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How to Be a Family
The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together
By Dan Kois
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- ebook $14.99 $18.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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In this eye-opening, heartwarming, and very funny family memoir, the fractious, loving Kois’ go in search of other places on the map that might offer them the chance to live away from home-but closer together. Over a year the family lands in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas. The goal? To get out of their rut of busyness and distractedness and to see how other families live outside the East Coast parenting bubble.
HOW TO BE A FAMILY brings readers along as the Kois girls-witty, solitary, extremely online Lyra and goofy, sensitive, social butterfly Harper-like through the Kiwi bush, ride bikes to a Dutch school in the pouring rain, battle iguanas in their Costa Rican kitchen, and learn to love a town where everyone knows your name. Meanwhile, Dan interviews neighbors, public officials, and scholars to learn why each of these places work the way they do. Will this trip change the Kois family’s lives? Or do families take their problems and conflicts with them wherever we go?
A journalistic memoir filled with heart, empathy, and lots of whining, HOW TO BE A FAMILY will make readers dream about the amazing adventures their own families might take.
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YOU’RE SCREWING UP
I didn’t go to Iceland expecting to meet the perfect family. It was February 2016 and I was there to write a magazine feature about the country’s geothermally heated public swimming pools, a simple municipal investment that had helped make the people there among the most content in the world. But then one subfreezing night at Vesturbaejarlaug, an outdoor pool in Reykjavik, I scampered across the frigid deck and hopped into the steaming family pool with Henry Henrysson and Regina Bjarnadóttir and their children. Elin and Emma splashed together while little Henry clung to his mom. My job as a magazine editor usually involves sitting in an office working on other people’s stories, staring at my computer until my eyes cross, so this was not a typical day for me—but this was a typical evening for them, Henry and Regina told me: the whole family in the pool, a final swim before bedtime, pajamas at the ready in the dressing rooms. “The ritual helps the kids go to sleep, I think,” Henry said. “The water calms them.” This is a particularly Icelandic parenting strategy, I’d learned; I’d talked to many adults who could still summon the childhood memory of slipping their still-warm bodies between cool sheets.
Regina was the executive director of an NGO that built schools and waterworks in Sierra Leone and, also, sure, in addition, was a dead ringer for Jennifer Garner. Henry the elder was a philosophy professor so handsome he seemed like a lost member of the Skarsgård family. The children were a Mini Boden catalog come to life: Elin, twelve, extremely mature with impeccable English; Emma, seven, cute and enthusiastic; Henry, three, mischievous and charming. National Geographic had recently offered them a free cruise of Iceland’s Westfjords in exchange for their giving a few lectures and mingling with Americans for a week. That is, the entire family had been certified by National Geographic as the kind of Icelandic natural wonder that tourists ought to experience.
After swimming, the family invited me to dinner at the café across the street. “Let me tell you a magical story,” I said as we crunched through the snowy parking lot. The girls eagerly gathered near. “Say you have a snowstorm here in Reykjavik,” I continued. Their mother translated quietly for Emma. “Perhaps almost a meter of snow.”
“Yes,” they said, nodding. This was a not-unfamiliar scenario. It was snowing now, though only a dusting, the flakes flickering past the streetlights.
“So if there was that much snow here,” I continued, “would you go to school the next day?”
Elin crinkled her brow. “What does this mean?” she asked.
“I mean, would they cancel school?”
Elin laughed. A moment later, Emma laughed too, having either worked out the English or decided that if Elin was laughing, she’d better join her. “No, of course not,” Elin said.
“Well,” I said, “just before I came to Iceland, we had a storm like that in Virginia, where I live. And do you know how many days they canceled school for my kids?”
Elin’s eyes were wide. “How many?”
“Seven,” I said.
Their screams of disbelief echoed through the dark neighborhood. “I think that is too many days!” Emma said quite seriously. As the children chattered about this remarkable story, their parents took me aside.
“How do parents work?” Regina asked me. “How do you live?”
That was a good question. Even before the snowstorm, it had been a time of particular craziness in my house in Arlington, Virginia. My daughter Lyra, ten, and her little sister, Harper, eight, were navigating more difficult schoolwork, more complicated friendships, and shifting personal identities. I was managing employees for the first time as the editor of a section of a magazine, and finding it hard to balance the personalities and responsibilities involved. Alia, my wife, a First Amendment attorney, was working eighteen hours a day on the toughest case of her career, one that she worried was going off the rails in a state court proceeding that seemed wildly unjust. The stress of both our jobs, the sense of the general out-of-control-ness of things, was bleeding ever more regularly into our home life.
