Six of the seven suitcases.
We arrived in Mexico on August 6, 2018, with 7 overstuffed suitcases and a giant carseat bag. The plan had been to only bring six suitcases but it was so hard to decide what to leave behind -- the vast majority of our belongings -- and what to bring. By the end, I had so much "decision fatigue" that I was throwing things, willy-nilly, into our suitcases. I brought all the play food, for example, and all the magnatiles. The play food mostly goes unused and the magnatiles get used every day. Lesson learned: most toys are really unnecessary.
Navigating the enormous Mexico City airport with those 7 giant suitcases, a giant car seat bag and a wiley preschooler (plus her more docile sister) was mostly a nightmare. Luckily I had a stash of American dollar bills for tips... but those didn't help when Amelie turned and took off running back through Immigration. Past the soldiers with machine guns. I was on the verge of tears as I attempted to hoist her squirmy self up to the customs camera. Thankfully, immigration officers took pity on our bedraggled group and let us go in the handicapped/employee line. Grateful doesn't begin to describe how I felt.
We arrived in San Miguel de Allende after a night in a hotel and a four-hour drive to a temporary apartment where we lived out of two suitcases before moving into our year-long home at last. It was a relief to unpack but our belongings sure looked skimpy. Mostly in a nice way. I liked feeling freedom from too many belongings. But sometimes I worried that my children didn't have enough things. Over time, I saw that they really were happy with just a few toys. Nowadays, we rarely buy toys and instead use our money on travel and experiences.
A few days after we arrived, my one English-speaking friend from the children's school, Katie, notified me that there was an emergency meeting for parents. Using Google maps, I nervously navigated my way to the meeting's location. I still barely knew my way to Centro at that point. I found my friend and she introduced me to what felt like millions of other parents. I was startled to experience being pulled in for a quick hug and air-kiss on the cheek before even exchanging names. What a difference from New York City, where I never touch even my closest friends!
I only understood about half of what was being said but with a help of a friendly translator, who helped me and another brand new American parent, I came to realize that the school's land had been taken over in a coup! What an introduction to life in Mexico. I had no idea if this was typical or not. I was impressed by how calm and respectful everyone seemed to be.
Luckily, Katie knew someone who had just purchased property with a vacant school on it, and our school was able to take it over. A couple weeks later, the children and I went to help prepare the new property. Painting and scrubbing was a nice introduction to the new school for all three of us. I still felt like an idiot whenever anyone spoke to me in Spanish -- my Spanish speaking was moderate but my understanding felt poor -- but it was good to be able to wordlessly work alongside others.
The first day of school was very hard. Calliope was joining the first grade class, despite completing first grade in the United States, because the Waldorf school required children to be seven to start first grade (and she had just turned seven). She was actually the youngest in her class. Little did I know, repeating first grade would be a tremendous gift for Calliope. It allowed her to focus on learning Spanish (and making friends) without being overly challenged by academics. It actually bolstered her confidence immensely and solified her mathematics skills.
The first day of school included a "bridging up" ceremony for new first graders. In front of the entire school community, each seven-year-old walked across a flower bridge, holding the hand of an older student, away from the kindergarten teachers and towards the first grade teachers. My poor, shy girl was quietly crying across the circle from me, not understanding a word of what was being said. I ached to take her in my arms and comfort her but waited helplessly across the circle with Amelie instead. The kindergarten teacher escorted Calliope across the bridge -- she was too scared to take the hand of an older student -- and delivered her to the first grade teacher, Yolanda.
Then Yolanda and her student teacher escorted the first graders directly into their classroom and closed the door behind them. There was no chance to hug her goodbye. I felt terrible. I hadn't anticipated this separation, and thus, hadn't said goodbye before the ceremony. My poor girl: a new country, a new school culture (Waldorf), a new language. And now, no chance to formally separate from me before a very long first day.
I delivered three-year-old Amelie, sobbing, into her teacher's arms and headed home. It was Amelie's first full day of school in her life. She had only attended preschool two mornings a week before, and her nanny and nanny-share-buddy, Leo, always went with her.
Oh, my aching heart. I could barely get anything done all day, worrying and waiting to pick them up.
To my relief, they both seemed fine at the end of the day. Exhausted, yes, and clingy, but not traumatized. Thank goodness.
I continued dropping them off and picking them up by taxi for that first week -- each crying at drop off each morning -- and then switched to the school's van service near our home. To my surprised relief, they both seemed to like the van and there were no more tears at drop off. It turns out that transitioning in a parking lot was a lot easier than being personally delivered to their teachers. Who would have guessed?
They were exhausted each day after school during that first month. I could hardly blame them. Those days that I went to school for a parent meeting, I was exhausted too. All that Spanish! And not just "ordinary" Spanish like greetings and ordering food in restaurants. Oh no, this was high-level, fancy pants, pedalogical Spanish. Anthroposcopic was my favorite. I don't even know what that means in English!
Calliope, especially, was moody in those early days. Amelie, too, but it was easier to see that it was just plain exhaustion for her. By October, the dark moods started to lift. Amelie started to speak in Spanish -- her class was only Spanish-speaking. Plus, she had had a Spanish/English bilingual nanny, Susie, back in Brooklyn, so she had had more exposure to Spanish. And Amelie is a born mimic. To her, figuring out to speak Spanish and charm others was just a game.
