Trials of a “Trailing Spouse”

The expat life offers many delights but one element I’ve found challenging? Being stuck in the role of a “trailing spouse.” Yes it’s 2015. And yes, this term is still used widely.

Maybe it’s just my ego (I don’t necessarily excel at taking the back seat) but I think it’s more than that. It’s something to do with a sense of self and career being an integral part of identity and–sure–ego.

I find the term “trailing spouse” off putting because it suggests my sole career–and identity–is being a spouse (and a trailing one at that!). I loved this blog post on The Trailing Spouse Identity Project about the challenges of life, career, and identity as a trailing spouse, and how to stay positive and seize the opportunities it presents. The author astutely explains what I’ve struggled to convey:

What we do for a living is an inherent and (un)conscious factor in how we value ourselves— whether we judge it in terms of contribution to society or the money we make. When I stopped work I lost the measuring unit or reference point for judging the value of ‘me’.

Love this post and plan to start following the Time of Tea blog – check it out!

And shine on!

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Making Muffins (aka Inspired and Missing my Kitchen)

I’ve been lucky to spend the past month traveling and spending lots of quality time with family and friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years. Living a vagabond life has been fun but one thing I’m missing? My kitchen.

I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen to start cooking (and eating!) healthy food and this article in today’s Washington Post has me inspired: How to make a healthful muffin that doesn’t taste like one.

Making Muffins

I’ve eaten a lot of very unhealthy (though very tasty) muffins on this vacation and love the idea of a homemade recipe that is actually good for me. Better yet? One that my two and four year olds will both eat without complaining. If you have a healthy version of a pain au chocolat, send it my way…

From the Washington Post:

Whole-Grain Apple Crumb Muffins

12 to 15 servings

INGREDIENTS

For the topping

2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup finely chopped pecans

2 tablespoons whole-wheat pastry flour

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the muffins

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup canola oil

2 large eggs

3/4 cup unsweetened plain applesauce

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 medium Golden Delicious apple, cored and cut into 1/4-inch chunks

STEPS

For the topping: Whisk together the brown sugar, pecans, whole-wheat pastry flour, oil and cinnamon in a bowl.

For the muffins: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-well muffin pan with cooking oil spray.

Whisk together the whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a medium bowl.

Whisk together the brown sugar, oil and eggs in a large bowl until well combined, then whisk in the applesauce and vanilla extract. Stir in the flour mixture in two additions, alternating with the buttermilk, until just combined. Gently stir in the apple chunks.

Divide the batter evenly among the wells of the muffin pan, then sprinkle with the topping mixture. (If you have batter left over, cover it and bake a second batch.) Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick or bamboo skewer inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Transfer the muffin pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the muffins to loosen them and unmold. Cool them completely on the rack before serving or storing.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 15): 190 calories, 3 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar

Beating the Beast that is Jet Lag

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Travel is exhausting and stressful (especially with two kids) but the experiences and memories are always worth it. But one beast I’d happily leave behind (or at least tame)? Jet lag. We’re in the midst of a multi-week, multi-continent boondoggle and having a blast. But this jet lag is killer.

Hanoi to Honolulu: two flights, one red eye, and 17 hours of time difference. Honolulu to Boston? Two more flights, another red eye, six more hours of time difference. Lots of miles traveled, lots of whining, tons of fun, but not lots of sleep (at least not at the times it’s supposed to happen). Add to this no real routine and you get cranky, whiny kids and spent parents.

When I’m traveling solo, I know how to deal with jet lag: get on the destination schedule as soon as possible, exercise, get some sunshine, avoid napping during the day, and take a melatonin before bed. It’s not fun but I can tolerate it and am good to go after a few days. But when traveling with kids, my normal tactics don’t seem to work as well, especially because we’re staying in hotels or rental properties and trying to keep the kids quiet and avoid ruining other people’s vacations. 

Here are some tips for managing jet lag with munchkins:

  1. Stick to your routine as much as possible – meals, naps, bedtimes – replicating the schedule at home will help kids get acclimated.
  2. Get your kids outside and active. The sun will help get them on the new schedule and stay awake and being busy will tire them out!
  3. Encourage them to drink lots of water.
  4. Bring a few familiar items to help with the bedtime routine – blanket, lovie, nightlight – this will help comfort your kids and (hopefully) make bedtime a bit easier.
  5. If traveling with a toddler in the midst of potty training, expect some setback and bring some extra diapers and/or changes of clothes everywhere you go.

And here are some new tips I plan to try the next time we travel:

  • Delicious Baby has these great tips for how to help kids sleep better on the plane (thereby reducing jet lag’s duration and unpleasantness).
  • Take fish oil on the plane to boost circulation (for me, not the kids).
  • Focus on maintaining good sleep routines before the trip.

Fellow family travelers: what are your tips for beating jet lag with kids?

Shine on!

