I learned something about myself in the past few days: I finally understand one of the driving forces that has shaped my entire life. After years of not knowing, I realise what brought me to Britain, and why it has been so important to me to be here, and why I am finding it so very painful to leave.
It started when M said with surprise, “My daughters are going to be… American.” It’s quite a strange concept for a father to get his head around: that his own children, born of his own flesh, will grow up with an identity that is foreign to his. This started us on a conversation about what it is that makes a person British or American, or any nationality really. Is it where they were born? Is it the culture they were brought up in? Is it the country stamped on their passport? What will our daughters be? What am I?
I have struggled with my identity, in terms of nationality, all my life. I was born in the United States to two British parents and was raised in a close expat community for the first 6 years (or so) of my life. When I was very young, the idea was that we would live in the US for a few years and then return to the UK, and so our identity was clear: we were all British, and the United Kingdom was home. The fact that I was a dual-national by accident of birth didn’t alter that I was, like my parents, a Brit who would soon return home. Then my father died suddenly, just after my first birthday, which threw all the plans into chaos. My mother stayed in the US during the aftermath of his death — perhaps we would return home later, but a move like that would have been too much when she was so newly bereaved — and she still thought of herself and her daughter as completely British.
But everything changed a few years later when she fell in love with an American — my second dad. They had a whirlwind romance and were married within months (and, I am happy to report, are still madly in love three decades on). Overnight, the plan changed: we weren’t moving back to the UK. We were staying in the US, and my mother was going to become an American citizen. Britain wasn’t the “home” we were returning to anymore — America was home now.
The concept of home is an important one to a child. The need to belong runs deep — it is rooted in the survival mechanisms that are instinctive in small children. I think my mother was probably able to process this change of plan well — it was her choice and it was driven by love — but it was much, much harder for me. I knew I was British — I’d been told so all my life, my grandparents and cousins were British, we went back every summer. It was simply what was. I was British — except now I… wasn’t.
And what’s more, lots of people were telling me I wasn’t British. I can remember people telling me, in an incredibly patronising way, “Yes, yes, but… you’re American really.” Sometimes (and, sadly not that uncommonly) people had an almost hostile reaction, as if the idea that someone who had two nationalities wouldn’t automatically cherish their American nationality above the other was offensive, or unpatriotic or ungrateful. I remember once being told I was being pretentious, and going home and asking my mother what “pretentious” meant, and wasn’t I really British? But my mother was also one of those people who was now telling me that I was “American really“, though for all the right reasons and entirely out of love — she was hoping to help me adjust to changes in our lives, and did it by trying to rewrite my identity for me.
I think that as soon as Britain ceased to be home, it took on a certain mystique in my mind. The more that people tried to push me into changing my identity, the more I felt I needed to hold onto it. After time, of course, it ceased to be on my mind so much but, looking back now, I can see it never left my subconscious, and that it solidified into a longing in a way that it never did for my other dual-national friends. As time went on, I got more used to the changes that had happened in my life — I grew up as an typical American kid and I was happy in that — but I always held dearly onto my dual-nationality. I knew I wasn’t one or the other, British or American. I wasn’t even half-and-half — I was completely both, a 2-for-1 bargain. And in my heart, I continued to hold a deep-seated need to validate that by returning to Britain.
And that need ended up shaping the course of my whole adult life: as soon as I graduated from university — as soon as my life was under my control — I went. I shed my life in the States — my possessions, my contacts, my career prospects — and moved to the UK. I took a job that was far, far beneath my skill level and which had no prospects, but enabled me to be where I wanted to be. I was finally able to feed that need which had been growling hungrily inside me all my life. I was able, at last, after two decades, to validate the identity that was once mine and which was taken from me very abruptly.
I have often wondered what it was that made me come to Britain — I’ve thought about it a lot, my mother and I discussed it many times, M and I have talked it over… and I simply never had an answer. It’s only been this past week that it has finally come clear to me. And it’s made me understand a little better why I am so troubled about moving back to the US: there is a part of me — a large part, a deep part — which worries that I am going to lose this hard-won identity all over again. That by going back, I will become “American really” again, pretentious to think of myself as British as well. There is a part of me that knows that, although we think of ourselves as a British family with strong American connection, overnight we will become, in the eyes of everyone around us, an American family with one British member. Having gone to such lengths to validate the identity I always thought I had, I am loathe to go through a process that will strip it away from me again.
I’ve talked this over with quite a few people. Some of them think I am silly to be so worried, and maybe I am. I am looking at it as I remember from my childhood, but I am not 5 anymore and the experience I will have this time as an adult will be very different from the experiences I had as a child. And I know that what matters is the identity I hold for myself, not what others want to assign to me. It’s about the way my husband and I see ourselves, the atmosphere we create in our home, the dual-national identities we foster in our daughters.
But that’s easier said than done. This move is big and frightening — it is leaving everything that has been familiar about my life for the last 15 years. It makes me feel scared and small… small like a child. I have loved living here — I have been very settled — and a lot of that has been because it has fulfilled a need I have carried all my life.
And now I am going to stop feeding that need, and I just don’t know how that is going to feel.