It's rare to find a book that enhances your knowledge of world cultures while embracing you as a cherished family friend and confidante, yet Melissa Dalton-Bradford does exactly this in her memoir, Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family. More than a collection of tales of family globetrotting, Global Mom recounts with humor and honesty her family's journey through life-altering circumstances, and the result is a book that brims with touching truths and memorable moments.
Ever gracious, Melissa agreed to answer some questions I had for her after reading her book. (She responded from Geneva while preparing for their upcoming move to Frankfurt.) It's an honor to share her responses with you here.
Q) When you initially moved from the U.S. to Norway, you were a stay-at-home-mom of toddlers with a husband who was often traveling for work. Instead of becoming isolated, jealous, or bitter, you worked hard at integrating your family into the culture and you all became fluent in Norwegian. Knowing you’d probably only stay in Norway for a few years at most, what motivated you to immerse yourself so thoroughly in the language and culture?
A) I was motivated to learn to speak fluent Norwegian by my love for people. For me, language is all about connecting. And there are no people I love more than my immediate family, my husband and children. I was driven by a deep desire to offer them the whole package, so to speak, that living in Norway could offer, and that, I knew intrinsically, could only come with fully immersing oneself in the language, by “becoming” Norwegian.
I was also motivated by the love that came from my family of origin. My parents raised me to love and embrace other cultures, and to not fear diving into new languages and experiences. This, I suppose, gave me both curiosity as well as confidence in Norway. Then there was a motivation that was less overt: the slight nudge from my Scandinavian ancestors and my husband’s Norwegian ancestors. In a way I cannot quite get my head around, I believe these good folks long gone from mortality were invested in our success in Scandinavia, and from some place in the universe they were nudging us forward to learn to love their land and language.
Q) Of your eight countries of residence, France is the only country that you’ve lived in twice. Would you say it is the country with which your older two children identified the most as they grew up?
A) Funny you’d ask this question this week. I just returned last night from a few days in Paris. We had our two middle children, Claire and Dalton, with us this time. We are forever deeply bound to France, there’s no question about that. While our connection to Norway is still profound, only two of our children learned to speak Norwegian fluently. Our third was born there, but was 2 ½ when we left and quickly lost his Norwegian as he learned French in French nursery school, and our fourth, Luc, was born in Versailles, and so has no personal memories of Norway except for our many vacations there.
But Paris! That is where all six of us lived as a unit. What is complicated today is Claire’s painful associations with Paris, because this was the town she navigated with her brother Parker, who is now gone. So as much as she ‘owned’ this town with her soul mate and brother, it’s hard for her to be there, because he no longer can be there in the manner that made Paris such a joyous place for her. I think that with more exposure to Paris over the coming years, that negative and aching association for her will evolve into something tender but sweet.
Q) My daughter just turned five, so I’m looking at schooling options for her. With your family moving to another culture every few years, did you ever consider homeschooling to give your children a sense of consistency, or did formal schooling always seem like the best route to cultural immersion and friendships?
A) Homeschooling: Great question! I considered it every single time we moved. Schooling children in local systems is one thing when they are young, in the primary years. We managed that in Norway and then in France. But when you enter the preteens and teens, the stakes are much higher, the margin for error much narrower, and the potential for stress and disaster (emotional, academic, familial, physical) is higher. Parents cannot expect older children to pick up a new language and make friends and keep up with academics. Even for the most ambitious, this is not realistic. At some point, someone will crack and crash or revolt. I considered home schooling every time we moved internationally because the adjustment from system to system was always challenging, but I did not choose keeping them home because school was the network through which not only our children entered a new culture, but we as parents did, too. Home schooling would have isolated us too much. So until high school, we told our children that everywhere we moved either their school or church experience was going to be in the local language. When our kids were not in local schools, they had regular and authentic interaction with the local culture through our church community (a whole other topic, and an important one for our journey.)
