Maine with a house, two dogs, and a network of friends who have become our village. I have my moments of doubt, too – am I depriving my child of the open-mindedness that comes with experiencing the world? But I think you’re right – what feels right is what is right, at least for right now. Thanks for this :o)

    • This is me! Except that my nest is a lot further down the same coast. I think the key is that no matter how you decide to fit kids into your life you do it in a way that makes you feel happy, not like a martyr (which is certainly also attitude, no matter the situation).

  17. I like that Offbeat Mama publishes articles from all different walks. One theme that always seems prevalent in all of them, no matter the subject, is that we’re all seeking friendships, or as this articles says, a village, that is our support and sanity, and a healthy example for our children. We’re a military family, that’s how we chose to travel, and now my husband has decided it’s retirement time…and it terrifies me. Thank you for your comment about knowing when a place doesn’t suit you, no matter how it looks on paper. That’s where we’re at and negotiating our next move (or not)because where we are suits one but not the other four.

  18. I really enjoyed your article and honestly felt a bit better. Both my husband and I love to travel and while we cannot live the on the road life we always wanted it is good to know we will still be able to travel once we manage to have children(unlike everyone has been insisting to us). I know in the future your daughter will thank you for the opportunities that you will have opened for her with all the exposure to other cultures.

    However, though I am sure you know this because of your travels, to other moms considering the road life remember to keep all your children’s paperwork in order. Passports, vaccinations, lists of countries they have been to and any paperwork that may be required by the US (should you live here) for citizenship if they are born outside of country. I have a friend who had the traveling childhood who is now trying to get a government job, and is having to jump through a million and a half hoops because she doesn’t have some of the paperwork she should. As with all parts of your life, be your child’s first advocate. Keep their paperwork straight.

  19. validation! thank you for writing this great article! until now, i haven’t heard of anyone (with the exception of angelina jolie) raising their kids in multiple places.

    my husband and i have two small children and divide our time between ohio and florida… 6 mths in ohio with our families…6 mths in florida with our friends/jobs, and truthfully, to escape the winter! we laugh and say that we are the youngest “snowbirds” ever!

    people tend to not understand why we want to live such a non-traditional lifestyle. we hear (from even strangers) about our kids and how they will/won’t adjust well because we are back and forth so much, etc.

    the way i look at it is this . . . it’s OUR life too. we get one shot on earth and we should make the most of it. sure, i could be a typical suburban mom and happily live out my days in one place with grandparents right up the road…. no harm in that at all. however, that’s not really me! in no way do i ever want to deprive my kids of any experience . . . living in different places or having relationships with grandparents, etc. however, i also don’t want to deprive myself of an interesting life!

    i love that we are living our dream now, instead of waiting til we retire someday.

    i do have one question though.. what are you going to do about schooling? i’m assuming that you will enroll your child in a school wherever you are located? we are currently weighing our education options, and i’d be interested in any feedback from you or others.

    thanks!

    • I was also very curious about how you are going to handle the school aspect. I moved a lot as a kid, and my friends and family who lived a lifestyle of traveling and moving (a lot for military, but also other reasons…like yours!) have told me the only negative thing for them growing up was having to change schools, especially during the middle-high school years. My hubs and I have intentions of travelling and living abroad with our son, but being a kid who moved a lot I’m afraid of him going through the same hardships of changing schools/friends…during the younger years, it was easy…but the last one in Jr. High was so, so hard.

      • Hey, sorry I saw this so late! Our plan for school is…no plan yet. 🙂 We have debated homeschooling but time, expansion of our family (we do plan to have a second child at some point) and finances will reveal if that’s a viable alternative. I think it’s much easier for our kids to stay connected than it was for us, but our first priority is Maggie so if it looks like she is suffering socially for all the bouncing, we’ll just have to hang up our passports for a while. Indeed, the “settle down” period I spoke of relates directly to that–if it seems she really needs to be in one spot, then we’ll take a break.

  20. I moved around a fair amount as a kid, and wouldn’t change it for the world. It was the greatest experience for me, and I think it made me a lot more confident and interested (and, I guess, interesting). Kudos to you, for what you are doing for Maggie!

  21. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for this inspiring post!!! I have planned on travel my whole life (of 18 years, lol). When I was in high school I was accepted for a homestudy program in Japan but couldn’t go because there was a lack of ability to fund the trip.
    Fast forward to now, I’m a young married mom and I still want to travel. I am raising my daughter to be multilingual and dream of taking her to Spain and France (and everywhere else)! I never thought I could pull it off though because she is just 13 months old, and traveling is only for rich people right? I’m really starting to think different now. I have been researching and finding that the ‘only the rich and single can see the world’ theory is a lie. And then I read posts like this and really go crazy with inspiration.
    If I could move my little 6-month-old and our entire home across the country at the age of 18 to be in a better place to raise her (AWAY from family), I think I can pull off hopping the ocean too 😉

    Thank you again. I’m going to just do this!!

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