An American Halloween in Singapore

As soon as I phased out of the trick-or-treating age range, I seldom if ever bothered to dress up for Halloween. But having a kid gave me an entirely new lens for the holiday, and Penny had three Halloweens in the states, a day more magical with each passing year. Halloween 2018 is still emblazoned in my memory because she asked me to recount that day aloud to her at bedtime for months. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to celebrate over here on the other side of the world, I’d be disappointing my bigger little one.

Now in Singapore, Halloween was super proximate this year to Deepavali, or Diwali, which is a recognized as a public holiday. Falling on Sunday, October 27th, businesses and schools were closed the following day. Then, Penny got to learn a lot about the Hindu Festival of Lights when she returned to school Tuesday. She sculpted a diya and made Rangoli from lose parts. I loved watching her horizons broaden and her respect for other cultures deepen. But I also missed the adorable Halloween parade that her preschool had every year. I mean who doesn’t love a string of small children in costume holding on to a rope so they don’t toddle off and get lost? There were definitely pieces of the American Halloween experience that we both wished we could recreate overseas.

While children’s costumes are available in Singapore, the range is limited to the same stock characters. Spider-Man and Elsa are easy to find, but Penny had her heart set on Little Red Riding Hood. In one sense, this was a great choice to bridge any cultural divide – versions of this traditional story exist all over the globe. But it was hard to find from a vendor here, and I’m without even a hot glue gun. Thankfully, Penny made up her mind early enough that I could secure the costume in the states, ship it to my mom, and ask her to forward it along. We haven’t had a ton of luck with the mail here, so I was relieved when this package made it to us intact.

Trick-or-Treating was also a puzzle to solve because we live in a condo where the elevator is a direct line into our home. There are literally no doors on which to knock. I had heard rumors of condos organizing festivities despite this roadblock, but nothing materialized in the condo mom WhatsApp group, so I had to do a lot of internet sleuthing to find what we were looking for. There’s a neighborhood in Singapore that goes all out for Halloween, but I was warned it would be overwhelming for a three-year old. Woodlands essentially throws a giant candy-fueled block party that would delight any elementary age child, and part of me wanted to see it, but it seemed logistically fraught with much potential to backfire.

The first Halloween-themed event I found was underwritten by a media company that publishes a magazine that is basically an extended advertisement of kids activities in Singapore. It was throwing an afternoon Halloween scavenger hunt at a small shopping center that seemed targeted at the preschool crowd. I signed us up right away and Penny and I gave it a shot. The treats were sparse and the lines were long and it definitely wasn’t an experience I’d repeat.

I later stumbled across an enthusiastic American expat’s facebook event – she had rallied her neighborhood and extended an open invitation to anyone craving a traditional Trick-or-Treat trail. It looked perfect, except it was the Saturday before Halloween. This is definitely a young child-friendly accommodation, but it didn’t settle the issue of how to commemorate the actual day. I decided we’d try it and just take Penny. On the Saturday, they emailed out a map of which houses were participating and suggested a couple routes you could take. We picked one with about fifteen houses on it, which was a perfect length. Penny was super excited to wear her costume and nearly everyone we passed pegged her on the spot. It was just crowded enough that we got the fun of seeing other kids in costume without the stress of feeling like your vertically challenged child will be trampled. I made sure to gratuitously thank the volunteers for a wonderfully orchestrated event and I can easily imagine going next year with both kids.

This left the actual day of Halloween to troubleshoot. My sole stroke of genius was to volunteer to visit Penny’s class this day and read a story. If you know me, you know I’d be happy to do this kind of volunteering on a daily basis, but I had held off on pushing the issue, waiting for Penny to request I visit for story time. She was very exited about sharing one of her favorite Halloween reads – Pig and Pug Trick-or-Treat with their classmates so this worked out perfectly. Her school has a pretty clear policy on not bringing sweets to distribute, so I decorated some mini-oranges in homage to jack-o-lanterns and called it a day. The whole experience lasted less than ten minutes, but at least our American “holiday” got some airtime with an adorable crew of kids who were all too eager to tell me what they were dressing up as. Despite their multi-national heritage, costumes and candy seem to be something most kids want experience first hand.

That afternoon, Penny decorated the pumpkin we had stumbled across at Cold Storage, painting it “rainbow”, which essentially became brownish gray when all the colors blended together. She then directed me to carve a turtle on it, and everyone knows turtles and Halloween are an age old dynamic duo. Oh well, when it comes to things like this, I’ve made the parental decision to give her as much executive control over the things that really in their essence are supposed to be about the child. As much as I’d love to carve an intricate thematically on point pumpkin myself, at $30, we could only afford one.

