This is a happy interview; I can tell Susan smiled and laughed the entire time she answered my questions, and I know you’re going to enjoy her earnest candor. This is an around-the-world family that has most recently moved from Florida to South West France, so you know they’ve experienced their share of cultural changes and shocks. But France is where they hope to call home for a very long time, and I’m so pleased Susan invited us in to show us around!
Q: Please introduce us to your family.
A: Hi! We are a slightly unconventional British family of seven. My husband, Roddy, grew up in several different countries, his one constant being boarding school in England. I, on the other hand, had a terribly normal childhood, growing up on the Isle of Wight, a small island six miles off the south coast of England. I lived in the same house all my life and I went to the same school all my life, I rode ponies, and was the original tomboy!
My husband and I met on the Island of Madeira in the middle of the Atlantic where he ran two charter fishing boats. I was there on a fishing holiday, a break from London life with some friends. To cut a long story short, we met, some years later we married, and then we had five children over the course of ten years.
Our eldest Izzi is now 18, and has just started at University in the UK. She is incredibly academic – where she gets her study ethic from, I have no idea! Our next daughter, Millie, has just had her 15th birthday. She is very artistic and has an insatiable appetite for life, is passionate about her chickens, and a really good tennis player.
Jack is our 12 year old son, the only boy in a house of girls. Roddy always jokes that he may not like it at the moment, but when he is older and they all start bringing friends home he will be delighted! He should also make extremely good boyfriend material, understanding the way girls think! He is already taller than me, loves cycling, and is intent on winning the Tour de France at some stage in the future.
Hetty is ten. She is all or nothing – either extremely loud or very quiet minding her own business – and there is no halfway house with Hetty! She is a thinker, and she would rather be on her own than be friends with someone just for the sake of being friends. However, once she is your friend you will be her friend for life. Georgina is eight; we call her our little Kiwi as she was born in New Zealand. She is the only one in a blue-eyed family to have green eyes and olive skin. Roddy always jokes that he is sure the French pool man was involved somewhere along the way! She is also the only one that is fearless, so thank goodness she is number five! If the first four had had her fearless attitude, we would be a very small family, I am sure!
Q: Where do you live, and how did your house become your home?
A: We live in South West France in the middle of a small village of 600 inhabitants; our nearest reasonably sized town of 25,000 people is about a ten minute drive away. We have lived here since last summer when we returned to France after living in Florida for four years.
Actually, Roddy bought the house without me! We have been married for 19 years and we know each other pretty well, so we decided last spring that it was impossible for both of us to leave Florida together and come to France on a house hunting trip. Izzi was taking her final exams for the International Baccalaureate and the others were all in school, too, and so armed with laptop, iPad, and cellphone, Roddy set off to buy us a house! After many Skype calls and many emails, I remember he called one morning and said, “You know how you wanted a house in the middle of a village, with a fig tree and grape vines and at least an acre of garden, and room for friends to stay and yet within striking distance of the coast? Well, I’ve found it.”
Three months later and we were all in France entering the village where the house was waiting. Roddy was unusually quiet – in short, he was terrified! What if I didn’t like it? We already owned it, we knew it needed a lot of renovation, but what if I took one look and hated it? He need not have worried! The minute I walked through the gates, I fell in love.
Q: What makes you love the place you live?
A: It was not in the plans to move. Florida was meant to be our forever home. We arrived on a business visa and, despite what we had initially been told and subsequently spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours with immigration lawyers, we were advised that immigration policy had changed and we would never get the green card which we had understood was a formality when we arrived, and we would never be able to become permanent residents. We knew we had to return to Europe.
When I was a teenager I always remember thinking I had two choices. I had to go to school because it was the law – although I would far rather have been at home riding my ponies! – so I could either go and be miserable for several years of my life or I could make the most of it and enjoy it. Of course I chose the latter. I still use this thought process today.
So here we are, living in France, and it’s already 2015. Where did the time go? And I have to say we are all extremely happy. There is always a positive side and it is lovely to be close to family and in Europe again. Hetty and Georgina go to the local village school, attended by just 67 children, aged from five to 11. They love that they walk to school, and on Fridays we stop at the little village bakery on the way home and buy an end of week treat; they will each choose one thing and something for Millie and Jack, too, for when they return from school a little later.
