Before we came to Brazil, I had a job that I loved. I was the Program Director of the English Learning Center, an adult education program for English language learners. Every day, I got to work with smart, caring, creative, hardworking people. I know with certainty that the work we did together- staff, students, and volunteers- made the world a little bit better for a lot of folks. It was a joy and a privilege.
As Program Director, I learned so much about people, about leadership, and about myself, and even though I know it was the right decision to take our family to Brazil, I do have flashes of panic where I question just what exactly I think I’m doing with my life. Last night, in fact, I woke up at 2:12am and couldn’t fall back asleep because I turn 35 on Thursday this week, and I’m unemployed after walking away from both a job I loved and a meaningful career path, and sometimes that really freaks me out.
I’ve also been getting freaked out because it turns out that the Imposter Syndrome that popped up sporadically in my former role continues to pop up in my current one. I’m now a Full-Time Parent to Oscar and August, and while I definitely felt qualified to grow them, there are moments every day where I do not feel qualified to raise them. Sometimes Oscar will hit or kick August, and sometimes I swoop in and calmly manage an apology out of the little monster, and sometimes I ask him through clenched teeth what is wrong with him. August’s favorite words right now are all just whiny noises, and sometimes I chat nicely with him about what he needs, and sometimes I tell him to solve his own problems. You know, because he’s one now and totally capable of doing that. (???)
And yet, I wanted this role (and it is one that I know reflects an incredible amount of privilege). Back in St. Paul, after August was born and I returned to work, my middle-of-the-night panic was because our days were flying by in a frenzy. Monday through Friday, Matt and I were rushing to get the kids somewhere: to daycare (at different locations), to the dinner table, to the bathtub, to bed. It felt like there wasn’t room for spontaneity and fun often enough. It felt like I was missing formative, special times with our kids because my mind was always planning the next thing we had to do. Every day, I reminded myself that our kids will someday soon be too big to carry. Was I spending this precious time the right way?
I’m spending my time now much differently than I was in St. Paul. It’s been hard and great. Hard to reframe my definition of what a “productive day” looks like, great to get to know my kids in this new way. I experience their daily- no, hourly– rhythms in a very intimate way, and this is both thrilling and exhausting. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I feel the Groundhog Day ennui of it all as a heavy burden. When one of them picks out a book and they both end up cuddling with me to read it, I’m over the moon and I can’t believe how lucky I am. When Oscar has just pooped and I’m trying to wipe his bottom while August is working really hard to get through my legs to splash his hands in the toilet, I start to wonder whose idea it was to have kids anyway, because it definitely couldn’t have been mine.
One of the question marks we came to Brazil with was how this whole full-time parenting gig would actually look, because transitioning to life at home with the kids while in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language is a whole different animal than if I’d just left my job. We really wanted the kids to learn some Portuguese and make some friends. Would that happen naturally, or would we need help?
We’ve positioned ourselves well to fill in this blank. Matt’s incredibly thorough research on where to live landed us in a complex with lots of other young families, and we’ve channeled our most outgoing extrovert selves to meet as many new people as we can. We heard about a bilingual preschool, less than a kilometer from our house, during our first week here, and we tucked it away for potential future use. We weren’t sure at that early point what the kids might need or respond well to- but after a few weeks, the picture got clearer.
While August was busy charming people with his dimply, open-mouthed smiles, Oscar went from inviting our neighbor kids into his room to throwing tantrums when I suggested that we visit the playground to hang out with those same friends. He kept withdrawing, and it was getting harder to find social outlets for him. If you’ve met Oscar, you know that he is really verbal. That’s how he connects with people. So while he continued to interact happily with the adults we know who speak some English, it was apparent that the language barrier was impacting his ability to feel comfortable playing with other kids. We scheduled a tour of the school we’d heard about, Wings.
Wings is a preschool for kids ages one through five. The use of the word “school” is pretty deliberate, I’ve learned. At first I thought it was just a language thing, but even though kids as young as one attend Wings, it is definitely a school. There is a lot of structure in the kids’ days: Portuguese class, math class, English class, art class, music class. They move around the school in groups of similarly-aged peers. As the director told me on our tour, the teachers and curriculum focus on helping the kids develop autonomy and citizenship. But alongside that structure, the actual physical space is really cool. It’s like a dreamscape, with a lot of room dedicated to creative play. Wings seemed to be the perfect fit for us because in addition to a clean, bright, organized school and welcoming staff, many of the teachers speak English, making it easier for all of us to connect with them.
Most importantly, Matt and I were anxious for Oscar to grow in his confidence with other kids, and Wings provided the gentle nudge out of the nest that he needed (pun obviously intended). Our one reservation about the whole thing was that adding a school routine brought us a little closer to those frantic days in St. Paul that we wanted to avoid. We worked out a deal with the director: we would send the kids three mornings each week. They’d be home for lunch, rest time, and afternoon fun, giving me plenty of time with them even on those days while allowing both kids to grow in their friendships, Portuguese skills, and independence.
So! We started school last week. There have been growing pains, as we expected. August still cries at drop-off, but the staff there takes such good care of him, and as soon as I leave, he’s engaged and learning. Oscar cried quite a bit on his second day there too, but he has since started to share fun stories of activities with his classmates. He says he loves his teachers. When I picked the kids up this week on Monday, two of Oscar’s classmates and their parents said goodbye to him, and he responded!
And then yesterday morning, we played outside at our complex’s little playground, and several other kids joined us. At first Oscar was nervous and wanted to go home, but I convinced him to stay just a little bit longer. Eventually, he started playing with a couple of the girls and even shared his soccer ball with them- which, he pointed out to me, was something he didn’t want to do before.
I’m tentatively feeling relief that this is the right path. It definitely feels a little strange to pay for school while I am not working and have the time and ability (however questionable) to take care of my kids. I’ve felt a little guilty in these last couple of weeks when I get to go for a run in the morning and take a long shower afterwards, which I’m mostly assuaging by trying to run errands and do as many household chores as possible while the kids are gone so that when they are home, we can just enjoy time together. But when I ignore the guilt and remember that it was our careful consideration and observation of our kids’ needs that led us to what is turning out to be a very enriching experience for us all, I can only feel good about where we’re at right now.
Last Saturday, the school held a big annual party, Festa Agostina. There was dancing, music, games, delicious food, kids with painted on mustaches- it was a lot of fun. We followed Oscar and August’s lead about how much time we would spend there, and we enjoyed a solid three hours of party time. We got to chat with a few other parents, and my heart was full looking around at the new community we’ve been welcomed into. I think the kids are starting to feel it, too.