My children and I are living the dream in Costa Rica — So why do I feel guilty?
OPINION: Writer Autumn A. Arnett shares her experience as a Black woman who chose to move her family out of the United States and the "survivor's guilt" she sometimes feels for being happy.
The other week, I logged into Medium.com to write a blog post, and all of the suggested blogs were about how “you CAN have a four hour work day” or “you deserve everything you’ve ever dreamed of.” And it hit me: I am living the life of my dreams – of most people’s dreams.
I picked up my family, packed up my house in Texas and left for Costa Rica in August. It was kind of abrupt, but I was exhausted with Texas. The States, actually. Diversity and equity work is taxing, but at least I’d always done it with a home base that was actually diverse. Like I say all the time: It’s different doing the work when you live in a whole city where everyone is your proverbial cousin than it is doing it in a place where you’re having to convince even Black people of the need for the work.
And in the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black people, in a place that loves to throw around the BIPOC acronym but fails to acknowledge how vastly different Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are socially and politically — it became extra exhausting.
Dr. King warned of the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who says ‘I agree with your goal but not your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels like he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom …” — Austin is a city filled with said white moderates.
And they’re all out in front.
Then insurrectionists ran up on the U.S. Capitol, and some Republicans denied it even happened. Texas is a microcosm of the rest of the country, it seems. I learned that it wasn’t Texas that’s weird, it’s that D.C. and its surrounding suburbs are a very insular bubble – we’re the weirdos. Much of the rest of the country is more Austin than it is D.C.
Simply put, it was too much. And so my family left. For cleaner air, and less hustle and chaos, and better food, and the beach. Because my happy place is the beach. But also because I couldn’t see myself sending my children back to school amid the raging debates about masks and mask mandates while we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and I really didn’t want to write homeschool curriculum for another year, either. Here, everyone wears masks, and is generally considerate of the well-being of their neighbors.
So we’re here, indefinitely. My children are enrolled in school, and thriving. They have friends. They’re starting to pick up Spanish – and French, too. I run a consulting company, and have great internet connection that allows me to work from anywhere. My clients haven’t experienced any interruptions. I currently have a great group of clients who pay on time and don’t require a whole lot of me on a day to day basis.
I’m scheduling meetings between beach yoga and dance classes or hanging out at the sailing club, instead of the other way around. My children are as close to perfect children for me as humanly possible. They’re smart, respectful, witty, roll with all the punches and embrace all the adventures, and generally don’t give me much trouble. We’re having a blast. This is really the life of my dreams, and I love this for me.
But I feel this overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt. Like we made it, but everyone we love is still caught up in the rat race, in the politics and social messes of the States. Most days, I forget to sit and just enjoy the moment, the freedom we have. I some days find myself taking on more clients or doing work I don’t enjoy, because I feel like I have too much free time on my hands. And I know – I know! – I’m playing into the white supremacist, capitalistic trap that defines one’s worth against her productivity. I can name it and acknowledge it.
But it doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I have to do more to justify my worthiness to enjoy the life I want. It feels crazy even saying that to myself. But I know it’s a thing for so many Black women I call friends.
Nothing is ever enough. We are never enough. We can accomplish all the things we set out to accomplish, we can earn the salaries we want to earn, we can love on our partners and each other, raise our children, and do all of the things we are supposed to do, and it still never feels like we’re doing enough.
I recently rewrote my bio for a project I was taking on, and as I was writing it, I felt a sense of imposter syndrome talking about myself. Not in a room with other people, but looking at my own bio deciding what to leave in or take out, I felt a sense of, “who is this person on the paper? Me? I’ve done all these things? Whew, I’ve done a lot.” Because it’s easy to forget the accomplishments when you don’t allow yourself time to enjoy them, because you’re always chasing the next thing.
I know this isn’t a thing that’s unique to Black women, but I also know it’s a thing that’s especially true for Black women, who have been called on for generations to toil in service to others, the culture, the country, ourselves. Who often don’t enjoy the luxury of rest, even in times designated as rest times.
My children’s therapist — a dope U.S.-born Black woman who has also expatriated to Costa Rica — has given me an assignment: To rest. To not force any unnecessary work because I need to prove I deserve time to rest. To just do what I came here to do: serve the clients I already have, take on things that bring me joy, but soak up the luxury of the opportunity to just rest.
Costa Rica’s country motto is “Pura Vida,” which literally translates to “pure life,” but it translates more into an experience of fully enjoying life and not stressing the way we do in the States. I’m working on it. I’m going to be better at embracing the life we came here to enjoy. I just need to decolonize my own way of thinking, first.
Autumn A. Arnett is a national voice on issues of equity and access in education, and an unapologetic advocate for historically Black colleges and universities across the country.
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