To My Boarding School Birthday Girl

Dear Birthday Girl,

We did the whole cake, ice cream, candles, and gifts party before we left the United States. But it wasn’t really your birthday that day. On your real birthday, your sister will hand you a wrapped shoe box full of tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Your dorm parents have a plan. The school has goofy birthday traditions. Dad and I will call you on the phone. We’ll sing the regular birthday song and our own song, the one that’s just for you.

I’m so thankful that you will be celebrated by people all over the world. I’ve seen how people at this school honor and celebrate kids when their parents are far away. I’ve seen moms Face-timing with moms on the other side of the continent during soccer games and banquets. I’ve delivered birthday packages and hugs on behalf of absent parents. You are loved by so many by being part of this particular community. It takes a tribe and you are in the best of tribes. Knowing this, reminding myself of it, is my gift to myself on your birthday.

Because, though thankful, I’m still sad. I’m learning to hold both grief and joy in the same hand, to feel both sadness and gratitude, to sit with loss and celebration.

On the real day, you will be far away from me and I won’t be able to hug you or measure your height against my own to see whether you’ve caught me yet. I won’t be able to tickle your side or run my fingers through your hair.

This is the first birthday any of you have been away from me. Your brother and sister’s birthday is in July and they are home that month. So we haven’t done this before, haven’t missed this day before, haven’t relied on other people to celebrate you.

I know you know how much I love you, how proud I am of you. You get tired of me saying it and demand specifics in ways that both flabbergast and thrill me. What, specifically, do I love about you? Why, specifically, in this moment, am I proud of you? The answers to those questions are for me and you, for another time. But I still need to say those words: love and proud, on this day.

You are our 9/11 baby, born a blessing on a day of mourning. We named you Light. We named you Gift. We named you Victory. We named you Ours. You continue to live out these names, filling them up and redefining them through the lens of your own character, talents, and personality.

You are the biggest risk I ever took, ever jumped into intentionally. I was afraid of so many things. Afraid of more than one baby again (though that was the other greatest adventure of my life). Afraid to be pregnant here. Afraid to give birth here. Afraid I wouldn’t be mom enough for all of you. Afraid of postpartum depression again. Afraid of sleepless nights and rage. Afraid of morning sickness and changes to my body. Afraid of how much love I already knew would hurricane through me as soon as we touched outside my body.

Now I think, what if we hadn’t taken that leap? What if I let fear dominate and closed myself off to all the possibilities that are you? I’m learning to acknowledge the fears and to walk through them. You’ve helped me do that.

I can’t let my fear of who I might be when I’m not with you restrict you.

All these years after that 9/11 when you were born, I’m celebrating who you are and I’m saying, go be you.

Be you, where you are. Be you, apart from me. Be you, without fear or anxiety or strings attached. Be you, with exuberance, abandon, power and delight.

Be you with your crazy laugh and your mismatched socks and your uncle’s college band t-shirt. Be you with your full body singing and no fear in sports. Be you with your love for sunrises and bird-watching and your dog-training skills. Be you with your love for creating and your loyalty and courage. Be you in all the ways I will treasure in my heart, just for me.

Happy birthday from far away. Live it wild.

***

Tips for parents celebrating birthdays from far away:

  1. Celebrate when you’re together. Early or late, doesn’t matter.
  2. Send a surprise package, either in the mail or with someone else to hand deliver.
  3. Have a distance-friendly tradition, like a goofy song to sing over the phone, or a photo tradition.
  4. Ask someone who lives nearby to bring a cake or gift or to deliver pizza to their entire dorm.
  5. Tell the people around you and around the birthday person, so they can celebrate with you and with the birthday person.
  6. Schedule a phone call ahead of time.
  7. If you have a traditional meal, ask someone to make it for them on your behalf.
  8. Be thankful for the global community who loves you and your birthday person.

***

Our 9/11 baby, other stories:

Back when I was a regular contributor at Babble, I wrote about my daughter’s birth on the anniversary of 9/11. I also wrote about it for the Modern Love column, read by Mireille Enos for the podcast last spring.

Podcast

Modern Love

Babble

 

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The Unknown Traveler, Unknown Mother

When I travel with kids, even teenage kids, I am a mother. All mom. People see us and they think, “Mother and children.” We sit on the ground and play Spot It. We split burgers at airport restaurants. We take turns watching the stuff so the others can pee. We fill out each other’s immigration papers. We fight over window seats and try to snatch the single half of a strawberry from each other’s plane food plates. We reminisce about our worst flights ever and we pester each other by constantly asking what time is it and what time is the next flight.

We are a unit and we interact the way we always do – playing, sharing, serving, arguing, invading, bothering.

No matter what my purpose might be for traveling or what my day job is or what I’m wearing/eating/doing, when I am seen in public with my children, I am a member of that group and a mother in the eyes of everyone around me.

What about when I travel alone? No kids, no games, but at the very basest: no familiar interactions. Maybe business travelers are used to this, maybe people who travel without kids a lot are comfortable in this space. To me, it feels dangerous.

