What do you call a mom and a successful Physician’s Assistant who leaves her career and moves her family literally around the globe to Ghana, Africa? Mary Beth. You call her Mary Beth, because she is an everyday wife and mother just like you and I who had the courage to take a path as unexpected and crazy to her as it seems to us. Despite an initial reaction of “hell no!” when her husband proposed the move (which was an awesome opportunity for his career), Mary Beth eventually came to face her fears, challenge her assumptions, and considered what it might actually mean to do something so far off the expected path. She had the courage to consider the benefits, to see it as an opportunity to step into a new role, and to accept life might just be better out of her comfort zone. I chatted with Mary Beth to learn all about what it’s like to move around the world, adjust to a new country and culture, while stepping into a stay at home mom role and supporting her young daughters through such a big change.
Hello Mary Beth! How are you?
I’m good thanks!
I’m so glad you were able to do this, I really appreciate it! Let’s start by getting to know a little bit about you and your background, tell me more about you and how you came to have to consider moving around the world.
Well I am a mom of 2 kids and a wife. We were living in Colorado outside of Boulder for the last 10 years, that’s where we got married and started our family. I was working as a Physician’s Assistant specializing in oncology and blood disorders. I’ve been doing that, practicing as a PA for 13 years. My husband is an Engineer and has been with the same company since finishing grad school.
One day he came home from a trip to Ghana, he had been traveling there a lot for work, he travels frequently for his job. I asked “how was your trip?” and he said “actually they want us to move there, they offered me a position.” I was making the kids food and I was like “yeah, we’re not moving. That’s not happening.”
At the time the girls had just turned 2 and 4. I had traveled to Africa at the end of college, East Africa in a really remote village and I had a lot of concerns, my immediate thought was that we’d be in a remote place, without access to good health care, and that we’d be putting our kids at risk. We had really established our life in Colorado, my daughter was in preschool and I had an established career, so it was like “yeah, not doing this.”
The conversation ended there and we just welcomed him home from his trip. A couple of days later I had some free time at work and started Googling Ghana, ‘moving there with kids’ wondering, “do people really do this?” And I started looking at it and realized there were some flaws in my preconceptions around safety and health. I started researching a little bit about the history and the city itself. Really overall it’s a very politically safe area, less strife than other areas in the Western part of the continent. Eventually we talked about it a little more and a little more and after about a week we decided to entertain the idea of actually having a full blown conversation. So I asked him more about the job, what it would entail, and things like that. There was a family we would be taking over for, they had small children as well, and I thought, if they did it, certainly we can do it too.
So what made you decide to start looking into Ghana after your initial reaction was “no way”?
I think just the idea of doing a big change was kind of appealing, a clean slate sort of felt good at the time. I really loved my job, work was good, but at the same time when this presented itself, I thought how this could be a really good opportunity for not only his career but our family. Why couldn’t we do this now? The girls were young, they weren’t in the middle of high school or anything like that, it’s not so much of an integral time of their lives and I could take a break with my job.
Over ten years dealing with patients that have cancer, it’s a grueling job and didn’t allow me to focus fully on my girls, I felt like it was a good opportunity to start over a little bit. I could focus on a new role of being a more present mother and free up time to do other things. And then I thought about what a good cultural opportunity for all of us it would be. I never imagined even traveling much outside the US with the girls, so it seemed like such a good opportunity for them to see another part of the world and help shape them as they move forward. These ideas were all circling around my head at the time. So I asked myself what is holding me back? Why did I just say no? I assumed that it wasn’t safe or that their health would be at risk. I thought all of these things but I didn’t know if they were actually true. I was making a rash decision without having the information, so I set out to get more information.
So your knee jerk reaction was no way! But once you began questioning that first reaction and starting thinking more about it and looking into it, you began to realize there was a lot of positives that were at least worth considering, and the idea of doing something a little different was something you should at least discuss. Tell me about that conversation?