One night a few months before my trip to Iceland I’d been walking down the hallway to my bedroom when I saw that Lyra’s light was still on. As usual, after putting our daughters to bed, I’d spent several hours at the kitchen table chipping away at the infinite mountain of work, chugging Diet Coke, tweeting. Alia was holed up in the office downstairs, writing a brief. It was eleven o’clock, much later than I would expect Lyra still to be awake. I peeked into her room to find her sprawled across her bed, staring at the ceiling. She turned to me as the door opened, her eyes wide.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said. “What’s up? Why aren’t you asleep?”
She made a desperate gesture of overcapacity around her head. “I can’t turn it all off!” she cried.
I knew the feeling. After rubbing Lyra’s back and singing to her and turning out her light, I too lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Had I finished all the work I needed to do? (I remembered an email I’d intended to write, grabbed my phone off the bedside table, typed it, tapped Send.) Was Alia holding up—could I be doing more to help her out? (She was still downstairs.) Did I remember to send in that form for Harper’s school? When was the quarterly tax payment due? Ah, did I forget to buy toilet paper? Why were my eyelids twitching like that?
Maybe the Diet Coke wasn’t helping things.
Then came the snowstorm. Two feet in one day, resulting in seven days of missed school—a second, unscheduled Christmas vacation for our kids. But not for us! It was the kind of catastrophe for parents that wrecked weeks of planning and put us at the edge of panic every hour as we juggled the stuff we needed to get done with the task of keeping two bored girls occupied for the nearly two weeks they were stuck in the house. The snowstorm transformed me in my coworkers’ eyes from a guy they could depend on into a guy who bailed on his responsibilities and disappointed them. We paid our wonderful babysitter, Alia’s cousin, hundreds of extra dollars just so we could do distracted, not-very-good work during the day and then yell at our children after she left.
This act of God seemed to serve as the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe, knowing that one closed runway would set off a cascade of problems that would eventually overwhelm the system. When our children finally returned to school, we looked at the wreckage behind us and the future ahead of us. The all-hours working—the concern about whether Lyra and Harper were happy, healthy, learning the most, getting the best—the certainty that somehow, despite all the advantages we were lucky enough to possess and pass on to them, we were fundamentally living the wrong life. It seemed to me, nearly every day, that we were doing being a family wrong.
My children had wonderful opportunities, full schedules, and enriching experiences. Yet working our days and nights away as we did, my wife and I rarely spent time with them, and the time I did spend with them often left us all anxious, as I tried to connect through my own distraction and their complaints about screens they couldn’t watch or shit I couldn’t buy them. Of course, often they were loving and grateful and kind—but then I was so beside myself with annoyance and frustration that I didn’t see it. Above all our life as a family felt as though it was flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense. Our family wasn’t broken or dysfunctional, but we were in an unhappy rut, one that seemed of our own making but was also tied to the busy, hyper-competent parenting culture that surrounded us in Arlington. We could have gone on as we were, and after eighteen years, our kids would be… what? What would we be parenting them into? Two smart, kind women, I hoped, but also blinkered people from the burbs, unable to deal with adversity, without much of a sense of the world outside the path we’d cleared for them.
As the cohost of a parenting podcast, I heard every day from listeners that the only thing that made them feel worse than the amount of time they spent away from their kids was the poor quality of the time they spent with them. The secret belief that, despite living in relative comfort and freedom, you’re fundamentally screwing up parenting is the tie that binds pretty much all the parents I know. The friend who was so driven to distraction by her daughter’s screen obsession that she posted pleas to Facebook begging for advice, and the other friends who just commented, “God, I wish I knew.” The podcast listener who wrote in infuriated by his children’s ungratefulness, who wished his kids could see what the real world was like just once, how fortunate they were to live the lives they did. Once an old college friend told me, “Well, I hardly ever see them, but at least when I do we drive each other crazy!”
Very little of the time I spent with my kids was quality time, which to me meant facing a challenge together, talking about the world together, enjoying one another’s company in some kind of rewarding way. Like so many ideals, or even fantasies, of good parenting, this vision of what our time together should be invaded and darkened the time together we actually had. Sometimes, during my regular phone call to Alia while I walked to get lunch in downtown DC—often the only conversation we would have until after kid bedtime—we both confessed how overwhelmed we felt, giving comfort to each other but no solutions. There were no solutions. On afternoons that I needed to pick the girls up, I ducked out of conversations with coworkers and apologized for putting off my final tasks but still always ran late, getting stuck in traffic or on a balky Metro train. I’ll never forget the afternoon that, already behind schedule to get Harper at basketball practice, I pulled out of the garage, looked left, looked right, and then drove directly into a pedestrian in chinos, knocking him over.