Q) During your family’s brief return to the U.S., you shared how strange and isolating it was to experience reverse culture shock. (I wish I could have met you and listened to your stories then!) What are some meaningful ways in which more “rooted” families like mine can support mobile, third-culture families like yours?
A) Rooted families can support third culture families (those who move a lot and broadly) by simply asking about their experience and then listening without judgment. Those who have experienced many cultures and have done so deeply have stories to share. Those stories are real, and make up who these nomads are, why they react in certain ways, why they are, for instance, freaked out by a Costco or repelled by noisy groups or disappointed by superficial greetings or fascinated by some things as obvious (in American culture) as a large garage, a clothes dryer or even a two-door refrigerator or a big, white perfect-toothed smile. Many returning nomads experience that blank stare from a conversation partner when they try to share what their life has entailed. Or worse, they get the signal that the conversation partner thinks they are bragging, when really all they are doing is explaining what their life has been like. No, they’ve never been to a Disneyland, maybe. But yeah, ho-hum, they’ve been to Tibet. (And Tibet was closer and cheaper.)
There is a marvelous term: The Invisible Alien. This is the one who has been away from her native culture for along time and has adopted other cultures while gone. She returns. She looks and maybe sounds just like everyone around her. But inwardly she is strikingly different. She does not understand big chunks of the conversation in the native culture to which she’s returning after many years; she has no idea what the TV program is everyone is talking about, she doesn’t know the rules of baseball, or how to be a “Soccer Mom”, she has a whole different set of experiences and perhaps values and expectations than those around her. But those around her expect her to be just like them and this causes dissonance. Well, I’ve been that person. It’s not pretense. It’s really strange and terribly frustrating. And it can be lonely. Ask anyone who’s integrated deeply elsewhere, and they will have their stories or reentry shock! So again, locally rooted individuals can show interest and sincerely invest in learning from the newly arrived person’s background. Don’t be offended if the Invisible Alien is at times perplexed by things they don’t like about returning to a place you might think is their “rightful home.” They’re making a major transition. They are new people. They’ll need time and new experiences and a listening ear. Know that statistically, “reentry” is most often the hardest transition an internationalist ever makes.
Q) In Global Mom you mention that over the years, your family came to speak a mix of Norwegian, French, and English at home. Has your family’s home language generally reflected your current country of residence, or has your native language—English--remained the main language of your family’s communication?
A) This question of home language has had different answers for us over the years. While in Norway, we got to a point where we were speaking at least as much if not more Norwegian at home than we were English, which is strange, given that neither parent is native Norwegian. That was driven by our children’s friends, who were Norwegian, and by our professional and church friends, who were Norwegian. We also chose to live in place where we were surrounded on all sides by Norwegians. In France, we tried to do something similar. Now, after 16 moves with a 17th around the corner, and after enrolling our children in international high schools, and because of the six languages spoken within our family (German, French, Norwegian, Mandarin, Italian and English), we stick to English at home. Interestingly, that is not unusual for Geneva, where there are multiple cultures in a robust expatriate community, whose common tongue is English.
Q) Melissa, you and your husband, Randall, have been through home renovations, global relocations, separations due to extensive work travel, and the searing loss of a child. Any one of these reasons has been named by others as a contributing factor in divorce, yet your marriage and family has held fast through these experiences. Is there something beyond faith, commitment, and fortitude that has held you together?
A) Wow! Well Michele, you’ve pretty much covered our marriage and family with those three words! But to add to how we’ve remained not only intact but have grown stronger over time and with all the normal then some unusual challenges, I’d add three more things: communication, vision and shared trials.
Communication: Both of us are deep and detailed communicators. (Maybe, um, you noticed?) From our earliest friendship before it shifted to romance then became a marriage and family, we were able to talk. When I make reference to Ceiling Talk in Global Mom, I hint at the hours --- hours upon hours – we’ve logged lying quietly next to each other in bed, holding hands (or, when we’re angry, with our arms crossed tightly over our chests; or when we’re grieving, with our arms wrapped around each other) staring up into the dark, working through issues, planning, checking how the other is feeling, weeping at times, keeping the dialogue fresh. I’ve learned that human spirits, like human bodies, are primarily fluid. We change all the time, and sometimes quickly. We need constant communication to remain connected with one another.
