How It Started/How It’s Going

How It Started

It began with three pro/con lists.

When this overseas opportunity became a real possibility, I mentioned to my mom that I wished my dad was here so I could run it by him. A few days later, she helpfully replied that she thought she knew what he would have suggested. Make a pro/con list. Put it on paper and the answer will likely be clear.

We created concise ones for us as individuals. The eternal summer was a pro for me, whereas too hot went on Seb’s con list. I would lose my job and career identity but gain invaluable time with my kids while they are small. Seb would get a career boost, but lose out on some of his cherished activities, like a dedicated season to ski and a recreational softball league.

Then we created a longer one for our family. While the sides look matched in length, we ultimately decided to choose the bigger life and take a chance.

How It’s Going

When looking at this list now, it is clear that it was written by our pre-pandemic selves, and yet certain items hint at realities we sensed even before lockdowns and travel bans were part of our vernacular.

Travel isn’t a thing anymore, which means we haven’t visited many of the places we anticipated and also that Seb has been around far more often than we expected. It turns out that much essential business can in fact be conducted over teleconference. The difficulty in visiting home got upgraded to impossibility. We are unable to leave Singapore unless we plan to not come back.

While the global pandemic has slowed the pace of many things with treasured traditions being paused more often than not, our loved ones have continued to get engaged, married, and give birth to babies. That said, the particularities of the pandemic have shifted so much of this. Many people are opting for small intimate affairs or asking well-wishers to send their love from a safe distance. And some events, like the graduation of my former students this past June, went digital which meant I was allowed to tune in from afar.

Almost all the cons to coming overseas were interpersonal ones, and the reality is that many people in the states have geographical proximity to friends and family but prudence or interest in the collective well being of their community keeps them apart all the same. It makes revisiting this list a bit surreal to think that maybe we’d feel just as isolated if we were still in New Jersey.

And while some pros haven’t panned out – my children’s Mandarin exposure is certainly far more recreational than immersive – the ones that have held up have been monumental.

As a woman who isn’t working at the moment who still has hands-on help, I feel something akin to survivor’s guilt thinking of how different my life would be if we had passed on this opportunity. Teaching remotely with two kids under five at home would have had me stretched to an unprecedented extent. There are few optimal solutions to the balancing act working mothers face at the moment, which makes whatever they are doing to get by a good enough one. I have zero judgments and infinite respect for anyone who is something getting enough of it done. If it helps to hear it, by Singaporean standards, many of you are doing the full time work of three people.

As we enter the final quarter of our time abroad, I have started going through my days as a collector of sights and sounds and moments. I am constantly grateful for the capacity I have to be present during this time. My mental load has never been lighter and at times I feel almost boring, but never bored. It’s a privilege and I am more than fully aware of it.

So how’s it going? Well, it’s different than we expected for sure. But for me, even if time affluence was the only pro left standing on the list, it would be more than sufficient.

A Tropical Outing and a Tropical Malady

On August 1st, our little family channeled our pent-up wanderlust and set out on an adventure to explore Singapore’s southern islands. Singapore is technically composed of 63 distinct islands, of which three are home to actual residents. There’s Singapore proper, home to over 5 million, Sentosa (known as “The Island of Fun”), home to roughly 2,000, and rural Pulua Ubin, home to a meager thirty eight individuals. Many of the remaining sixty islands are pint size and/or off-limits to visitors, but a cluster of five islands off Singapore’s south coast are open to visitors and one even provides the option to camp overnight. We were not equipped with sufficient gear or patience to try camping in a tent with two small children, so we booked tickets on the 9am ferry and decided to make a day of it.

Our primary destination was St. John’s island. Somewhat ironically, this landmass had historically been used to house quarantine facilities during prior pandemics and plagues. Now it’s equipped with picnic tables, bathroom facilities, and pristine beaches.

Infographic detailing the island’s past

Connected to St. John’s island by a land bridge is Lazarus island, home to the most immaculate beach I have seen in Singapore. It’s the only place I’ve been where you can see sand and sea without a single shipping barge in sight.

Lazarus Island Beach, Singapore

The remaining two southern islands are Kuzu Island, home to a turtle sanctuary, and Sisters Island, which is technically a cluster of two distinct islands, which is a destination for snorkeling. We did not get to explore these yet.