Calliope, my more cautious and reserved little soul, was more reluctant. She would only speak in English at school, but mostly didn't speak at all. Luckily, her initally-stern-appearing teacher turned out to be a warm and loving gem of a person. I felt so lucky! She truly understood Calliope, how hard to push and when to relax her standards. And Yolanda had another teacher working with her all year, Manuel, so there was an extra person to help Calliope as needed. And they both spoke English fluently. Best of all, the "handwork" (knitting and sewing, for first graders) teacher, Theresa, is American and speaks English to all the children during her art class. And Calliope is dextrous and creative beyond her years, so she had a class where she she was a shining star among her peers. This bolstered her confidence in school. And in October, a bilingual girl (English/Spanish) joined the class and Calliope had a true friend!
With the children more settled at school, it was time to figure out what to do with myself. Looking back, I wonder why I didn't give myself more time to relax. It was the first time in more than 15 years that I was neither working nor in graduate school. But I was so accustomed to the grind of full-time work! I didn't know how to relax.
I got an online job as a health advisor to new parents. I hoped it would allow me to work half-time, but they never fully launched so work was scarce. My friend Jackie had had good luck building niche sites for Amazon so I decided to give that a shot, and signed up for an expensive online course.
The initial challenge was that I couldn't think of an item to build my niche site around. It had to be at least $50 but not already have competition from other niche sites. So all kitchen items, for example, were out. There were tons of websites devoted to them. Finally, the instructor of the course took pity on me, after hours and hours of researching items, and suggested... toilets.
I started building a niche website called, I believe, TheBestToiletReviews.com. (In case you were wondering, TheBestToilets.com was already taken.) I kept trying to prod myself into completing next steps but the trouble was... I hated it. I hated everything about it. Friends suggested I give up by I hated to waste the money I had invested. So instead, I spent hours and hours NOT working on it and not leaving the house because I was SUPPOSED to be working on it.
Finally I threw in the towel. What an enormous relief. I immediately felt so much lighter.
The company that hired me to work remotely as a child health advisor was looking for more sleep consultants so I got the idea to train to become a child sleep consultant. It made perfect sense: my life had been completely transformed by sleep training my own children. I had felt so empowered by seeing the tremendous changes in them when they got the sleep they truly needed. Moreover, as a pediatric nurse practitioner, I had seen the negative effects on children of inadequate sleep: poor school performance, hyperactivity, obesity and excessive daytime sleepiness (yes, children can be both sleepy AND hyperactive -- it's quite common, actually).
I was accepted into the 5-month training program with the Family Sleep Institute, the only training program that seemed to be both evidence-based AND inclusive of all training styles and families. The online training and reading turned out to be really fun! It was great to be learning and studying again. I had always been a good student and it was great to return to my roots.
In the process of turning my focus to the sleep training program, I also started to feel less lonely. I deeply missed our daily visits with Amy and Emily, back in Brooklyn, but Amy visited in February with her two children, my children's best friends and nanny-share partners for seven years, and somehow that turned things around for me. It was like my emotional tank got filled and that kept me going until April, when my other dear friend from Brooklyn, Emily, came to visit with her daughter. Then in May, my childhood friend Emily (a different Emily) came for three weeks with her children and husband, and my SMC friend Denise came with her son. By the time they left, it was just three weeks until we returned to the States for six weeks of glorious summer with our loved ones.
But I was also busy building community in San Miguel. I had a group of neighborhood mom friends, mostly with younger children, and Jackie, friends online since we were pregnant with our oldest children and in-person since our visit to San Miguel the summer prior. We actually had a little group of moms with donor-conceived children living in San Miguel, ranging from 2-6 people at any given time! It was great because we all committed to going out every Saturday night together, often including other friends and visitors as well. I loved having regular social plans and having affordable babysitting to support it! In NYC, babysitting ran me $20/hour, which made the very thought of going out become stressful. In Mexico, it was more like $4/hour. Much more doable! And San Miguel de Allende has an amazing number of restaurants, many of them quite good, so there was no shortage of new places to try.
I was also making friends with other English-speaking parents at the children's Waldorf school. As my Spanish developed and my confidence grew, I got more friendly with the Mexican parents as well. It was important to me to be friends with Mexicans as well as Americans but I was intimidated -- I felt like a child, and not a very bright one at that, when I tried to keep up with group conversations in Spanish. I stopped going to most of the school meetings, realizing that they were not worth the cost to my confidence.
By the time we returned to the States at the end of June, we were feeling much more settled in Mexico. And also very, very grateful to be within our beloved community again. Despite that gratitude, though, I knew our "experiment" of life in Mexico was not yet complete. I knew I wanted at least another year. The first, and hardest, year was over. It was time to start reaping the rewards of all that hard work.
to be continued...
San Miguel de Allende's famous pink sandstone church (that my children refer to as "the castle" -- they think it's the one in Disney movie credits)
Brooklyn besties Leo and Eleanor come to visit.
But San Miguel pals like Mika and Teo are amazing too.
San Miguel mama friends are wonderful, also.
Calliope's classmates and teachers after a performance for parents.
Feeling all the community love and Amelie and Mika's joint birthday party.
Churros in Mexico City with beloved Brooklyn friend, Annabelle
May visitors: childhood friend Emily and SMC-NYC friend Denise and their families. (Calliope was SUPER happy to have her photo taken).
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.