Here’s what I pictured when my husband and I decided to decamp from Los Angeles to England for seven months, along with our fourth grader: cups of tea, drunk, every afternoon with milk and cake. Loads of rain. Biscuits (not sure exactly what they were, but was eager to find out). Fish and chips. Dark beer? A slight British accent developed by my child. Wool turtlenecks and thick socks. Hours spent in bookstores. Delight at having “weather” again. Biking? Missing old friends. Making new friends.
Here’s what I did not picture: spats. So many of the same stupid spats! Over screen time, weekend activities, division of labor, practicing the piano, homework, bedtimes, reading, not reading, TV time.
Here’s what I (secretly) thought: In Cambridge, where our usual stresses would be removed, our family life would be easier. We’d be saner, kinder, calmer. Aligned.
Well, well, well.
When we told our friends in L.A. that we were taking off for half a year (a perk of being married to an academic), we heard one refrain again and again: “We are soooooooo jealous! We wish we could do that!” And I didn’t blame them: Who wouldn’t – especially after an endless pandemic era – want to pick up and start over? To finally see the world again? And better yet, live in the world again, a different world, for an extended period of time? To immerse yourself in all things fresh and unfamiliar?
We did. So, off we went, flying across the country, then the Atlantic, on Christmas Eve, pulling our kid out of school and placing her in a British one, buying her a uniform and kissing her good luck at the school gate on the first day (or, actually, not kissing her at the gate, how embarrassing) and starting up a whole new routine.
She settled in like a champ, finding a crew, falling in love with her gray skirt and school “jumper,” adapting to calling underwear “pants” and the bathroom “the loo.”
Much is, of course, different for us parents, too: We now live in a small flat. We eat lunch and dinner in a dining hall with fellow academics and their families. We walk and walk and walk everywhere. My schedule has been freed of schleps to and from dance class, Hebrew school and tutoring. On weekends, we don’t go to synagogue or friends’ houses or the beach. I teach less, my husband teaches not at all. I am getting more time to write and rest and think, and my GOD, that is the gift of all gifts. Everything is, on one level, quieter, easier. It’s a peaceful existence.
And yet: nothing between us has changed. My husband still orders hundreds of cans of garbanzo beans on Amazon. I still snap if I am reading my book and get interrupted. The kid still grabs for my phone. She still storms off when one of us says the wrong thing. We could be anywhere!
It brings to mind the old adage: Wherever you go, there you are. When a whole family relocates, it’s more like: Wherever we go, there we are. Los Angeles, Montreal, Cambridge: it doesn’t matter. Our family dynamics – our personalities, hopes, dreams, weirdnesses, gripes, fears – are unmoved. And dare I say they are actually magnified so far from home? Without the backdrop of other people – girlfriends to listen to my secrets, a reliable sleepover buddy for the kid, our usual dinner party crew over for evenings of laughter – every family dynamic is on display.
We all have a fantasy that our problems will be magically solved by…whatever – a new job, a new partner, a new home, a new city, a new country. Can I admit that I’d imagined that, in Cambridge, I would be more patient? That we’d have a little British flat devoid of every family problem we’ve ever run up against?
But at the end of the day, we come home, don’t we? We come home to the people we love, to the life we’ve created together, and we are all inescapably ourselves. We might have eaten fish and chips for lunch rather than a quinoa bowl; we might have walked to school in the snow rather than driven in the blazing sun; we might have worn a uniform to learn Latin instead of jeans for American history, but we are, at heart, who we are, both as individuals and as a family. And maybe this is, actually, a relief: we love each other, wherever we are, as we are, quirks and all, unconditionally.
While a relocation may make life look different, the work of family life, the rubs of family life, are not solved this way. Family is an island all its own: a place of beauty, of frustration, of agony, and – when we are lucky – of unmatched joy.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher, based in Los Angeles but currently living in Cambridge, England. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about beauty, marriage, teenagers, loss, and only children.
(Photo by Stocksy/Alison Winterroth.)