By Jennifer Magnuson
For several weeks I have scrolled through a Facebook feed teeming with high school graduation announcements and party planning as all around me friends and acquaintances prepare for their teenagers to matriculate soon. Parents post sepia-toned pictures of pig-tailed toddlers, little faces painted in first birthday cakes and slightly blurred evidence of inaugural attempts without training wheels, all complete with nostalgic commentary and cries of My baby is leaving us and Where have the years gone? Those with younger children comment, supportively echoing the sentiment to freeze time—to keep their own small children in situ—in an effort to avoid the looming empty nest. Amidst the festivities, upcoming barbecues and open houses hangs a heavy cloud of grief, a palpable mourning for an era that is gone, or near as much, and can never be replaced. I hold the invitations to graduation parties in my hands, some more thoughtfully curated than the ones for my wedding. My friends and neighbors host parties and post mini-movies on social media where I watch video montages set to tear-jerking songs; all of this makes me feel as if I am reading obituaries of childhood.
I live among friends who have chosen a life that has held their families in one place, instead of moving around the country—and world—as we have done until quite recently. I too have the photos from preschool, birthday parties and school concerts to post, but don’t feel a part of the pack because our players and backdrops haven’t been the same from milestone to milestone as we moved, from Washington to Idaho, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, India, Abu Dhabi. It never bothered me before the way it does now, looking at split-screen Instagram pictures; on the left, twin gap-toothed grins from the first day of kindergarten, on the right, a shot of the same friends in the same pose, caps and gowns signaling graduation day. The biggest indicator of the passage of time, aside from the obvious, is the significantly larger flowering hydrangea in the background. While I celebrate that my kids have endured the obligatory snapshots taken everywhere from the mountains of the American West to the sands of the Middle East, right here and now I wonder what it would be like for them to have known the same friends, neighbors, and yes, even the same hydrangea bush, for all of their school years.
Here is where we get to my soft spot. The tender place where I feel most conflicted, where I, too, feel sentimental and bittersweet about the looming transitions ahead. I also wonder how something that I once felt would remain forever can up and disappear. There remains, however, for me a disconnect as I reflect on our unique path to graduation.
The oldest two of our five children, Chloe and Maddie, will graduate this month. In a few short weeks they will finish high school—Chloe a year early—after having spent the bulk of the past five years being educated overseas. Chloe chose to spend her last semester here in the United States, enrolling in a local school after our return from the Middle East. Maddie completed her final three remaining classes online so that her diploma still bears the name of the international school she attended in Abu Dhabi. For Chloe, her decision meant spending less than six months in a school surrounded by people who grew up together; their journey more of an unbroken, straight line to the finish, Pomp and Circumstance marking the finite “end.” In this setting, Chloe felt unmoored and disconnected, her first taste of being the square peg.
Because we chose a non-traditional path, our lines have been more circuitous than linear, sometimes veering toward the chaotic. As we moved from state to state, then country to country, for my husband’s career, we’ve counted the stamps in their passports as a tradeoff for not having roots that extend deeply in one place. While in India, we homeschooled the younger four. Maddie was the first to attend an International School and spent her freshman year of high school with kids from all over the world, learning Norwegian from her best friend, an expat from Oslo. Chloe, still in middle school, completed her work from home, dutifully hammering out her assignments in the morning so she could spend the rest of her day sketching skirt designs and planning forays into Chennai’s rich textile markets. I viewed our rickshaw-driven excursions along the Ana Salai as the lessons that stuck with her most that year. Within a few months she had forged a working relationship with a tailor who spoke a smattering of English, just enough for her to jab authoritatively at her sketches so that he could stitch together her designs using fabric she had carefully chosen, a heady experience for a thirteen year-old girl. It typically makes me feel special to stand out in this way, but now that we have returned to the small town where I was raised, I wear the shroud of an outsider as we near the graduation ceremony.
Perhaps because they have already spent large swaths of time away from me as we transitioned back and forth between two countries, perhaps because of the nature of being a “Third Country Child”—a term used to refer to the children of expatriates—perhaps because the International School our children attended in Abu Dhabi routinely sponsored lengthy trips to other countries for Habitat for Humanity builds or Model United Nation competitions (I shed my first tears of separation when Chloe was barely 15 and off to Romania for a month), or perhaps because we lived among families from other cultures who viewed this kind of separation as normal, I am not grieving in the way I feel I am supposed to. In addition to not posting old pictures of the girls with friends who have been with them from kindergarten through high school, I have no song planned for a memory-filled slideshow that I will play for family and neighbors, primarily because both girls have insisted on wanting minimal fanfare for this transition. In Chloe’s case, she has little desire to celebrate her departure from a school she hardly knows, so we have come to view it as a box to check. Graduate early: check. Volunteer or work until turning 18: check. Leave for college: the check she is most excited to make. Maddie is equally blasé, and while most of me has come to understand and accept that this is the inevitable result of our choices, I can’t deny that I want to join in, not be still where others are busy with the purposeful movement of choosing party themes and planning post-commencement celebrations. As much as I value our unique experiences and the feeling of having lived a special life, I also want to join in with the people around me. I want to be the same.
When we lived in the United Arab Emirates, my son Jacob had a best friend, Alec. Soon after he turned eleven, Alec’s parents announced that he would be attending boarding school in England, as his older siblings and parents had done before him. At first, I was shocked. Who willingly parts with such a small child? Nearly numb with sadness for my friend and Alec and thinking about such a separation from my own son, I wondered how she was coping. Aside from the obvious—it was a family tradition, his older siblings had done the same, he would visit home regularly—her answer was the first of many lessons gifted me on the practice of letting go of the people who are born to us.
“Of course we will miss him, Jennifer.” Her tone was kind, which helped as she added, “Once I stopped believing my children were mine, it became easier for me to make the choices that were best for them.” The implicit “as opposed to best for me“ hung between us. Her words were like a small trowel, gently loosening the earth around the bedrock of control I believed I could maintain.
I try and remember this lesson as I struggle to let my daughters’ graduations pass with just a small family gathering. If I am being honest, I realize that a large part of my angst is because I want to have a big party and make a big deal out of things like everybody else because that is the currency I trade in now. I’m no longer a far-flung expat living exotically, posting travel pictures for my friends back home to admire. I live in a comfortable, quiet town with Little League and swim team and moms who cry when their children graduate from high school.
But if I allow myself to look into the hearts of my daughters, I know I would be doing that for me. The instructions from them are clear, if partially unsaid. Don‘t. Don’t pretend it was the same for them. It’s weeks before the realization of the motivation behind my girls’ insistence hits me: my desire to grieve and celebrate in the same way as my friends is a tacit admission that our life choices were somehow wrong. I need to let them finish this leg the way we started—a little differently.
So a small gathering it is, the money formerly allocated for the entertainment of people they scarcely know spent instead on plane tickets taking them to visit friends in other countries and states before returning to me, where we will begin preparations for college the following year. And when they are on the plane, I will allow myself a good cry and wait for them to come home.
Author’s Note: My new tribe of rooted friends and neighbors continues to flourish. While I experienced the sting of feeling like an outsider during the peak of graduation festivities, I am happy to report that as both of my girls prepare for college this fall, our connection to our new community is growing. Maddie will be attending university here in Oregon, and while Chloe is off to the East coast, she will be attending the same small university as the daughter of one of my new friends and neighbors.
Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of the travel memoir Peanut Butter & Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which is currently an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Finalist. She has also written for Writer’s Digest, Bitch Magazine and Nickelodeon. You can find her at jenniferhillmanmagnuson.com