Melissa Dalton Bradford raised four children in the midst of an international life: Norway, France, Singapore, Germany. But what appears glamorous to many has its costs, and Melissa honestly talks about the lack of community and permanence that has defined her years abroad. She also reveals how important those intangibles can be when struck with a tragedy, like the loss of her 18-year-old son in a drowning accident, and how we all can learn to mourn and comfort more compassionately. Melissa’s memoir, Global Mom: A Memoir, was published this summer.
Would you please describe the trajectory of the story that you’ve written about in your recently published memoir?
The book begins when we had been married for seven years, Randall and I, and we were living in the New York City area. It was my husband’s first job and at that point we had two little children, Parker and Claire. I had been, as I describe in the book, busy following a few different career trajectories: I was a full time mother; I was teaching writing part time at a local college; and I was launching a career as a musical theater actress. And it was right in the middle of a musical that I was in that my husband received an offer pretty much out of the blue for us to move to Scandinavia for two or three years. As it turned out, that move ended up lasting a couple of decades. As I describe in the book, we had already lived in Vienna as a young couple before we had had children, and then when our first child, Parker, was a newborn we had lived in Hong Kong. We had both served German-speaking missions and I had studied in Vienna and lived in other places in Austria, so this idea of living “foreignly” was not that far-fetched for us.
You got the call out of the blue?
When Randall targeted companies to work with, he was deliberate in seeking for positions that would land us on an international trajectory. And so this company knew from the very first assignment that he was given, that we were aiming to move internationally. Usually that takes several years with a company, so we were thinking that would come maybe five, six, seven years down the road. But it came after three years, much sooner than we’d expected. He called me while I was backstage doing a show and he wanted to know how I felt about moving to Scandinavia because they wanted an answer really soon. I recognized I was given clear spiritual direction to do this thing, not knowing what it would mean but having a sense that this would bless my family. It would be tough for me probably, but it would bless my family and generations to come.
So that was the move from bright lights and that whole world of lyrics and scripts and communication to Norway in the middle of a bitter, dark winter not knowing a word of Norwegian. Well, I think we might have known how to say “hello.” And Randall’s job was in Norwegian from the first day. We went right into a Norwegian ward and I was called to be Primary music director the first month and then Primary president the next month. We put our two children into “barnepark”, which is the Norwegian equivalent to an outdoor nursery school. So within a very short time they were fluent in Norwegian and we picked it up rather rapidly.
Wow! I love the descriptions of barnepark in the book. I would love to be able to send my kids to something like that in the Utah winters.
Yeah, I would have wanted to be able to give that experience to all of my children, too. That experience was really healthy, I thought. Wonderful not only for language acquisition, but for learning self-sufficiency, the value of community over the individual, gender equality, and how to survive tough weather!
We were in Norway for just under five years, time to have our third child, Dalton, and then we moved to Versailles, a medium-sized city which lies just fifteen minutes outside of Paris. We were there for four years, just enough time to have our fourth child, Luc. We were then moved to company headquarters in New Jersey and thought our foreign years were over and that it was time to plant ourselves in the homeland. So we moved north of Philadelphia ; Randall was called into the bishopric and I was called into the stake Young Women’s presidency; and we remodeled this entire home thinking, okay, this is where we will live out the rest of our lives. But within seven months we were asked by Randall’s company if we would be willing to move back to France (there had been an unexpected resignation and Randall was asked to take on a new role) We moved to the heart of Paris that time, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We enrolled our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, in French schools. Our two oldest attended an international school, and we were there for a little over four years.
At the end of our time in Paris, our oldest son, Parker, graduated from high school. The plan was that he go to university for one semester and then go on his mission. We sent him off to college, and that very week we proceeded with the big move to Munich. We lived in Munich for three years, and then went to Singapore, where we were supposed to stay for many years, if not until the end of Randall’s career. But there was a sudden restructuring and the entire international component of the multinational company he was working for was dispersed and his position was moved to Geneva. That’s where we live now, while getting our third child through high school at least; he is in his last year.
It sounds exhausting and adventurous all at the same time.
Right now I’m feeling like it’s exhausting! But someone once noted that Randall and I picked this poison. That person was right. We asked for this life! So I don’t want to be guilty of spitting out the poison that I picked. I shouldn’t be spitting it out or complaining that it’s bitter. I am thoroughly grateful for the experiences, the gifts of diversity and growth, but they have a whole list of costs that people wouldn’t understand, I don’t think, unless they really lived this globally nomadic lifestyle right along side me.
