The Embarrassing Expat Mother

I am a mother. And an expat.

I’m also a wife, and a writer, I like to dabble in art, I’m a bookworm, and lately I’ve obsessively worked on my forehand in tennis, but those two – mother and expat – seem to define me more than anything else.

However, I’m not just an expat and a mother. I’m an Expat Mother. Combining the two doesn’t just add up like one plus one, it creates a whole new dimension of motherhood. Motherhood on steroids, motherhood cubed, the nth degree of motherhood.


Well, here’s my theory:

You call yourself an expat if you go live abroad, temporarily or, in some cases, your entire life. You chose to go there, were sent there, or fled from some horror in your homeland. In almost all cases, you made some conscious decision to go.

If you’re a kid, you’re not an expat. You didn’t choose to go there, because there was no choice. Most likely your parents took you along, or you emerged into the world while already there. What you are most commonly called in today’s language is a Third Culture Kid or TCK.

You and your child inhibit two different worlds: the World of Expat-dom, and TCK World. And they are not really the same. As an expat mother, you have to mother a child of a slightly different species. There is an identity gap between the two of you. As can be expected, this has its challenges.

One such challenge is embarrassment.

I was inspired to sit down and write this column on Mother’s Day, of all days, because – as I was sitting in bed eating from the glorious breakfast tray my daughters, bless their hearts, had planted on my lap, discreetly leaving the room again knowing that I would love being left alone with my tea and the Sunday New York Times – I came across the always-inspiring Pamela Druckerman and her Mother’s Day message: “On Mother’s Day, Embrace Embarrassment.” In it, she wrote about the myriad ways immigrant parents embarrass their kids. This really spoke to me. Of course I tend to think of myself as a totally cool mother, as opposed to MY mother who really WAS embarrassing. I speak English with almost no accent, I “get” things like The Daily Show, I understand the sports scene. But I know that I’m deluding myself.

Take that sports scene, for instance. I was at my first netball game in South Africa. Impatience was playing, actually playing pretty well, considering she’d never played netball before in her life. But I was going crazy because no one was going for the rebound after shooting at the basket. “Get the rebound!!!,” naturally, was what I yelled from the bleachers for an entire half. Well – it turns out it’s not called a rebound. It’s also apparently not something you can “get,” willy-nilly, because there is some kind of zone around the basket, or perhaps the goal-shooter, into which you can’t extend your arms, as Impatience informed me later in hushed tones so that I would abstain from any further “encouragement” from the sidelines. South African mothers do not seem to provide such encouragement at all, I came to learn.

Jabulani, Zax, Impatience, and Sunshine, often the victims of extreme embarrassment at the hands of their mother, simply by virtue of occasionally (and totally involuntarily) starring on this very blog.

On the whole, however, our girls haven’t been nearly as damaged by parental embarrassment as the boys. I was ┬átempted to walk right into the teacher’s lounge at Dainfern College one day, brimming with indignation, to tell Jabulani’s geography teacher that no, contrary to her firm belief, the U.S. did NOT have 52 states, never had, and probably never would. And, while we were at it, that Zero Degrees North was just as good an answer on the exam as Zero Degrees South, if she really insisted on splitting that particular hair. Jabulani blanched at the prospect. He begged me to abstain. It would be SO embarrassing if I talked to the teacher like that, which is apparently something South African mothers don’t do.

It was also Jabulani who found it embarrassing when, upon receiving the supply list before cricket season, I was the only mother who had no idea what a ballbox was. Who then loudly inquired at the sporting goods store as to where she might find one, and who then proceeded to tell everyone for months afterwards, hooting with laughter, how funny it was that it turned out to be an athletic cup – which yes, if you think about it, is indeed a box containing balls (and if she should read anything into the fact that South African “ballboxes” were about twice the size of their American cousins). Hahaha!

But it is our oldest son, Zax, who is now 18, who has suffered the most from parental embarrassment. Or, as I like to say, whose embarrassment radar was so sensitive from, oh, age 11 until about 17, that I didn’t even have to DO anything to cause embarrassment. I merely had to exist. I will never forget the quandary he was in when he was invited to his first bar-mitzvah, back when we lived in Kansas. He wanted to go and asked me for a ride. I took him, of course. When we arrived at the parking lot, he stared at the large, forbidding building in horror and sat in the car, unmoving. He’d never been to a synagogue (and not often in a church either, come to think of it), and didn’t know the protocol. Did I know where he was supposed to go, he asked. I did not, but offered to come inside with him. That caused even higher degrees of horror. To be seen with his mother by his side, walking into a group of teenagers, was too much to bear. It caused beads of cold sweat to appear on his brow. Potentially opening the wrong door and having a congregation of strangers turn their heads in unison to stare at him might be a risk he’d have to take if he didn’t want to be seen with me, as well as the risk of handing over his present that I, his German mother (and not an expert on bar-mitzvahs by any means) had picked out and then realizing, from the recipient’s expression, that it was totally inappropriate. After long agonizing minutes in that parking lot he chose to leave me behind. Clearly, whatever dangers lurked in that building it was I, his mother, who was the biggest embarrassment. To this day I don’t know if he ever attended the bar-mitzvah or just ended up circling the building waiting for my return.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you’re an expat or not. Perhaps all mothers are embarrassing to their children at some point in time, even if they don’t jump up and down and yell “Jaaa, tahdshdown” when their son slides across home plate to score a run. Might as well go all out and do what you want to do as a mother, damn the consequences.

Embrace the embarrassment!

And Happy Mother’s Day to you all!

Which embarrassing mom moments have you lived through? Which faux pas have you commited?

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