The village is small and safe and at the weekends the children are able to walk to the bakery or take our dog for a walk on their own, and yet just ten minutes drive away is the much larger town of Rochefort. The centre of Rochefort has a large square bordered by cafes and restaurants and a beautiful fountain. During the winter holidays this square is turned into a giant open air ice skating rink, and becomes one of the highlights of our Christmas holidays. Small boutique shops in buildings several centuries old line the surrounding streets. Even in the cold winter months, the town is vibrant and buzzing and there is no better place to sit and take a coffee and watch the world go by than in one of the street-side cafes. And, as we are in France, I have to talk about the local markets! They’re an integral part of French life, the freshest of local fruits and vegetables. We really do live life according to the seasons, and it is a wonderful education for the children.
Q: You’ve lived a lot of places before this. What’s been the best part about moving that you carry in your memories?
A: Roddy’s business is fishing and the manufacturing of fishing tackle, and that has taken us to some far flung corners of the world for which I feel extremely fortunate. For someone who lived such a sheltered childhood, it has been a completely opposite adulthood! Although, I have to say that this is it: I am NOT moving again! I absolutely hate flying, I don’t mind the small planes that hop from here to England and take an hour, but I hate long transatlantic flights; I watch the screen count down the minutes and hours until we are safely on the ground, and I would gladly never get on a plane again.
The best part is always, undoubtedly, the people who have always been so open and friendly. We are the expat family with SO many children we have half a soccer team, and yet we have been welcomed into their homes and lives. We have been lucky to experience so many different cultures, but I do miss the amazing friends we have made around the world.
Q: You’ve got kids from 8 to 18; tell us about your wide range of house rules! How do you keep your little ones little while giving your older ones more freedom?
A: Now this is something I ponder often. We don’t seem to have hard and fast set rules, and if we did I am sure someone would tell me rules are meant to be broken…or maybe that is just my motto! I am not a strict rules sort of person. However, we all seem to muddle along rather well.
We always eat together, and everyone knows that they absolutely do not bring a mobile device or electronic to the table, so maybe that is the first rule. Whoever is around in the morning will empty the dishwasher. It’s not a set job – sometimes I do it, sometimes Roddy does, sometimes I’ll ask whichever child is in the kitchen at the time to do it – it is just a part of family life and amazingly no one complains and it all works out to be fair in the end. I think the fact that we are such an outdoor sporty family makes the age range so much easier. Whether boating, fishing, cycling, walking, there really is no age barrier and everyone has fun together.
However I do think one of the hardest parts of parenting is getting the balance right. How much leeway to give a teenager? How do you give them their own sense of responsibility whilst also letting go? We try and spend time with each of them individually, and I am extremely lucky to have such an amazingly supportive husband who works from home. He is such a hands-on father and that makes life very much easier. At other times we will all be together, which often means very noisy conversations! We are all strong willed and even the youngest girls have their own firm opinions, but I encourage debate and it is never dull. It is all about somehow getting the balance right. I am sure we could have done many things differently, but it all seems to be working out ok and, most importantly, everyone is happy.
Q: Tell us about your blog! Why did you start it and what are your hopes for it?
A: My blog, Our French Oasis, has quite taken me by surprise. I started it at the end of last year at the request of some of our friends in Florida; they wanted to hear all about our new life in France, and so I said I would write a blog. I still remember the very first post I wrote, my finger hovering over the publish button. It was a scary moment, I felt very vulnerable, and what if my friends thought it was awful and didn’t want to read what I had written?! So at first I kept it very simple and just tentatively felt my way with a few stories and photos of life here. This past January, I started receiving some incredibly positive feedback from total strangers who enjoyed escaping a little to France with me.
I have been amazed at how incredibly friendly the blogging world is. Other bloggers have given me so much advice and I have made some great new friends through the blog. However, the basis of the blog is still, and will remain, my love of sharing. If I can just make someone smile, then it is all worthwhile. Maybe, just maybe a few people will follow in my belief that a family bike ride and a picnic is just as much fun as a theme park and a Big Mac…and a great deal healthier!
