Worlds apart: The challenges of global parenting

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 10:31 a.m. MDT

Melissa Dalton-Bradford thought she had failed as a mother.

It was November of last year, and the annual onslaught of Christmas cards was just beginning to trickle into her home. She also received an LDS mission announcement and a wedding invitation.

"What I saw immediately in those pictures was a big, stable community," she said. "All these people that had known (my friends') kids forever that were there to back up and to celebrate and to support them."

And she started feeling sad. After moving her family across eight countries in the past couple of decades, Dalton-Bradford, a mother of four, and her husband, Randall Bradford, have given their kids many things. Stability and continuity haven't made the list.

Along with the everyday fears that accompany raising kids, international parents — mothers and fathers who raise their families abroad — face additional concerns when trying to guide their children through adolescence and a slew of languages and cultures.

These "third culture kids," as they are called, have spent a majority of their formative years in a culture, language or country different from their parents, Dalton-Bradford explained on her blog, Melissa Writes of Passage.

But Dalton-Bradford, a blogger and newly published author of "Global Mom: A Memoir," received some defining encouragement from one of her kids.

"We are Bradfords," daughter Claire told her. "This is what we do."

It was 20 years ago that the Bradfords' lives started to change. It began with a new job, and over the years it has taken them to Norway, France, Singapore and Switzerland, to name a few.

With each move came what Dalton-Bradford calls a new passage, a new culture, a new language — a new life, essentially.

The Bradfords are unique in terms of international parents. In addition to living in a culture different than the American roots of their family, Dalton-Bradford's husband has a job that requires them to make international moves often.

Dalton-Bradford identifies this term on her blog as a "Transient International Composite Kid."

And the constant state of momentum has taught Dalton-Bradford some vital lessons along the way.

For example, Dalton-Bradford knows that within every good story there is an element of loss.

And for a family that uproots every few years, that loss can be acutely felt in many ways.

"The story of our family is about all sorts of levels of loss," Dalton-Bradford said. "You lose your mother country, you lose your contact to your family. You lose your comfort zone, you lose your sense of identity over and over again."

And that isn't necessarily a bad thing, she said.

Because for Dalton-Bradford, some of the greatest triumphs have come from watching her children thrive between cultures — like when she overheard her son speaking Norwegian for the first time while playing with a friend, or hearing her daughter recite a sentence in French or another son speak German for the first time.

"That for me is gratifying," she said. "You have then, a very human, sensorial connection with other cultures. It's not like (my children) have just been window shopping. They've gone in and actually bought the cultures."

But it's not without a toll. Take, for example, education.

Dalton-Bradford's son, Dalton, has been through nine different school systems.

"And it's not just nine different school systems through town, it's been a British system, a French system, a German system and they are all very different," Dalton-Bradford said.

And in addition to transitioning to a new country nine times, Dalton-Bradford said all of her children have had to exert a great deal of effort simply to establish themselves.

When Dalton-Bradford's daughter, Claire, attended college in Utah, what should have been "coming home" was in reality another cultural adjustment.

"And it's not because they don't love their American friends or don't love American culture," she said. "It's because there is a lot of it they just don't understand."

During her first year of college, Claire would tell her mother that there were references to TV shows and American experiences she was unfamiliar with, leaving her to watch from the sidelines.

"My biggest concern as a global mother — and this will be odd — has been with them reintegrating into America. Their whole lives have been spent outside. That's why every summer we have tried to come and spend time here so they know what a Fourth of July parade looks like and they know there are stores open all day and all night and they're not freaked out by that."

But Dalton-Bradford said that all comes with the territory of being a third culture kid.

"My children are used to being outsiders either as the one American child in a French culture, or the one Caucasian kid in a Singaporean culture; they are sort of on the margins no matter where they are," she said. "They might carry an American passport, but they might have never lived in America, and they might not even speak English at all."

Questions of where home is and how to deal with loss — including self, culture and a precious loved one — inspired Dalton-Bradford to write her memoirs as a global mother.

In 2007, after just a few short days of attending Brigham Young University-Idaho, Dalton-Bradford's son, Parker, was involved in a swimming accident where he lost his life trying to save another swimmer.

"There is the ultimate story of loss, with losing our son to death," she said. "That throws everything else into perspective. Those other losses are nothing compared to losing the thing we love the most, the thing that is our lifeblood."

Her therapeutic writing began with the encouragement of her publisher, who told her to start a blog. Although hesitant at first, Dalton-Bradford's transparent and intimate posts about life, grief and international parenting have validated other readers to face similar struggles all over the world.

"Writing has allowed me to sift through the bottom of my feelings and share them with other people. And in turn, they get to the bottom of their feelings and it's a validation," Dalton-Bradford said. “ ‘Oh, your children were also rendered mute? OK.' I think that we all need and want to hear about this experience, which is the ultimate leveling factor in humanity. We are all going to die. Our most beloveds are going to die. To be able to discuss this openly is enlivening."

Though, like all families, Dalton-Bradford has faced her struggles, it's been a love of culture and people that propel a life of international living.

"It's all part of who I am. I'm a composite," she said. "I'm a reconstituted version of all these places — and my kids are, too. I'm a citizen of the world. Wherever I can touch the heart of humanity, that is my home."

And for the Bradford children, a broad-view of humanity has been a gratifying one.

"They love the fact that when someone talks vaguely about Asia, they have the dust of the place under their nails. It’s a visceral experience for them. It’s sensorial. They know what it smells like, they know what it tastes like," Dalton-Bradford said. "When someone says the exotic word Singapore, they know what the humidity feels like. They are grateful for it."

And despite the lack of continuity and what could end up being a seventh language under their belt, this international family sticks together.

Because they are Bradfords, and this is what they do.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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