From Doha, Qatar, Erin Fairlight Olsen shares her adventures raising four children in co-parenting homeschool abroad. A doctrinal candidate with Jewish and Islamic influences in her spiritual heritage, Erin is doing research on women’s narratives of the Arab Spring and environmentalism in oil-producing nations of the Gulf for her PhD in cultural sociology from University of California, San Diego.
You and your husband have committed yourselves to building your lives around a “shared life.” Can you explain what that means to you?
After my husband finished his undergraduate degree, we moved to Washington DC. He earned a master’s degree in international relations and then went to work for the State Department. We dreamed of being ambassadors and traveling the world together.
But we quickly realized, particularly looking at our ward family, that a lot of couples lived parallel lives. Going in the same direction and with the same beautiful goals, but not overlapping in time together. We had many friends on professional paths that required the husband to be away often twelve hours a day or gone on distant assignments. When and where did the wife get to pursue her passions and education and when did the kids get to be with dad? We had already adopted this lifestyle “temporarily” since James worked full time while attending school full time, and our family seemed to revolve around his involvement in the market economy. We could see both the promise and the repugnance of that split life.
We hit a brick wall. We knew that we wanted our marriage to thrive, not survive. We wanted to be working in the field side-by-side producing something great. (This life metaphor has led us to consider bagging our educational tracks several times to become organic farmers.) It was hard because this narrative of the husband provides and the mother nurtures (separately?) was the default, the model that we knew. I remember many nights saying to my husband, “Do you know somebody who’s living the life you want to live?” We couldn’t come up with anyone. We knew many people who lived beautiful, meaningful lives, but usually they lived lives apart. I didn’t want to raise the children by myself with a little added spice from my husband on the weekends. And he didn’t want to be an ambassador in an unaccompanied post because he spoke Arabic. I know many people who live together via Skype and Facebook as their work has taken them apart. They do it beautifully and I’m sure it builds their relationship—I don’t at all want to sound condemnatory. I just have no interest in it; and I have the power to agent: fully and intentionally choose another path.
Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of something called eternal recurrence. Part of the upshot is that if you’re not willing to live the way that you’re living now again and again forever, if it’s not what gives happiness and meaning, then you’re not living right. If that’s not a litmus test! And a particularly relevant insight given that we think we’re going to live eternally together. If we aren’t creating that relationship in this life then it’s going to be either a pretty miserable life or a time with a lot of growing pain on the other side of the curtain.
So we changed career plans. My husband went back to school at Georgetown for a PhD in philosophy so he could become a professor. When he finished his coursework, financially we were in a bad spot. We were living off grad school stipends with 3 kids in Washington DC. We realized we didn’t need to stay there, so we started trying to find a place where we didn’t have to pay $2000 a month in rent. We were also both interested in my taking a turn to pursue my interests. I had studied and taught Hebrew while working on my undergrad and graduate degrees and had been brushing up on it by freelance tutoring families with work assignments to Tel Aviv. Then I was offered an opportunity to go back to BYU as a visiting professor to teach Modern Hebrew, and it was perfect timing.
I had left my professional work to be a mother when we had moved to Washington, DC. But when I went back to teaching, it was so wonderful to be back in front of that classroom, an old part of me resurrected. I had always thought an academic life demanded so much of your time that there was no way to marry that with being the kind of mother that I wanted to be—but the flexibility in the schedule was amazing. I was shocked at how seamless it really was with James and I teaching classes on different days. So after two years of teaching at BYU, I entered a PhD program so I could be more than just a semi-permanent fixture at a university.
We realized this was what we wanted our life to be about: We wanted our children to see that when you have a family, everyone dreams together. The family gives you a structure to build dreams upon. Of course there’s negotiating timing and possibilities, but you don’t have to put your dreams on the backburner. A family is the place to take the dream and to magnify it all as one.
The reality of a shared life is beautiful. We both get to nurture and we both get to provide. We share school with our children. We take turns on different days spending three to four hours at work normally and then get the rest of the work done in the evening while the kids are asleep. It’s doable when the brunt of your work is research and class preparation. It really is–making explicit choices to spend your life together and refusing to let professions overtake these precious hours and years that are our own.
The reality of a shared life is beautiful. We share school with our children. We take turns on different days spending three to four hours at work normally and then get the rest of the work done in the evening while the kids are asleep. It’s doable when the brunt of your work is research and class preparation. It really is–making explicit choices to spend your life together and refusing to let professions overtake these precious hours and years that are our own.