It was good actually. Since he had travelled there before, he had a lot of information about the city, logistics and so there were much more facts, questions and answers. I found myself asking “Are we actually going to do this?” after we’d talked for a couple of hours. I think my husband felt that he wanted to let me process it on my own, because the role change would be the most for me because his job would stay mostly the same, where I’d be changing my flow.
Tell me more about that, about deciding to leave your career and be home with the girls. How did you come to that decision? How hard was it to walk away from your career and “just” be a mom?
It was a really hard decision, but I had always wanted to have more time with the girls, I’ve always struggled with finding that balance between working and family. I felt that I had been working full time, I went right to PA school after graduating college, and went right to my career after that and had no time to breathe…the idea of being able to reset, have a clean slate, spend time with the girls and that I could refocus some of my energy into something new. The more I thought about it, I thought, this is a great chance…I’m sure I’ll go back to medicine, but for right now, it’s a good opportunity to take a step back and just focus on us moving and on the girls.
It was a hard decision for me, but it came at a good time in my career. I had put a lot in, I had gotten a lot out of it, and I was ready to take a break. I think the hardest part was telling my patients, I started feeling bad letting others down.
So once you made the decisions, how did your work, your patients and your family react?
My work, my co-workers and everybody there was really supportive, I had worked there for so long I had a lot of close relationships, that went a lot better than I thought. I was really nervous the doctor I worked with would be like “what!?” and it was a bit but he was mostly like “I’m really happy for you” and that was a good learning experience for me because he didn’t make it about himself, he was like “this is really awesome for you guys.” My husband’s family have both lived abroad when they were younger, my mother in law had the same safety concerns I initially did, but they were really supportive because they have seen the benefits themselves.
I had a harder time, it was kind of like dropping a bomb on my family. My sister was expecting a baby at the time, my mom’s sick now but we didn’t know it at the time. We already lived in Colorado, it was just difficult, we were already living long distance from everyone and now we were going either further. It was really hard but ultimately everyone knew, once the dust settled, that this is what you need to do and a good opportunity for you all. It was a really hard, tough conversation. But I think my parents, they just processed things, asked a lot of questions, and so we had the same conversations, going through all the things, school and safety and logistics. I think that then they where more okay with it.
You get through all of that, you get through the decision, what is it like to make an international move with 2 small children?
We had to arrange for an international shipping company, they came to the house with a giant container and we had to pack it up to the max. We had to decide what we would take and what we wouldn’t, just brought all of the kids things so they had their toys and everything was the same as they knew it. And everything else we packed up. It came 2 days after Thanksgiving and it arrived at our house in Ghana in the second week of February. My husband went before us, right after Christmas and we came in February about 2 days after the container arrived. We did it like that because we knew it would take a while, we didn’t want to get here without the girls stuff, wanted to make it as seamless for them as possible, with their beds and toys and all of that. My husband left after Christmas and I stayed with the girls and we went around the US, saying good bye to friends and family. I was with them alone for 6 weeks and then flew by myself with them to Ghana.
It went really seamless overall it was pretty smooth. We had to get vaccinations, Visas, medications, doctor checks, before we left, shots for tropical diseases and all of that. I had got my Visa, his work had helped us with a lot of it, but we didn’t realize the girls needed a Visa, so after 6 weeks of saying good bye and prepping for this huge move, we were so ready to just go and make it happen and just get there- we finally are ready to go and I text my husband, we’re all good to go and just to double check do the girls need Visas and he said “I don’t think so, no one’s mentioned it” and then sure enough, like 5 minutes later he’s like “yep, they need Visas”. We had to apply for emergency Visas on arrival, we got stuck in Atlanta for a few more days, and we had to get their Visas when we arrived in Ghana. Everything was good, girls were great on the plane and we arrive at this international airport the size of Peoria or Bloomington, it hasn’t been refurbished since the 70s, old, not air conditioned, we walked to the Visa office and waited for over 2 hours, nobody gave me any updates, by now the girls are totally jet lagged, running up and down the airport, that was a major hiccup but it all worked out.
