I’ve arranged a moving company, drafted an inventory of our possessions, and assigned my houseplants to friends. We’ve cancelled the rent and informed the school. Thomas has organized a monster-themed good-bye party to signal our June departure (and, I think, score some last minute gifts).
Our previous move, from Canada to Cape Town, was more than four years ago. The twins, Alex and Jon, arrived in South Africa as toddlers in diapers, and Thomas as our “big” three-year-old. The boys don’t remember their birthplace in Canada or the flurry of our relocation — the boxes, the shipping container, the hotel. A transcontinental move with three small boys requires deep-breathing and several dozen keep-the-kids-happy lollipops. Even so, anxiety hounded me clear across the Atlantic. I worried about safety and crime and living half a world from friends and extended family. I did not, however, wonder how the boys would adjust. They had their parents and their blankies and those, back then, were enough.
Things have changed. A transcontinental move with school-aged children, now first and second graders, means new territory and new worry. We’ve scouted potential neighborhoods with schools in mind, bus routes, test scores, cafeteria menus, and extracurriculars. But here’s the main difference: the boys know. Perhaps they don’t remember our last move, but they are old enough to anticipate this one. And every forecast they contrive stirs both excitement and uncertainty.
For the past four years, we’ve lived in a rented South African house; we planned to stay in the country only three years and didn’t want the hassle of buying. With a pack of rambunctious boys, however, a house acquires that lived-in look rather fast: walls dotted in sticky-tape where drawings have been artfully hung and ripped down again; a yellow stripe on the back deck where Thomas tested his poster paints; a bonsai-like olive tree that has survived despite many surreptitious “haircuts.” In other words, we’ve made this house our own.
Several months ago, however, I answered the front door to find the real homeowner on the step. She’d popped around for a surprise visit, and since she lives in Johannesburg — a two-hour flight from Cape Town — it was indeed a surprise. Especially for the boys.
“You mean this isn’t our house?” Thomas asked as soon as the woman had left.
“No, love, we rent this house. It’s like borrowing for a while.” I expected the conversation to end there. Rent or own, I could see little difference to a six-year-old.
“But what about our table?” Alex said. “Are we just borrowing that too?”
“What about my bed?” Jon added.
The discussion continued for a long time. We covered leases, tenants, mortgages and bank loans, all at the boys’ insistence. The topic gripped them — or rather, it shook them. I watched a tiny fault line run through their otherwise solid world.
In retrospect, our landlord’s timing was perfect. The boys have digested the news that this house is temporary, that we will leave, tables and beds in tow. So when my husband and I told the kids of our upcoming move to Canada, they felt only minor tremors. We have, at least for now, escaped a full-blown earthquake.
I grew up in an Air Force family; we moved every two to four years. The earthy smell of cardboard boxes and the screech of packing tape instilled in me an early biorhythm: get settled, stay a while, then pick up and go. As a young child, this meant adventure. An empty house to explore, a new bedroom color to choose, another jungle gym to navigate. Moving is harder as a teen, that first day of school both anonymous and painfully conspicuous. Nevertheless, I continued my itinerant lifestyle into adulthood and have moved 25 times in 45 years.
Confessions of a serial mover: I’ve often heard that moving to a new home is among life’s most stressful events, yet as an apartment-surfing student, and certainly as a young child, I did not find moving stressful at all. As single, childless adult, I found it time-consuming but not traumatic. In fact, there are aspects of moving I love. Junk gets tossed; the essentials packed and hauled away. A brief moment unburdened by all that stuff!
Can relocation really be more upsetting than illness or financial strife? According to psychological research, a new place of residence is, in fact, low on the list, less anxiety-riven than “break-up with steady boyfriend” or “revision of personal habits.” So far, so good. However, events associated with moves can be much more stressful: heavy debt, a new mortgage, more rows with your sweetie, sudden behavior changes in kids. This explains why moving as a parent and partner is tougher than moving as a freewheeling single.
What about effects on children? Military kids have a reputation — brats, in the best and worst sense of the word. They’re brats because they adapt quickly, they have pluck, they can deal. They’re also brats because constant moving can breed indifference, no long-term attachment to a place or its people. Research on “mobile” kids suggests dire consequences: more trouble at school, fewer meaningful relationships as adults, even greater risk of sickness and cavities. As with adults, however, events associated with moving — rather than the move itself — can cause these problems. If a family relocates too frequently to find a regular dentist, then, yes, a child’s teeth may suffer. If divorce or job loss precipitates a move, then insecurity may follow.
Last February, I sent my boys to school camp for three days. I debated whether the challenge would traumatize or build resilience in Alex and Jon; they’re six and had never spent a night away. Given the enthusiastic vibe at school (and a supportive environment at home), I decided to send them. As predicted, they had ups and downs. Jon shunned camp food and survived on Coke and Fizzers; Thomas vomited his custard and jelly each morning. And Alex, the most apprehensive?
“Camp was extra-double fun, Mom. When can I go back?”
Vomiting aside, all three boys loved camp. They learned to paddle a raft and help a blindfolded buddy through the obstacle course. Mom learned something too. If the mood is positive, the rationale plausible, and communication lines open, kids can handle challenge — and thrive. They can deal.
The boys will miss their friends when we move to Canada; they’ve said so many times. They’ll likely also miss their tiny school with its chickens roosting in the lockers. We’ll all miss Cape Town’s sunshine and our wonderful housekeeper, Lizzie. But the boys know Canada means grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Perhaps the thrill of an entire grocery aisle of breakfast cereal will wear off; they might even tire of snow. But they will have each other, a larger, loving family, and a rich sense of adventure. I can only hope, this time around, those will be enough.
Postscript: I may be leaving South Africa, but I’m not leaving Literary Mama. Watch in July for my new column where I explore the vital and sometimes rocky relationships among kids, mamas and mealtimes.