The ferry to the Southern Islands costs $15 and makes four round trips each day. St. John’s is the primary destination, but you are can reboard the ferry to transfer to other islands. The ferry ride alone felt like an adventure after months spent landlocked on the 710 square kilometers of Singapore. The only issue was that I had begun contending with some nausea after the taxi ride to the ferry terminal. I don’t usually get motion sickness and as a result, my kiddos are used to me reading them stories in cabs. But I had begun feeling off halfway through The Pokey Little Puppy, and being aboard a boat was not doing anything to mitigate my queasiness.

The ferry trip was roughly thirty minutes and once we disembarked and checked in via SafeEntry, we were free to explore. Our kiddos were eager to get their toes in the sand, and I tried to suck it up, thinking that if I got sufficiently far away from the “crowd” and removed my mask for a bit, I might rebound.

We started with a proximate, but empty, beach and had some quick snacks. I found fresh air made my nausea subside a little bit, but I had begun to feel achy all over my body. Seb tried to peg it on the workout I had done that morning, but it was a routine strength session, and nothing would explain the way it seemed as if the ache was coming from somewhere deeper than my muscles. I drank nearly all the water I had brought with me and ate some of the kids snacks, which didn’t help much.

St. John’s Island, Singapore

Seb was eager to walk over the land bridge to Lazarus Island, where the most beautiful beaches were rumored to be. The walk was on a paved path, and we quickly wished we had brought the umbrella stroller because it was am ambitious trek for tiny legs and there were many sections with no fencing between the land and the sea.

One silver lining for Seb was that on our walk we got to see some of the fighter jets and helicopters practicing their routine for the upcoming holiday, Singapore’s National Day. My husband has always loved cars and planes.

By the time we made it to our destination, I began petitioning to take the earliest ferry back. My symptoms were only intensifying and while I had no cold symptoms, Singapore would not take it lightly if I inadvertently spread COVID-19 in my effort to tough out a recreational holiday.

Evidence of the roughly fifteen minutes we got to spend at Lazarus Island

The ferry back was far less direct, with a long wait for passengers to alit from other vessels and a stop at adjacent islands. It was also Harper’s naptime, so she fought sleep until fighting sleep was no longer possible and she crashed in my arms. A delightful big kid started eavesdropping on the story time I was having with a wide-awake Penny and distracted me by telling me her life story when we ran out of books. The entire time I was reluctantly coming to terms the the fact that I was feverish on top of my aches and queasiness and needed to get home more quickly than I could possibly.

By the time we made it home, I began to feel certain that what I had was actually dengue fever. My bones began to throb in a way that made me feel like they were splintering. I had no appetite whatsoever. My fever clocked in at 102. I don’t remember much about the rest of the day as my fever continued to rise and I became increasingly unable to sit upright.

The next 48 hours were spent completely crippled by the fever, but once paracetamol was able to dampen it sufficiently, I made an appointment for a dengue blood test. To my shock, the rapid test came back negative, which left me bewildered as to what else could be ailing me. The doctor and nurse both seemed convinced I still had dengue and said that I should come back 48 hours later for further bloodwork. I muddled through two more bed-ridden days of digestive unrest and high temperatures, but it was this second round of testing that confirmed that I did indeed have dengue fever.

Dengue is transmitted by mosquitos and has four distinct strains, increasing your risk of successive bouts with the virus. Severity varies with some individuals being asymptomatic, some able to persist through the illness from home, some requiring hospitalization, and some actually perishing. It has no treatment. The biggest risks are dehydration and crashing platelet levels. My platelets never got too low and rebounded within ten days. I guzzled water in a desperate attempt to prevent hospitalization.

Dengue numbers in Singapore have soared this year to record heights, partially because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. While our building conducts weekly spraying of noxious chemicals meant to discourage mosquito breeding, we live right in the middle of a massive cluster that now includes nearly 300 confirmed cases.

The best thing for me about a positive dengue test was that I no longer worried about infecting my family. While an Aedes mosquito could theoretically bite me and then bite them, passing along the disease, the risk of this in our twenty-fifth floor apartment was negligible.

Right when my fever broke, my entire body started breaking out in a telltale rash which then began to itch, most egregiously on my palms and heels. It shifted my mood from fatigued and febrile to incredibly irritable and took far longer to go away than my googling prepared me for. After two weeks, I felt normal enough, but still lacked the energy to sufficiently parent small children. Within a few more days, I began to function like a human again.