“What the fuck?” he shouted, leaping to his feet.
“I’m sorry!” I cried through the open window. “It was my fault! I’m so sorry!”
He slammed the hood of our Honda. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled. Half a block later, I had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road through the tears.
So what could we do? Should I quit my job, move us off the grid, join a commune? Some kind of life upheaval seemed necessary to break us out of the trap we’d put our family in, but the shape and scope of such a change was beyond me.
Settling at a table with the happy Henrysson-Bjarnadóttirs at a café across the street from the pool, I wondered if I’d been thinking too narrowly about my American family and our American life. I’d never even considered, for example, how swimming in a hot tub with my kids each night might change us. What if my general ignorance about the rest of the world wasn’t just a symptom of our family malaise but a cause? Other cultures raise their children in manners wholly alien to me; they organize their lives differently, value different qualities in their kids, measure success in different ways (or don’t measure it at all).
In the café, I asked Henry and Regina if they and their kids had spent much time overseas, and I learned that, thanks to both Regina’s job and the family prioritization of travel, the children had been to more countries than I, a grown adult, ever had: Guyana, Panama, Grenada, Rwanda, the Netherlands, Turkey. “I really love traveling,” Elin said brightly. In fact, the family was considering moving to Sierra Leone for a year or so. “Some people are going to think we’re crazy,” Henry admitted, “but many of my friends are adventurous.”
I asked Elin how she would feel about such a move. “Well, I’m at a very difficult age, of course,” she said, and I laughed out loud because the only young woman less awkward than clever, poised Elin Reginasdóttir was, like, Malala. She shrugged to acknowledge the absurdity of her statement and then continued: “I’ll miss my friends, but I’m excited for the trip. I think it will be amazing.”
I’d finished my beer and ordered another, despite the wary glances Henry and Regina kept giving each other. I told them about how my wife and I felt like we were grasping for some other, completely different way of life. “I often wish something like that as well,” Henry said. (“You do?” I gawped.) “If I could choose one place for our family to live, it would be Holland,” he added. “I think Holland is the most successful country.”
Soon, beautiful Henry and Regina and Elin and Emma and Henry climbed in their car to drive home. I walked across town to my hostel, the snow now coating my beard, mulling over everything I’d seen and heard. What if Alia and I took the leap so many parents dream of—ditched our overstuffed, incomprehensible lives and went in search of a better way?
We weren’t perfect like the Henrysson-Bjarnadóttirs, but I liked our family. Alia and I had met on the first day of freshman year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on a sand volleyball court outside our dorm. Our meet-cute was Alia telling me that just because I was a guy didn’t mean I was allowed to stray out of position and steal plays that my female teammates could make just fine. We traveled in the same circle of friends, bonded over improv comedy and music, flirted through a psychology class, and finally, after an epic senior-year road trip to Graceland, started dating. Within twelve months of graduation we were engaged; it just seemed pointless, we thought, to wait to get married when it was evident to us and everyone we knew that we were right for each other. We were the first of our friends to get married; I was in grad school and she was in law school.
Did we talk about children? I hope so, though I don’t remember. Alia recalls me telling my mom on the phone about our engagement and assuring her that this girl did indeed want to have kids someday. We certainly weren’t going to have them right away, though; we were so young! We’d both had pretty comfortable childhoods, each of us the less-troublemaking sibling in a two-child family. I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee; my parents’ divorce when I was in eighth grade unsettled my adolescence, but it remained clear through my childhood that I was a priority in both my parents’ lives. Alia was raised in a weird hippie neighborhood forty-five minutes south of DC; her parents were quirky and loving and the exact level of strict-yet-kind that we later struggled to achieve in our own parenting. (Our kids definitely don’t have the healthy terror of disappointing us that Alia had of disappointing her mom.)
After getting married, we lived in Honolulu and then in New York City, where many of our college friends had also ended up. Alia worked for a big firm, and then, as soon as she could, joined a small First Amendment boutique outfit, defending newspapers and magazines against libel suits and battling the government for access to public records. I made my way, eventually, to journalism, writing and editing about movies and books. We established traditions, had adventures, developed inside jokes. Feel free to ask me in person for the very, very long story behind why, whenever one of us drops something in the kitchen, the other one automatically says, “You’re screwing up.”