At this point, I wanted to get Harper in on the festivities in some capacity, so I dressed her in Penny’s first costume and toted both girls to a nearby neighborhood that someone’s Facebook comment suggested was hosting trick-or-treaters that evening. Hardly a fool-proof way to get a recommendation, I had been told festivities began at 5:30, but this gorgeous street is undoubtedly home to many dual-income families and at 5:30, there were only a handful of houses open for business. By 6, we began to see more doors opening, but Harper was nearing bedtime. Seb had intended to meet us but he had gotten held up at work, and when the end of day hysterics started, heading home made the most sense.

In many ways, expatriating has never been easier than at this moment in history. We can fly direct to our native airport. Most companies have a global reach ensuring your favorite brands from back home and on some shelf here. iMessage allows texts to seamlessly travel over WiFi. With a VPN, you can trick your phone into thinking you’re still in NJ and get the same Netflix offerings. There’s FaceTime and social media instead of snail mail and calling cards, and I’m constantly aware of how I benefit from undertaking this journey at this point in time.

But I do I have some anxiety about how the rest of the year will unfold from here. I have zero intention of honoring Thanksgiving properly. Penny will turn four in December and I’m not sure if it makes sense to have the kind of invite the whole class party she’s used to from the states. Then there’s Christmas and Harper’s first birthday and it’s a reminder that much of what makes commemorating these occasions special is the people you share them with.

On the plus side, we have our first visitors arriving later in the week, Seb’s parents! We’ve been getting their guest room ready and can’t wait for them to arrive.

Our First Overseas Family Trip: Langkawi, Malaysia

While work has led Seb to clock more visits to Changi Airport than I can keep track of in the past three months, until October 18th, our family had yet to leave the boundaries of Singapore. We decided that Harper’s first round trip should be a quick one and after seeking guidance from some experienced expatriates, we settled on Langkawi, Malaysia.

I wanted a beach. While it’s tropical here year round, one of the drawbacks of a small island nation is that the seas are littered with freight ships. There are few shells for my treasure hunter to find and the vibe is far from the tranquility that I typically associate with an ocean.

Penny digging in the sand at Singapore’s East Coast Park Beach. Not pictured: the ocean littered with ships and the sounds of the nearby expressway.

While Harper was technically crawling before our 20-hour flight, she was young enough that she still slept all. the. time. A 9 month old is a very different creature developmentally, especially one that is pulling up to stand and cruises all over the place. We decided a short flight time was a must, and boy was this the right decision.

Friends of our had a great experience at the Andaman Resort and we trusted their opinion enough to pull the trigger and book something for the quickly approaching mid-term school break that fell right around Seb’s birthday.

Penny dutifully told all her mates at school that she’d miss the final day of the half term and we flew out Friday afternoon, after celebrating Seb’s birthday with the fanfare three year olds insist upon.

Seb barely managing to indulge Penny’s birthday festivities.

Penny’s excitement was high, but you could tell that she’s slightly muddled from our expatriation. She asked me questions such as “Will you have to find me a new school in Langkawi?” and threw a minor fit when I told her she wouldn’t be packing all her toys, insisting she didn’t want to wait “until they came over in the boxes on the ship.” Ultimately, I think this helped her sort out the difference between a vacation and a relocation.

Near or far, baby always has to join us on a trip.

We arrived at the airport early enough to check out the famed Jewel. It was a bit disappointing as the waterfall and lush greenery was reserved for some private event and beyond that focal point it’s essentially another gigantic mall. It’s not a bad place to spend a layover, and it had a cushy nursing room, but it’s not worth visiting otherwise.

What we could see of the Jewel waterfall.

Had I been hungry, a chocolate mint pretzel sounds like my kind of “unique.”

We clocked a lot of walking and Penny sprinted down every “travelator”. We brought our single stroller with Harper’s bucket seat, and Penny wound up using it as we stood in various lines. One of the perks of being pint size is she can still squeeze in.

When she had enough of us, Penny would lower both shade covers and disappear for a bit.