Having battled dengue, I’m now eligible for a vaccine, which apparently requires multiple doses over the course of a year and is only available to individuals who have had the virus before. I definitely will take a few jabs to ensure I never experience this again, especially considering subsequent bouts tend to be progressively severe.

Neighbors have begun teasing that they can detect my family approaching with their noses, as we have all intensified our application of citronella based bug creams. If we can make it till May without anyone else in our family contending with this, I will consider it a victory worthy of celebration.

An Unexpected Encounter

On Friday, I returned from an essential grocery run to find the Singapore police waiting for me at my apartment.

Now a global pandemic is certainly a context in which you quickly absorb the differences in regards to governance between your native land and your new temporary home. I’ve been cataloging these since January, making sure I’m always acting with regards to both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Not every edict has garnered my enthusiasm, but I have been continually impressed by how clarity, follow through, and a lack of political posturing coalesce into an environment in which you can count on people to do their part to consider the greater good.

As an expatriate, it’s been important to me to remember that I’m a guest here, welcomed only because of the nature of my husband’s work. Living here, I’ve never second guessed the safety of any member of my family for even a moment and I’ve felt lucky to behold the beauty of this garden city on a daily basis.

I also tend to play by the rules in general. You could say I’m boring. I go to bed toddler early and consider dark chocolate my “drug” of choice. When the police asked for me by name, my brain did a stutter-step, unable to compute what had possibly brought them to me.

I’d been dutifully wearing my mask when leaving the apartment, taking it off as permitted only on my weekly hikes. We only leave the house to go on a daily family walk and occasionally I’ll pop into the supermarket for essential items while Seb does laps with the stroller outside. Our life has been almost aggravatingly small for the past seven weeks, with a wave exchanged from our balcony with a neighbor as a social highlight. All this, we do because it’s required but also because it’s working. Community transmission in Singapore has been reduced to a trickle. The ICU beds are emptying due to recoveries. Only 23 deaths have resulted from COVID-19 since January, and you feel the government regarding each fatality with the appropriate heaviness, knowing these individuals are indispensable to the loved ones left mourning them.

Unfortunately, even in a country known for high compliance, there are those who aim to circumvent the measures. Last weekend, a photo was widely circulated on social media of a group of expatriates congregating flagrantly in a group, to-go drinks in hands as they sat outside restaurants offering food for takeaway. The were socializing in Robertson Quay, a neighbored adjacent to ours. Located along the Singapore River, it’s wide pathways welcome walkers and bikers and families with little kids who can safely toddle where no cars can drive. We walk along the river a few times a week, usually during early afternoon. I had never seen people behaving the way the photo depicted, but the group in question was photographed at 6:30pm, when I’m usually cuddling a tiny human.

The police wanted to know if I had been by the river that day. (I had not.)

They asked if I had seen the photo on social media. (I had.)

The widely circulated photograph.

They showed me an alternate picture from a different angle, clearly showing a few of the participants. They asked if we knew any of them. (We didn’t. Our social circle is pretty limited to neighbors and parents of Penny’s school friends, many of whom live in different neighborhoods closer to her school.)

One of the women pictured was white with dirty blonde hair. This made her look like me but at same time she clearly wasn’t me. The police officers said they were conducting general inquiries and I made an assumption that they must just be visiting all units in our building.

They were professional. They assessed that we understood the severity of this infraction, and we affirmed that it was a flagrant breach of social distancing protocols. Also, we recognized that failure to address this infraction creates a space in which people can argue that the expatriate crowd can skirt rules in a way that citizens can’t. I have not actually found this double standard to exist, but the government is very sensitive to anything that plays into this narrative.

Afterwards, I discovered that their general inquiries were actually fairly targeted. They didn’t check in with any of our neighbors. So why me? Our best guess is that they utilized some facial recognition software and my government issued identification was a close enough match for the woman pictured but not yet identified.

I joked with my neighbor that I may need her to confirm that she sees me close the blinds each night around six when I start getting Harper ready for bed, but deep down I felt angry and unsettled. Angry that someone who looks like me, likely a guest in this country, despite the crystal clear regulations, would feel entitled to sit close to other people without even wearing a mask, and that her selfish actions somehow extend to me because we share a somewhat similar genetic profile. The fear came from having a new degree of empathy for anyone who had ever been questioned by the police. When they asked simple questions, my mind went blank, unable to remember in the moment what I actually had been doing earlier on that Saturday. I was then terrified that my hesitance might make me seem suspicious or untrustworthy.

