The hardest decision of our lives

It will change everything. I don’t know how it got to this. But now we are at a point where we have to make what feels like an impossible choice. It feels so hard because it will change the course of our lives entirely. It’s terrifying. 

A week ago our Canadian visas were approved. Our flights are booked for a month from now. One month to move our entire lives to Canada. We don’t have the money this time. There’s no going back. But if we can’t find decent income, a house, an au pair, all the stuff that goes along with settling, we fail. Who knows where we’ll end up. The kids get dragged around the world. It’s not good, not what we’d hoped for. Even if we do find enough income, we won’t save money. Which means we can’t buy a house. Which means continued instability. And even if we did eventually save the down payment, we’re getting to that age where a 25 year mortgage really isn’t viable. We’d be working far beyond normal retirement age. We’ve left everything so late. 

I actually have regrets. I really can’t believe I do but it’s true. It’s so counterproductive to have regrets too. I need a fresh start, drop all that past and just begin afresh now. 

So then we stay. We build up more savings until we have a decent ten percent deposit in 12 months. We find a place in Melbourne. We buy it. We move. We settle. We make it our own, as close to anything we could get in Canada. We stay forever and have a happy, comfortable life, casting aside our discomfort at hot summers and mediocre seasonal traditions because we’re comfortable. We don’t have to worry much about money. We cruise along and forget all about how much better it might have been as Canadians. 

Is this it? If we stay will we never achieve anything else? A Melbourne future used to be my dream for many years. And then I lost it, for the sake of a new and illogical yet idealistic dream. Can we return to the happiness we felt at the prospect of moving to Melbourne five years ago? We need to decide now, tomorrow is the final deadline. I have no answers and neither does Mr Chewbacca. This is so very hard. 

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Breathing in the scent of my childhood

After a few confusing and slightly hectic weeks in my first full-time job in three years, I have a moment to take a lunchtime walk. It’s spring here in Canberra and for the first time in about 20 years the weather is spot on. Instead of blazing heat as soon as winter is done, the season is easing in ever so gently. The sun is warm, the wind is cool and it’s about 17 degrees. Magpies are out in full force, squawking urgently about perceived threats to their nests and bees swarm around blossoms. That spring smell that carries with it the allergies that affect so many is thick and heady for a moment before the cool wind dilutes it. Old Man’s Beard floats through the air, collecting like snow at the base of trees and if you’re unlucky enough, it goes up your nose.

Ahead of me, I see a building in which I began my tertiary education nearly 20 years ago now. 

It’s nothing remarkable. Inside it there are beautiful works of art and young and emerging artists finding their place in the world.

I walked here 20 years ago. My best friend Grug [not her real name] and I had nothing to do one weekend and we noticed the uni was having its open day. I knew my marks wouldn’t be good enough and my friend wasn’t planning on going to uni but we went along anyway. We picked up goody bags and wandered about the campus then went to check out the school of music. As we walked out of Llewellyn Hall, we noticed this white building, the Canberra School of Art, was also having an open day. It was part of the uni apparently. Somehow we made our way through the gallery towards the back and ended up in the Textiles area. I immediately felt like I’d come home and suddenly realised that this might be where I need to be. I talked to them about applying and felt encouraged, despite not having studied art in my final two years of high school.

So I created a portfolio. I’d been sewing for about six years at that point, and I’d done really well in textiles in year 11 and 12. It was something I found easy and fun and interesting and I wouldn’t need high marks in maths or science to have a chance at a place at art school.

“You know this isn’t fashion design,” they said to me when I went for the interview and presented a portfolio dominated by pattern drafting and fabric design. I was clear that I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in fashion, although frankly I’d have said that about anything at that stage, I had no idea what I wanted.

At the end of 1996, after having submitted my application and been interviewed with my portfolio, my dad took me on my first overseas trip to the UK. That’s another story, but while I was there my mum called to say that I’d received a letter to say I was being considered for a place but that I was on a waiting list for any places that became available due to people dropping out. I didn’t really think anything of it, and I know my dad wasn’t impressed that I wouldn’t be going straight to uni, so that was that, I put it out of my mind. When I got home in January 1997 there was a letter to say I had been accepted. I’m hazy now on the numbers but from what I recall I got one of 27 places in a pool of 300 odd applicants. Not too bad. I still didn’t think it was that big a deal until years later I was chatting to a local artist who was stunned to discover I’d been accepted there, saying it was one of the most highly regarded art schools in the country. Hmm. I have no idea if that’s true!