After you arrive and get settled, what is the adjustment like? How do you adjust to shopping, getting the girls to school, all of the every day life things in a completely different country and culture? What is that like?
It was hard. The first few nights it feels like, your brain is telling you it’s the right thing but you go to sleep on the verge of crying because you don’t feel like it’s right. It’s so overwhelming, all of it. It’s really difficult to do by yourself but I found a good group of women, there’s a North American women’s group and so when you meet people, they just reach out immediately because they’ve also been there. They have a head start, and will be like “do you know about this….or have you heard of that?” and that was really helpful for me so if I didn’t have that or run into the right people, it would have been much harder, but things do work out. You’re put in the right place at the right time and you run into the right people.
Isn’t it amazing how that happens, how things come together in a way you can’t imagine in all the planning?
Yes, absolutely. So the kids were playing at the swimming pool and we talked with a mom and left and then at the first day of school, she was dropping her son off who was in my daughter’s class and now we’re really good friends. It’s a really small community here but at the same time it is interesting how things work out and fall into place. There’s a lot of really great Facebook groups where everyone helps each other out. North American woman’s group has put together a welcome book that really tells you where to find supermarkets, the best meat, eggs, because unlike what we’re used to, just go to the grocery store to get everything, you have to shop at 4 or 5 different places to get everything you need.
If you have a recipe you have to scan it before you make it to know if you’ll even be able to get everything you need. Like now I can scan and be like yeah I know I’ll never be able to find this type of cheese or something, but at the time I didn’t know and I’d go and try to make my American recipes and I couldn’t find the ingredients at the store. And I’d have to start over. That was hard, shopping was probably the hardest thing, you just can’t find what you’re used to, certain cheeses and spices, fresh herbs. You have to really scour and reach out to people and know where to find things. Also some little gems of places that have American food, we’ve found those spots to get snacks for the kids and stuff. The kids were small enough and adjusted well to the fact that I couldn’t find the fruit snacks they liked or whatever.
What were some other small differences you had to get used to?
Driving is really crazy. No body abides by any traffic laws. So the roads are really poor, lots of potholes, just exposed gutters with garbage and standing water and open on the side of the road. If you veer off, you’ll be in that gutter. The traffic is just crazy and lots of obstacles, people on motorbikes racing through, weaving in and out and don’t stop at lights. It’s like a crazy video game every day. You just don’t know what’s going to fly up in front of you. The first day I drove, my palms were sweating, I felt like a new driver again. But now I’m just with everyone else, laying on the horn, getting through traffic the best that I can.
The pollution, there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of disabled people and impoverished children, a lot of begging on the side of the road. That was a really hard adjustment and hard to explain to our kids. At the same time I think it’s good for them to see, this is a part of the reason why we are doing this, but it was a big change.
The kids school went really well, we found through my husband’s company, they directed us to a good nursery school and my oldest is at an American International school, she’s getting schooled based on the American curriculum. That was a good transition, it was as good as it could be. Because we came in the middle of the term, we waited a month and half before starting which was good for us to get adjusted and settled first. It felt like things were falling into place when they started school and we started meeting people. Before that I was home all day with the girls.
I want to hear more about that transition, how was that in reality, leaving your career and now being home with the girls?
It was hard because I wasn’t used to it, sometimes I felt kind of maxed out when I came home from work and I’d put in everything I could in those hours before they went to bed, but when you’re with them all day and they aren’t in school and they have so much energy and I’m like “wow, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this!”
It’s so much harder than you think isn’t it?
Yeah it was lonely, I didn’t go out and do social things unless it was with the kids. It’s hard to meet people, in a new place, and to go shopping, I couldn’t take my time to figure everything out because I was rushing because of the kids. Those were a rough few months. Right when we moved my husband had to go on a trip so it was just us, it was a hard time. I remember my older daughter started crying, “I miss my friends, I miss Colorado, I miss our food” and I was like “it’s okay” and I went in the kitchen and started crying thinking “me too!”
