Motherhood on the Move: Lessons From a Modern-Day Urban Nomad

amaliah.com

BY SABIA ALI IN LIFESTYLE ON 31ST MAY, 2022

Throughout my life, both as a child and later as a mother, I have lived across different continents, cultures and climates.  I am what I would call a ‘modern-day urban nomad’. For many, it would seem that a life of being constantly on the move – never having the chance to settle in one place for too long and get to know your surroundings – is a formula for personal ruin.  Add to that an entourage of young children and the situation suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.  As a parent, the self-questioning begins:

“Will my children be deprived of a happy life with constant relocations?

What impact will this have on their emotional wellbeing? Will they ever have meaningful friendships?” 

Any rational person would argue that financial, emotional, social and even geographical stability are prerequisites for nurturing a well-rounded child.  Whilst that may be true, the lived realities of many people often fall far short of that ideal. In particular, the desire to remain in one place long-term is sometimes overridden by practical considerations.  Having been through the process of moving over a dozen times with my young family, to different cities and countries, I share some personal reflections which might help allay the fears of anyone about to make that big leap into the unknown:

You are not moving only for your own sake.

Some families relocate home because of a new job, a better house or to be closer to extended family. Whatever the reason, you have to consider the children’s best interests too. A great job may be a wonderful career move for a parent but if there are no academic, social or health provisions for your children in the new location, then the whole idea becomes a selfish one. 

So, although the decision to move may be made by parents on behalf of the whole family, it has to include the best interests of all.

Use your childhood experiences as an example.

Trust your instincts. Personal anecdotes from your childhood may give you the confidence you need in making a decision as a parent. I myself was uprooted from London as a child and spent three years abroad in a totally alien society.  At the time, I resented the upheaval but later realised it was one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had.  Ostensibly, my peers who I had left behind were more fortunate given they continued to enjoy a static and sheltered life.  But this dull continuity has today rendered those same people unable to cope with anything outside the familiar.  This was a key lesson I knew my sons would also appreciate in hindsight – and they did.  I just had to be patient and observe.

Despite their complaints about the real drudgery of a nomadic life, years later they finally acknowledge they also had an enviable life of adventure, Alhamdulillah.  

Listen to your children.

OK, so this seems a bit of a contradiction especially when we, as parents, make the big decisions on behalf of our children.  How can we listen to them and calm their fears at the same time? I remember having to deal with my children sometimes complaining about the abrupt end of their time in a particular place when they had just settled into a routine.  Of course, as a parent, that was undeniably painful to hear.  However, I knew we were always in search of the best options, be it education, spiritual wellbeing or social milieu – especially for them. These are conversations that must be had as a family. Never underestimate what they can understand.

If they are old enough, explain the long-term goals– worldly and spiritual–to them since they are inherently myopic about life. 

Of course, conversations with very young children will not be possible. However, rooting your intentions in an Islamic framework always makes any task more manageable and less daunting.  Give children the security of ‘family’ and the knowledge that they will be protected and kept safe wherever they are. Reassure them with a sense of continuity in their routine or extracurricular interests – and make sure you follow this promise up. If moving abroad, finding a social circle of friends with similar interests or from the same part of the world will provide a huge comfort.  For example, in Saudi Arabia, my boys enjoyed bike rides, mountain hikes, taekwondo classes and barbeques in the desert with friends. It makes life seem normal despite the outward changes around them.

Exhaustion and frustrations will exist. 

The drudgery of moving material possessions is real.  It is exhausting.  There is no denying that always being on standby, ready to pack up and move onto the next destination is also emotionally gruelling. Arriving at the next temporary stop, you never feel totally sure if you should completely unpack or just manage with the bare minimum. Doing that for oneself is a tough job in itself.  Doing that on behalf of one’s own children is incredibly more demanding. In shifting my children between homes and schools in different countries, usually not more than a couple of years at a time, they were not able to plant their feet firmly on the ground before it was time to move on again. However, it is important to make a house a home as much as possible. Live in the present and enjoy what is around you for now.

Think about the long-term gains vs. short-term inconveniences. Arguably, the experience of being immersed in other societies will make children more reflective and appreciative of their own identities.  It is these intangible, yet priceless, gains that make it all worthwhile. 

Teach your children first about who they are. 