Tell me a little bit about these costs, because it certainly does seem that the idea of living abroad is glamorous. Your kids speak two, three, or four languages. But talk a little bit about the honest costs to you personally and to your family.
I will tell you what a couple of them are. The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family. When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, parenting while your partner is half a world away and for over half the month, and when there are whirlpools . . . Oh, I didn’t think I would come to that metaphor, but I tend to always come back to water and drowning metaphors.
And let’s explain to our readers: you say that because Parker actually died in a whirlpool.
He died because of a whirlpool. He died trying to save the life of a fellow classmate he had known for a week. Our eighteen-year-old son, the one we sent to college after leaving Paris, was in a Freshman academy before school started. One night, there was this casual water activity planned with some classmates. There, Parker and another young man got sucked into a whirlpool in a small, well-known and frequently -visited irrigation canal. The danger was hidden. The canal was unmarked neither as private property nor as a known danger. All the locals seemed to know it was a death trap, but that didn’t keep them from suggesting newcomers go there for “fun”. Parker got out of that vortex twice and he went back in twice to try and get this other boy out. Parker was the only one who knew that this boy couldn’t swim very well. This boy was a competitive bodybuilder but he’d told Parker privately that he lacked lower body strength and he couldn’t swim as well as other students. So when the other boy was trapped, Parker went back into the whirlpool twice and tried to get him out. There were other students who tried to help, notably a former lifeguard, who risked his safety to pull bodies out, and somehow in all of that the drowning classmate was pushed out or swept out and was given CPR immediately. But Parker could not extract himself a third time and was underwater for too long. When his body was eventually flushed out, it went head first over some lava rock waterfalls. His head was badly battered. He was given CPR and priesthood blessings by students, locals and the EMT crew, but his heartbeat did not return until much later.
So everything went wrong.
Yes. And no. Those kids gave him all they could, CPR and blessings. When his heartbeat was miraculously restored, it justified life flighting him to the closest trauma center, which was in Pocatello, Idaho. And that’s when I got the call at 11:00 at night. I drove through the night from Utah Valley to be with him and then my husband, who was in Munich, got my phone call and through a series of more miracles was able to make it to the ICU so that we had a few hours together with our boy.
So I do seem to come back to that whirlpool metaphor a lot, don’t I? When life deals you whirlpools, it’s very difficult to navigate those without a stable, trusted community, and when you’re trying to regroup after major loss it’s extremely difficult if you don’t have a continuous community, meaning anyone near you who has known you from before the trauma. That sense of utter dislocation or social alienation significantly complicated our experience with early, acute grief. Looking back, though, I realize it was a great gift from a benevolent and wise God. It allowed us to retreat completely into what I call our “monastery”, and connect in profound ways with the Spirit. God knew we needed total isolation to be tutored in the depths of grief. Strange, maybe, but I miss those months.
Another cost of this perpetually interrupted life that I have noted hits me sometime between November and December. That’s about when I get Christmas cards from around the world, cards where people have these big family shots, where dozens of people were gathered to celebrate this child’s wedding, or that grandchild’s birth, or this missionary’s mission call, or that missionary’s homecoming, and I’m left standing in the entryway of my little village home in Switzerland holding that card and I’m overcome by a wave of regret in a way–or concern is maybe the better word–for my children because I don’t know how I could gather a group and I don’t even know where I would gather one. I don’t have twenty-five years or even ten years or even five years in one uninterrupted place so that people know my name or my family’s history. Who do my children have to champion them from year to year? I don’t have school faculty that has known them for three or four years and that knows their strengths and weaknesses and feels invested in them. We’re always the newcomers. I don’t have piano teachers and clarinet teachers and flute teachers that have been progressing with my child. We seem to always be reestablishing ourselves. And as anyone knows who has moved even from one home to another in one city, of from one city to another in the same state, in the same country, it takes a lot to reestablish oneself. If you then add to that the overlay of moving to a different country, culture, neighborhood, house, and a different school system, and a different church community, and above all to a different language, you can begin to imagine that it takes a long time and great deal of energy to get yourself up to speed.
People in the international community know that you kind of write off the first year in a new country as an unpredictable and exceptionally demanding adjustment period. You’re just trying to figure out where in the heck the baking soda is. Is it anywhere in this country? And what is it called? And how can I find a doctor for my child? And how many times am I going to re-transcribe into a new language all of my children’s medical records? I’ve done this five times, by the way, from English to Norwegian, from Norwegian to French, from French to German, from German to English and Chinese, back to French. Yep. That alone takes a great deal of time, focus and effort.
