From Kent To California (and back)

Why I want To Move back from Silicon Valley to England

Moving to California is a great adventure that many dream about. But mother-of-two Annie Tickner tells us why she can’t wait to take her kids back home to Whitstable.

We moved from Kent to Silicon Valley 154 days ago. Transplanting a husband who’s not keen on change, a six-year old and seven-year-old from laid-back Whitstable to intense Silicon Valley has been a full-time job this past year.

If this were reality TV I would be using phrases like ‘difficult journey’, ‘learning process’ and ‘rollercoaster’. I would probably give you the ‘backstory’ of my recent brain surgery and the death of my beloved Dad as the catalyst for deciding that there was nothing to stop us finally accepting one of the offers my husband (a software designer) was getting: ‘Come out to the Golden State, be at the heart of the action, the kids will love it, you’ll never want to go back!’

It’s actually been hardest on the cats who braved 12 hours in the hold of the plane only to find that they aren’t allowed out here (ever) in case they are eaten by coyotes. My husband could probably argue that life at the epicenter of a super demanding tech company is more dangerous to his health, but I think the cats have a worse deal.  While he may complain, there’s no doubt that time spent at a prestigious tech organisation will be great for his career and our future. The cats meanwhile have to suffer the indignity of me trying to force them into ‘cat harnesses’ so I can take them outside for walks. (No walking occurs).

For my daughter, though, it’s been like finding her spiritual home. She has the exact kind of relentless enthusiasm that fits right in here. She is a hot ticket for play dates, is outperforming her peers at school and has embraced each new challenge with more grace and courage than the rest of us put together. Conversely, we thought we had broken our son who, for the first three months, raged his way through the days, cried himself to sleep at night and woke each morning choking out the words, “I want to go home”. Six months in and he now skips to Kindergarten, cracking jokes based on the transatlantic variation in meaning of the word ‘pants’.

They will both have lasting memories of their first American Halloween, watching whales swim in the Pacific Ocean, riding in yellow school buses, playing in a sun-bathed garden in November and staying in a bright pink hotel dripping with fairy lights on our Thanksgiving road trip. They’re going to have Christmas at Lake Tahoe, Spring Break at Yosemite and (my husband doesn’t know this yet) a couple of weeks in Hawaii in the summer. I hope they will always remember how resilient they are and that the world is a big and exciting place.

As for me? I love a challenge. Not having to shout ‘coats’ each time we leave the house makes a nice change. But despite all this, I’m determined we will be coming back to the UK after a dignified amount of time (442 days if all goes to plan).

Here’s why:

1. I do not have the hips for a fanny pack

Californian state schools are so underfunded that an army of parents march on school each day to dish out lunch, supervise playgrounds, climb ladders to put up signs for the next fundraising activity, and most worryingly, provide ‘classroom support’. It’s a good chance to check out the other kids (many of whom don’t know the answer to the question ‘what’s the magic word’?), but a hi-visi tabard and fanny pack wasn’t the ‘California look’ I thought I’d go for. And it’s depressing to have to extend the strap because one of the whip thin California Moms has been wearing the pack before you.

Someone recently commented that I am always ‘so well-dressed’. What they were actually observing is that I’m the only parent who doesn’t spend 90% of my time in activewear that isn’t actually used for exercise. I can’t wait to return to the comfort of hiding under my winter coat at a school that doesn’t want or need me around.

2. Ours are the ‘wimpy kids’

Most kids here could kick the ass of British kids the same age – in terms of physical prowess they are years ahead of my kids and the many whiny, puny children I recall from the playgrounds back home. Most 4-year-olds can ride a bike and they own the monkey bars. It’s unsurprising given how much of the year it’s feasible to be outside and active.

Our kids may have the advantage academically but if a rumble ensues, they are under strict instructions to say something scathing but witty and run as fast as their pasty, underdeveloped legs can carry them.  We need to go home though, before I have to watch them participate in some kind of Sports Day.

3. None of us can speak properly anymore

My family’s accents and vocabulary are all over the place. Firstly, my daughter has not so much picked up the accent as deliberately put it on. She switches into an exaggerated American accent whenever she leaves the house and often sounds as if she is talking backwards. My son, who couldn’t care less about assimilating, has no American twang whatsoever to the extent that the ‘Speech Pediatrician’ at school can’t tell if he needs some help or it’s ‘just his accent’.

I seem to be sounding more like the Queen every day for reasons I don’t care to scrutinise. There’s also been an element of learning the language. The kids instinctively say ‘yard’, ‘candy’ and ‘trash’. As self-conscious adult Brits though, my husband and I are equally embarrassed saying ‘trolley’, ‘queue’ and ‘full stop’ as we are with ‘cart’, ‘line’ and ‘period’. In fact I’ve never had the maturity and poise to cope with the last one. We must go home before I have to say it out loud.

4. Celebrating ‘The Holidays’ is not as fun as Christmas

You’re not really allowed to mention ‘Christmas’ here because of religious sensitivities. I’ve only just learned to say ‘vacation’ instead of ‘holiday’ so it’s easy to get tripped up. And it’s not just a difference in vocabulary. There’s no Christmas tree or Nativity allowed at school. Even though our family doesn’t take The Christmas Story literally, without its story of kindness ‘the holidays’ are basically just about consumption. Add in the relentless sunshine and it’s no surprise that the level of Christmas spirit in our house is currently somewhere between ‘bah-humbug’ and ‘how am I supposed to do Christmas without Marks and Spencers Food Hall’? We must go home before the kids are too old to pick their noses whilst dressed as sheep and I become the first British forty-something middle class mother never to have successfully sourced a Heston Blumenthal hidden orange Christmas pudding.

5. A Dad at school described his wife as ‘just an immigration lawyer’

This is Silicon Valley. Home of Google, Apple and Netflix. Host to start-ups that are guaranteed to make millions as well as make the world a better place. I’m not surprised by the fact that technology permeates every aspect of our lives. I order and pay for my Starbucks on my phone, my daughter’s maths lessons are conducted entirely on a tablet, using software that apparently provides tutorials and tasks tailored exactly to her learning style. It even sends a message to the teacher’s laptop alerting her that my daughter may need human assistance if she has got the same type of question wrong three times. We check-in online at my husband’s barbers and when my son reads aloud in class it’s often to his iPad which records his voice to be played back to the teacher at her convenience.

Of course, just because these things make me feel scared, doesn’t make them bad. I’m simply uncomfortable bringing up my children in a place where it’s not only one Dad but society as a whole that puts a lawyer behind someone trying to get a flying robot to deliver toothpaste. It’s the same doctrine that decides that these underfunded schools can provide S.T.E.M lessons (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for my kids but not music, history or languages. And the kids have picked up on this new hierarchy. Back when I was ‘Mummy’ not ‘Mommy’, my kids used to tell me they wanted to be a writer, a doctor or ‘nothing, ever’. Now they tell me they want to be computer programmers.

I have added it to my list of ‘reasons we must take our kids home’ that I upload from my smartphone to a cloud based media locker that is synced to my husband’s smart watch. So for now, I’m going to enjoy the sunshine, continue my search for Quality Street, and make the kids watch every episode of Junior Vets available on iPlayer. While counting down the days.

Annie Tickner is the mother of 2 children, aged 6 and 7. She used to live in Whitstable but now finds herself not being understood by waiters in Los Altos, California.