Our flight time was less than an hour, but what I didn’t anticipate about this was how infuriating the minor delays of boarding and taxing would feel. Especially with an overtired infant who needed to scream off some steam before settling to sleep. Harper cried more on that fifty five minute flight than she had during our entire day long trek to Singapore. And then she rested up to wail for the entire forty minute drive to the hotel. This all made much more sense later that evening when I saw the telltale sign of congestion dripping from her nose. I had come prepared with saline spray and the trusty Nose Frieda but they were no match for the initial onslaught of the cold. After a room service dinner for the sake of efficiency, we attempted sleep. It was fragmented with wakeful periods of misery during which I got covered in a lovely combination of spit up and snot, tried a steam shower to flush some of the congestion out, and ultimately stuck her upright in the stroller and paced the hotel grounds catching glimpses of the unfolding sunrise. Thanks to a battery operated white noise machine, Penny and Seb woke up a little more ready to tackle the day.

Early morning skies in Datai Cove, Langkawi

Penny soaking in the sea.

After a morning nap that rivaled her longest stretch of nighttime sleep, Harper was ready for lunch and a dip in the pool. The resort staff was so phenomenal that I felt guilty for the sleep deprived grump on my face. Soggy from hours of swimming and water sliding.Say cheese!

A capture of her one smile that day 🙂

Sleep that night was even worse as the congestion had migrated into Harper’s chest, creating her first-ever cough, something she found both insanely disruptive and bewildering. I attempted another midnight steam shower and Seb took a 3am stroller shift, and then we were bold enough as a family to endeavor on the morning rainforest walk. It was short-lived due to too little walking – the guide stopped to lecture every two yards and this was not a sufficient clip to put Harper to sleep in the carrier. Luckily, we got to spot some pretty cool monkeys before bailing to breakfast.

A leaf mask with a perfect peephole

I stayed in the hotel room with Harper for another epic nap, joining the rest of the crew beachside when she awoke. It rained daily, but never for all that long, and the pool-beach proximity made it easy to hop from on to the other and stay outside most of the day. There were also enough other kids around to catch Penny’s interest. That night, Seb and Penny went out to dinner together while I sacraficed a well-rounded meal to cross my fingers and put Harper to bed early.

Our third day felt like a breakthrough. Harper finally slept well enough that I had just enough energy to attempt a beach run before sticking her in the carrier to nap. I finally got to soak in the scenery. There were fascinating things to behold from sand to sky and it started to feel like a vacation for me too.

Getting the entire family on the beach felt like a hard earned victory and Harper followed in her sisters footsteps as she crawled right into the surf. While her cold had spread to me by this point, overall, things began to look up. Penny fed some fish in the resort’s neat coral nursery and then we attempted an actual evening meal at a sit down Japanese restaurant. Seb and I essentially took turns walking around with Harper while the other joined Penny who was picking at her sushi.

Definitely not dressed appropriately but digging it all the same.

We had one last day during which Seb finally got to take out the sailboat, Harper was content enough to explore her surroundings, and I actually got to sit down for twenty minutes on a beach chair and just stare at the horizon. By the time we headed back to the airport in the pouring rain, it felt like we had cobbled together a memorable enough first overseas vacation despite some seriously exhausting initial hiccups. I was still so grateful that the weather didn’t cascade into what felt like an inevitable flight delay. Our bedtime flight was filled with children and definitely was trying, as Harper railed against her internal circadian rhythm and refused to close her eyes, but never before has Singapore felt more like home than when the elevator doors opened to our apartment.

Penny joined me for part of my final morning beach run.

All in all, I definitely want to continue to explore this corner of the globe while we are here, but this initial trip was a humbling reminder of what travel with small people actually looks like. Seb’s vote was we stayed one day too many, but without the last day, we’d never have gotten to do the things we were each most excited about. Had the first two days not been so impacted by a sick baby, then four days would have been plenty. Resorts definitely make traveling with kids easier, but you don’t exactly get much of a feel for a place by just dipping your toes in ocean. We have yet to book our next trip, but have some flight alerts set up for around Christmas. With no extended family to sync up with in Singapore, we’re free to do crazy things like fly somewhere on Christmas Day so who knows where we will wind up next.

Andaman Resort highlights:

    Daily, from 12-3, kids got a free ice cream cone poolside. It really gave everything a celebratory feel and they had mango, Penny’s second favorite flavor. (Her favorite, Blueberry Basil, is only available at a local shop in Glen Rock, Marc’s Cheesecake)
    Water slide! It was super fun, and safe enough that bigger kids could attempt stunts while smaller ones got enough of a thrill from a ride down on a parent’s lap
    Nature. Between the lush rainforest, the tranquil beach cove, and the super cool coral nursery there were a lot of ways to interact with the environment
    Breakfast buffet – so many choices! And as someone who likes a heaping pile of veggies at 7am, they were shockingly on board with my somewhat odd preference. Penny also stuffed herself with “inside bread”, continuing the long tradition of kids who scorn crusts, and lots of tropical fruit.
    Accommodations. Comfy beds, helpful staff, logical resort floor plan, outdoor hallways (a total blessing when you need to do laps with a stroller) and umbrellas left to borrow for the few uncover jaunts you may have to make during a downpour, it felt like they had thought of everything.