Anyway, this white building, this is where I started. I didn’t become an artist, obviously, but I did that first year of my BA (Visual) and realised it wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I just transferred into a regular BA and that was that, thus began my academic career. It’s bizarre to think I’ve come from that to a PhD in Italian in Canada 20 years later. I recently stumbled upon a social media post I made ten years ago when visiting Rome. I went to the Trevi Fountain and when I looked for a coin to throw in the only one I had was a Canadian ten cent piece. Imagine that! I’d never been to Canada, but for some reason I had that coin in that moment and I threw it in the Trevi. In Italy. And now here I am, in Canada, studying Italian. I have no idea how or why this happened but it’s quite an odd coincidence that I find hard to label as arbitrary.

A reminder that things sometimes do work out as they should

I just have to document what’s happened over the past 48 hours because I feel like if I don’t I will forget and start to think maybe it never really happened this way. 

It’s Friday night now. On Monday, we were pretty down in the dumps. We haven’t been back in Canberra too long, and at that stage it was about a week and a half. But already we’d run into what we thought were barriers stopping us getting work here and building some savings back up. Going to Canada was expensive and coming home too soon made it even more costly. I do believe the decision to come back after a year was not the right one. But all that aside, that’s what we did and we chose to come back to Canberra and not Melbourne because it might afford us more opportunity to work and build back up to being able to afford to buy a house. But those opportunities for stable, well-paid government jobs were proving elusive and we were both wondering if we’d made yet another mistake on a spur of the moment decision. We had managed to rent this kind of nice place, we were gathering furniture and bits and pieces but no one was earning any money and it was all getting just a bit scary. 

At that point I realised I needed to ramp up applying for jobs through recuitment agencies so I sat up late a few nights and fired off half a dozen applications. Mr C had registered with many but my way of registering was not to call them directly. Instead, I’d just apply for the jobs they had advertised and let them come to me. No follow-up call, not even a cover letter. Just an emailed CV. That’s the way I’ve always done it. It may seem a pretty arrogant and even foolish way of doing things as we were getting pretty desperate but that’s what I did anyway. 

I’d set up a meeting last week with an agent and it didn’t sound particularly promising. She was on leave for a few days, not super keen to put me forward for anything, but it was the only lead I had. The same agency was representing Mr C for two jobs, one of which he hoped he’d get but hadn’t even heard about an interview. It was a long weekend but we had no idea Monday was a public holiday until we went to Vinnies and discovered it was closed. I crept out of the car and shamefully rifled through some of the piles of donated goods blocking the closed door and we got some new bowls and casserole dishes. It felt like a low point. 

So yesterday rocked round and I met with the agent at 9am. I felt frumpy and less than confident but it was a pleasant chat and although I thought she was genuinely nice, I didn’t expect her to find me any suitable roles. My CV, for one, is full of holes, short term contracts mixed with some freelance work and study here and there, big gaps where I was in baby land, just not as impressive as it once was. I realised just how much technology has advanced since I last worked full time in the digital sphere and I felt a little unsure when I left the meeting. But little did I know, the Universe had earmarked this day as “massive crazy change” day. 

I took out my phone to text Mr C to say I was on my way back home but he’d already texted me. He had an interview at 11:30! Better get home! He doesn’t know the city or where to park yet so we drove him. As we dropped him off, I got a call. The agent had two jobs she wanted to put me forward for. Of course I agreed to both, and she told me she may be in touch about one short term contract later in the day as they needed someone to start Tuesday (as Monday is another public holiday). I drove the kids to the shopping centre and we hung out in Big W toy department while we waited for Mr C. I felt like the worst parent on the planet as I was on my phone virtually the whole time. The onslaught had begun! I checked my email for an update on the potential job interviews to find a message from another agent wanting to represent me for a role paying another half as much again as the base hourly rate I’d hoped for. I played it cool and agreed to let him put me forward even though the job was asking for technical knowledge that I don’t quite have. 

Mr C appeared and immediately told me they’d virtually offered him the job on the spot! We got home and as Mr C chatted to his agent about how his interview went, I got a call from mine. She told me she’d sent my CV across to the short term role and they thought I was great and wanted to interview me that afternoon as the job would be starting Tuesday! Oh, and with a handover on the Friday. I agreed shakily to a 4:30pm interview. 

All went well. I turned up on time to a lovely building tucked away in a quiet corner of the university campus surrounded by bush land and views of lake and mountains. There, I met the guy I’d be filling in for and working with when he returned. It was to be a six week job and yes, handover tomorrow. I had to tell him I didn’t know how I’d arrange daycare at such short notice and he told me they had been unable to find anyone suitable and that I, as their last resort, was perfect for the job. I had to accept. 

