Solo parenting in a foreign country

While we were on the airplane from Beijing back to California, it was “daytime,” so I stayed up watching movies. I think I watched four. Two of them really stuck with me, A Quiet Place and Leave No Trace. They were powerful to me as a parent, and especially as a solo parent. Leave No Trace especially spoke to my not infrequent worries about being the only responsible adult in Emma’s life—the one who has to do everything, and on whom everything hangs. Keeping it together all the time, even when things are difficult. Making sure she is safe, cared for, fed, educated, healthy, having a good life. All of it. I don’t have PTSD like the dad did in the film, and so far we haven’t ended up living in the woods (though I’ve got to say, it looked really appealing, if I had the skills). But I’ve had my share of things to deal with, for the most part alone, as the only parent of a child, one who is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager.

Emma and I watched Leave No Trace together at our house, and she liked it up until the ending. Of course. As we watched the ending unfold, I was kicking myself. (SPOILER ALERT: skip the rest of the paragraph if you haven’t seen it and don’t like to know how movies end before you’ve had a chance to see them.) I was so wrapped up in the girl finding a safe place to be and having the strength to stay there as her dad walked away that I forgot to see things from the other side. Abandonment. The dad walking off and leaving his daughter behind, because he can’t cope, can’t give her what she needs most, can’t stay where she wants to be. But also knowing she will be cared for, safe. The girl letting her father go, because she just can’t do it any more, can’t keep moving, can’t always leave everything behind. The abandonment is what my daughter saw, no matter how I tried to spin it. Oof.

One of the immense challenges of our life in Mongolia for me has been handling everything as a solo parent. I’m not a single parent—not divorced (well, I am divorced, but long ago and not from Emma’s father), no other parent sharing the responsibility or messing things up either. I am it; that’s what being a solo parent means. But knowing that I am it, that I am responsible if things fall apart or I make a terrible decision, very occasionally freaks me out. Mostly it doesn’t, because this is our life, and this is how it always has been since the very beginning. I had Emma on my own intentionally, and it was the best decision I ever made. We love our family the way it is, and Emma never felt like she was “missing” a father. In fact, she gets really annoyed at people who say she is, which has been happening a lot here in Mongolia.

Before we left for Mongolia, I was mostly excited, but I would occasionally freak out and yell at myself (internally), “What the hell are you doing??? You don’t know anything about Mongolia!!! And you’re taking your kid there???” The more people told us, “Oh, how exciting! What an adventure! You’re going to love it!” the more I thought I was insane. But I also thought, oh, well, we’ll see. It’ll probably be interesting, and maybe we will learn something new. I think having no real idea what to expect, having no concept of Ulaanbaatar and not enough time to develop one, was both good and bad. We still would have come, no matter what, because of the professional hole I was in and still need to get out of. But I am not sure Emma would have opted for it, if she had been able to see what was coming. In fact, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have.

Part of it was that I was taking her out of what was an idyllic little bubble, for her. She had been going to this fantastic school for five years, was graduating from 6th grade and looking ahead to a phenomenal middle school program at the same school. Honestly, for me, the hardest part of deciding to go to Mongolia was taking her out of that school. We both cried during the end-of-year events, especially the 6th grade graduation ceremony. I was a basket case about it. But I also flat-out panicked every time she asked me if we really had to go to Mongolia. I tried to think of ways to make it work for her to stay in California (she would always end up saying, “But I want to be with you!”). But I just couldn’t back out of going to Mongolia, and thankfully, because my kid is my kid, I didn’t have to.

Nothing bad has happened here. In fact, things have been going remarkably well, though admittedly better for me than for Emma. As I’ve written, I love my job. Ulaanbaatar is nothing like what I expected (to be honest, I am not sure what I expected, but it’s probably in Nepal, or maybe Tibet), but it’s interesting, and there is cool stuff to do here. Daily life is easy, for the most part. Except that the winter has been a bit daunting, even for me. Not just the cold, but the air pollution, and having to not only put on all these layers but also wear a mask means I really have to talk myself into going outside sometimes.

Motivating Emma to get out of the house is tough, too, though I felt a bit of success the other day when she said yes immediately to my suggestion that we go for a walk. In fact, she might have even suggested it. I can’t remember how exactly it happened, but the idea was to take a break from her homework so she could finish it. She had to do something for English, and she was blocked. I proposed that we walk through the residential neighborhood next to my university. I had thought it would get us away from the incessant heavy traffic on the busy streets in our neck of the woods. But it was a Sunday afternoon, and the traffic cutting through the neighborhood was heavy, too, and even more challenging to avoid because we were on a narrow dirt street. So we ended up walking back out to the main drag and coming back that way. Still, it got us moving, and she was able to finish her homework afterwards.