Drawbacks

  • The resort was fairly isolated, which could have presented a struggle if Harper’s condition warranted actual medical attention. It was a reminder to me to always pack the vital kids medicines even if you are traveling with healthy kids.
  • The “Kids Club” activities were a total bust. The “nature drawing” that we tried consisted of an aunty tossing a “how to draw animals” book at my kid. And when we tried to come back for nature collage, they looked at us a bit incredulously, saying that in order to do that one, they’d have to go and get some stuff from…nature. It was a fine indoor holding pen for rambunctious kids, but the programming left a lot to be desired.

Typical Days

As soon as Penny started school, I began to get the familiar sensation of weeks just passing by. For me, routine has always made time more seamless. School beginning also meant Harper and I had pockets of time to fill for just us two, and we’ve been busy creating our own routines.

A large part of my daily routine has always been exercise. What works best for our family now is that when Penny hops on the school bus, I head to the gym. Jonah hangs out with Harper. This will never stop feeling like a gift. Child free time to exercise is a game changer for my mental and physical well-being. Crossfit is also a great way to join a community. I unfortunately can only make it to established class times over the weekend right now, but on weekdays I take advantage of the open gym space. That said, the staff there is awesome and I’m beginning to sort out all the names and faces.

I’ve also finally nailed down a meditation practice by stacking it on top of my exercise habit. I always felt like meditation and me just weren’t compatible. It’s very difficult for me to slow my thoughts down. I tried a Headspace subscription, but guided meditation just put me to sleep. That said, as early as college I noticed that after a sweat session I possessed a mental clarity that came close to a zen-like state. It’s scientifically proven that exercise is a mood booster, but I’ve only recently discovered that this post-exercise influx of neurotransmitters is the optimal time for me to sit and reflect.

My practice is adapted from the mindright framework. For roughly a minute, I circle through things I’m grateful for. With the next minute, I picture someone dear to my heart and visualize all the things I want for them. With the third minute, I try and define what success would look like for me today. And in the final minute, I just let my mind wander, seeing if there is any message the universe wants to send me. I have a song I play that’s the perfect length. I can do this eyes closed sitting on the gym floor, but I’ve also taken myself outside to a bench and watched the wind flutter the leaves. I never would have believed that four minutes could have such an indelible impact on the rest of my day, but I’ve found this practice invaluable. Occasionally I’ll share details of what I hope for with the person I’m lifting up in my mind and that aids connection in a time when I’m physically far from many I love.

When I get home, shower and feed Harper, we still get at least two hours together to move at baby speed. She loves a good stroller walk, but is also really into cruising around our house and pulling up on everything. She’s a speed crawler and expert climber and I know she’ll be walking before the holidays roll around.

Screenshot of the monthly newsletter announcing my bookish blog post (link below).

We’ve found two groups to join that keep us just busy enough and serve all our interests. The first is NMSG, a support group for those new to mothering or new to being a mom in Singapore. Dads are welcome too. I stepped up to host the play session for babies at Penny’s school once a month. They have a beautiful infant drop-in space and it lets me check in with her teachers at same time. As a board member, I attend monthly meetings with Harper in tow and I wrote a piece on libraries for their blog. They have almost daily free or discounted events you can attend and many of them are appropriate for Penny too. We’ve also made some awesome friends from the group.

Together in song. Hidden from view? The stroller with a sleeping Harper that I’m jostling back and forth with my right arm.

The second activity we discovered together is Numama, a women’s choir that welcomes babies and kids. The spin on traditional baby classes here is that the moms get to collaborate and work towards a concert, while the enrichment for the kids is limited to listening to the singing and playing together. I’m a thoroughly mediocre singer, but there’s something beautiful about the communal nature of a choir, where my ability to roughly stay on note is transformed into something worth listening to because of all the other voices. Numama has been around for ten years, which means that members ages vary broadly and it’s been a great opportunity to meet amazing women.