Singapore is not a place where you’d want to find yourself in a gray area with the law. Foreigners who flouted stay home notices were just told to go home and never come back. Caning and execution are viable punishment options here for the more egregious crimes. It makes sense that I had a panic response to seeing officers in my home, hearing them ask for me by name.

And yet, I’m grateful for their civility. They did nothing to exacerbate my fear. Our conversation was maybe five minutes long. Truthfully, I wasn’t much help. I later heard from a friend that she knew someone in the periphery of the photo, who had just been walking by, and after the police identified her, they questioned her for three hours. I have no doubt in the coming days that an update will hit the news ticker, revealing that the individuals were found and their actions have been formally addressed. There is an efficiency to police work here, aided by high civilian cooperation and a general public belief that rule breakers deserve what’s coming to them. These are tenets that I can get behind in theory, but that are often far murkier in practice back in the US.

Many things on our Singapore bucket list have gone unchecked in this strange new world we all find ourselves inhabiting. But now I can say that I’ve managed to experience something I’d have unequivocally put on my “avoid at all costs” list. And if anyone is looking for me, I’ll continue to be where I’ve always been, safe at home with my kids, falling asleep roughly after the sun sets so I’ve got the energy and patience to muddle through another day of trying to cultivate some semblance of normalcy and predictability in a world that has me perpetually guessing just what will happen next.

My typical 7pm view

Life in the time of COVID-19

I have felt safe here all along. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt worried, just that my worries have not been about myself or my immediate family here in Singapore. As this virus proliferates in our home country, I have new worries, including , of course, some starring those I love.

The reality is that America is a place governed by the bizarre idea that some lives matter more than others. Those in power imply this in countless ways, but for the sake of this blog post, I’ll focus on the way that current healthcare and employment policy creates a situation that makes even the healthy and insured less safe than they’d be here in Singapore.

In America, there are people afraid to miss a day of work. Even though I worked in a job where I had a right to sick days, me missing work made my work fall into the laps of other people, which created a culture in which you had to ask yourself if you were sick enough to justify this redistribution of labor.

Of course, there are people for whom sick days come at a financial cost of lost wages that they can’t afford. There are people for whom taking sick days make them feel like they’re putting a target on their back for the next round of layoffs. All in, there are countless people who are motivated to show up to work even if they feel under the weather.

Sick people pretending they aren’t all that sick so they can go about their business are a way to exponentially increase the magnitude of a pandemic.

Then there’s healthcare costs and uneven coverage which mean that there are people who need medical attention who will be reluctant to seek it. This will guarantee more fatalities as avoiding treatment increases the likelihood of complications developing. It also promises that more people will be exposed to the virus during the time in which those infected delay treatment because they are fearful of the financial repercussions of asking for help.

Of course, I’ve already seen news of American universities hard at work identifying drug therapies. Science may yet allow America to become the hero the world needs. Some drug company will see its stock catapult when it releases it has a vaccine or a treatment. But this won’t erase the fact that people will have lost their lives needlessly. That our country could have afforded to care for anyone with symptoms regardless of their employment or citizenship status and that refusing to do so has made every American less safe. Rhetoric in America currently makes those who are elderly or immunocompromised feel like they are are somehow dispensable, that a novel virus that may only kill them isn’t necessarily one that the rest of the population should give a damn about.

So yes, we feel safe here. We know that anyone who gets sick, whether they are a Singaporean or a federal domestic worker or an expatriate, will be given high quality medical attention immediately. We know that those who have been in contact with the infected will be given orders to sequester themselves that they must follow. We feel like we can fundamentally trust the government and that their response is tactical and scientifically sound, but also ethical and consistent. We feel like we can expect those around us to make decisions that prioritize the good of all over the good of themselves and if they don’t, they’ll be penalized for their exceptionalism.

But this isn’t our home. And it’s weird feeling like we might be better off overseas than we would be in our home country, even though as a young family with health insurance, we’d fare well enough in either place. It’s forced me to confront a new kind of privilege that I wish I could drape all those back home in, the privilege to feel protected not just because you are a useful cog in a complex economic machine, but because you’re a person, and that’s all we should ever have to be to deserve dignity. That time to rest when we are ill and medical services that could extend our lives aren’t things you need to earn, but things every last one of us deserves.