We’d adopted a dog in Hawaii and brought her with us to New York, where we doted on her, singing endless verses of a song of Alia’s invention called “Dora Is a Dog”:
Dora is a dog
She is not a frog
She is not a log
She doesn’t drink eggnog
… and so on. We referred to Dora, to her face, as our “practice kid.” So when we’d managed to keep her alive for five years, we decided: Time to have the actual kids. Alia went off birth control, came home one night from a court date in Buffalo, and announced, “I’m pretty sure I’m ovulating”; nine months later, in 2005, Lyra was born.
Lyra revealed herself early as someone who organized the events around her into narratives, inventing stories and questing to understand the motives behind people’s actions and words. Harper, born two years later, viewed the structures and tasks the world required as delightful puzzles to solve, and she tirelessly practiced the things that seemed important to her: walking, doing cartwheels, dribbling a basketball, baking cookies. Dora abdicated her firstborn position, bearing the countless indignities of a big dog’s life with small children. Lyra’s babysitter wanted Lyra to ride Dora like a horse. As a toddler, Harper spent quite a bit of time trying to stick her finger in Dora’s butt. Those first years were nearly impossible, as they are for most parents, but we survived them by thinking of ourselves as a team. We had each other’s backs. “Esbu,” Alia and I would whisper to each other, a sweet nothing we shared when some person outside our little circle disappointed us in some way. It was an acronym for everyone sucks but us.
We fled New York in 2009 and headed down to the DC suburbs. Our choice made sense even as we disappointed ourselves by giving up the bustle and diversity of the city for a placid house in Arlington. But we were exhausted from raising small kids and getting priced out of the city; many of our friends were moving away, and Alia’s parents lived close to our new home, in Prince George’s County, where Alia had grown up. They were A+ grandparents, engaged, supportive, and minimally meddlesome, and we were desperate for help.
And that’s where we were seven years later, in a brick ranch on a busy street, the proverbial worst house in a nice neighborhood. We’d refinanced to expand the galley kitchen and build a porch, upon which I liked to sit and watch baseball on summer nights. The girls had their own rooms next to our room and pined for an upstairs like their friends’ big houses had. Dora, now sixteen years old and retired, roamed the backyard, pursuing her passion, squirrels. We didn’t have a fancy coffee machine or a smart fridge but we did install a soda fountain that pumped out Diet Coke like at McDonald’s. After a number of lonely years, we’d finally assembled a group of close friends in Arlington, and I’d found a job at a magazine I loved. But in other ways, things were harder than ever. Alia’s parents, facing sudden health problems, were about to move away; we felt less and less at home in a neighborhood becoming Manhattanesque in its wealth; Alia was overworked and stressed out. And I, like Lyra, couldn’t turn it all off.
That night in Reykjavik, I called Alia as I walked home through the snow. “Hold on,” she said. “Harper, please wait, I’m on the phone with Daddy.” In the background, Harper, just home from school, was asking for more screen time. “Did you get good stuff for the story?” Alia asked me.
Yeah, I said, but what I really wanted to talk to her about was the crazy idea we’d sometimes batted back and forth, a kind of parenting vision quest, a bananas dream to dump everything for a year and try out life somewhere far, far away. “I think we should just do it,” I said. “I think we should, like, get the hell out of our parenting bubble.”
In the background of the phone call, I heard Lyra and Harper shouting at each other about some bullshit. “I have to go,” Alia said. “I have to finish this brief and get them to not kill each other. So, you know, I’m in.”
If we could go somewhere else for an entire year, where would we go? A tropical paradise where we sat on the beach all day? The damn South of France? A new city that offered more family support, a more sane idea about balance? No single culture has completely solved these issues, of course. (Even Henry Henrysson dreams of someplace else!) We wanted to find a place that would challenge the aspects of our parenting we already struggled with. So over the next few months we researched, talked to friends, peered unhappily at our savings account balance. At night in bed, we discovered that when you’re too tired for sex you can get a pretty great endorphin rush just from hearing your partner speak aloud the name of a country you could maybe move to. “Argentina?” Alia would say, and I’d moan with delight.
The more we spun out dreams of our 2017, the less able we were to find a single country that had everything we wanted. There were so many countries that could transform so many different parts of our family life. Surely we would never have this chance again, so couldn’t we try a sample platter of global parenting? That’s how we settled on four new homes. First we’d take our slothful, screen-addicted kids (and slothful, screen-addicted selves) to New Zealand, a country whose parenting philosophy revolves around outdoor recreation and adventure. Then we’d seek order in the Netherlands, the country where everything works and where the children are supposedly the happiest in the world. We’d search for a simpler, more beautiful life in Costa Rica, a country that prizes pura vida and whose population of native Ticos was swelling with American retirees and families looking for paradise on a budget. And to finish the year off, we’d return to America, but not to Arlington. Instead, we’d settle down in Hays, Kansas, near the precise geographic center of the United States, joining old friends who’d fled the East Coast for a small town, to learn whether what we’d been desperate for all along was a kind of smaller, more “authentic” American life—or if such a thing even existed anymore.
