A few years ago at one of the Houston Families In Global Transition conferences I remember the then FIGT president, Sandy Thomas, VP of Global Girl Scouting, closing the event with two things. The first was something she had done many times before. She read the words from a favourite Girl Scout song:
‘Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.
A circle is round,
it has no end.
That’s how long,
I will be your friend.’
As usual, there were nods of recognition all round. The second thing she did I don’t remember happening on another occasion. She invited people onto the stage with her as the loudspeakers began to play We Are Family by Sister Sledge. The words: ‘I got all my sisters with me’ were poignant and some of us felt compelled to hold hands with the folk standing round our tables. It’s surprising that, until that weekend, most participants had been completely unknown to us. And yes, the male participants joined in with equal gusto and of course, many eyes glistened with tears.
In the intervening years the conference has moved to Washington DC, the board has changed and so has the program committee. During this time the conference focus has shifted too, attempting to keep the material as fresh as possible.
Inevitably, having attended 11 of the 16 conferences myself, many subjects have cropped up more than once. This is good for the newcomers, who still need to hear world’s experts talk about such things as raising children overseas and finding your identity as well as education and relocation services. Yet, despite being an old timer myself, the programmers always manage to provide me with an unexpected ‘aha moment’. Two years ago I was knocked sideways by the realization that our global nomad children could be so traumatised by the experience we foist on them and heard about the havoc eating disorders can wreak on a family. Three years ago the lightbulb lit up for me when they discussed resilience.
This year, the conference theme was The Global Family Redefined. I was skeptical about this one. I mean, what could be new? We all knew about blended families, the impact of divorce, the fact that there were more male accompanying partners now than ever (up to 50 per cent in some sectors) and that these partners, or ‘spartners’ as the opening keynote, Ray Leki, Director of the Transition Cener at the US Government Department of State, Foreign Service Institute, prefers to call them, are searching for and creating meaningful lives.
Norman Viss, the organisation’s treasurer, kicked off his MC duties by suggesting that we were all one big family and he was our elder brother. This time, the idea sounded new. For some reason I had forgotten the singalong and dancealong initiated by Sandy years earlier.
Later, when it was time for the Ignite sessions, each speaker had just 12 minutes to share their expertise alongside a rolling slideshow that shifted every 20 seconds. Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, spoke of those Beloved Strangers, the cooks, drivers and nannies with whom we often share our home and how they are, in fact, part of our family. She spoke of how our good friends become our local support network in each posting and how important they are not only to us, but our children. These people are part of our family. I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t considered the very great friends we made in Oman over 20 years ago and whose children grew up alongside our own, were allowed to belong to our ‘family’. Sure, I knew how much they mattered to me and that we had made an effort to stay connected and meet up annually since then, but I had never recognized that while I flippantly said this Christmas, when all 13 of us were together and our grown boys were out playing in the garden with a rugby ball, that they were ‘like cousins’, that I had been right. They are like cousins. I guess my problem has been that because these folk are not connected to us by blood or marriage I shouldn’t afford them the same love as those that are. I’ve pushed the thought away because it felt a bit disloyal to my ‘real’ family.
As Julia continued I felt the tears well up in my throat and swallowed hard. Around me, countless others were blinking like crazy and willing their lips to stop wobbling. Like me, they realized that it was OK to feel as close to the significant others who had cared for our children and for us too.
It appears that the agony of distance and goodbyes is the price we pay for our so-called ‘privileged life’. When Dr Jill Kristal and Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly shared ways to be more present for our distant loved ones in a later workshop, we were glad to receive some solutions to this problem.
At the end of the second day, Dr Fanta Aw, VP of Campus Life at American University, herself from Burundi, endorsed that yes, indeed, it takes a ‘village’ to raise a child. Had the organisers woven this red thread of a theme into the program intentionally?
The impact of all this learning was that yesterday, as we all said goodbye, I40 or so people, at least half of whom had never met before, were hugging like old friends and promising not only to be back but also to stay in touch. We had become one family, one village. Yes, there were tears, many of them mine.
But, just as I berate myself for forgetting the emotional impact of Sandy’s words several years earlier, I am promising myself to never forget again how large and vital our global, dispersed, multi-cultural family is and that we don’t need blood ties in order to be siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents to countless others. It isn’t disloyal to my own family at all. I am now giving myself permission to feel this way. How lucky I am to be loved, and be able to love, so many wonderful people. Yes, this is a privileged life.