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Raising children across cultures

For many third-culture kids, answering the question “Where are you from?” is often not as simple as it seems. For Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore (author of This Messy Mobile Life), this is no different. We sat down with her to talk all about the joys and challenges of being an external expat, what it’s like to raise children across countries, cultures and languages and her book.
Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore's family of 5 in Lisbon standing in front of a tram
Image courtesy of Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore

It seems like Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore was always destined to live life constantly on the go. Even prior to her birth, she was on the move as her Pakistani parents returned home from Bahrain to give birth. Unsure where life was going to take them, they wanted to make sure Mariam would always be able to return to the place they called home.

After returning to Bahrain for a couple of years, Mariam and her parents eventually settled in the USA, where she would grow up and go to school. Speaking Urdu at home and English with friends, from a young age, Mariam could see the differences between communities.

“This early childhood experience of living between the west and the east really shaped me,” Mariam explained. It helped me to become this sort of “cultural chameleon,” who would have that insider and outsider perspective.”

Over her teens and young adulthood, Mariam would travel back and forth between the USA and Pakistan. Through this experience, she would further understand how to deal with the challenges brought by change. From being teased for her American-tinged Urdu to being asked to attend security meetings for Muslim students in the wake of 9/11 at college in the US, Mariam developed her own tools for going through these changes.

“When you’re thrown into the deep end, you truly learn how to: A) cross cultures effectively and b) really understand the journey you’re on. I learned how to find my own tribe, build my own networks and do all the things that you do when you’re outside of your familiar environment."

And since then, Mariam has done it multiple times over. Alongside her German-Italian husband, she’s lived her life across 4 different continents and is now raising a young multilingual, multicultural family that, like her, wears their passport stamps on their sleeves. Having lived in Pakistan, Bahrain, the USA, England, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, the UAE, Ghana and Portugal, for Mariam home is not a place anymore.

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore's family of 5 holding cinnamon buns
Image courtesy of Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore

“It’s more when the 5 of us are together. But, I really do feel like I can feel at home almost anywhere. I could feel at home in Pakistan, not 100%, but I think I've stopped looking for that.”

Alongside all of these different moves, Mariam’s 2 eldest children, aged 9 and 6, have experienced several different education systems and school environments. As they go through these transitions, Mariam understands the challenges her children face, particularly with their socio-emotional intelligence. While it’s not always easy, she helps them to process these emotions, giving them the time and space they need as they change schools, say goodbye to old friends, start to make new ones and adapt to new languages and cultures.

“If you don’t teach them how to move the right way and you keep on taking them all around the world, one day they might just resent you for it. They might say, ‘I never had a voice, you never gave me an option.’ You want them to live in the moment and not be worried about where they’re going next worry or where they’ve been.”

Front cover of This Messy Mobile Life by Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore
Image courtesy of Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore

With over 15 years of experience in making these big moves across the world, Mariam now, in her own words, helps expats like her to “thrive in moving anywhere.” With her blog and popular Instagram account, Mariam seeks to connect with others around the world, whether that be expats, parents, travellers, bloggers, writers or artists. Most recently, she embarked on her biggest creative adventure yet and wrote her own book, This Messy Mobile Life.

Written during the move from Dubai to Ghana, This Messy Mobile Life was written for families just like Mariam’s: those who live between cultures and may find it hard to tell their story. For the book, Mariam wanted to find some kind of image that would represent what it is like to be a highly mobile family. One day, she discovered precisely what she needed: a mola.

The mola is a hand-made textile that’s part of the traditional clothing worn by women from the Guna — an indigenous people that were driven from their home in present-day Colombia to the coast of Panamá by Spanish colonialists. The term mola originally meant bird plumage, but today is that Guna people’s word for clothes.

In making a mola, Guna women use a technique known as reverse appliqué. They lay several layers of cloth — often recycled — on top of one another. These layers are then tacked together before they are cut. Only the bottom layer stays intact, holding all these layers together. As the cuts are made, the colours of each layer are revealed, creating their own unique pattern. Today, in creating their mola, Guna women take inspiration from their surroundings, using birds, flowers and sea creatures as common motifs.

When Mariam learnt about the mola, she knew it was the perfect image to describe families like hers. “I didn’t know through all these moves and cross-cultural goodness, I had been stitching a mola, my whole family had been stitching a mola!”

Mariam sitting on steps and holding her book This Messy Mobile Life wearing a vibrantly patterned skirt
Image courtesy of Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore

Beyond being a stunning image to describe what it is like to be a globally mobile family, Mariam also saw she could use it as a framework to support families through big transitions. So, mola became MOLA (Mix, Order, Layer, Adventure) and with it, Mariam has shown families a new way to view these big transitions. Yes, they can be challenging, messy and not always smooth but at the end of the day, she says that what families can get out of this globally mobile life makes it 100% worth it.

So, what’s next for Mariam and her family? After suddenly having to leave Ghana where the Ottimofiore family were living at the time, Mariam is now living in Portugal. After the turbulence of this move, and the birth of her third child, Mariam has been enjoying the pace of life in Portugal. She loves nothing more than to start the day at the nearby beach, enjoying a Portuguese coffee and pastel de nata and spending quality time together by the sea.

Want to stay up to date with Mariam’s adventures? Make sure to check her out on Instagram, or head to her website to learn more about her book, This Messy Mobile Life.
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