We weren’t presumptuous enough to imagine that we could parachute into a city for three months and truly understand all there was to know about it. We wouldn’t magically become Dutch or Tico or Kansan. But we could model our family life after the lives we saw around us, practicing curiosity and open-mindedness, trying out ways of interacting we might never have thought of. And as a journalist, I could uncover a perspective bigger than what most families would experience by reporting and researching, interviewing other parents, educators, and academics.
I had a whole list of questions I wanted to ask in each place. But for Alia and me, the question was simpler: Could the two of us set aside our relentless quest to make sure our children had every material and educational advantage, and instead focus for twelve months on caring for all our hearts and souls? The more we talked about our plan, the more it seemed like a chance to substantially change our lives—to learn from other places and bring those lessons back home. Or bring them wherever! Perhaps we’d return to Arlington and stay, finding a way to live there sanely. But perhaps the experience would change our outlook so profoundly that going back to our lives in Arlington would be intolerable. Maybe we’d move to a small town, or Central America, or the other side of the world. Part of the shivery delight of dreaming of such a trip was dreaming of the entirely different life you might live on the other side of it.
And maybe we’d need to completely change our life, because it became clear pretty quickly that we might not have any money left when the trip was over. We’d drawn up a complicated yearlong budget that was 50 percent incredibly specific well-researched numbers and 50 percent laughable guesses. (“How much do you think we would spend on Diet Coke per week in New Zealand?”) Our proposed budget was predicated not only on us economizing, convincing our bosses to let us work remotely, dipping into our savings, and maximizing credit card points but also on the theory that I could get a publisher to pay me to write a book about our experiences, an assumption that seemed like both a tantalizing possibility and a truly bad idea.
Should I write a book about my family? (It’s moot now, I wrote the book, here it is, you heroically bought it or shamefully borrowed it from a friend, but Alia and I really discussed it a lot at the time.) I dispensed pretty quickly with the principle that one’s own family ought not to be fodder for public consumption; that ship had sailed years before, when I started telling stories about my own bad parenting on a podcast. But there was the very real possibility that I would end up sounding like a total choad. What kind of choad? There were so many! The self-congratulatory Superdad who co-opts the domestic labor of women everywhere and wears it like a cape? The coastal elitist who thinks that he’s got some right to weigh in on people living real lives in real places? Take your pick. Whatever kind of jerk you can think of, it’s a kind of jerk I would definitely feel like at least once during our year’s travels.
The dream of chucking it all and starting a new life somewhere far away is one of the foundational fantasies of upper-middle-class parenting. Of course, there’s a level of privilege in being able to worry that my extremely fortunate children are fortunate in the wrong ways. But one of the biggest failures I saw in my own parenting was that I hadn’t managed to give my children a sense of their own advantage—that they were growing up incurious about the world and ignorant of their place in it. This is the exact issue that, unchecked, would lead them to thoughtlessly perpetuate that privilege throughout their adulthoods. I wanted to find a way of life for our family that involved truly connecting with the world around us as well as with one another.
It was almost summer, and soon we had to decide whether or not we were gonna do this thing. Alia had returned from a several-week-long trial in Florida; the news site she had been defending against a vindictive billionaire had lost its case and was on its way to dispiriting bankruptcy. She was exhausted from months of late nights and worried about the future of a country she saw turning against values she’d spent her career protecting. She was also pretty sure that Lyra had grown a couple of inches in the weeks she’d been gone; Lyra had hit puberty and, as Alia had as a child, was nearing her adult height at the age of eleven. Alia and Lyra were dead ringers for each other, in fact, with Harper a smaller, more elfin collection of the same traits: dark hair, dark eyes, brilliant smile, brows for days.
As a parent, Alia’s a snuggler and a nurturer, warm and funny. She’s calmer than me, more likely to give an upset or angry child a sympathetic response, less likely to lose it. (That means, though, that when she does yell, it really registers with them, unlike when I do.) But she’s also a worrier. In Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie wrote movingly of mothers and the emotional caretaking they do for their children:
A Kansas Notable Book of 2020
New York Times' Best Holiday Books of 2019
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown and Company