The day before, Saturday, we had gone to the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. We got a bit of a late start, getting out of the house around 10:30, and the traffic heading downtown was already heavy, so the bus seemed to take a really long time. We got out near the State Department Store, and my plan was to eat at the Loving Hut, a vegan restaurant nearby. I had seen it on Google Maps when I was looking at the route to the dinosaur museum from the bus stop and thought we should try it. It was still kind of a cold morning, and even though I was bundled up, my legs were freezing as we walked, though Emma was doing fine. I saw the street that I thought should be the one we wanted, written as Urt Tsaagan Sam on my little hand-drawn map. The street sign said “Tourist Street” in English, and the Mongolian name was different, so I thought, oh, well, next one. But we got halfway down the block when I realized it had to be Tourist Street. We started down it in the right direction, but I didn’t see a Loving Hut. Turns out my hand-drawn map was not quite right, and we didn’t walk far enough. Next time. When my legs aren’t freezing. Still, there was an Asian fusion restaurant across the street from us, so we decided to try that. It was closed, of course, but the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf downstairs from it was open, so we went in there for “brunch.”

It’s all about being flexible. Just like anywhere, really. Except the signs are harder to read.

We had an added bonus, too, because the dinosaur museum is right on Freedom Square, and there was a display of ice sculptures there, as well as a large Christmas tree and a market of various Mongolian dairy products, none of which we particularly like, but they were interesting to see. We also walked past a couple of hilarious places, including Mama, a Korean restaurant with bizarre humanoid pillars in front of it that had us both singing, “In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room,” even though they weren’t tikis. And the Horned Owl, “Scandinavian Inspired Dining” whose sign asks, “Which one could you be?” and offers these options: Psycho Owl, Hunter Owl, Fighter Owl, Naughty Owl, Orc Owl, Elegant Owl, Sharp Eyed Owl, and Great Horned Owl. Choices, choices.

By the way, the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs was really cool. It is not very big—only three halls—but it has some great specimens, and many of the signs are in English. There was one hall that was the history of life on earth. Emma and I both burst out “Cool!” when we walked in. And the main attraction, the Tarbosaurus in the center of the main hall, is truly impressive. It made us wish the Mongolian Natural History Museum were open again. It is supposed to have an amazing collection, not just of fossils but of all sorts of specimens, but it closed down several years ago for renovations and never re-opened.

Those two things—our half-day excursion downtown and our walk—made for a successful weekend for both of us. Emma had a good time, and I did, too. More importantly, I felt like I was making the experience of being here good for Emma. Some things have been less than good for her, especially school, which is a large part of her life here. I have been doing my best to make things more fun, and generally succeeding. Part of it is that I am in a better mood here than I have been in a long, long time. She can tell. She knows that I’m happy, and she says I am more fun to be with. I know I am, too. We laugh a lot more and enjoy each other’s company immensely. We don’t argue nearly as much as we used to, because life here is more relaxed and flexible than life in California. I’m not sitting behind a wheel in traffic for huge chunks of the day, or teaching at a school that undervalues my contribution, either.

Emma, on the other hand, has a more challenging life than she did in California. I am writing another post about her school experience (I was hoping she would write it, but I can understand her reluctance to). And some things I have let slip that I shouldn’t have. We’ve both experienced far more culture shock dealing with her school than with just about any other aspect of life in Mongolia so far. This is her first experience with a large school since first grade, and her first time having different teachers for each class and having to change classrooms for each class. She has adapted well, even though her school is very confusing and doesn’t do a good job of integrating new kids. Or their parents.

And, as there always is, there is this one kid that is just an asshole. She is one of the long-time students there, and for whatever reason, she decided to pick on Emma from the first day of school, insulting her constantly and calling her things like “dumb bitch” when she was trying to work. I brought it up at the school’s “listening conference”—when the homeroom teachers listen to the parent talk about their kid for 20 minutes (for some reason, these don’t involve the kid, which doesn’t make any sense, since the kids know best what kind of learners they are and what they need from teachers, but whatever). They said they would handle it, but they didn’t, and it continued. I think if we’d been in the US, I would have been more proactive about it, but I just let it continue without intervening myself. I am ludicrously conflict-averse to everyone’s detriment sometimes. Emma tried everything—ignoring her, telling the teachers, laughing at her, walking away if she could. Nothing worked, and the teachers she talked to said, “Oh, she is just like that, you get used to it.” Get used to being called “dumb bitch”? How is that a good idea?

