Lives: San Francisco, USA
Moving to: Ecuador
Nominated by: Joanne Smyth
Jen Newcomer has figured out that life is either going to be type one or type two fun; Things will work out just fine, or you’ll have a great story to tell afterwards.
Right now, Jen is putting this theory to the test. She, her husband and two boys recently returned to San Francisco after a stint in Rwanda and Jen, a physiotherapist, is homeschooling their two boys in preparation for the next move to Ecuador.
After marrying and having kids young, Jen felt like an an old person in a young person’s body for much of her 20s. That said, when we speak I can’t see any hint of that old fuddy duddy, just a determined and energetic woman who knows how to motivate people and loves to travel the world.
It seems like you’ve got a pretty healthy attitude towards trying new stuff. Have you always had that kind of a mindset?
I think so. One of my friends mentioned to me one time, ‘Jen, you’re just someone who likes to do new things’ I’d never really considered that aspect of it but they went on to say, ‘If you say you’re going to do something you always do it.’
About a year being into living in Rwanda, we put our little one into a French-English immersion school. Nobody in our house spoke French so I thought, Ok, I guess I’m learning French. I completely devoted myself to learning French and by the time I left I was moderately conversational. I think once I’ve decided something then it’s going to get done. 110%.
Where does that mentality come from?
I don’t know! I didn’t even know I had it until recently. [Laughs]
What do you think are the best things to have come about as a result of that way of thinking?
Oh man, all those kind of major goals. I went back to school when I was 27 to do grad school. I had a not-quite-two-year-old and four-year-old boys that I was leaving at home and thankfully I had my mum. I worked towards that goal for four years and once I’m in there I just plough on until I achieve it.
Do you ever have moments where you think, I can’t do this?
Yeah, of course! It’s one of those things that when you’re in the middle of it you’re like, ‘What was I thinking? This was the stupidest idea I have ever had.’ And then you’re like, ‘But I’ve already started it, so power through. You’ll be at the end eventually.’
How else do you deal with those really tough emotions?
I usually throw myself into something, that’s a big part of it, and I’m big into stress relieving exercise. Anything I can do to get all of that angst out of me physically.
I can tell when I haven’t exercised for a few days. I start to get cranky and I need to leave. I need to go do something, it needs to be physical and I need to be away from everybody else. [Laughs]
You’re an ambassador, basically. People are going to judge our culture by how you’re acting right now.
You’re about to move to Ecuador after a stint in Rwanda. How did your family react when you first said you wanted to move away long-term?
When we first left [for Rwanda] it was horrible. The only people that supported us were my sister-in-law and she’s Brazillian. She’s lived in another country and sees the value. Honestly, the most ironic thing is that my mum cried for six months after we left and she was the most supportive of us leaving. The rest were like, ‘What are you thinking? You have no idea what you’re dong.’ I was like, ‘Can’t you just trust that I’m an adult and I can make an adult decision for our family?’ The entire time we were there nobody visited us. Eric’s Dad finally came three weeks before we moved and he said that it was amazing!
Following that experience, what do you value most now?
Adaptability. I remember a time when we were in another country and we heard this [American] person and they were getting so angry. Their order hadn’t come in right and they were yelling. I thought, Wow, take a step back, you’re not in your own country so mellow out. You’re an ambassador, basically. People are going to judge our culture by how you’re acting right now. So adaptability is amazing, especially if you’re travelling with somebody, right? The fact that they can remain calm and laugh at the ridiculousness at the situation you’ve gotten yourself into.
Has there ever been a time when you would have liked to find something light-hearted in a situation but haven’t been able to?
Of course, like every day with my children! My kids are very different from one another and the older one has finally figured out how to turn a serious situation into a joke. He has a lot of sarcasm. The little one, he’s a bit harder. You’re helping this little person to be acceptable to society and often you’re like, ‘What are you doing? Focus!’ [Laughs]
Do you imagine yourself later returning to your work as a physical therapist?
Oh yeah, when the kids are older for sure. If I can ever swing it I’ll do it part-time. Particularly because this is the first year [of homeschooling] we’ve just been learning how to set our schedule and our day.
What do you feel like is your biggest achievement as a physio?
