Gutsy Expat Living, Mommy Style
Ever considered moving? To a tropical island? With your kids?
Sonia Marsh is a “Gutsy” woman who can pack her carry-on and move to another country in one day. A fellow memoir writer, I met Sonia this summer through her “My Gutsy Story” series, a popular contest on her blog. Here’s my (winning!) entry.
She says everyone has a “My Gutsy Story”; some just need a little help to uncover theirs. Her story, told in her travel memoir Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island, is about chucking it all and uprooting her family to reconnect on an island in Belize.
On July 2nd, 2004, my husband, Duke and I, decided to chuck it all and move to Belize hoping to reconnect our family. We uprooted our three sons— ages sixteen, thirteen and ten—and moved from a materialistic life in Orange County, CA, to a hut on stilts in Belize, Central America.
Our life was out of balance. Duke worked long hours, then spent additional hours commuting back and forth to Los Angeles each day. Our oldest son was dating a suicidal girlfriend, and started skipping school. Duke was constantly exhausted, and I longed for peace and paradise.
I didn’t like the entitlement attitude of teens and pre-teens in our neighborhood and disagreed with those parents who catered to their kids and purchased a brand new BMW or shiny truck on their kid’s sixteenth birthday. I wanted my sons to experience life in a less affluent part of the world, just as I had as a child in Nigeria.
So we decided to sell the house, both cars and everything else we owned to start a new, simple life in a third-world country without TV, gadgets or teenage girlfriends.
In one day, with ten suitcases and our small rat terrier, Cookie, we moved from a comfortable five-bedroom house, to a hut on stilts in the jungle of northern Belize.
We had stinky well-water, no glass in the windows, a palm-fronded ceiling, geckos, and giant ants transporting one-inch twigs around, so our life was turned upside-down.
The quick answer to why we picked Belize is because it’s the only English-speaking country in Central America, and my husband’s ability to learn Spanish, sucks. Plus it was the only country where we could afford beach front property.
Early on, one son has a serious allergic reaction to a poisonwood tree, even requiring a short hospital stay. In your shoes, I probably would have had everyone on the first bus back to the airport.
I have absolutely no regrets about our move. I never wanted to give up on my dream of making it work in “paradise.” Of course I was scared to death when my son’s eyes puffed up like crimson sea anemones, and the skin on his entire body looked like bubble wrap, but we had nowhere to go back to in the U.S., and I knew it would take time to adapt.
You can’t give up within a few weeks, because that’s when you need to show your strength. If you cave in, your kids won’t try to adapt. Believe me, it was tough to say, “Sorry honey, but we have to try our best. We no longer have our house in California.”
It took us about six months to slow down and adapt to a new life.
How Did You Adapt?
Your “anxious mommy” outlook is set in stark relief against the “don’t worry, be happy,” relaxed Belizean attitude. American mothers often cling to their stress as a badge of honor, a sign of good mothering. To what extent were you aware that your worrying might be a problem, and perhaps changed?
I love your question as it makes me think about who I am as a mother. I was raised in Nigeria, until age six, then Paris until fourteen, then England, where I attended boarding school and college. I am not your typical “American” mom, nor your typical “English” or “French” or “Danish” mom. Yes, my mother was Danish and I love what she taught me about life.
I am different in that I don’t conform. I view my role as a mom, to make my kids independent, but I have to admit that I was not the “Gutsy” woman that I hoped to be in Belize. Theft, rape, drugs and murders were mentioned daily on our island with only 11,000 people, so I reacted as an anxious mom. I’m not saying anything like this happened to us, but this was the first time I didn’t feel safe, especially when I was alone with my kids on the island.
Did the Boys Ultimately Catch the Travel Bug?
You want an honest answer, so I shall tell you that my kids don’t want publicity about our year in Belize. One thing I know is they tell others about how this year changed them. How do I know? Because I read some essays they wrote for college applications, and how they felt their year in Belize was rewarding.
My middle son wrote an essay which touched me. He is applying to medical school and said that when we moved to Belize, he saw his dad, happier with life in Belize than he had ever seen in Orange County, and that this made him realize how important it is to pick a career that makes you happy. This is Alec, the son who got the allergic reaction to the poisonwood tree, and he claims that his experience in Belize made him realize how important a doctor/patient relationship is.
I don’t know if my kids want to live in a hut again, but my youngest is roughing it in the Army at eighteen. He is passionate about his future military career.
I feel like I’m ready for another adventure. Panama seems to be a place I’d like to move next. Peace Corps in Africa is another calling for me.
Sonia has lived in many countries – Denmark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize – Sonia Marsh considers herself a citizen of the world. She holds a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and now lives in Southern California with her husband, Duke.