The final community we’ve been drawing from is that of our condo. Between the pool and the two playgrounds on the property, getting outside “downstairs” is a part of our daily routine. Our closest condo friends happen to live one floor up in the adjacent building, which means our porches face one another. Though their children are a bit older, Penny is enamored with them and loves to scream “HELLO!” as loud as she can when she spots them across the way. It reminds me of something out of a children’s book and is a delightful perk of apartment living.

Penny threw a mini-birthday party for our condo buddy, who turned eight a while back. She spent hours decorating cards and party hats and we had to introduce them to a Jones tradition – the birthday chair.

In all honestly, something that appealed to me about relocating was parsing down the quantity of things in each day. Before kids, I loved my long days that began with a five am workout and contained twelve hours at work between classroom duties and running extracurricular activities. I’d drive students home and even watched the occasional tv show before sleeping like the dead from 8-4 so I was ready to do it all again the next day.

But when Penny was born, the hours in each day felt woefully insufficient. If I went to the gym, it meant I missed a morning hour with her. If I stayed for XC practice, it meant she was logging up to twelve hours a day at daycare. I clung to my Wednesdays off, our Penny-Mommy days, as a life raft, a way to navigate with the frantic pace of Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays without drowning. All the while, I knew I was so lucky to have an employer willing to give me that flexibility and the financial security to take a commensurate pay cut. As far as working moms go, I was incredibly lucky and unspeakably overwhelmed.

I noticed my colleagues all approaching the second kid milestone with trepidation. Even as well-paid teachers, day care costs can swallow up most of take home pay. Some people had a spouse who worked evenings. Some people chose to leave the workforce. Some waited till their first child hit kindergarten before having a second. All grappled with the same tangle of tension where work and life never ever actually feel balanced.

So in many ways, coming here felt like a way to press pause in lieu of solving that particular problem. When we return in two years, Penny will get to attend a wonderful public kindergarten. Sure, we’ll have to navigate multiple drop offs and pick ups, look into before and after care, sort out the same mundane logistics as countless American families. But I won’t have to add up the astronomical cost of two kids in daycare and subtract that from my take home pay and ask myself if I love my job enough to justify being away from both my kids all day for minimal monetary gain.

Here, Penny can be a part of a great school community and have open afternoons to spend with her sister and me. Here, we can allow for serendipity. Here, nobody expects you to do even this without support in the form of another person helping you tangibly. I swear, the first time Jonah took Harper so I could sit down at our table and eat an actual meal, my eyes filled with tears. I was used to a rushed dinner of whatever was edible in the fridge while standing at the kitchen counter. Feeding myself definitely wound up on the list of things I could get away with half-assing when so many others felt too important to do so poorly. Like many teacher-parents, I found ways to take short-cuts with myself so that my children and my students still got what they deserved from me. But this wasn’t a sustainable bargain indefinitely.

Humans tend to be far too adaptable for our own good. While this protects us in hard times, it can also allow us to habituate quickly to the good shifts in life. That hasn’t happened for me here yet. Maybe it’s because in my daily mediation, I’m constantly thankful for this time with my children, I’m constantly defining success each day as finding ways to connect with them in the way I can only when I’m also taking care of myself.

Our “solution” to the two kid, two working parent problem is hardly replicable. I am aware the opportunity we have is fairly extraordinary. But if there is one thing that I can confidently say to all the families with small children making it work in the states, it’s this: if you feel overwhelmed it’s not because you are failing or falling short. Its because you don’t have sufficient support. Now I can already hear the protests – “but I chose to stay at home so we can’t afford to get help” or “my family already helps by taking the kids two days a week” or countless other particulars that seem to suffice in America as proof that you’re lucky and shouldn’t yearn for more. But the truth is that we will always be yearning if we haven’t found a way to meet our own needs, our professional obligations, and our responsibilities to our kids. And I just want to tell you that there are places in the world where that yearning is solved systemically instead of thrown back into the faces of exhausted moms and dads as their burden to bear alone.

An Interview with Penny

It’s been two months since we boarded our plane, so to commemorate the occasion I sat down with my older daughter to ask her opinions on this grand relocation experiment.

What do you like about our apartment?

We get to take an elevator. And I like when we get to go swimming in the pool.

What do you miss about our house?

My old bed. And the crib you got me for my baby dolls.

What do you like about your school here?

Riding the bus. It has an atelier where I can be creative. I have long days and short days. Sometimes my short days feel long and my long days feel really short!

What do you miss about your old school?

MacKenzie. And Aarna. And Lily.

Where do you like to go most in Singapore?

The library. I like riding the bus there because we get to read our stories. If we ride the subway and we don’t have our stroller than we get to ride escalators!