Vision: My husband and I have the long view. By long, I’m talking about eternal-long. We both believe we are committed to each other and to our children beyond this life, into eternity. Fundamental to our belief is that we need to qualify for that kind of eternal binding. So we as a couple and as a family are the most important thing. More important than other friendships, than work, hobbies, money, school, troubles, death. Regarding the tragic mortal loss of our beautiful eldest, Parker, our “vision” informs our continued bond to him. We experience Parker as still with us, and not as a mere poetic memory or somehow “tucked into our hearts”, but as an ongoing being, who is actively invested in his family’s well-being, who can mentor and guide and inspire us. Makes total sense to me! And I live it—we live it as a family—every day.
Shared trials: When I was newly married and really didn’t know much about life, I used to instruct young couples and young missionary companionships. (Unqualified do so, maybe, but hey…) I focused on the value of going through tough times together. I said, “If your companionship is well and all else is hell, all is well. But if your companionship is hell and all else is well, all is hell.”
I was wiser than I knew! I’ve found this to be true.
Today, however, I would add to that silly little couplet. I would say that when all hell breaks loose – and it will be break loose for every couple and every family at some time or another -- and your companionship is well, your companionship will grow even “more well”, even stronger. I see this with my husband. Our has been a challenging life, but in all – even with the most bitter tragedy, and I’d add even due to that tragedy – it has been a good and deep and meaningful life together. We love each other much, much more today than we ever did when we first married each other.
Human beings yearn, above all, for deeply satisfying relationships, meaning solid, real, enduring emotional intimacy. It is what distinguishes us as the most highly evolved form of life. When our most essential relationships are in place, just about anything can happen, and we will not only be able to bear it, but we will come out fortified. This takes us back to communication and vision. It’s the working through together (not fleeing from one another into our separate corners of agony) with a vision beyond this brief mortal moment we are all belly-crawling through that will greatly determine what sort of “well” or beauty we will create in our relationships.
Q) Your experiences raising four children have given you wisdom and insight. What advice can you offer to young mamas like myself who are just beginning their parenting journey?
A) Ah, for you young mamas I have many books to write! I hope I do! I’m drafting one this very minute. My feelings about motherhood run extremely deep, and have evolved. While I do not romanticize motherhood (I’m too wise and wizened for that), I do honor it, and more now than when I was a young mama. This isn’t because I am now out of the diaper-and-nursing-trenches and see things through rose-tinted glasses. Nope. It is because of two things. First, I have witnessed the results of intentional parenting in the enormous—limitless and profound—impact that one serious and wise mother can have on the world. Second, I have raised to manhood, then seen buried in a gray metal casket, that very same flesh and blood. In that experience of losing the child who taught me my first most intense lessons about mothering—those years that were toughest for me in terms of adjustment and identity reconstruction–– I was taught the most potent lessons of my life. They are detailed, in part, in this interview done for another online journal. I hope your readers will take a few minutes to read it. And then hold their children close in patience and love.
Mes amis, can you see why Melissa's memoir is worth reading? She has been through uprootings and the loss of her beloved eldest child and yet she shines with encouragement and purpose. Her next book, On Loss and Living Onward, was just released in a Kindle edition this past week; the paperback version will be released May 6th. I want to read it because loss is something we'll never escape in this life. I'm ordering two copies--one for an acquaintance who just lost their only son; one for a friend who recently lost her Papa. It's wonderful to be able to give something that can bring a bit of balm to their spirits!
What strikes you about Melissa's family's experiences? How do you think you would respond to a global life? Can you relate to such a life or such a loss? What part of her conversation here resonates with you?