On First Birthdays

When Penelope turned one, we had a big party the following weekend. Friends and family flooded in, perhaps sensing how much we needed the fanfare after a bittersweet first year. I had purchased a special outfit for the party and a special outfit for her to wear at daycare on her official birthday. I cried as I drove to work that day, my heart aching because I was unable spend the day with, yet my mind knowing fully that she wasn’t actually suffering, the significance of birthdays utterly lost on kids that young.

Her party was themed to match the cold weather, but the house was full of warmth. I put on a pair of jeans for the first time since her birth. We purchased a single present – a mini Dyson kids toy vacuum, a tongue in cheek nod to the fact that the sound of the vacuum was the only thing that got her to stop screaming in her first six months.

I remember feeling like I had accomplished something simply by enduring that first year, surviving the colic and somewhat figuring out how to return to work despite the fact that I was an exclusively breastfeeding mother to a baby who didn’t take a bottle. I was drowning in guilt that she was starving every day. I hadn’t slept more than three consecutive hours since she was born. I had been pumping at two hour intervals each work day and then nursing her all night long, bed-sharing the only way forward, the pumped milk filling my freezer until I got around to donating it.

Hard babies are hard. Penny had been a tough baby – the six months of screaming giving way to the rocky return to work transition and her first birthday meant that she was no longer technically a baby. The day felt like permission to move forward and embrace the fun stages ahead, leaving behind much of the angst and some of the grief that had haunted me all year.

When Harper turned one, we celebrated with family, lucky to have two special guests from the states to make things feel more festive. We ordered some balloons and I picked up a cake, but much like her sister she had no interest in eating it, vastly preferring to yank down my shirt collar than try any sweet treats offered. She had an adorable birthday dress thanks only to my mother-in-law. I spent most of the day with her, but felt no guilt at leaving her with our helper, one of her favorite people, so I could run to the gym and attend a field trip with Penny. In this first year, I’ve never had to leave Harper long enough for it to matter that she too has zero interest in bottles. The only time I’ve pumped milk has been for my own comfort.

Harper was a shockingly independent newborn, happy to lay on her back and flail her limbs as long as she could sense my proximity. Her cries have always been easy enough to address. Yes, she can reach a pitch that makes passerby’s look over with alarm, but within a few minutes, she’s ready to move on. We had seven really hard weeks when I was alone in the states and we had to revise her tongue so that she could feed properly, in which I instantly regressed to my most fearful, stressed out self, but the rest of her first year has been marked by smiles and joy. She’s shown me that people who love babies aren’t totally crazy, they’ve just probably had easier babies. She’s healed parts of me that I didn’t even know were broken.

Harper got a ton of presents, mostly because Penny insisted on picking out a half dozen, wise enough to realize that if she “gifts” it to Harper, than at least for now, it means she can play with it too. Harper is still endlessly patient with and adoring of her big sister, all too happy to have any toy snatched from her hand if it means Penny is close by. Penny has been one of the constants in this first year of much change, in which the first half was spent in Glen Rock, NJ and the second half was spent adjusting to life in Singapore.

As I write this, I think of them grown up, inquiring about the vastly different circumstances of their first years. How time will likely distill them into bullet points, how I will have to work hard to not give the circumstances that were outside of their control any metaphorical resonance. With Penny, she got 100% of me for most of her first year, thanks to a slightly extended leave and summer vacation and my push for Wednesdays off to be with her. She did have to share me with my career and adjust to a variety of other caregivers at daycare. It took a while for us to find our footing and actually have fun together, but even in the hardest moments, I felt so much love and gratitude for the little lady who gave me the chance to grow into a mom. She didn’t ask to be born to a grief struck mother who expected babies to coo and poop and not shriek and flail. I have never worked harder at anything than I did at trying to rise to the occasion and be the parent she deserved.

Harper has always had to share me with her sister. She’s had to learn to feed and fall asleep while stories are read, to not get distracted by big sis deciding to jump on the bed. The times when she has 100% of my attention are far more rare, but they feel like gifts we get to open together. She’s never been in a formal daycare and expects either her mom or our helper to always be there. Her social interaction is informal, happens at the condo playground, where the other babies gather in the early morning hour and learn each other’s names as some of their first words. The mother she was given was a little older and so much wiser, but she also continued to flounder with things that were new. But any illusions of perfection in parenthood are long gone by this point so I’ve adopted a lighter touch with myself and with the world around me, always trying to learn more but always knowing that it all boils down to love and forgiveness, to fighting to be your best self for the ones who depend on you, to finding calm in the chaos and knowing your example will outlast any lecture you could ever concoct.