Oh, hands down the priest I helped to walk again was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in physical therapy. He found me while I was working at the hospital in Kigali. He was living at a convent with the nuns because he needed 24-hour care. He came to see me and said, ‘I want to learn to walk.’ And I’m just like, ‘You can hardly roll over in bed, so let’s start there!’
He had Guillan Barre, a virus where your body just starts eating away at your nerves. There’s no way to slow it down or stop it. Some people will recover within say three months, and most people recover at least 80% of their functionality. But there are like 2 or 3% of people who can’t walk any more.
It was interesting because he’s a catholic priest, a man who has a lot of faith, but he was always telling me, ’Oh I can’t do that,’ And I was like, ‘Yes you are, and I’m not giving you a choice! You’re doing it.’
I saw him for two and a half years, and probably 6-8 months before I left he was walking with his walker, he could stand himself up and he could walk across the room by himself. It was just incredible.
You have to convince them that yes, you’re going to get better, we’re going to make this happen.
You must now have a pretty amazing insight into what motivates people. What have you learnt?
People mostly say I’m like a drill sergeant. I think they’re kind of scared to not do it! You have to know how to temper what you say, how to temper their expectations while also giving them hope about what they can achieve. You almost feel like a motivational speaker. You have to convince them that yes, you’re going to get better, we’re going to make this happen. Together we’re a team.
We basically got married when we were children and thankfully we grew up together and not apart.
I wanted to move away from work for a little to talk about your relationship with your husband, Eric. You guys got married when you were 20. How has your relationship changed since then?
Oh my gosh, so much! We now look at each other and say, ‘I don’t know how we did it.’ We basically got married when we were children and thankfully we grew up together and not apart.
I have so much faith that we’ve done this already, it will work out. We will be fine.
Rwanda in particular was a good growing curve for us. It was an eye opener to see what works, what you need as support and what you don’t. It’s so much easier in your own culture, and a lot of the everyday stressors aren’t present because you know how to function in your own culture. But you go to another culture and now you have all the stress that has nothing to do with your family building up in your body.
It’s just amplified, right?
What scares you the most?
I don’t think I’m a big picture worrier [laughs]. I’m more a deadline worrier is what I would say. I worry week to week. I have so much faith that we’ve done this already, it will work out. We will be fine.
I also think, well, it will either be type one fun, or type two fun. We’ll get there and we’ll have a really good story to tell afterwards or it will work out fine.
I love that, type one or type two fun. I’m putting that into my vocab.
That’s pretty much what life can be categorised into, right? It’s either going to actually be fun or you’ll be able to talk about it later and laugh and appreciate it for the experience it was. I only have so much control over a situation so I’m not going to stress out about what I don’t have control over.
Changing topics a little, what do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
I’m very direct. People take my directness for being mean and bitchy but I’m just a very upfront and honest person. I will try to temper my answer a little bit but a lot of times someone will say something to me and I will give them a black and white answer. If you get to know me more you don’t take it to be a harsh edge.
Do you think it’s because we expect a nice answer no matter what?
Well, that’s very American culture, right? If you ask me, ‘Does this look nice?’ I’m not going to say it’s crap but I don’t think people expect a lot of direct, blunt stuff. It’s not how we operate.
We were old fuddy duddies and I kind of wish that we had been a little more 20-ish when we were in our 20s.
What advice would you give yourself if you could retrospectively talk to your 20-year-old self?
I would say travel more. Eric and I were old people in young people’s bodies. I had my first kid when I was 23 and my second kid when I was 25 and for our generation of people that’s not common. We owned a house already and we both had careers. We were old fuddy duddies and I kind of wish that we had been a little more 20-ish when we were in our 20s. I loved having had my kids very early because I have lot of energy for them now but I do just wish that we had done some things before them.
It looks like you guys have well and truly made up for it now, right?
Yeah, I think that’s the best thing that’s come out of all of this for us, giving our children such a different perspective on life. If you have the opportunity to step outside of the box that everybody lives in you’ll see that it can be very rewarding. I’m so glad we made the decision to leave the country and with our kids, to be outside of their culture and to struggle in a different way. That’s a different kind of maturity. I wouldn’t change any of that. Not for anything.
Thank you, Jen!