Mr C was just as stunned as I was when I told him, especially when I found out the pay was a bit more than expected. He was simultaneously stressing out as he’d heard nothing to confirm he had his job despite the verbal offer at interview. We drank wine that night anyway. I just knew it’d be fine. 

And it was. About 16 hours after my recruitment agent confirmed written approval for me to commence, the same happened for Mr C. And that was it. 24 hours prior we’d been shitting ourselves at the prospect of destitution and now we were employed. Surely a miracle, definitely a relief. We ate fish and chips from our local takeaway shop (absolutely awesome and not expensive), and we felt normal again. What a crazy time! Organising daycare at short notice was hard but I did it. We met with the lady and the kids start on Wednesday, when Mr C starts his job. I can’t believe it. This Canberra thing might just be the right decision after all!

Yet another challenge

I’m beginning to think that life is just a series of ridiculous challenges. Trying to do something but in order to do it you first need to do something else. This means you have to do a bunch of other things too, things you never though you’d do. I never thought I’d put my kids in care. No matter the cost, I’d manage to keep my kids with me until they started school. I didn’t do too badly in that the Dude was never in care. Thumper got her first year with me.

Coming to Canberra, we knew we could earn solid pay. We didn’t think much about the cost of daycare. But we should have. Getting our jobs was one thing, and happened so fast, as I wrote about before, so we needed fast daycare as well. We were fortunate enough to find someone who could do the week for both kids in family daycare. It wasn’t the perfect situation, but it may just work and at least it was there. So we signed up and agreed to start them on Wed. Little did we think that the cost would be far beyond what we could possibly afford.

To top it off, neither of the kids wanted to go. The daycare lady had a rather old, dark, cold house and lots of outdated toys. She didn’t speak great English which was a challenge but not the end of the world. I think the kids just didn’t gel with her. The Dude has been getting progressively more and more bored since finishing school over three months ago and although initially excited about going to daycare, he was disappointed after the first day. He was asked to lie down and have quiet time while the little ones napped which he didn’t like, that was his main gripe. Thumper, who never used to want to leave daycare in Canada, suddenly developed separation anxiety and screamed from the moment she realised I was leaving her. Overall, it was a bit of a disaster.

Once we realised the exorbitant costs, we immediately pulled the kids out. It was a tough call because the lady had been so accommodating at the last minute. I felt sick at the prospect of having to tell her. I desperately posted on a local Facebook page and among the replies asking confused and repetitive questions about why we don’t get rebates for daycare (we definitely don’t), I had a few people telling me to message them about solutions. One of them, a young mum, turned out to be a real godsend. She agreed to look after the kids three days a week at our place for a reduced rate and another lady is going to look after them the other two at hers, subject to meeting her this weekend. It began to seem like it might just work.

But today when we got home after the first full day leaving them with this lovely mum, we began to doubt that it was going to work. The kids were a nightmare. They didn’t listen, they had meltdown after meltdown, they were rude, disrespectful, aggressive. Thumper refused to nap. Dude refused to turn off the tv. Another disaster ensued. The mum was, frankly, a saint. She pulled out every trick in the book but ultimately the kids were just behaving terribly. She has bravely agreed to continue, but to be honest I can’t see it lasting, unless something changes significantly.

For my part, none of this feels right. I want to be back in Canada and I know we need money to do that, but being with my children feels more important somehow. Gosh it’s hard. I don’t know how we’ve ended up in this situation but I’m going to do everything within my power to fix it.

A yearning

After all that worrying and wondering and desperation, looking forward to being home and making a life, I don’t want to be here. I want to be in Canada. I really do. Some bit of me wonders if I’ll ever be satisfied with where I am, but most of me thinks I am finally going to be where I can settle. I know for Mr Chewbacca it’s the latter, and he’s very hard to please and very impulsive. But, like me, he doesn’t want to settle for second best. So we want back in.

Looking back through photos of our lives in Canada, I realise it suited me a lot more being there. Of course there are things about Australia that I prefer and I’m glad to have those things back but I still don’t feel like this is home. Even though technically I’m as “at home” as I could ever be, being in Canberra, my home town. It’s good to be back but I’m reminded all the time why I left.

The feeling of wanting to be back in Canada is, on the surface, a nice one, exciting. But delve a little deeper and it becomes complex and misleading. Do I really want to be there or am I overly romanticising it? Did I really enjoy being there? It starts to become nonsensical if you think about it too much, like repeating a common word in your head until it sounds completely foreign. It’s as though having too many options isn’t such a good thing.

