Stuck in Europe

My husband teaches. My husband drinks. My son and I are sick of this. How can we move back to the U.S.?

By Cary Tennis

Published August 22, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)


I'm a 40-year-old mom living in a Central European capital with my son and husband. My husband is teaching English here at a bilingual school and my son attends that school, the only American student, which has been quite difficult (but sometimes great) for him. He has had a hard time making friends, has been bullied by a couple of the kids, and is not receiving as good an education as he should (there is a long story behind all of that). I have been taking on odd tutoring gigs, all of which have fizzled out for the summer holidays. The conversational part is great but I don't think I am an effective tutor, just a decent sounding board for people wanting to practice their English.

My son and I are not happy here at all, and we would dearly love to return to our home in the northwest U.S. He and my husband are not getting along (my husband drinks and basically becomes a sort of douche after chugging a few beers and beyond).

My husband and I have had some serious issues, most of which revolve around his drinking and my inability to communicate with him (I do not blame him for this, I'm a wimp). One would think this would be relatively easy except for the dismal U.S. economy (particularly for teachers like my husband), and the fact that I have no career or money of my own.

Here comes the complicated part of my complaint that keeps me wallowing in a stinky puddle of self-doubt and hopelessness. After I had my son, the decision was made that I would be a stay-at-home mom. It was a sweet experience and I'm not sorry I made that choice, at least for the first couple of years of his life. After he entered kindergarten, I was able to find odd jobs here and there for part of the year but had to quit when summer rolled around because my husband taught school year-round. Long story short, staying home for five years really fucked up my chances of ever finding decent work again.

Cary, I did attend college but never earned a degree. I dropped out in order to gain independence from my parents, who tried very hard to control every aspect of my life, from high school and beyond. I consider myself educated, but definitely not trained in any specific career. Before my marriage, I was a baker, review writer, bakery manager, jewelry designer and salesperson. I worked hard, played hard and supported myself (and my future husband) for more than a decade, until I got pregnant and got married. After the birth of my son, he became my whole world and I was a good mom, raised a sweet boy.

But now, my past decisions are returning to bite me in the ass, real hard. In fact they will not release me from their tenacious jaws. This fact, along with the fact that I struggle with debilitating depression and absolutely dismal self confidence (I can't remember a time when I was able to hold on to any glimmer of hope that fluttered past), is keeping me in a situation that is making everything worse for my whole family.

My problem is basically twofold: The first part is my need to get space from my husband. I'm not sure I want a divorce. I do love him, but I have always found our relationship stifling, for both of us. His drinking has been a huge problem from the beginning of our relationship, and he has been emotionally abusive with me and bully-ish to our son (although he loves our son incredibly and is a great dad aside from that). I have exacerbated the problem by not confronting it and instead seeking emotional (not sexual) comfort from a male friend. This has shattered my husband's trust in me ... he loves me desperately (although I'm not sure why) and wants to stay married to me at all costs. I think we need a break, to think things through, but he has told me if we leave, he will drink himself silly and probably screw around with other women.

The second part of my problem is logistic ... If I do return home with my son, what hope is there out there, for a 40-year-old mom (I'm a youthful 40 and still get asked for ID when I buy alcohol) with no college degree and whose real work experience is fairly antiquated? I'm a creative person, introverted, pessimistic, but I like to work hard, want to be appreciated for who I am. But who I am does not fit into this world with any ease. I can't find my niche and have long thought that there isn't one, that I remain a cosmic mistake and must suffer as such until I die. This kind of thinking keeps me down in the abyss, and I am getting so tired of it, tired of myself. I am ready for action, to emerge from this crusty cocoon I've been in my entire life.

Cary, what do you make of this? Is there any hope for me? Any practical advice, as a creative person yourself, on how to start a life for me and my son on my own? I crave independence so fiercely, and feel that if my marriage is to be saved, I need to carve out a new "me," for myself and my son. I want him to witness the best I can be.

I hope you can find the time to offer a little advice. I know you've heard it before.

Stuck in Europe

Dear Stuck in Europe,

In order to make a change, or get out of a rut, it helps to connect to a vision that gives us energy and hope. Things we have been drawn to in the past can point us toward such a vision. The more concretely we connect to such a vision, the more useful it can be to us.

So here is what I suggest you do: Find a bakery you like and befriend the owner and the workers. Bring your son there and hang out. Enjoy the baked goods. Talk with the owner and the workers about the baked goods. Talk to them about the business. Share your knowledge and learn what you can about how they conduct the business. See if you can be of help to them.

Likewise where jewelry is made and sold, go there and enjoy being around the jewelry. Bring your son with you. Let your son get to know the people in these places.

These places where bread is baked and jewelry is made can be your community. Among people in communities it is natural to problem-solve, to trade, to aid, to commiserate. You know how it is when you're involved in something. You're always thinking, How can I do this, how can I do that? How can I make this work? Who can help me? People in little businesses are always solving little problems. Who will run the place while I go for a vacation? Who can I trust? Who brings good cheer?

So be around where these natural things can happen. Allow yourself to be known. Allow your talents to be seen.

You do these things for practical reasons and also to feed your soul.

The long-term goal of this activity is to get you involved in some kind of money-making relationship with the crafts and societies that you have been drawn to in the past. It may take time to cultivate the connections and relationships that will lead to a job. So you don't necessarily want to ask for a job right away. Use your best judgment. Make this a part of your life. Don't just do it because you need a job. But all the time you are hanging out around bakers and jewelry people, stay alert. Follow your instincts. Watch for opportunities. People have to go on vacation. Openings occur.

Perhaps also you could do some tutoring there in the bakery, or find clients there. That would be nice, eh? To be tutoring and making money in a place filled with the smells and tastes of a bakery?

It will also help to create a narrative.

Your narrative might be something like this: After choosing to be a stay-at-home mom during your son's early years, you are now establishing yourself as an independent businesswoman. You love baking and jewelry, and so you are learning all you can and making connections in order to eventually open your own shop.

You will notice I did not spend much time talking about how you can return to the United States. You could certainly do that. But you went to Europe for good reasons. What were those reasons? What is there in Europe that still is vital to you?

If you return to the U.S., you will need a plan. Meanwhile, find inspiration where you are. Your source of energy is in the things you love.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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