When I told my dad we were moving to a foreign country, he said: “I think this is so good. You guys are young. You can go away and establish yourselves as a family, work out your priorities, without a lot of family nearby and outside influences. This is a great, great opportunity for you, and I am so happy for you.”
I’ve thought about that a thousand times since we moved to Sicily three years ago. My parents raised my siblings and me overseas, so he spoke from a depth of experience. He knew that anyone who lives overseas has a choice. You will be isolated, you will be lonely, you will be overwhelmed, you will be foreign.
You can use the isolation for your benefit. You can take advantage of the distance from the influences that affect your peers. You can reevaluate your priorities, establish new habits, build a foundation for your family. You can train the crew of your little ship so that when the world’s fancies sway this way and that, you can still hold steady to your goals.
For us, Sicily was where our parenting started. Lena was just three months old when our plane landed in Italy. Also, I quit my job when we left the States, and I couldn’t immediately find work here. (You can read about that difficult transition here.)
After I accepted my new status as a full-time mom instead of a full-time nurse, I sat down and thought about the kind of mom I wanted to be, especially as a stay-at-home mom. This move gave us a chance to establish ourselves as parents and as a family and to decide what our priorities would be.
These were the priorities we have established here:
We want to read.
A lot. We love to read, thanks to parents who raised us on a steady diet of great literature. My husband and I read an average of 50 books a year on our own, and we read at least four books a day to each of our kids.
One trick to reading a lot is to surround yourself (and your kids) with good books. There are [piles of] books all over our home, and I recently calculated that we have about 100 board books and 150 picture books. Plenty to keep both the readers and the listeners interested in the stories!
(Note to moms trying to build their home libraries: try library book sales. I’ve filled boxes with children’s books at library sales in the States and then shipped them back to us overseas with the super-cheap, super-slow Media Mail option.)
We want to cook our own clean, healthy food.
We live in a small town in rural Sicily, and we have to drive at least 30 minutes to get good ethnic (ie. not Italian) food. We enjoy going out to a restaurant once a month or so – usually for incredible wood-fired pizza in our town – but it’s stressful with little kids. So… in Sicily, if we want to eat, we kind of have to cook.
we do! Thanks to dearth of restaurants and a cornucopia of produce, I’ve finally gotten the crash course in basic home cooking that I so desperately needed… oh, when I went to college. I do our dry-goods shopping at the U.S. grocery store on base, and then we try to purchase most of the perishable items — fruits, vegetables, cheese, seafood — at the market or in town. Sicily makes this easy.
I’ve watched my friend Rachel beautifully transform the food culture in her home since moving here. Here’s what she said about living and cooking in Sicily:
“Not having the fast food option has helped me to learn to embrace cooking. I’ve always enjoyed it, but having such easy (and cheap) access to incredible fresh ingredients has motivated me to search out ways to cook them. On top of that, I’ve loved having my kids in the kitchen with me! … Mussels and artichokes are their favorites these days. (Isn’t that crazy?! We can’t believe it, either!) We love knowing that we’re laying a foundation of healthy eating for them!”
We don’t want TV to be a big deal in our home.
By that I mean that we want to spend more time doing other things, and we don’t want our kids sitting in front of screens. For now, our family does not own a TV. Our kids don’t expect movies or computer time; we just fill our days with other activities. We don’t think this is a permanent choice (both Elliott and I grew up with — and loved — family movie nights), but it’s right for us during this season.
We don’t want to spend a lot of time on our computers or phones in front of our kids.
I wrote more about my decisions to limit my iPhone usage here. (Elliott doesn’t own a smartphone right now, so it’s a lot easier for him!)
I loved my friend Sarah’s comment on that blog post because it shows how Sicily has helped her unplug and restart her parenting as well:
“Since moving to Sicily it has been very freeing to be in a different time zone where social media is not buzzing in the phone…. I have found that also I get frustrated with my kids if I’m distracted by my phone because they’re not allowing me to “focus.” I have noticed that and have now made a point to only check FB and email in the mornings, nap time, and the evenings…. It allows me to be a mother and wife who is present.”
Amen to that! I only wish it were more true of me.
We want to explore alternative employment.
I sell handmade crafts, do copy editing work for my dad’s organization, and blog… and earn a few dollars a month. ;) It’s ok; earning money is not my primary focus right now. I’m enjoying this chance to explore other fields besides nursing during these years so that I have a better idea of my skills and interests (and so I keep developing both of those!) whenever I re-enter the workforce.
Elliott has also enjoyed “building a platform” that might lead to another career down the road. He established a website and podcast while he was here called “The Uncommon Veterinarian.” He also is almost finished with his first novel, a monumental feat of dedication.
We want to stay connected to family back home.
We Skype with family on weekend afternoons, and my blog is a big way to stay connected to our family and invite them into our lives. We also love it when they visit us here!
We want to open our home to visitors.
We love having family and friends come to stay, and we’ve tried to make that a priority in our lives by always having an available guest room, a pretty open schedule, and a welcome invitation to anyone who would like to come.
This year we’ve had week-long visitors every month since October, and we try to open our home regularly for dinners, play dates, and game nights, too. It’s all a part of our life-goal of making room… hence the name of this blog!
We want to spend time outdoors.
That’s why we chose a house that had a whole green valley for a backyard. Except in the summertime, we take the kids on a hike about every week. Often Elliott will take the kids for a walk as soon as he gets home from work and while I’m cooking dinner. They meander down to the piazza and come back with fresh bread and wine to accompany our meal, or sometimes they walk farther to a farm near our house.
For those of us in Sicily – or living anywhere overseas – this is a rare opportunity. Living overseas is an adventure, and there are definitely extra challenges with the distance from family and smaller community and resources. But don’t forget that the community is (usually) ready-made and eager to welcome you; resources are often plentiful and free; and you live in a beautiful-in-its-own-way, once-in-a-lifetime location.
Of course, unplugging and restarting your parenting — or your life! — is important to do wherever you are whenever you need to do it, whether you’re in Bahrain or Boston, Iceland or Indianapolis, Venezuela or Vancouver. Certainly there are more resources and more diversity when you’re in a major Western metropolis. I want our family’s priorities and goals to be something we constantly remember, re-evaluate, and re-prioritize no matter where we live.
Now it’s your turn! Before you had a family of your own, how did you picture your family? How did you envision yourselves spending weekends, evenings, and holidays? What did you think your priorities would be?
If you’re single, how did you picture yourself at this age? Are your priorities in the right place?
And now: what baby steps could you take to help yourself get there? Here are some suggestions (most of which I could really apply to my life!):
- Waking up 15 minutes earlier to pack a healthy lunch for yourself, or to get a shower in before the kids are up. (I didn’t do that this morning and wish I had….)
- Going home next weekend to spend time with your parents.
- Finally making a budget and sticking to it.
- Reading one book this month that you’ve always wanted to read. Maybe a short classic like My Antonia, or a beautiful memoir like The Dirty Life, or a great piece of new fiction like What Alice Forgot.
- Making a meal plan this week (just four meals, and use the leftovers for other meals) and shopping for the ingredients.
- Setting a goal of something to do with your kids today, like reading one book to each of them, or building a blanket fort instead of letting them watch TV, or making homemade play dough in fun colors.
OK, enough talking. What do you think of all this? How can you unplug and restart your parenting right where you are? You guys inspire me! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!