This time, as my last first birthday rolled around, it felt more like an ending than a beginning. My days with babies are more than likely behind me, and I’m so grateful to have had them all.

Our Second Overseas Family Trip: Phuket, Thailand

When we booked our flight to Phuket for early evening on Christmas Day, I don’t think I anticipated exactly how long that day would feel. Though the flight time was less than two hours, we took off at Harper’s bedtime, after a day that started early and included quite a lot of action for small kiddos. Especially because it seemed as if a switch had been trigger for Harper and she was suddenly walking independently and impressively fluidly. She tested this new trick out all over the airport, which made standing in lines a little tiresome and had me scared about the flight. Thankfully learning how to walk takes a lot of energy and she crashed with takeoff.

Overall, from stockings, to presents, to a festive lunch out, packing and schlepping to the airport, and flying to Thailand – it was a long day that led to the two kids arriving at the resort looking like this:

The staff was gracious upon our arrival, offering me a lovely glass of tropical juice and launching into a long winded spiel about every possible thing you could ever want to know, which is exactly what you want to listen to when you have two exhausted children whose nighttime sleep is being interrupted by the check-in process. I know some people have these kids who will like stay asleep as they are carried from the couch to the bedroom, or even as the car seat leaves the car and heads somewhere attached to the stroller. But those are not my kids.

My kids are also usually a part of the wake up before the sun’s up crew, but on our first morning they did both sleep until 7am, which was actually 8am in Singapore, so we chalked that up to an epic win and began to explore our surroundings. I have never been to a place that was more thoroughly landscaped to resemble something out of a fairy tale. The gardens all had this vibrancy and charm that felt like walking through a storybook. And my favorite local flower was everywhere.

We spent our first day exploring the resort. It had a beautiful pool that had at one point apparently been the largest freshwater pool in South East Asia. It sprawled all over the property, with no shortage of shallow spots for Harper to practice her walking. A newly mobile baby in a pool is great fun actually because the weightlessness allows them to move quicker and more fluidly, so she was feeling pretty darn impressive toddling through the water. The resort’s buffet did not disappoint. In addition to the croissant which Penny fell in love with on our last vacation, they also had mini sugar donuts somewhere reminiscent of American munchkins, which delighted my child to no end.

The resort beach was fun for sandcastle building and fascinating from an ecological perspective. It was an intertidal zone that revealed all these interesting rock formations when the tide went out, each one full of sea life forms. But this geological phenomenon made a dip in the ocean a little logistically complicated for little ones and so for our second day, we decided to venture off-resort to the famous Patong Beach. Here the water was brilliantly blue and you could wade right in, but the vibe here was reminiscent of my college break trip to Acapulco. Clearly tourism is a huge industry in Phuket and between stands renting everything from unicorn floatation devices to jet skis and the large crowds hailing from all over the globe, this beach was teeming with activity at 10am on a Friday morning.

We spent the rest of the day back at the resort, where Penny was delighted to interact with the resort pets. The sweet bunny I placed on her lap happily ate the greens and then bounded off and we needed some help to lure him back to his friends.

We capped off our trip by having dinner at the beachside restaurant on site. It didn’t have French fries on the menu, so we were able to order them from the beachside bar and bring them over. The meal included lots of walking around holding Harper’s hand between courses and Penny completed an entire sticker book, but we got to eat delicious Thai food and watch a beautiful sunset. For me, this was the highlight of the trip.

Watch me go guys!

Our flight back was mid-morning the next day, so we only had time for breakfast and “saying goodbye to the ocean”. The trip was quick, but I honestly think that’s what made it so sweet. It was the perfect length to feel like we soaked up what was easily available, and I felt ready to go home but not overly so. There are no doubt lots of excursions we could have done, but most of the those things are for adults adventuring on their own or families with bigger kids, honestly. My kids right now are happy with time with their parents and a bucket, and I’m more than aware that won’t always be the case.