Maybe that is why so many affairs take place on the road. Why we shouldn’t make life-altering decisions while traveling.

We are unknown. We can be anyone. Do anything. No one will know. No one will report back home. No one has expectations. There is more time for reflection, to be internal. There is no tradition. There is no safety net.

Who am I now? Who am I when no one is telling me who to be based on who I am in terms of them?

Being a traveling expat means have many experiences of being unknown. Not alone, unknown. Alone is not a word that belongs to travelers in airports but unknown is one of their words. Being unknown here makes me feel nervous at first. I don’t know what I’ll do. Will I be the rude, pushy traveler? Will I eat an entire chocolate fudge sundae? Will I stare at people and judge them? Will I barge into other people’s conversations, desperate for some kind of interaction to remind me of who I was so I will know who to be?

Is this what mothers feel when children graduate and move out of the house? Now who am I? I think might be. We have spent our lives responding to others, meeting their needs before our own, bending our wants, schedules, pocketbooks around their goals. We cook the food they prefer, watch the movies they stream. What would we eat if we had our choice and only our choice? What would we watch if no one else provided input? Do we even know anymore? How can we know? How can we recognize our own tastes and rekindle our own desires?

I think it is a bumpy road and I’m starting to lurch my way down it. We remember ourselves before children and now, as we emerge, like the unknown traveler spewed from an airplane out into a new city, into a world that bares little resemblance to the one we exited decades ago. Now what? Now who?

I don’t think I’m the type who dances on tables or who runs naked 5k races (yes, those are a thing). I am pretty sure I’m the type who smiles at babies, secretly thankful I’m not traveling with one anymore. But beyond these, and other, obvious traits, what else? Am I curious? Am I brave? Am I compassionate and interested and adventurous? Do I hunker down or do I engage? What do I order at restaurants? What time do I go to bed? Am I frugal or do I splurge?

I don’t travel alone very often but my kids are growing up. The older two will graduate in 9 months. Who will I be?

I guess we will see.

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Vision Therapy

Quick link: Uncovering Vision

This essay was posted at Mothers Always Write over a month ago and I missed it. The editors didn’t inform me the link was live and life took over and I didn’t check in on it. So, here it is several weeks later. Our journey to help my daughter see clearly.

My son read The Lord of the Rings when he was nine years old. Henry said he didn’t understand all the words but he could recall the storyline in detail. His twin sister Maggie read the first two Harry Potter books but when asked simple questions about plot and character, confessed she had simply turned the pages.

I fought against the inevitable comparing that comes with parenting twins but we live in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and at the time there was not one single other American, native-English speaking 9-year old in the country. I was forced to compare my two. Forced to acknowledge a gaping difference in their reading abilities.

My myopic vision of what a child should be capable of blinded me to Maggie’s unique challenges.

Click here to read what we learned about Vision Therapy: Uncovering Vision

 

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How is Being Married Like Being an Expatriate?

Quick link: How Marriage is Like Living Abroad

Today I’m writing at A Life Overseas about the various stages of being an expat and the various stages of building a marriage.

Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be its precondition.

Alain de Botton

The same could be said for living abroad. I hear many people say they ‘fell in love with Africa’ as soon as their feet touched the ground off the plane. I’m not sure how Kenyan or Nigerian or Burundian tarmac has developed this incredible ability to inspire love for an entire continent, while American tarmac is just tarmac. But. I think the above quote by de Botton applies to living abroad as much as it does to love. We achieve compatibility with the new places we live in as foreigners, we don’t arrive perfectly adjusted. We need to know this and we need to know this is okay.

Here’s how living abroad can be like building a marriage (aka: achieving compatibility in love):

Week One

Everything in this country is awesome and fascinating and I just want to know, like intimately, know it. I want to be one with it. I think that is totally possible. I want people to see that I belong here because I’m so good at communicating, I can even do it just with my hands. Who needs words when I’m such a good fit? I fit in so naturally; wearing all the beautiful clothes and eating all the fascinating food. I adapt so easily to all the things that are done differently here. This country is the best country I could have chosen, it will make me better, smarter, funnier, more attractive. People will think I’m amazing, just because I live here. I’ll probably never leave. This country can do no wrong…

What, oh what, do the next years have for our marriages and our expat life?

Click here to read the rest of How Marriage is Like Living Abroad

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How Do I Pronounce Pieh?

My maiden name is Rachel Pieh.

I write as Rachel Pieh Jones.

Lots of people ask me how to pronounce Pieh.

For math geeks: think 3.14

For bakers: think apple

In other words, pi. Or pie.

Not Pee-eh

Not Peach

Not Pitch

Pi. Pie. Pieh.

Which means…today is my family day!

So nice of the world to celebrate us every year on 3.14, ie March 14, ie, International Pi(eh) Day.

Happy Pi(eh) Day and voila, that’s how to pronounce my name. And here’s my people.