From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lego as a Metaphor for Immigration

In the Summer of 2013, when we knew for sure that we were going to be emigrating from Scotland to the US, I had to go through the process of selling, donating and ditching loads of our possessions and packing up what we were keeping in order to prepare it to be shipped across the Atlantic.  One of the more tedious jobs I did was to spend an entire day packing up my sons’ very many Lego sets.  I took each set in turn, broke it down into individual bricks and pieces, placed those bricks into ziplock bags, and labelled each bag according to the information on the building instruction manuals.  It was the perfect job for a control freak mother like me but goodness it was laborious and my thumbs were throbbing by the end of the day.  Still, all the effort was worth it as it meant all those Lego sets could be safely transported across the ocean, taking up as little space as possible, and could be easily rebuilt set by set once we were settled in Pennsylvania.

That was the plan for the Lego.  It was also the plan for us.

We were packing up our lives in Scotland, breaking things down into fragments, compartmentalising, putting things in order, imposing a system on the chaos.  I assumed there would be a difficult transition period, a settling in phase full of stress and glitches and the odd set back, a need to feel our way through the jumble just like all those loose bricks jumbled in their labelled bags.  But we would be rebuilding a new life on another shore, piecing it all back together again in no time at all.  Lickety split.  Tickety boo.

That’s not how it turned out with our transition period.  It’s not how it happened with the Lego.

Not long after our shipping container finally arrived, a visiting child took it upon himself to rummage around in all the plastic storage crates full of toys.  One such crate contained all of the ziploc bags of Lego.  The child opened up every single one of those ziploc bags, about 50 in total, and emptied them all out onto the floor.  My kids were incandescent.  I felt bereft.  And stressed.  And overwhelmed.  A full day’s worth of work, my attempts to impose order on the chaos, to make rebuilding easy and fun, were all completely and utterly undermined.  All my hopes for an easy rebuilding project were dashed.  I looked at that Lego all over the floor, thousands of bricks in a tangle of mess, and I felt deflated.

Settling in and establishing our lives in a new country did not go to plan either.  There were big things I expected to be much more trying but which were pleasingly easier than anticipated; however, there were other things that proved much more difficult to navigate, things we did not anticipate.  We had been focusing so much on the challenges of living in a new country that we overlooked the challenges born of changes to our family dynamic, the schedule and shape of our everyday lives.

That transition period has still not concluded over two years into life in America.  We are really only starting to come to grips with everything immigration has involved now.  I had to be gentle with myself, accept that things were going to be rocky for a while, that we would stumble a bit, and give myself permission to feel frustrated and annoyed and stressed and anxious.  I had to give myself the gift of more time.

Likewise, I left those Lego sets for a while.  My kids played with the few we had already built and the rest of the bricks languished in a huge storage crate waiting for me to feel ready to tackle it.  It was too stressful to contemplate rebuilding from that scale of chaos.  I had to gift myself more time.  A few months ago, I decided to tackle the issue.  I decided that I would organise the bricks differently, there being no possible way to recreate my first approach.  I made up a bag of red bricks, a bag of blue bricks,a bag of barrel shaped pieces, a bags of wheels ….It took me a couple of days but gradually order was imposed on the chaos.  It still takes us a lot longer to rebuild a set since we have to look at each instruction and rake through the bags to find the right piece but at least now we are only looking in the bag of small grey bricks to find the required small brick rather than raking through the entire huge tub, a lego needle in a haystack.  The new approach is working.  We are rebuilding the Lego sets again.  Progress is being made.

I had to change my expectations, develop a new approach to problems, and accept that it is going to be a gradual and slow process.  For Lego.  For immigration.

 

First Parent-Teacher conferences

Yesterday afternoon was my first experience of going to a parent-teacher conference in America.  It was useful to get a better have on the curriculum here and how attainment is assessed and reported as well as hearing about how well my three school age children are doing in this new education system.

I was almost embarrassed by the superlatives (positive, of course) being used to describe my kids. Their academic progress and their degree of participation is an excellent litmus test for how well they are settling into life here. In turn, them being more settled here helps me feel more settled here.

School

Today marks three weeks since my three biggest boys started school.  They had been very anxious about starting a new school, as one might imagine.  They had come from a very small tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knew of everyone else even if they did not know each other directly, so the very idea of a larger school filled with nothing but strangers filled them with trepidation.

Their Dad had organised for us to go on a tour of the school less then 24 hours after we stepped off the aeroplane so they were jet-lagged and dazed as we wandered around the corridors and met various members of staff.  However, I think even this brief orientation took the edge off their worries.  Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and all the kids we met were smiley and cheerful.  There was a really nice atmosphere and buzz to the school generally.  The other advantage of the school tour, of course, was that it meant I had a modicum of a clue myself of how things worked and where to go.

So having emigrated on the Thursday, the boys started school on the Monday.  They had already missed enough formal schooling (several weeks of homeschooling had filled the gap between schools) and we also wanted to establish a solid routine for them.  And, let’s face it, we needed a break from each other.  So launched into their new school they were.  I have a First, Second and Fifth Grader so there were a lot of school supplies to buy in advance of them starting.  Thankfully Mr Pict had sorted all of that out before we arrived.  That was a whole new experience for us, however, as we have never been required to provide equipment before and here we were not just buying pencils and sharpeners but also boxes of tissues, whiteboard markers and headphones.

Everyone, staff and children, have made the boys feel welcome.  They had a few days of being hounded as if they were celebrities, intrigued kids asking them a whole series of questions about Scotland and their first impressions of America.  No one has really made a big deal out of their accents apparently, commenting at times on vocabulary (it’s an eraser, not a rubber) and my oldest son’s teacher had him answering lots of questions just so he could listen to his accent, but it has all been in good humour and the kids have not been upset or embarrassed by it.  Each of the boys has made at least one friend so they have someone to play with during recess which is great.  My oldest has even joined a math club.  I think the scale of the school was overwhelming at first as the elementary school they are in is the same size, in terms of population, as the entire campus for students aged 3-18 that they came from but they seem to be navigating their way around it fine now.

It is such a relief to my husband and me that the children have been so positive about school.  It is one of those keystone elements in the success of our relocation so for them to be so positive and stimulated and as settled as they are already, just three weeks in, is a massive deal because it makes us feel more settled as a family.