The day before school started up again after the winter break, I drafted an email to her homeroom teacher about it and was ready to send it off, but I thought I’d wait until the girl insulted Emma one more time, just so there would be a specific incident to include in the email. Miraculously, the kid did not come to school that day. Or the next. As Emma said, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” In fact, she was out for nearly three extra weeks. But then she came back. And the next day (today), she called Emma “dumb bitch.” As we’d planned, Emma texted me, and I sent the email to the teacher, adding the line, “We would both like this to stop today.”

Why didn’t I do this sooner? I really don’t know. I should have. I should have nipped it in the bud. But part of it is that I rarely go to Emma’s school, and I never see her teachers in person, which is what I am used to at her old school. So I feel detached from it. Also, Emma is used to handling her own affairs, but this is beyond anything she should have to handle on her own in seventh grade. I feel like I’ve thrown her to the wolves to see how she will fend for herself, which is not how you should feel about a really expensive private school. And Emma is flexible and easy going about things. But when she got to the point of saying she didn’t want to go to school because of this kid (and her math teacher, but that’s a whole other story, and one I’ve been way more concerned about), I finally had a delayed reaction and kicked myself into gear.

The truth is, it really is hard being in charge of everything, even when you are on familiar ground in your own country. Here, I have to figure things out not just for myself but for another person who is completely dependent on me. Generally this has gone pretty smoothly. We’ve also been healthy, for the most part, which really helps. (I’m feeling a bit underprepared for medical emergencies, to be honest.) And I am doing my best to make sure Emma has fun things to do and to look forward to (spring break in Thailand, for instance, and more traveling in Mongolia). And even though I am starting to panic a bit about going back to California, mainly from a professional standpoint, I am not panicking where she can see it.

In fact, I really wish we could stay in Mongolia longer. I would love at least another year. But as long as Emma is unhappy about school (and I am unhappy about her school; it’s pretty disappointing), our deal is that she gets to finish up middle school in Encinitas. So far, it looks like I will be sticking to that deal.

4 thoughts on “Solo parenting in a foreign country

  1. It’s so much harder when it’s our kids suffering. Middle school was when my daughter encountered painful peer incidents. So both sides of the pond, apparently (well, a bit of land mass between, too – heh heh). As to it being harder as a single parent, I’m not sure that adds any more than it takes away.

    We have to trust our gut sense for decisions. It’s very hard and very valuable, what you’re doing. Cheers to you both, and I hope the girl cuts it out. Any possibility of approaching the parents? I was very hands-off too, and my kids wanted it that way. Only once I approached a teacher I felt was being unfair. And was glad I did. Those decisions–whether or not to intercede–are some of the hardest I’ve faced.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marie! Yeah, I’m not sure what the single parent experience is like. Likely if I were one, I wouldn’t be here, because I would have to get another parent’s permission to take Emma out of the country, and I don’t have to deal with that whole mess (though getting her first passports was an interesting process!). This is one of the things we both value about our family and I love about solo-parenthood; we can decide what we want to do together without worrying about someone else.

      As for the school situation, I don’t know how I’d contact the other kid’s parents, but if I am ever at the school and happen to see her, I will talk to her myself. Maybe hearing directly from another adult is more effective than hearing from your parents (it is in Emma’s case). Emma is used to handling her own conflicts (Montessori teaches kids how to do that with their Peace Table process), but this wasn’t a conflict. It was a kid targeting Emma for systematic verbal abuse for no specific reason. For Emma, it became a choice between just putting up with the situation for five more months or seeing how effective the school is at handling these things (beyond teachers telling her to “get used to it”). It remains to be seen; the first proposal from the school administration was not well-thought-out. But Emma told me last night she is happy to have a supportive parent when she can’t deal with a problem on her own.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights about life and parenting. Despite the difficulties Emma has encountered with being in Mongolia, there are quite a few upsides that she probably will appreciate. When else will you be able to travel to so many fascinating places with relative ease? Anyway, your essays always are thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne! Thanks for commenting. I didn’t mean to make it sound like we’re complaining (though in re-reading the post, it’s a bit whiny). Emma’s having a good time, on the whole (well, except at school, but that’s getting better). But the working solo parent thing is a challenge no matter where you are, I guess!


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