The only notable thing about our trip home was how crowded the airport was when it was time to board your plane. Passengers were bused from the terminal to their aircraft, and the same departure gate was used for flights as close as 15 minutes apart. It definitely made me want to have one hand on each child at all times.

Overall, this trip felt like a vacation, which is a feat in itself with two children. I definitely left wanting to see (and eat my way through) more of Thailand, but maybe a sleepier side of it next time.

Thavorn Resort Highlights:

  • Great food. A seafood ceviche I had was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while.
  • Landscaping. I was struck by the natural beauty everywhere I looked.
  • Animals! This was unexpected and so fun for the kids.
  • Pool – It was sprawling with easy toddler access.
  • Phuket as a whole felt really eco-conscious. No plastic straws or bags, smart housekeeping suggestions to limit waste.

Drawbacks:

  • The beach wasn’t really functional for family use.
  • Phuket in general has a strong party vibe. Our last night at the resort there was a wedding in progress, which was beautifully to witness, and a rowdy bachelorette party which was less so the kind of thing I want my kids to see.
  • Hotel gym had some of the most ancient exercise machinery I’d ever seen.

Out of sight, but not out of mind

When we discussed this opportunity to spend two years living in Singapore, when we consulted our good old fashioned pro/con lists, when I said yes, trying to choose the “bigger life” and go beyond my comfort zone, I couldn’t do it without contemplating the things that I’d miss.

Because going somewhere new inevitably means you’re leaving somewhere old, and for me that meant leaving nearly everyone I knew and loved. On the spectrum of loving, I trend towards the effusive end and there are no shortage of people who I can picture in my mind’s eye and feel my heart wince.

I made myself mentally list the obvious things I’d hate to miss – from the traditions and occasions that let me connect with those I love, like the annual Girls Running Club race and how last year’s combination of new and old students, family, and friends made the day a pinnacle of perfection, I thought of the Class of 2020 graduating from high school and me not being able to scream their names, names that I’ve been holding near in my heart for eight plus years of coaching and teaching and loving. I thought of the time we’d miss at the family beach house, the lost chance for Harper to grow up alongside my youngest niece in their largely communal first year.

I knew there’d also be occasions I could never predict, and as predicted, this has begun to be true. This past weekend it felt like my heart was attempting to fly away from my body as one of the dearest people to me celebrated a life milestone without me by their side. And there are the more ordinary occasions that mark the forward progress of life – the unfolding pregnancies of people who supported me through mine, the hugs I desperately want to give upon hearing of an engagement, a college acceptance, or a professional win.

Social media lets me channel some of this energy into comments and likes and story replies. If I’m literally the only one who regularly responds to what you post, I hope you’re not sick of me yet. As much as I fundamentally don’t understand the trend towards watching and consuming without interacting, it’s probably intensified by the fact that right now I can’t have the other daily touch points that nurture relationships. I’m just utilizing the heck out of the one I have.

I more or less can put my phone away every day from 11am till bedtime, as the world back home is largely sleeping. The occasional former student pulling an all-nighter at college or a logistical text on the WhatsApp groups that run things on this side of the world notwithstanding, the internet goes kind of quiet and it lets me be extra present in the momentary and ordinary of each day.

But as I explore this extraordinary place, I do wish daily that I could share it with the people I miss, which is why I’m especially excited for our second set of visitors to arrive, my mom and my aunt, later this week. It will be a mix of embracing being a tourist in our temporary home and just enjoying the ambiance of a fuller house for the next two weeks.

And as future visitors are beginning to book plane tickets, whenever I feel homesick, there doesn’t seem to be a better way to mark the passing of these two years than by looking forward to the next set of familiar faces who will make the long trip to Changi airport. So if you’re considering a trip, we’d love to see you. And even if that’s not in the cards, do know that while I may only be seeing you through the highlight reel of social media, I am keeping the real you – complex, multifaceted, with good and bad moments each and every day, in my heart and on my mind even from far away.

Can’t have Rainbows without Rain

To begin this, I have to explain that Penny’s birthday is a bit muddled for me. My father died less than 24 hours before she was born, and every time I think I’ve fully reckoned with this happenstance, I’m surprised by how these two events continue to permeate my consciousness as mid-December rolls around each year.

My dad was young and healthy, until he was not, and his death came much too suddenly.

My daughter was a double rainbow baby, arriving after years of fear that my intent to start a family would not be fulfilled without an alternate, not yet fleshed out plan. She arrived two days late according to doctor’s estimates, but I had been anxiously waiting for so much longer.