How does homeschooling fit into your shared life?
My husband told me when we got married that we were definitely going to homeschool, and I laughed him out of town. There was no way! Because our children were going to be the light of the world and you don’t hide your light under a bushel.
My husband had an incredibly negative experience in public schools. He was that kid who was always in the principal’s office and who was writing the underground newspaper and handing it out at recess. He didn’t want our kids to have to go through that experience. I had a positive experience in public schools. What it really came down to was things that happened in life that made homeschooling necessary.
We lived in Alexandria, Virginia. Northern Virginia is generally known for excellent schools, but we were on the “ghetto” side of Alexandria (meaning it is probably about to experience gentrification and all of those living in the projects will be out a home). Our school was one of those that people make documentaries about. They had weapons and drug problems in first grade. There was no way I was going to send my kids there. No one should have to send their kids there. Private schools were outrageously priced and you have to get on the waiting list a year or two in advance. Even if I had the money I wouldn’t buy into that paradigm. I do not think it’s right that we have a school where my three-street-down neighbors are risking their lives yet my next-door neighbor is riding horses as a funded school sport. Homeschooling wasn’t a hard choice.
When we got to Utah, we put our son in public school. We hadn’t meant to, but we had set him up to fail. In Virginia, we had talked to the children about how we could study anything that they wanted, about how we would take field trips almost every day because we had the Smithsonian right there, about how they would have equal recess time to sitting-at-a-desk time. Then, in Utah, my son was in a class with 36 kids. He despised school. He pitched tantrums and kicked and screamed every single morning for five months. Because we set him up for it.
We said to ourselves, “What are we doing? We actually have the ability to continue homeschooling. We’re both going to be professors, why are we outsourcing on our kids when this is our own specialty? We’re able to orchestrate our schedules so that we’re never scheduled over the top of each other. We’ll always have one of us home. We can school our kids. If we want to, we can do it.”
It was hard for me to jump into the homeschool label. I think it’s a label that has been hijacked by people who have distrust for the government and for the public school system or who want to run away from contemporary life. Many of them are very limited in the subjects that they want their children exposed to. There are definitely negative things about the public school system, but that’s not why we’re homeschooling at this point. We’re homeschooling because we love it. It’s never been about keeping the kids from something (well, other than those 1st grade drugs); it’s about giving them something more. It’s about living a passion. It’s also about keeping them close to one another.
In our homeschool, we start with “Song and Dance.” My husband does “Poetry and Memorization” and “Archaeology” and “Geography.” He also does “Philosophy and Introductory Logic” with them because he is a philosopher. The kids do “structured” reading (i.e., non-fiction, challenging reading), journal writing, and math workbooks on their own. Last year my daughter pointed out to us that we weren’t studying any women, so I do “Women Composers” and “Women Scientists and Inventors,” and “Astronomy.” We do another dance line. The four-year-old loves dancing. That’s her definition of homeschooling. And we study symbolism of trees and herbology. It’s been a fun subject to focus upon as we live in a desert. The importance of plants is felt so much more poignantly when there are so few of them.
We also take one day a week for “Kiva Cleaning.” Many people here in Doha have maids. They don’t cost very much; but while we are supportive of the financially strapped struggles of these women, we don’t want to support a system that demands families to live apart (Qatar does not allow accompanying family members in the “nonprofessional” sector). Maids come here expecting much higher wages than they actually get and loose any freedom of mobility that they had since Qatar has a sponsorship program and often the sponsors “hold onto” passports, making it difficult to impossible to seek different employment. There are even maids stuck here for years because their sponsor is not letting them go home. I cannot imagine losing my children’s childhood because I thought I was coming here for two years (to fund their education) and five years later I’m still here stuck in what is often an abusive situation. Obviously, if we had a maid we would not create these horrors in her life, but what happens to her when we leave and her sponsorship is transferred? Regardless, we don’t like the system.
So instead, we’re the maids of our house and the kids get “paid” for cleaning with me. We get the same amount underpaid maids here make. We take that money and sponsor someone at kiva.org or another women’s microfinance or humanitarian organization. We hope to keep women from having to be maids and to let them do the things they’ve been trained for. Some maids here have graduate degrees and nursing degrees and accounting degrees, but that wasn’t the visa they came here on so they’re only allowed to be house-laborers, and we all know that although it is important work it is also the most devalued kind of work—and it makes little money. So that’s our Kiva Cleaning and one day a week of casa-school. And let me just say that I should have started paying myself for house cleaning LONG ago.