Q: What’s your best advice for others moving around a lot?
Q: I do yearn to stay put, which is why I said I am NOT moving again! Yes, of course, my kids miss their friends, and it has been much harder on the older three than the two youngest who really have only known school in Florida and now here in France. But life is not perfect or easy all the time. I am not saying it is ideal moving a lot and there are one or two people who have criticized and been extremely hurtful about our big moves. Those are people who do not know our children, though, and I am sure if they met them they would see that – despite moving so much – they are extremely well adjusted balanced kids.
It has made us all extremely close as a family, and I hope that close bond will never be broken. The best advice I can give anyone moving is to stick together as a family. The kids may find it tough to be the outsider in a new school especially if they can’t even speak the language, but knowing that at home they have your complete support and understanding and pride is so valuable. Just encourage them, be there for them, and listen. That’s probably great to do whether you move or not!
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What has surprised you the most about being a mom?
A: Undoubtedly my favourite thing about being a Mom is being surrounded by five amazing children. They make me laugh, they make me cry, and at times I want to scream in frustration, but I love them with all my heart. I cannot stand mess and chaos, I like everything to be in its place, and so I have no idea why I ever had five children – because, trust me, with five children there is always mess!
I could live extremely happily with a fair degree of minimalism, but Roddy loves his books and hates to throw anything away, and I think all of the children have inherited his “hold onto everything just in case” gene. As someone who reads a novel and then gives it to the Goodwill store, this has taken quite some getting used to. One of my kids – and I am not going to tell you which one for fear they may just never forgive me – actually insists on keeping candy wrappers as a souvenir! A memory, as they put it. Now we do have candy, not daily, but it is not forbidden and not unusual so why keep an old wrapper? I have argued this until I am blue in the face, and I have even secretly taken a few out of the drawer where they are kept thinking I would throw them away and clear some of the clutter, only to put them back a minute later because I felt too guilty!
I will never win my war on clutter and I will never live in a perfect tidy mess free home, but I also wouldn’t change it for the world!We muddle along for the most part very happily. My kids keep me young, they keep me laughing, they keep me fit, and I love them to bits.
Q: If they could remember just one memory from this childhood home more than any other – and you as their mom – what do you hope it would be?
A: Well, having lived here for less than a year, that’s quite a difficult one to answer. But this takes me back to moving around and changing homes a fair amount. So when they are grown up and with their own families, I hope they look back and think of this as home. This is where I really want to settle and for them to feel they belong. Everywhere we have lived has had its special moments and plenty of fun and laughter, but I really want this to be their home.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: …that it can be tough being an older parent.
I waited and did not have children until my thirties, and I wouldn’t change the fun I had in my twenties for anything. In fact, I wouldn’t have wanted children in my twenties because I was having far too much fun living on my own. I had an amazing job, an amazing lifestyle, and when Roddy and I met we had so much fun together living on the island of Madeira.
However, having a child once you reach 40 puts you in a completely different bracket. I always joke that at parent meetings at school for Izzi I am one of the younger ones, but for Georgina I am positively ancient! I mean, there are plenty of parents there who could easily be my daughter! Although this is far more the case in Florida than in Europe; European women tend to have their careers first and then their children. Having a first child at 40 is not even considered unusual, so maybe that’s another positive side to living back here!
But truthfully, I do think of how old I will be when Georgina is starting college, and how will it affect the younger ones having an older mother? Maybe I should have stopped living a little and started our family a few years earlier…who knows? However, there is always a positive side to everything and maybe that positive side is my children make me want to stay young. They keep me fit and active, I strive to lead a healthy lifestyle for them, to look the best I can. So I can truthfully say, although I wish someone had told me, I still wouldn’t have listened!
Susan, I love your honesty about being the youngest and oldest mom, depending on which child’s perspective! Your attitude is great – a no regrets philosophy is pretty liberating – and I’m sure everything and everyone came at the perfectly right moment. (Your time on Madeira sounds like it was a hoot! No wonder you wouldn’t want to give that up!)
I’m curious if anyone else has unique experiences being either the youngest parent or the oldest. I know someone who always gets asked if she’s her daughter’s sister, an occurrence that delights her and brings about a frown from her daughter! Ha!