Each year, I try to give myself time and space to be sad as the anniversary of my father’s death rolls around. Its proximity to Christmas makes things a bit heavier, as he loved the holiday and his revelry can never be fully replaced. The whole month could easily be a bit somber, if not for the fact that I have Penny to cherish and celebrate.

So we’ve always done a party, and this year, the most logical date seemed to be Saturday, December 14th. The day before her actual birthday. The day we lost my dad.

As a party planner, now that’s she’s older I’ve made a hard shift away from Pinterest/my design desires and towards simply listening to my kid and including her in all the planning and preparation. This part was super fun and did not disappoint. What happens when you let an almost 4 year old call the shots? You get walls that look like this. Yes, that is about six inches of crepe paper hung with some washi tape 😂

Penny’s desires this year were:

  • An art party
  • Inside our house
  • School friends & Condo friends
  • A chocolate cake with fruit on top (She’d eat the fruit, as she doesn’t even like cake)
  • Lots of balloons in ALL the colors
  • Gummies and M&Ms and Skittles

Everything sounded easy enough to accomplish. For the art activities, I reached out to the atelierista at Penny’s school and she introduced me to the goddess known as Meri Cherry. Penny’s school does awesome process-based art on the regular, so I knew I had to bring something special to engage kids that were used to art as experience rather than art aimed towards an end product. We settled on three art activities, all of which utilized recycled materials. Penny and I tested them all out before the big day.

1. Spin Art Rocks (Salad spinner + paint + rocks found around Singapore)

2. Rainsticks (Cardboard tubes + crepe paper + washi tape + dried oats)

3. Salt painting (Salt + glue + liquid watercolors)

We got helium balloons delivered in every color, and I trusted a friend to recommend a cake shop. It’s definitely not the same as a cake made by Grandma but it was delicious and checked all the boxes. Our guest list was a bit lean because of the school holidays. The last day of school was Thursday and by her Saturday fete, two thirds of the class was already on their way home for the holidays.

We expected eight classmates and a few dear condo friends, which felt plenty festive enough. But then one friend cancelled during the week. And another two the day before. Two more on the morning of the party. And one that afternoon. The reasons all made sense, the kind of urgent unavoidable detritus of life with young kids. Some bug was clearly going around the class. But by the fifth cancellation, something inside me severed.

All the emotions I had been trying not to feel about missing my dad and the cyclical dawning of the realization that we had uprooted Penny from all her family and friends and some repressed memories of feeling utterly lonely on my birthday shortly after the one time my family moved growing up brewed into this deep sadness marred with mom guilt. Thank goodness for the sanctuary of the shower. I texted all my biggest fears to a dear friend. I’m afraid nobody is going to show up and it will be like one of those clickbait sad posts on social media. Why did I take my kid away from everything and everyone she knew and loved?

Then I hopped in. I let myself bawl, watching the grief and fear and rawness circle down the drain. By the time I toweled off, I was seeing things more clearly.

As parents, we are often in danger of projecting our emotions onto our kids. Yes, I was sad – about my dad, about celebrating without those who had always been there every other year, about the guests I promised my daughter that I could no longer deliver. But, Penny’s four. Everything she needed to have a memorable day continued to be in play. She had zero use for my sadness – in fact it would be tough for her to understand it. My day might be hard, but her day wasn’t ruined at all.

The guests that did attend our party, which thankfully included two last minute yeses, got my effusive gratitude. When I expressed how much it meant that they were there with us during a hectic time of year, how their participation was what let me silence the voices that spoke up with each cancellation, insisting that we were crazy to move across the world and expect to instantly recreate a sense of community, they all got it. They’d done the same thing to their family at some point in time. We were all in this madness together.

Overall, it was a reminder that quality trumps quantity. The pint size of the party made the art projects easy to manage. It meant every kid got a few stabs at the pull apart piñata. It allowed me to talk with all adult guests. It encouraged the kids to stick around post cake, to spill into the rooms with toys and to just play with one another. Our home felt truly full for the first time since we relocated and my heart pulsed through its shattered places. While the people here in Singapore weren’t there in December of 2015 when my heart broke and then burst in the span of twenty four hours, they were still able to help me honor my amazing daughter and simply get through this tough day all the same.

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.