We found out I was pregnant with our very first child the day we arrived in Malaysia. We had been living in India for the past two years and welcomed the idea of living in Kuala Lumpur, especially as we were ready to start a family.
In those days (1997) New Delhi was considered a ‘hardship destination’ for expatriates and for very good reason. Kuala Lumpur, in contrast, was a city in the process of becoming one of the most modern and vibrant cities in Asia.
We were going to be living in the hotel, right slap bang in the middle of the city, or as the locals call it; the ‘Golden Triangle’. My husband was taking over the EAM (Executive Assistant Manager) in charge of F&B (Food & Beverage) post, which, considering there were several restaurants plus a nightclub, meant he was going to be extremely busy day and night.
I was delighted to have found a doctor that I felt comfortable with; not only that, but very soon after arriving in KL I found and bonded with a small group of amazing women who were also ‘with child’. I was kept very busy with my new circle of friends, and we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company as we entered into this new realm of motherhood together.
The hotel room that was to be our ‘home’ for the next 2-3 years was decent in size once you added up all the spaces. We had three junior suites at the end of the hallway; two rooms on one side with a connecting door and a living area with a makeshift kitchen (made out of a bathroom) on the other.
They partitioned the hallway so that we ended up with one entrance, which wasn’t ideal but better than having to run across the hall each night to go to bed. The hotel was very old and run down, and our room showed the worst of it. But, in trying to make the best out of the situation, I set about preparing a nursery for the new baby.
About six months into his assignment, my husband came to the apartment at lunchtime - something he never did. I was suspicious the minute he walked in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They want me to take the #2 job in Hanoi.”
“When?” A knot of dread crept into my gut.
“As soon as possible.”
I could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to take it.
He was there to get my support.
And I gave it.
Not even a month after our first-born entered into the world, his father went off to Vietnam to begin his new assignment. I stayed with the baby in our hotel room in KL, determined to master this breastfeeding thing before I had to pack up and move, hoping I found a similar support group as a new mother in Hanoi.
About a month after my husband left, he came back to pick us up - and so began a rather stressful transition to another ‘hardship destination’ with a newborn baby in tow.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that stability for children within the expatriate bubble was going to have to be something we consciously created. I was likely to be the only stable thing in my children’s life.
And I didn’t take that observation lightly.
We stayed in Vietnam for two years, at the end of which I was pregnant again. It’s hard to believe we were headed back to Kuala Lumpur, and by extraordinary chance, I was to deliver our second son at the same hospital with the same doctor - thank God for small mercies!
This time, the assignment lasted a whole three years. It was the most ‘normal’ set up we had had so far. We lived outside of the hotel, in a lovely little apartment overlooking the hotel’s adjoining waterpark. Even though my husband was extremely busy due to the enormous F&B department at the hotel, including a nightclub, the boys and I found a fantastic community of friends and a never-ending stream of activities.
Luckily, one of my original baby group friends was still in Malaysia and it was she who introduced me to what would turn into one of my life long passions; Neurodevelopment. How we learn; how children develop; how brains can accommodate even the most devastating of traumas; the incredible process of neuroplasticity; how we are wired and how that wiring affects our behaviour. I was hooked, and completely fascinated by the human ability to grow, learn and heal.
I began to read any book (written for laypeople!) about how the brain learns and grows, and everything I read I applied to my growing boys; the importance of movement; the significance of creativity; the incredible value of free play.
The way I looked at these two little developing beings in my charge changed dramatically. Suddenly I was there to learn from them.
I began to explore Montessori methods of play. I respected every question that my boys had and helped them find the answers. I encouraged them to ask other people questions also. One conversation sticks in my mind;
We were walking past a man working in a hole in the ground.
Riccardo (then five years old) asked,
“What’s he doing mum?”
Now, I had a choice here, I could have answered the way my father would have;
“I don’t know, maybe he’s digging a hole to bury his mother-in-law!”
That would have been funny!
Or I could have looked at the information on the guy’s van and put two and two together to give an educated guess. But instead, I answered,
“Oh I don’t know... ask him.”
The man was lovely and explained that he was laying pipe etc. etc. etc. The questions continued, and Riccardo remembers the answers to this day. I watched the boys become so curious about the world, not just their own world, but they became enormously interested in other people and their experience also.
The boys were 3 & 5 years old when our time in KL came to an end.I cried all the way to the airport in silence. My husband had resigned from his post, and we were taking a few months off in Europe while he searched for his next assignment.
Home-schooling was looking more and more practical and preferable.
I decided, based on the information I was gathering about the importance of the brain’s development between conception and around 6-7 years old, the best thing for my boys would be to continue doing what I was doing. I would continue to use the principles that I was learning and give them the freedom and opportunity to explore and learn and develop in their own very unique way.
The thought of putting them in a classroom and having to conform to a rigid set of rules at this stage made me shiver. Besides, the way we were moving around the world, uprooting our ‘home’ every year or so was not ideal. Add to that the inconsistencies of the international school circuit; having to say goodbye to close friends and teachers every year at such an early age didn’t fulfil my commitment of finding some sense of stability in their young lives.
I continued to practice my own version of education with them during our stay in Europe and waited (not so) patiently to find out where we would be going next;
Oh my! What a paradise we had landed in—crystal clear waters; white sandy, secluded beaches and a plethora of learning opportunities.
That was it. Home-schooling it was!
During our three years in Tahiti, my boys lived like mini Robinson Crusoe’s; they learned how to scuba dive, climb coconut trees and identify, pick and crack open fresh almonds with a rock. They learned how to make fresh pasta from their favourite chef in the hotel kitchen and ‘Poisson Cru à la Tahitienne’ (a local dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk) from the islanders who pitched BBQs on the beaches at the weekends. And as a bonus, they got to hang out regularly with a whole bunch of geeky science students at the ‘Gump Station’, The University of California, Berkley’s South Pacific Research Centre, which was conveniently situated right between our home and my husband’s hotel.
As often as possible we would stop off and ‘help’ the students, asking a million questions as they studied the behaviour of jellyfish and conducted other such fascinating experiments!
The Island of Moorea turned into one of the most amazing classrooms we could ever have walked into - I certainly wasn’t going to make my boys sit between four walls for eight hours a day and miss all that.