Back to how this exacerbates the ongoing experience related to our family’s major loss, it’s been informative to watch how my children have taken this sacred treasure, carrying it under their ribcage, hiding it when they move from place to place. It’s a difficult ice-breaker with new people to whom to explain that your brother died. You’re the new kid in the class and others want to know about your siblings. It’s very difficult to say, “Well, four weeks ago I buried my brother.” It’s difficult, not only because people can’t engage in that conversation–although often that’s very problematic for people–but sometimes people respond in a way that trivializes something unspeakably precious and vast. Observers don’t want to hurt the bereaved person and so they sometimes do a jollity jig around the big crater. They will talk about anything but this thing that you just pronounced in their face: death. And what it’s done to my children is it’s told them they really aren’t safe sharing these things. One of the biggest concerns in carrying the burden of grief is, I’m going to expose this sacred, immense thing about myself and no one’s going to care. So all of my children have gone silent either categorically or for long stretches, and that is problematic because it hurts them to not be able to share this central part of who they are, of how they fit into and see the world. Hiding that story requires play acting, it’s disingenuous, and all of that eats up your energy, as well as your trust in others. I’ve observed that for those who experience significant trauma yet are living in one place for an extended period of time, there is an on-site community that at least understands the unspoken context of one’s behavior, be that silence, shock, anger, or deep sorrow.
There are all sorts of other things that are part of an international life that also are a part of localized life. Like heavy business travel. There have been periods when my husband has been traveling two to three weeks at a time, then comes back for two days, and then travels for another two to three weeks circling the globe. There have been others stretches, and I write of them in my book, where Dad lived in one country and the rest of the family in another. This has been the case four different times. Again, that’s tough enough if you are in a familiar community and you are functioning in your mother tongue. But try it in a place where every day is loaded with the stresses of just figuring out how to manage the basics. It’s a different level of “tough.” That and other things put extra stress on your health, both mental and physical, and it imposes significant stress on a marriage and it obviously affects your children’s well being and your parenting.
Now I’ve arrived in a season of my life where I am wondering about where I am ever going to settle. People often ask us what our plans are for the future. Well, my response to that is that I wouldn’t know where to go. Because there is no single place that I would identify as my family’s home. I don’t know how that sounds when you hear that . . . does that sound like someone who is determined to be eccentric? But the truth is that you do end up being “eccentric.” You’re outside of some imagined center place because you’re constantly on the periphery. You’re an American living in Oslo or Paris or Munich or Singapore or Geneva. And no matter how well you master the language, you aren’t really Norwegian or Parisian because you don’t have generational roots there, you don’t have Parisian grandparents and you didn’t go through Parisian schooling. You can come back and visit Utah, which we do just about every year, but it’s not the same as being “from Utah”, after having marinated in so many other places for so long. I have a harder time connecting with those “roots” sometimes because my life experiences and my children’s life experiences are quite different from someone who has lived in one place all their life. There’s a term for it in international circles, and that is the CCK or Cross Cultural Kid, which refers to someone whose life crosses so many borders, that there is no concrete location that she can identify as “home.”
Over these two decades raising family outside of my native country, I’ve learned that I’ve become used to playing the role of an “In looker.” Not an onlooker but an in looker because I’m sort of an armchair cultural anthropologist, always observing and figuring things out. Even when I come back to my roots in the wild west, I’m trying to relearn and re-understand the culture I’m surrounded by.
Of course you’re talking about something beyond just traveling. It’s one thing to travel broadly and it’s another thing to not actually have a home for twenty years.
That’s right! You’ve absolutely hit it right on the head. We don’t have a permanent residence anywhere. When I talk on cross-cultural integration, I talk about the difference between traveling to and residing in foreign places. Being a tourist is to long-term foreign residency what window shopping is to buying the whole store. The latter demands an entirely different kind of investment. When you own a place, it comes with an entire boatload of responsibility and disappointments and negotiation and straddling. It carries with it all sorts of different demands for every member of your family.
Let’s move to the idea of comfort for a moment. You have said to me that the way that we think people can be comforted after major loss is different than what they really need. You have said that it’s an American tendency to “comfort things away.” What have you meant by that and how is that an American or Christian tendency? And what did you really want when you were in need of community and comfort?