This totally sucks, all these new foods, nothing looks familiar here. You think when you do anything new with your family, you remember your parents holding it together, and so I made sure to hold it together. Yeah, it was a really big adjustment, the first couple of months I felt like I really need to find the time in the day I could decompress for myself. Because going all day with the kids, I got short with them. It’s just really hard. I give all the moms props who do it.
How long have you been there now?
We’ve been here nearly 2 years and are supposed to be here for at least 3 years.
So what would you say overall this experience has taught you so far?
I think that it taught me to not hold ourselves back, that our minds hold us back. I realize how wrong most of my assumptions were in the beginning. I’ve learned, so many people say it, but it’s true, you can do anything, whether you have kids or a career, everything will fall into place if you want to do something…you just have to go for it.
Do not let the fear of what you think could happen hold you back, because you might really be missing out on something more. That is the big thing I’ve learned and that’s what I would want my kids to take away from this. Mom and dad had the courage to uproot everything and they went for it. I’d never want them to hold themselves back. Set your mind to something and you can do it.
I’ve met so many other people who are doing the same thing, other moms doing the same, changing their roles and moving their family, and they’re rockstars. I see them and recognize how amazing it is, you can have different roles and do different things and be happy and successful.
I also think it’s just been a good learning experience to see how a different culture operates. Ghanaian people are really friendly and spiritual, they’ve just been brought up in such a different climate than we have, in all regards, political, everything, and how they’ve adjusted and adapted is so inspiring.
I’ve learned a lot from that. But ultimately we’ve learned our family will be happy and succeed as long as we’re together. After stressing over all the details, really the 4 of us together is the only thing that’s important. We’ve grown a lot together as a family all getting out of our comfort zone.
I always viewed life very linear, clear path of one step to the next and the next. For me, something like this would never be worth considering because it wasn’t on the path, but what I’m coming to realize is that the experiences are actually what make a life and there is no path, and it’s just about gaining experiences. Did you view it that way or did you grow up with a more open mind?
I think growing up, I thought, I’ll go to college, get married, have kids, settle down, have work. I think learning to break from the plan of life was a huge obstacle for me. I never planned on doing something like this so it was really hard, to get past that linear idea of what my life was going to be, this threw us for a loop, but it definitely opened us up. It helped me realize life is really an open book.
Will this experience change the next steps or how you approach the next stretch of life?
I think so, this has probably made us more worldly. I think that we’ll always travel, I don’t know if we’ll live abroad again, but I know we’re open to it now. It has shown us how big the world is. It’s hard to branch out far beyond where we grew up and we forget the world is a big place and it’s not just about your community, it goes so much further. There are so many other intricacies in government, policy and all of that, it’s really shown us, we’re much more conscious on a worldly level than we used to be. I think if everyone had this experience it would help people to see more beyond their own interests.
What wisdom or advice can you share with other women when it comes to doing something you never thought you would do, or considering an opportunity that is out of line with your plans?
Really think about things before you make a decision. Don’t jump to conclusions, maybe it is something you can do. Get to the bottom of why you think you wouldn’t do it, understand your fears, recognize if the unknowns are holding you back from something that could be great. If your first reaction is no but then you keep thinking about it, explore it further. Sometimes we have a preconceived idea of where our life is going, but maybe we have to take a long term or different approach sometimes. If you close yourself off to new possibilities, you are missing out big opportunities.
I think fear is the reason most people wouldn’t consider doing something like this, how would you advise people to overcome their fears in order to try new things?
Just inform yourself as best as you can, check your assumptions. Identify the fear and figure out what’s at the root of it. Figure out what information you need to get more comfortable moving forward. Don’t just decide “nope” without considering it, take a minute before you absolutely close the door. Life can be so much more exciting than you could ever plan.
Thank you for sharing your story with us. I wish you so much luck on the rest of this adventure!