What are the costs to living this shared life?
We give up casual time. We have a structure to make sure that we are educating the children during the wakeful hours. We usually do that through play and find much of our schooling is done outside in our tent and on the playgrounds, but I find that there’s less time to sit and relax because I’m always thinking through school. “We didn’t do an astronomy lesson today,” or “We have to do Spanish and French before the day is up.” Quite often we’re thinking about the new things we want to teach and we’re preparing our lessons together (or surfing on Amazon.com for new books of fascination).
We also give up the typical version of stability. We define stability as having traditions of our family together. We always usher in the Sabbath with Sabbath candles. We always read every single night to the children for two hours together. Right now it’s Harry Potter. That’s our version of stability. It allows us to live in Egypt, to live in Qatar and to live wherever else research will take us to, and has allowed us to flourish on a very small income. But we don’t own a house behind a hedge somewhere on a rolling hill. We haven’t committed ourselves to that because it would require us to be making more money than we are at this moment. Sometimes the lack of traditional stability is extremely challenging, but it’s a sacrifice we’ve mutually elected.
We’re quite often asked, “How can you do that to your children? Coming and going, living here and there.” I think many think that our kids will come our crooked since we don’t subscribe to their version of stability, but our kids love it. And it gives us that familial closeness that others who bounce around the world know all about. But it would be a different story if we were inserting them into a different school setting each time. That would be really difficult. We bypass that.
Tell me about your professional interests. How did you come to speak Arabic?
The first story is how I came to speak Hebrew. When I was studying Old Testament in early morning seminary I had many questions that nobody could answer. They said, “You should study this in college.” And so I did. The first class I ever took at BYU was Biblical Hebrew/Old Testament. I ended up minoring in Hebrew. About four years after I started studying Hebrew, I learned that I am ethnically Jewish. It was a family secret. I discovered it because I have a genetic disease that is almost exclusively Jewish, and family history work has confirmed that I was drawn to Hebrew for more than random interest.
While I was at BYU, I studied Hebrew intensively at the Jerusalem Center. Before I went, I took one Arabic class because, quite honestly, I was afraid of Arabic and I was afraid of Arabs. I wanted to make sure that if I was caught in a bad situation, I could say some basic things.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians were more open to speaking with me than Israelis. It’s a common stereotype you hear of the Holy Land. Palestinians are much more hospitable, Israelis are hard and impersonal like the Sabra cacti. So, I had studied Hebrew for four years and Arabic for four months, but I spoke ten times more Arabic than Hebrew while I was there. And so while my husband finished his undergraduate degree, I did a master’s degree in second language acquisition/Arabic. That was how I stumbled into one of the best choices of my life.
This is the fourth time we’ve lived in a Middle Eastern country. The grandeur in the culture, the allegiance to standards, to honesty, and to tradition, to God—it is so lovely to be a part of. I’m thankful my children are growing up in that environment—and at such an exciting time with the voice of the people being heard in the squares of the Middle East.
In my research, I am interested in the power that stories have. What are the stories that the mothers are transmitting to their children? Mothers are the ones who give us culture. They teach and inculcate us at the brainwash level (that is, the socializing, human-making level) about society and life. So I am interested in the narratives of women. How are they describing this revolution? How do Qataris frame their incredible wealth? What are their responsibilities to the countries of the Arab Spring because of that wealth? What do Qataris see as their connection to the earth and stewardship over its natural resources?
How do you find Qataris to interview for your research?
Most expats here, including most of the ward, will tell you, “I never talk to Qataris.” Well I need to. I have told God, “I need to talk to Qataris.” I tutor a member of the royal family, and I took the job not because I want to teach English but because I needed to have some connections. His mother, their aunt, that’s the way I began to wiggle through.
Also, I actively talk to all of my neighbors. They’re from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Egypt, and are never going to be given Qatari citizenship, but they’ve been here ten years. They’ll probably live here their whole lives. They’re outsiders still connected to that Muslim and (for some of them) pan-Arab culture.
You mentioned that you’re ethnically Jewish. Tell me about your extended family.
My maternal ancestors came to South Carolina from Poland (well, first they went to NY, but they were farmers, mattress makers, furniture craftspeople, and so headed to greener pastures). Our guess is that when they settled in South Carolina they learned really quickly that they were going to experience similar persecution if they talked about their ethnic identity. So it made for an easy break.