The first thing I have to say is that grief is as individual as blood type. Every loss is peculiar and sacred and unique. Having said that, I have researched this at length. Researching was my way of ferreting through the wreckage after loss, particularly the grief that weighed on us throughout those first couple of years. What I discovered is that many of us are operating under a misconception, and that misconception seems to be an American one, and does the bereaved a tremendous disservice. In fact, we exacerbate their pain by holding tenaciously to this idea, and that idea is that pain is bad. We don’t like pain or we don’t like entering into it or watching others experience it. We want at all costs to skirt it ourselves or to numb it in other people. And so our assumption when we face someone who is in deep pain is that we ourselves need to avoid it or them, or we face them, but without talking about “it.” We are going to talk about our latest fishing trip, our best support pantyhose, about the vegetable tray we want you to bring to the next church function. But we will not address the agony in front of us. We will not look the hurting person in the eye and say, “Can you talk about what’s really going on?”
I think there are multiple reasons for why we avoid pain, but the obvious one is that it’s not photogenic. It gets messy and it might get angry. Maybe some bereaved avoid the hard work of grieving precisely because of the fear that the pain is so big, they will implode into a million splinters if they touch pain’s edge, or they’ll never survive the descent into such a dark and frightening place. It is dark and it is deep and scary. I had no idea myself such pain could exist and one could survive it.
Another reason we might not acknowledge loss and hurt in others, is that we fear we are going to make things worse by mentioning it. Or we’re waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect phrase, the perfect lead-in. But those don’t exist, do they? I’ve read volume upon volume about how people respond to grief and the recurring theme is that the bereaved is hurt by the avoidance silence. Such silence is interpreted as a trivialization of their loss. It’s the silence that literally avoids you in the grocery store. The one that scoots down another aisle, that walks to the other side of the street. A bereaved friend of mine called that kind of silence like being a sudden member of a leper colony. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a marvelous writer, lost his young adult son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident. He has written a book, a thin sliver of potent reflection called Lament for a Son. In it he says, “Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.” So while we might think that in that sort of avoidance silence we are doing the bereaved a favor, in actuality, for the majority of bereaved people that type of non-acknowledging avoidance silence is salt to their wound.
There’s a different kind of silence, however, and that can be the silence of solidarity. It’s where you sit as the Jews do when they sit shiva. You sit in silent solidarity, actively mourning with another person. That’s a different kind of silence than the one you feel when someone avoids you in the grocery store.
Mormon culture, like other Christian faiths, is based on the belief in the reality of the Savior’s resurrection and eternal life. Faith in that beautiful truth isn’t incompatible with grief. It hurts when someone questions your faith in gospel basics when you grieve a beloved’s death. As if faith would eradicate our longing for those who die. What might be peculiar to our culture is that we do emphasize a great deal that ours is a gospel of joy. That God’s plan is a plan of happiness. All of this is thrilling, marvelous and I wholly agree with and am determined to live it.
But there’s a catch. We believe in and hold as our model a Jesus Christ who was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And the God who revealed himself to Enoch was a God who wept openly. At the same time in Primary, we learn that “no one likes a frowny face.” Perhaps we’ve absorbed conflicting messages, and subsequently feel shame (or worse, we shame others) for feeling genuine, even bone-crushing sorrow. Maybe we get Alma’s exhortation in Mosiah 18 wrong where he talks to the people who want to enter the fold of Christ. It’s striking to reread his words. He doesn’t say, “Here is a strict list of dos and don’ts.” He says you need to – number one, top of the list – be ready to bear one another’s burdens, to suffer with others. You need to be open to sorrow, to others’ sorrow. You need to learn to actively mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. But here’s the core of it: Alma says we are to mourn first and comfort second. I think that we might too often jump over the mourning. We want to rush in and comfort things away, in the sense that we want to make everything better, back to normal, and quickly. Mourning, though, real mourning takes energy, sympathy, focus and time. Much more time than anyone imagines. A lot of time. For some injuries, a whole life full of time.
It’s disturbing to see our family and friends who were maybe once high energy and buoyant become decrepit and sort of catatonic in their grief. One of the most comforting things that a friend ever said to us however, was, “I want you guys to know that I’ve read everything I possibly could and here is my conclusion: You’re gone. You will never be the same Randall and Melissa I knew from before.” That for me was so liberating because I knew I’d been fundamentally changed. On a cellular level, things were different and I knew that it was also going to be that way for my husband, for our relationship. Things were changed, and I didn’t have the desire or a scrap of energy to put on some happy face that might resemble the face I’d had before. I’m not suggesting that every change was for the worse. Not at all. I’ve seen that there have been many changes that have made us stronger, deeper, and I hope more compassionate people.
Has losing a child given you a different perspective of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother?