What don’t you like about Singapore?

When the haze comes and we can’t go in the pool.

Who do you want to come visit us?

Grandma. And Nanny and Da. But Grandma because she still has to get her tickets.

Get on that, Grandma. 😘

The Ugh List

Wise ones often caution that the geographical cure isn’t a best practice. A drastic change to the where doesn’t promise to shift the who all that much. That said, while I’ve personally found relocating to be a positive experience that has given me a net happiness boost, there are some things that just aren’t all that great about our new setting. Here’s a quick list of five bummers.

5. If I’m on the MRT, I’m toting a stroller. And this means I can’t make use of the escalators or stairs. While each station has elevators, I’ll often wait forever simply because seemingly able-bodied individuals insist on clogging them up. I know not all disabilities are visible but the extent of the backlog transcends my ability to give my fellow commuters the benefit of the doubt. I’ve never seen anything like it in other cities and it frustrates me every time we go anywhere.

An often ignored but clearly visible reminder.

4. The time zone. Being exactly 12 hours off from most of our loved ones is hard. There are narrow time windows in which to take advantage of the miracle of FaceTime each day, and right upon waking or right before bed aren’t usually my children’s optimal hours. It also means that all day long, I don’t have many people to chat up; especially this week with Seb functioning in EST, mid-day can feel a little lonely.

3. The constant construction. Buildings are demolished and resurrected here at a breakneck interval, and this means that a straightforward walk you took a week ago suddenly includes endless detours and earsplitting fracas that will definitely wake your sleeping baby.

A familiar Singaporean sight

2. Bugs. I don’t actually encounter that many, though every time I do spot a mosquito bite on a member of my family, I start to panic about Dengue Fever. The other problem is how they keep the bugs away. Most condos will spray the perimeter regularly. While they post when this will be happening and you can try to avoid being around, nothing clues you into when neighboring residences are about to spray. Having been caught unaware in a plume of noxious chemicals twice already, I’m certain each instance has taken a year off my life.

1. The smoking! The only place I’ve visited recently where I’ve had to hold my breath as often was New Orleans. While they attempt to relegate it to certain areas, the sheer number of people puffing away continues to shock me on every walk I take. I’d like to import those harrowing advisory stickers I once spotted in New Zealand to help combat this epidemic.

Pretty ingenious labeling if you ask me.

What didn’t make my list? The heat. I know many disagree, but I love warm weather. It’s still cooking here and we expect it to stay in the high 80s all year long. We’ll see if I’m still digging it in February.

Together on a Journey

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning and how to learn.”

Loris Malaguzzi

As humans, our default tends to be that we parent the way we were parented and we teach the way we were taught.

As a kid, I loved school. I excelled in school. I was frequently reprimanded for being chatty when I finished my tasks, but boy did I ever love completing the tasks themselves. My favorite thing was always stories – reading them, writing them, illustrating them, but over time I came to realize I could teach myself anything by playing on this strength. My college notebook for Neuroscience is a testimony to this – scientific concepts turned into doodles, processes rewritten as narratives. Even numbers have their own personalities like the cast of a play.

It took me a while to see that excelling as a student was actually a limitation as a teacher. Initially, I expected to be able to teach the way I was taught. If I just passionately lectured about great texts, the kids would be sure to catch my enthusiasm, right? Listening to someone who loved books rant and rave always did it for me. It didn’t take me long to see that this approach completely failed to consider the varied learners in front of me. And teaching without considering the kids in the room is the very definition of a fool’s errand.

Now my daughter reminds me a lot of me. She loves stories, has no difficulty sitting criss-cross applesauce on command. She loved her first “school” and I loved the care she received and the friends she made. But if I’m honest with myself, we chose her daycare because of our needs. One opportunity that I saw in relocating, and no longer working, was that I could throw myself fully into the school search in Singapore. School expenses are covered by Seb’s company and Singapore has every early childhood education option under the sun. Since it’s a small enough island, you’re not really limited by geography, especially if you’re open to busing and/or have one adult with a flexible schedule.

I scoured glossy magazines, did countless google searches, stalked social media accounts, and conducted four school visits only to ultimately choose the place that first spoke to my heart.

Penny helping herself to the dress up corner at orientation.

The Blue House is a Reggio-Emilia inspired early childhood education center that actually respects that children can drive their own inquiry and believes that despite their diminutive size, they deserve to be respected as full human beings.

There are countless schools here that claim to be Montessori or Reggio, but a visit to the facility makes it clear that for many, if not most, these labels are more buzzword than guiding principle.