At home, an understanding of what it means to be Muslim has to be inculcated at a young age. This is an essential preparation for children when they come to live amongst other communities whose customs and traditions may be very different from theirs. Taking that self-awareness into the public domain, where they are the anomaly, should not threaten their Muslim identity since they know this transcends all the other parts that make them whole.  It means that they can, to a large extent, discern culture from religion. They learn that ‘difference’ is not a synonym for ‘deviance’.  It’s just that there is more than one way to arrive at the same conclusion.  

For example, in Saudi Arabia, my children discovered it is the social norm for the host of a dinner party not to sit with his/her guests when food is served.  This is a way to honour the guests and give them undivided attention. The host only eats after everyone else has been taken care of. It is a social etiquette which may seem alien to many, yet it does not contradict Islam. It is simply a Saudi interpretation of hospitality.  These kinds of nuances in Islamic culture can only ever be understood from having had personal interactions with people different to ourselves.  

There is a priceless education to be learned. 

Unlike adults, young children have an innate innocence and purity of thought which helps them approach a situation with open-mindedness. They come to a new situation with an inquisitive mind and therefore fewer expectations. I have seen my sons strive to make the best of each social situation that they have been exposed to. Over the years, they have lived amongst a variety of cultures, languages, customs and even religions.  The net result is that they realise there is no singular way of living.  Even where they encountered fellow Muslims who represented different ethnic and social backgrounds, that cultural exchange was important in helping them understand the diverse composite parts of this great monolithic belief system called Islam.  As a result, today, cultural dogma has no place in their world. What they (and I) have seen is that a community is a beautiful social tapestry made of individual parts in which each brings their colourful contribution to the whole. The result is quite striking. Alhamdulillah, looking at the young adults today that are my sons, I feel the choices we made as parents were justified.

Packing up memories and not just things

Not everyone you meet will be liked or will like.

As a witness to their young lives, I will not pretend and say that the encounters my sons had with their peers have always been positive. There have been unsavoury characters too. Yet, that is the lesson in itself.  It’s impossible to like and be liked by everyone.  These negative experiences have been a character-building process in itself. I know that living in a monoculture can lead to a complacency about life, whereas interacting with a variety of people can be an enriching experience.  Children and adults alike often become more mindful of their social environment, values and belief systems. It doesn’t always have to be the case that our children will capitulate to peer pressure. As long as they are confident about who they are, they will not necessarily succumb.  It’s possible that through observation of others, they will self-reflect and understand that there are improvements they can make in their own lifestyle. 

It is an invaluable lesson in humility.

And there are those with whom a connection will continue…

In terms of meaningful friendships, some might argue that it is difficult to carry this forward through time when someone has been uprooted too often.  Whilst I do not deny this is a real issue for many people, Alhamdulillah, it is still possible to stay connected with several quality friends who all sit on that linear thread through one’s life.  My own sons have friends scattered across the world.  Although meeting up in person has not been possible in many cases, they still maintain a connection. It is proof that despite meeting and dispersing, they have found a commonality which supersedes their apparent differences and which bonds them across the miles. Thankfully, in the internet age, the task of keeping in touch is now much easier. 

For anyone contemplating a new start in another country with a young family, I would argue that this change invariably brings about self-reflection and maturity – an opportunity not to forfeit lightly.

Some of the most well-rounded and humble human beings I know are those who have allowed themselves to be immersed into other cultures and societies. 

They have surrendered the dogma of their own societal traditions and opened up to the possibility of doing things in alternative ways. In return, they exude an aura of humility and tolerance which are, in my opinion, qualities missing in today’s global village.  By the same token, it would be wrong to assume those who have not had such exposure are cultural chauvinists.  What is true though, is that an inward-looking aloofness can lead to arrogance. It is something I have consciously tried to steer my children away from.  What better way than being in the midst of a host community where daily challenges to preconceived ideas arise?  

For sure, living temporarily from place to place comes at a price.  However, the gains in terms of identity, friendships and humility, have proven why the packing and unpacking of boxes over the years have been worthwhile.

Today, I see my sons as young men able and willing to interact with a myriad of people and yet be true to their own identity.  They are uncompromising but respectful.  They are confident but humble.  They are young but exude maturity for their age.  Above all, the most valuable lesson has been that the inconveniences of an itinerant lifestyle are a constant reminder of the ephemeral nature of this world itself.  I am hopeful that this lesson is also not lost on my children, insha’Allah

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