For many years as a young mother, I felt pulled in so many directions in addition to being a mother to our children. I had an education and a small bundle of talents and this burning, restless energy, and longed to use them. I wanted to be doing something concrete and measurable with them in the world. Then with our move to Norway I was plucked out of one kind of life and plopped into a situation where I was reduced and of necessity laser focused. And helpless! I was helpless in that I was stripped of my former identity, support community, my language, and it was suddenly just me and my kids and the tundra. It redefined what I was doing as a woman and mother.
How did that restlessness as a mother evolve, or better, how do I see it today in the context of having buried my child? Oh, this is tender for me. Well, it’s changed my perspective entirely. Let me see if I can explain. I tend to be hard on myself and I tend to be driven. I tend to have sometimes rather high, unrealistic and even perfectionistic expectations and I think that I might have had those also for my children. I was not the parent that was letting my kids eat Pop Tarts and Twizzlers for breakfast. I had certain standards and expectations and so while I love my children fiercely – desperately, even, to the point of making my bones ache, as we all love our children – I always kind of wanted them to be, oh, just a little bit better. You know, like I thought they were going to play the lute and speak Latin.
And quote Hamlet, right?
Well of course! Exactly! That’s what they would do between bites of organic quinoa and sips of sea weed llama milk shakes, right? Our lips never touching refined sugar, only the most refined arts!
But Parker was this big loud boy, an athlete, and a drummer, who played in orchestras and in jazz ensembles and in rock bands with his African djembe consortium in the open squares all around Paris. This is not the lute. He spoke languages fluently, not because he wanted to read Henrik Ibsen or Victor Hugo in their original, but because he was very social, an utterly life-embracing force of nature.
My itching, irritating expectations of myself and of my children changed in the sacred hours spent next to my son’s body in the ICU, when I stood over him there alone and was tutored in that silence. I was tutored by him, by his spirit, and I was tutored by the Spirit. What I experienced there was a kind of super radiance that was emanating from him that caught me completely off guard. This wasn’t something that I just concocted because I was terrified and in terrible grief and a bit disoriented in that moment. No, I was in fact very oriented in that moment. I was probably more oriented in that moment than any other moment in my life. I saw things as they are. This boy that I’d perhaps nagged or ridden somewhat, the one I’d wished would have played the lute and spoken Latin but played instead drums and played basketball and spoke great street French and Norwegian was far greater, far more refined in spirit than I had ever known as his mother. Was I blinded by my insecurities, my ambitions?
I felt also in clear statements from him his profound gratitude for me. That he kept saying, “Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Mom.” And I understood that it was the universal thanks for having given him life and for having tried my very fumbling, lurching-forward best to be his mother. I think that his spirit must have understood, once released from his body, how much I’d struggled inwardly with the demands of being a mom and that I had put a lot of things aside for a long time because of our lifestyle so that I could be the on-site parent that was kind of holding everything together with all of these moves. So often I had considered myself a complete failure as a mother, but here was my sweet comatose child thanking me. It breaks my heart as I think of it.
That is part of what I learned in that ICU; I felt my son’s strength and acceptance of my efforts to be his mom, and I felt as if I wanted to kneel at the side of this altar. Not worshipping him per se, but feeling in awe of this human being that I had had the honor of giving a mortal body to and had spent eighteen and a half years with. And what I want to boldface here is that it’s not just him. It’s all of our children and it’s all of us. We are all endowed with a sort of super radiance.
I understand too well the anxiety that parents, particularly Mormon American parents—especially mothers–have about the need to raise super-achieving children. I am aware of that anxiety, but I’m constantly telling myself that my responsibility as a parent, my primary responsibility, is not to get them into a certain university or to help them get certain scholarships or mastery in an instrument, sport, or language. While those things are of value, that’s not my primary objective. My aim is to enjoy my children right now, to get to know them as great beings, to love and grow and learn with them – to mediate God’s love for them in their lives – so that they will recognize God’s presence here and now. That prepares them to stand at any moment in God’s presence. Because that eternal moment can come at any mortal moment. And so I find myself embracing them more, embracing life more, and relishing mortality as a fragile chance to experience joy together. There is so little time, and far too little joy.
At A Glance
Melissa Dalton Bradford
Location: Prangins, Switzerland
Marital status: Married once and still
Children: Luc (13) Dalton (17) Claire (22) Parker (deceased, would be 24)
Occupation: writer and lecturer
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University BA, MA
Languages Spoken at Home: English, French, German, and Norwegian. (Also speak conversational Mandarin, but rarely at home.)
Favorite Hymn: “If You Could Hie To Kolob”
On The Web: Melissa Writes of Passage (WordPress) and Global Mom @ Facebook
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.