One thing’s for sure, though: we should have given it another year, there’s no doubt about that. I wish there was some way of getting back to that time when I couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with yet more visa applications. In hindsight I really don’t think anyone could have done anything, I’d decided we were going and that was it. Silly really.

But what’s done is done. So now what? Do we definitely want to go back? How can we pull it off?

One of those catch-up posts

I am kind of obsessive about record-keeping, but in a quite eccentric way. I like to write dates on everything. Even little post-it notes I write with story ideas, I’ll put a date on there. I’ve always done it. The problem is that I don’t always keep up with my documenting everything, so while I keep records, I don’t always get to complete them. And that’s what’s happened with this blog recently.

The last time I posted was in April and now it’s September. I have at least half a dozen part-complete posts sitting in my drafts. And although the things I was documenting in those have passed, I absolutely must finish and publish them. So I’m going to do what I did when we first went to Canada. I’m going to publish them in order, dating them when they occurred, and try and catch up to now.

One of the reasons I’ve been hesitant in posting stuff, aside from having no time or reliable internet connection, is that the stuff that’s happened since deciding to come back to Australia has been a bit hush-hush. Not to say it’s a secret as such, more just that we’ve been a bit wild and crazy with our decision-making and we didn’t really want to broadcast stuff to the world. It’s just what we do.

So, stay tuned, if you like, for updates since that time we saw the Mennonites playing volleyball somewhere outside of St Josephs, Ontario, and we’ll go from there. The updates will contain many child-related anecdotes, stories about rush decisions (what’s new?!), and document the pain of adjustment as a result of yet another move when, in actual fact, I’d decided I was completely over moving and wanted a house like six years ago. Funny how some decisions impact immediately on your life and others just seem to fall by the wayside.

Backtracking

I’m writing this months after the events actually transpired in an attempt to fill the gaps in the story and keep a record of what happened. I’ve published roughly around the time I’d have published if I’d actually written this then.

On Thumper’s second birthday we hired a campervan from Brisbane in the pouring rain. We planned to drive all the way down the east coast to Melbourne, where we’d attempt to build a new life back in Australia. The caveat to this is that almost a month earlier, at the beginning of August when we arrived back in Australia from Canada, we realised we’d made a big mistake coming back. I rarely accept the blame for things as I don’t think it’s constructive and usually I make sane decisions but on this occasion, I think it’s safe to say it’s my fault that we took this wrong turn.

Just a side note about straying off the path, if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes: I feel a bit like I’ve been veering off into the unknown since my mid 20s. When I first left Canberra nine years ago (and I know, I go on about this a lot, bear with me), I stepped firmly onto the path of my life, which was a new path but I was still on track, still going the right way. I did a few things and had a few experiences in London that were very out of character for me and I was still on the path, the new and improved one. Something big shifted when I met Mr Chewbacca and was essentially swept off my feet in the true meaning of the phrase: I had very little control over what happened to me. Suddenly I was in love, I was in a relationship, I was talking about commitment and living together and getting engaged and having kids and it was all unfolding before my eyes before I could even take a breath and check whether this was exactly how it should go. As it turns out, it was all the right thing. But from that point, decision-making took on another level of complexity. Not only was there another person whose opinion and decisions affected me and had to be taken into consideration, I had to find a new way of making important choices with objectivity. It’s fundamentally part of who I am to adapt and try to please everyone in my decisions. I like to keep the peace, keep things balanced. And sometimes I’ll compromise on what I choose a little too much. I find my judgment is clouded by all the factors needing to be considered. The first time this happened was in London when I agreed to go to Sydney and not Melbourne. It’s not black and white, you can’t say ‘that was the wrong decision’; there’s no room for regret anyway. But it was at that point in 2009 that I didn’t stick to my guns when I should have. Similarly, perhaps Mr C should have argued for us to stay in the UK and not even head home to Australia. Who knows, I’ll leave that up to him to think about.

Anyway, back to the story. So we took off from Brisbane, me driving the kids in my mum’s little old car and Mr C negotiating the traffic in heavy rain in the massive camper. It was a bit of a pain in the butt actually getting the camper as the one we ended up with was a little old and seemed way too big, but the next size down didn’t have anchor points for two car seats so we had to stick with the big old one. Somehow we made it back to my mum’s place, which is just south of the Gold Coast and then had to install the car seats in the camper and pack all our nine suitcases plus worth of stuff in, finding ways to secure the massive suitcases in a vehicle that really wasn’t designed to carry massive suitcases. All of this in the rain (you know, that tropical rain that starts to drown everything at the beginning of spring and it feels like it’ll never end). It was a total mud bath and not a great start to our big road trip.

