Home Is Where …

My husband and I keep up with our college-age daughter’s emotional ups and downs by reading her Tumblr, the combination blog/diary/Instagram site that some kids her age use to express opinions and angst. One day recently she posted a single sentence from her campus in Chapel Hill, NC: “I want to go home.”

“Oh!” I said to Mark. “She’s homesick! I feel so bad!”

“Who knows what she means by home?” he said. “She’s a college student! Maybe she’s at a party and just wants to go back to her apartment. Our home isn’t necessarily what she means by home any more, you know.”

Oh, I know. And that’s what give me a lot of pause in our new Foreign-Service life. When we were making the decision to go this route in our early 50s, we thought we could make it work because, after our first year abroad, both kids would be either in college or working somewhere after college. Thus they wouldn’t be depending on us to have an actual house for them to live in, or for us to be living close by; they’d want to be on their own.

Except that I began seeing articles about the phenomenon of young adults living at home after college because of the high cost of living – it’s just not as easy, these days, to spring straight to financial independence if you’re not science or computer professionals. And our kids will not be.

But in choosing Foreign Service life, we’ve eliminated the possibility of a home base in the U.S. to which to retreat for a few months or longer – as I did right after college in 1982 – to figure out next steps. There is literally no place to go. We sold our house in Louisville, glad to free up the proceeds for investments in retirement and college funds. Of course the kids can always come see us in whatever country we’re living, but they won’t have the same access to jobs or contacts there, particularly if they don’t speak the language.

When I have wrung my hands at times about taking away their “home,” Mark wisely reminds me that home is where your family is, regardless of the house or location. Still, as a practical matter we’ve limited the living options for our kids and even for ourselves. Our first mandated home leave, between posts, starts a year from now; we’ll spend four to six weeks in the States with a dog and a cat … somewhere.

Of course we can stay with Mark’s mother for a time, but she lives in Charlotte, NC, where we know no one else – and the same would be true with family in New York, Indiana, Southern Kentucky. We can also stay at friends’ homes on a visit to Louisville, but imposing on others is uncomfortable, especially with pets. And staying in hotels gets expensive fast: Some Foreign Service families say home leave can break the bank.

One option would be to reroute some of our retirement savings to a condo to rent out while we’re abroad and stay in when we’re in the States. But a condo has its own complications, including the property management costs and the fact that it wouldn’t be so easy to ensure that it is vacant when we or the kids need it. We could also request a stateside post in Washington, D.C. But renting in Washington would cost too much unless I got a really good job there, which is possible but not assured when you can promise an employer only one or two years.

Another option would be to accept that we’ve made choices and tradeoffs – and the kids now know that returning to Mom and Dad’s house isn’t an option for any length of time. If they can’t find someplace affordable to live, we may decide to help them financially for a time. That’s scary, given the limits on my becoming gainfully employed in a foreign country. But we could figure it out if we had to.

And what about returning home? At least they can do that, emotionally and sometimes even physically. On our weekly Skype chat as a family with our daughter, Mark and I asked her what she meant on her Tumblr about wanting to go home. Did she mean with us in Tijuana? Or her apartment in Chapel Hill?

“Oh it was you guys,” she said, laughing. Mark snapped his fingers, having lost the bet, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. She’ll be here for Christmas, and we can rest assured that she will have had enough of us by early January that she will not look back when she boards the plane for North Carolina, gratefully returning to her college family of friends.

And then we’ll be figuring out what’s next for our son, a senior in high school – college or gap year? — as we look toward our first transition to a new post. Renegotiating “home” for him, and for us, will stretch the definition even more.

Wish us luck.

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