As a educator myself, it’s pretty easy to tell when instructors value kids and love working with them. I’ve been lucky enough to see this combination in my colleagues and it’s the kind of thing that makes you fully trust other humans with your babies.

However, as I stepped farther down the road as a parent and an educator, I began to feel prickles of cognitive dissonance when a practice I encountered at work didn’t seem like something I’d choose for my own child. I’ve always felt that my students are my kids, and as such they deserve the same opportunities I’d want for my own progeny. I’m so grateful that my former school continues to evolve and become increasing progressive, that it’s not afraid to question things that have always been done a certain way if they no longer sit right with us.

This is the first year that I’m heading into a September as just a parent, and being able to fully focus on this side of the equation has given me more insight to what a school looks like when it fully embraces the individuality and worth of each child, when it truly believes that children are indeed humans worthy of respect.

Two concrete examples:

  • Every place frequented by children in Singapore has a huge bottle of hand sanitizer by the door. They also screen the temperature of every adult, child, and baby before entry, and inspect the hands for traces of HFM. This is a practice that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Infectious diseases are transmittable before any of these telltale signs. Blue House refuses to greet kids this way, citing both the faulty science behind the routine and that they do not want the first experience of the children each day to be something so clinical and dehumanizing. They go on to add that they respect that parents will know if their child is out of sorts and make the right decision about whether or not to send them to school.
  • Uniforms. Sigh. Every school I’ve taught at has had them and I understand that they are intended to alleviate the pressure for kids to be trendy or feel shame for what they may not be able to afford. That said, uniforms are often expensive. And they always mask individual expression. I often think students feel the need to differentiate themselves in more outlandish ways when you take away their right to self expression through clothing and accessories. Yet, they are ubiquitous here, and I feared they were unavoidable until I noticed that the pictures at Blue House depicted kids dressed as…kids. Yes, this means sometimes Superman comes to school every day for a week straight, but is there really harm in that? Penny has taken such pride in picking out her own clothing for the day from an early age. I had zero interest in taking that age appropriate autonomy away.

The truth about our policies in education is that they are a coin, and on the flip side, they communicate our beliefs – about kids, their potential, their families. When we take a child’s temperature upon arrival, we are telling them that our acceptance is conditional and we are telling families that we don’t trust them to know their child and/or to consider the other children in shared care. When we mandate a uniform, we are telling children that they are interchangeable, a collective more than an individual. We are saying that we aren’t interested in giving them choices and honoring personal preferences if those things make our lives more chaotic. And we are creating situations that inevitably become power struggles as children develop and start to feel rankled themselves by policies that are at their core disrespectful of their individuality and autonomy.

When my own children were abstract, a lot of this was harder for me to clarify. I never wanted to take recess time away from a kid struggling to behave, but I didn’t really understand why. Now, I know firsthand that play is important work, and it’s the very place where kids build their capacity to self regulate. Yet, schools withhold recess from the children who are struggling most to regulate themselves in the classroom on a daily basis. I wouldn’t want my child to get this kind of reactionary, illogical treatment and I will no longer be a part of meting it out to other children.

I used to spend days in the summer beautifying a classroom, only to have daily conflicts with kids who didn’t care for it like it was a sacred space. Sure, most kids recognized the love that went into the work and did their part to keep things neat, but I now see that those who left trash behind were probably communicating that this space felt more mine than theirs, and that perhaps me leaving them out of its creation was a part of the reason why.

I hope and expect to return to the classroom and so I’m eager to use this time to do the kind of critical reflection that is so hard to fit in each day when there are thirty plus living, breathing, feeling people expecting you to lead and love and keep promises to them. I’m paying close attention to precisely what it is at Blue House that made me say “THIS! I WANT THIS FOR PENNY!” so that I can seek to replicate it for all the kids I hope to teach.

Blue House has an art-based atelier that students can elect to spend time at during the school day. During orientation, Penny found her way there and created a string of beads on her own volition and the teacher promised it would be hanging from a branch outside her classroom for the first day.

Currently, Penny is enrolled from 9-12 most days with 9-3 occasionally. We’ve already talked about how doing this for term one will let her give us feedback on what she prefers. She came with us on all school visits, and while she was enchanted by every nice playground, it was only when leaving Blue House that she asked “Mommy, when can we come back here?” She woke up Saturday after our Friday orientation and spend the morning asking me why it wasn’t Monday yet.