Expat Lessons Learned: Seven Things I Learned During my Two Years Overseas

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The first year is the hardest. I knew this—in theory—before I left the States, but reality was a lot harder than I imagined. I had planned everything to make the transition easier but it turned out that most of my plans didn’t work out. Part-time graduate school? Didn’t work out. Part-time job? Not when I was ready for it. Homesickness, discomfort, exhaustion – I experienced these on entirely new levels. I’d lived abroad before moving to Hanoi and thought it would be no big deal, even though I was leaving my career, bringing my 2.5 year and 2 month olds along for the ride, and didn’t speak the language. Truth? I was so naïve, and the first year nearly did me in.

The second year is so much better. Throughout the lows of my first year, several seasoned expat friends assured me the second year would be better. They were right. After the first year, I had friends, a routine, could communicate in basic Vietnamese, and things (cultural differences, directions, etc.) felt more normal and comfortable.

Forget the “old me.” Abandoning the “old me” was hard, and I held on to it for a long time. I didn’t even realize how strongly ingrained my identity—full-time working mom who “did it all” despite the stress—was until I left it behind in D.C. All of a sudden I found myself in a new country, with two kids, no friends, and no job. And I was miserable for a while. I mourned “the old me” and obsessed about how to get her back. I realize now that I was grieving my old life, and it was a painful process. But after 1+ years of feeling sorry for myself, I took action and started making things happen. I embraced the new me. And when I did, it felt like someone had ripped off blinders I didn’t even know I was wearing!

All of a sudden, opportunities started presenting themselves because I was open to them. The new me is still evolving, but I like her.Also, the more I talked with friends, the more I realized that the changes and challenges at this point in my career and family life were common and normal. It’s just that being abroad made them more emphatic. There was no old routine to fall back on and get lost in—just the hard cold facts staring me in the face. And it was up to me to address them.

Communication is critical (and HARD). Communicating is entirely different with a 12-hour time difference. It requires thought, planning, and even some sacrifice (getting up early, staying up late). I thought it would be so easy with FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, etc. but the truth is, everyone is busy and unless you make communicating a priority, it doesn’t happen. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people who made efforts to communicate (not necessarily those I expected) and it reminded me to be a better communicator. I’m a work in progress, but I have a new appreciation for family and friends that went the extra mile to keep in touch.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Cliché for a reason: it’s true. I love my country but have never appreciated it as much as I do now, after two years living so far away from it. I loved getting to know Vietnam, its people, and its culture, but I also found myself missing aspects of the U.S. I usually take for granted—its diversity of people, cultures, religions, foods, the clean air, city parks, sidewalks unobstructed by motorbikes, and affordable, accessible consumer goods from all over the world

Kids are more adaptable than I thought. In the “helicopter parent” world of American parenting (especially in the D.C. area of hyper-competitive everything), I succumbed to planning everything for my kids. I’m still a planner, but I’ve learned the lesson—the hard way—that the best laid plans can be disrupted (or chucked entirely). Like all kids, mine love their routines, but they also love experiencing new things and, after an adjustment period, can really thrive in new environments. They adapted faster to living overseas than I did!

Amid the challenges, traveling with kids also brings an entirely new perspective. In no way was it always easy (turns out they don’t sell Children’s Benadryl at the Luang Prabang night market) and there were frustrations, scratches, mosquito bites, and tears (theirs and mine!). But I found that encountering new places, cultures, sounds, and tastes becomes more multi-dimensional with your kids in tow, because you experience things through their eyes. My former college backpacker self still independently revels in the walk over the swinging bamboo bridge or finding a quiet nook on a bend in the Mekong. But doing this with my daughters conveyed a whole new level of fulfillment and sense of discovery. This lesson isn’t unique to being an expat, but for me, it took moving halfway around the world to learn it.

The expat life is liberating and FUN. I met so many incredible people in the past two years. People I never would have met in my “old” life. While I was learning to appreciate close family and friends back home, I was also learning to value the new friendships and experiences overseas. I met women from all over the world, of all different ages, with myriad experiences, and—regardless of these often considerable differences—we could connect and relate based on shared experiences as Hanoi expats. Becoming active in the Hanoi International Women’s Club was a pivotal point in my happiness, because I realized I wasn’t alone. There were tons of other women going through the same thing, and we could have fun. Exploring a new city, reminiscing about the places we’d been, venting about Hanoi’s challenges, and reveling in its charms. (Also enjoying the occasional glass of wine.)

Cupcakes for Idiots (i.e. How to Look Like a Super Mom at Your Daughter’s 2nd Birthday Party)

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I love to cook but I’m no baker. I don’t like exact measurements. I’m not very good at remembering to set the kitchen timer. Needless to say, my attempts at baking usually end up misshapen, burned, or raw in the middle (or some combination thereof). I’m usually pretty impressed with myself if I can successful make brownies from a Duncan Hines mix. But this year, for some crazy reason, I decided I was going to be a super mom and make homemade cupcakes for my daughter’s second birthday. And not just any cupcakes. Elmo cupcakes!

So what is a non-baker to do?

Step 1. Order Elmo baking cups and icing decorations from Amazon.

Step 2. Order even more obnoxious Elmo-themed decorations to distract from the quality of homemade baked goods.