My grandmother and my great-grandmother started Protestant churches in Laurens, South Carolina. They weren’t kind-of-Protestant. They were leading the Protestant parade! So it was pretty jarring to get the news that this was not even close to the main religion of my ancestors. Whenever I visited my great-grandmother she would be watching Billy Graham and begging me to leave that cult that my mom had joined. I have her Bible now. That rugged, bruised, beaten, and torn evidence of her intimate relationship with God. I’m decidedly a religious mutt of many faithful people.
I was raised in North Carolina. My mom converted to Mormonism when she was eighteen or nineteen, so I’ve been raised Mormon. My dad and step-mother are faithful without a label. They’re non-denominational Christian. My stepfather is still Mormon but my mother is now Muslim.
It was difficult for me when she converted to Islam. I didn’t see it coming. I had incorporated so much of Judaism into my life and quite a bit of Islam as well. Any time that we hear the call to prayer, we all say prayers. And during the month of Ramadan we fast (the other pillars of Islam are already a part of Mormonsim). I have no qualms whatsoever in incorporating the beauty of other faiths and calling it my own. My husband loves to quote Brigham Young saying, “…Mormonism embraces all truth in heaven and on earth, in the earth, under the earth, and in hell, if there be any truth there.”
My mother was looking to increase her communion with God. She wanted her prayers to be more fervent and more meaningful, and in a chat she asked if I had any suggestions because she knew I incorporated things from Judaism and Islam in our family. Brainstorming outloud I said, “I think you’d be really interested in what Muslims do. You can even put the call to prayer on your computer. We did that because we like to be reminded, even when we’re not in Muslim countries, to do extra prayers.” Obviously we don’t do the same prayers, but the reminder adds (prayers) and beauty to our lives.
I also suggested, “You should really look into liturgical [written] prayers because it is a really neat concept to be united with an entire community in the prayer you say. Maybe that would increase your joy in God.” We do this in the temple; we’re united in the prayer. It makes it understandable why that’s a really moving experience for Catholics or Jews or Muslims.
A couple of years later I discovered my initial suggestion of doing some reading had blossomed into much more than that; she had made connections with many different members of Muslim communities. She was deeply touched by them spiritually. And they offered an intimate religious family that I think she had been searching for many years.
At the time she was an active temple worker. She had just stopped being a Relief Society president for many years. She wasn’t on the fringes of the community, but she had felt something was missing for a long time. I don’t think that she considers herself as having left the Church, I know for instance that her records have not been removed. She feels that she’s adding more to it albeit in a radical way that involves a formal conversion. But having said that, she very much recognizes that the community would see this as a separation from the body of Saints.
Has this changed your perspective on the way you incorporate practices from other faiths?
It has encouraged me to do it more. My mom had the devoutness of a convert to the Church that is so beautiful and so alive but it also has a more negative side in that it can be so singularly focused. I think she wasn’t able to seek the good in other communities because she was so newly committed to the Church she felt like any divergence from it was dangerous.
I was really fortunate in that I saw from a very young age how those religions were mine. How Allah was really Heavenly Father, and how the ritual immersion of Judaism led up to a John the Baptist that gave us baptism by immersion. I saw it as this gigantic four-dimensional multi-time-level puzzle all fitting together. I never felt like I had to give up truths for the path I walk. I want my children to see that the truths in other faiths are their own. I don’t want them to wake up one day with a dear friend of a different faith and say, “Oh! I’ve missed out on these truths my whole life.” I want them to know that we embrace all light and knowledge from God. We embrace messengers from God. We embrace other individuals and families that are embracing God. That is our faith. It’s not something competing with other traditions. I guess I see less of a need for exclusivity claims. The only exclusivity I see is that if it is of God it is part of my faith.
At A Glance
Erin Fairlight Olsen
Location: Doha, Qatar
Marital status: 10 years of marital wonder and wander
Children: Gaebriel (9), Magdeleine (7), Myriam (4), Ewa Nuhr (2)
Occupation: Momma, Casa-school head master-ess, PhD Candidate
Schools Attended: BYU (Provo), Hebrew University (Jerusalem), University of California (San Diego)
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Hebrabic (a mixture of the 2 languages my husband and I share for furtive moments), French (in preparation for the 2 children we are adopting from DR Congo)
Favorite Hymn: “Praise the Lord” for mornings and “Mary’s Lullaby” (Children’s Songbook) for nights
On The Web: http://neverlandfound.blogspot.com/
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.