I feel so lucky to let her voice and her needs have a seat at the table because for a long time they really didn’t. It lets me feel that we are together, with her teachers and classmates, on this journey as equals, as individuals collectively striving for a common goal: that she learns to lean into her natural curiosity, to trust her capacity to learn on her own terms and define those terms for herself – for the work of education isn’t memorizing theorems or dates, it’s learning how you learn so you can continue to immerse yourself in anything that interests you, beginning with the passions of childhood and extending beyond your retirement.

The teachers I respect most are quick to point out how much they learn from their students. The parents I look up to always help me see that when I’m feeling challenged by my children it can be traced back to a lesson I’ve yet to wholly master. Age simply means we’ve had more at-bats, but life is infinitely complex and nuanced and if we’re honest with ourselves we are all always learning alongside one another.

I’m confident that I’ve found the optimal place for Penny’s formal pre-K education to commence and even though I’m actually not in the classroom in any capacity myself, I’m still excited for all I’ll learn this school year too – about education, about my children, about the world, and about myself.

A Hopeful, Tentative Yes

It’s been one month since our plane took off, and I’ve been thinking about the true beginning of this journey.

I’m taking about almost a year ago when my husband first mentioned this possibly to a quite pregnant me and I literally scoffed at him. Not because had anything against Singapore or even knew anything about Singapore, but because I had chosen the life we had deliberately and I still felt all kinds of uncertain and scared about adding a second child to our family. I loved my job. I loved having a flexible enough work schedule. I loved our town. Especially our local bookstore and walking there with Penny. Why would I risk sure things for something so uncertain?

Can you tell I’m not a big risk taker by nature? I was actually once christened “fun wrecker” in high school. This sticks with me not because it’s a particularly deep wound but because it’s kind of true. Early bedtimes are my jam. I prefer books to moving images. I have one alcoholic drink every few years. (Yes, you read that right.) The most adventurous thing I’m comfortable doing is loving people a little recklessly.

So, how did I go from a firm no, to someone who willingly, even enthusiastically signed up for this? It happened in pieces.

First, I had a lot to learn about what this experience would look like. I needed concrete details. Talking to people who had done it really helped. Literally no one mentioned any regrets except that they eventually had to come back.

More importantly, I needed to deliver a healthy baby. I refused to commit to anything until Harper was safely here. I do not possess the boldness that just expecting everything to work out requires, and I remember tearing up at her one month appointment as I asked the pediatrician if there was any prudence in staying in the states, any avoidable risks I would be taking on by relocating a six month old. She assured me there weren’t, and I could no longer convince myself that I was saying no to honor anyone or anything except my fear.

Lastly, I had to reframe my thinking. In the period of a few years, life had delivered several successive punches that put me permanently in a state of vigilance about what could go wrong. My first rodeo as a new mother was a maelstrom of grief and anxiety. Then I read something that pushed me. It said something simply along the lines of instead of imagining what it would be like if everything went wrong, try and imagine what it would be like if everything went right.

To be fair, they are equally likely (while still unlikely) scenarios. But it allowed me to see the fullness of the spectrum in the middle. It allowed me to imagine that this world is a place where some things are still mostly good. It pushed me to see that a no uttered in fear may actually be more risky than a hopeful, tentative yes.

Now that I’m temporarily out of the workforce and living in a place with one consistent season, time has gone a little wonky. I can’t believe it’s been an entire month and then I think of all the things that have happened and I can’t believe it’s only been a month. I always believed that two years would fly by, simply because my experience of life has mostly been that the older you are, the more paltry a year seems as a unit of measurement.

Seb mentioned at bedtime yesterday that Penny asked if we could stay here for a long while. She’s wondering who she will invite to her birthday party this year, but open to my answer that she’ll make new friends when school begins next week. I do feel sadness that I can’t hop in a car and bring her to see those she already loves dearly, but I’m no longer letting myself believe that she’s traumatized by the upheaval. People are adaptable, kids especially so. If experience is the only teacher, then new experiences just have to provoke new understandings about ourselves and our world.

And maybe, just maybe, my daughters, one of whom clearly has the telltale signs of my inborn prudence, will learn from this early experience that they have hearts big enough for bold choices and wild adventures. They can feel free to wreck all the fun they want, in fact most of me would prefer that to their father’s bungee jumping and disregard for speed limits. But I do hope that if they have opportunities in the future that scare them a little, they don’t let fear take up all the seats at the decision making table, that they don’t need to read it somewhere to consider that some risks are worth taking, that sometimes things can for the most part just work out.