Step 3. Google “perfect simple vanilla cupcakes.”

Step 4. Buy ingredients in advance to avoid winging it the day of (“Do I really need baking powder? Baking soda’s fine, right?”

Step 5. Try not to swear too loudly in front of children while baking cupcakes.

Step 6. Listen for kitchen timer and don’t get creative.

Step 7. Actually let cupcakes cool before impatiently spreading frosting on top.

Step 8. Put Elmo icing decoration on top to look like Super Mom-professional baker.

Step 9. Serve bubbles to parents (kids don’t care as long as there’s lots of sugar).

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Seriously though, this Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes recipe from Glorious Treats ROCKED. And the Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting was to die for.

At the end of the day, all that matters is my little pumpkin liked her Elmo birthday party and blew out her two candles. And for now, she thinks I’m a super mom no matter what.

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Shine on!

Saigon Sights – Historical Wanderings in HCMC

Last month, my husband’s soccer team had a game in Ho Cho Minh City, and — as is my habit — I seized upon the opportunity for a family excursion.  The game was HOT for my midwest genes, but the post-game feast hit the spot.  A Southern Vietnamese extravaganza, complete with fresh and fried spring rolls, vegetables, shrimp, sweet rice desserts, and…Budweiser, some of which is now made in Vietnam (who knew?).

Soccer Cheerleaders

HCMC is a thriving, rapidly-changing metropolis growing on top of a lush cityscape full of tree-lined streets and tidy parks. This trip, I mostly glimpsed HCMC life in between tourist spots, but I loved what I saw. I hope to return for leisurely days strolling the streets, sitting in the parks, and sipping coffee as the city flows past. (Hopefully when it’s not quite so hot!)

It was Memorial Day weekend, and throughout the my stay, I couldn’t help but think about the historical significance of the city — and the transformative power of the passage of time. These thoughts stayed with me throughout the weekend as we visited some of HCMC’s historic sites.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

I didn’t want to travel all the way to HCMC without a boat ride on the Saigon River and a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, leading me to discover Les Rives Luxury Cu Chi Tunnels Speedboat Tour. I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Les Rives picked us up at 7:00 am at our hotel and drove us to the river, where we boarded our boat. The boat was lovely – the charm of a small Mekong delta riverboat but with a smart, modern layout. As we cruised up the Saigon River, we enjoyed lovely vistas of riverboats, fishermen, barges, bridges, homes, and water hyacinths as far as the eye could see.

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IMG_2108After about an hour, we reached the entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels. Only a short walk from the dock, our tour guide started with a brief history of the tunnels, explaining that they were first built during the French resistance movement and later expanded during the Vietnam war. At the end of the conflict, there were tunnels running over 70 miles.

Today, the tunnels are a war memorial run by the Government of Vietnam. Amazingly, many of the tunnels remain and are now open for tourists. According to our guide, the tunnels have been expanded to accommodate larger tourists, which is pretty incredible give how small they remain (see below – those are my feet).

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Reunification Palace

I’d heard a visit to the Reunification Reunification Palace HCMCPalace was a must-do in HCMC, but I was skeptical. Unnecessarily so. It was time well spent. We enjoyed a leisurely tour of the grounds, complete with Southern Vietnamese tanks, airplanes, and beautiful old trees–a strange dichotomy–and the palace. I’m not normally a huge fan of modern architecture this was fabulous. It was amazing to walk through the huge, open, breezy hallways where so much history unfolded. Seeing the palace featured in this image of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates at the fall of Saigon, which I’d seen in so many Vietnamese history books, was profound.

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Reunification Palace HCMC

You’d think being an American would attract negative attention, but that just wasn’t the case. Fellow Vietnamese tourists so were friendly that we spent part of the tour mobbed by Vietnamese tourists trying to take pictures of us – not the museum! They were far more interested in my daughters’ curly blonde hair than the historical sites. Wow. What a difference 40 years can make.

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Next up? Saigon Snacks – A Weekend in HCMC

Friday Inspiration

Reading this article from Parenting Magazine was just the inspiration I needed on this Friday morning.

Have you heard of PowerToFly? I’m so inspired by this company and the women who founded it. You may have read Katharine Zaleski’s open letter in Fortune Magazine “I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with” that went viral on social media.

While dealing with the issues common to all working parents, she took action and helped found a company to help other working women. I love the concept! As Katharine wrote in her letter:

By enabling women to work from home, women could be valued for their productivity and not time spent sitting in an office or at a bar bonding afterwards. Mothers could have a third option that would allow them to either remain in the workforce or be a part of it even from areas with few job options.

Genius, huh? And there’s even research to back up this approach:

All the tools exist for remote work – Slack, Jira, Skype, Trello, Google Docs. Research shows remote workers can be more productive. Furthermore, millennials – with or without kids – want that flexibility, a Harvard study found.

This is the future and I’m thankful for trailblazers like these women who are making it happen for the rest of us! Shine on!

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Check out the PowerToFly website and app for flexible tech opportunities and resources for working women.