So we set off, later than planned, aiming to stop near Coffs Harbour for the first night. We made it, but it was hard going. We ended up getting some dodgy Chinese food for dinner and finding a caravan park which we only just managed to get into before the reception closed for the evening. We planned to have a few wines and chill out after the kids went to sleep but in reality is was so cold and wet and we were so exhausted that we just skulled a couple of glasses while shivering under the canopy next to the camper in the dark and fell into bed.

The next morning we set off for the central coast of NSW where we’d arranged to meet up with our friends and stay with them for the night (or rather, we rocked up and treated their place essentially like an AirBnB that we didn’t need to book and that contained some of our favourite people in the entire world). It was a better drive when it wasn’t raining and we set the kids up with movies on the ipad and cruised on through, arriving late afternoon. Thank goodness for good friends! They laid on the food and drink and we relaxed a bit and caught up. Next stop was just Sydney, only an hour and a half or so away, so we could take it fairly easy. We had great difficulty finding a caravan park anywhere near Sydney and ended up lobbing into one at Lane Cove which was nice enough, although it was a pain in the butt getting all the way to Coogee to meet up with some other close friends but we just took a taxi and sucked up the ridiculous cost. We had a fabulous catch up with those guys and got back to the camper for another late night for the kids around 9pm.

No sleeping in though, as we planned to head straight through to Canberra the next day. My dad had kindly booked us into a lovely serviced apartment in the inner south and as we emerged over the summit above Lake George and had that first glimpse of the tower I felt myself begin to relax. Canberra does that to me. Technically it’s home, or at least it represents a place of safety and refuge. It was so nice to sleep in a decent bed. By that point, we’d established that the van we’d hired was faulty. It kept doing some really odd things, losing power during acceleration and the like, so Mr C organised for a replacement which was due to arrive that evening. We were told the driver would assist with moving all our things to the new van and it was all going well until a call saying he’d arrived unexpectedly interrupted us at dinner. Mr C quickly went back to the camper to do the swap over and my dad came back to pick me and kids up and take us back to the apartment. We arrived to a scene of chaos and an air of extreme frustration surrounding! The driver was rude and unhelpful, so Mr C and my dad had quickly grabbed everything and moved it across, a huge amount of stuff which wasn’t packed as we hadn’t expected the swap over to happen then. It was a real disaster, stuff everywhere, a huge mess, incredibly stressful. The good thing was that the new van was at least new and a vast improvement over the old one.

After a fleeting discussion, we decided another night in Canberra was a good idea. Now I’m not sure whether it was that first night or the next day, but something shifted. It’s hard to explain how this stuff happens but it’s a familiar scenario for us. Mr C and I don’t always agree on everything but more often than not, we’re on the same page without really having to discuss anything. This is what happened with Canberra. We gave each other a few knowing looks and we both knew before we even discussed it that we were compelled to stay in Canberra. We love Melbourne, it’ll always be a favourite, but we realised that Canberra would be the easiest solution, given that we were adamant we wanted to get back to Canada anyway. We never wanted to settle in Canberra but we just knew it was the most sensible plan to get decent jobs and live a simpler life while we built our savings back up and found a way back to the north. So within the space of 24 hours, by the time we left after that second night in Canberra, we knew we’d come back to live. It was such a quick decision that we’d told no one really, just my dad who happened to be with us when we were discussing it.

Anyway, we finished our road trip going further south to Eden for the following night, then around the coast to Lakes Entrance for another night and finally through to our friends who we’d arranged to stay with at Mt Eliza. All in all, the road trip was great but also absolutely exhausting and, being without a home this whole time since arriving back in the country on 2 August, we were a bit weary.

We told our Melbourne friends of our plans to head back to Canberra (and they of course just giggled at us and rolled their eyes knowingly – typical of us!) and we began applying for public service jobs. I never thought I’d have to do another set of selection criteria in my life but I ended up writing half a dozen for Mr C and a number for myself too. The prospect of being back in Canberra was somewhat relaxing, although I may not have said that had I known what was in store. After a couple of weeks we bought a little car, hired an SUV and drove both containing all our stuff to Canberra. We had no idea where we’d stay or how we’d begin again with no jobs and seriously dwindling finances. Here we go again…