If you’re reading this article, you are most likely an expat parent. Perhaps you feel, like me, that because of all the wonderful things about bringing up kids wherever in the world you are, you aren’t allowed to have a little moan from time to time. The thing is, whilst there are a multitude of positive aspects to living abroad, it does come with its challenges and sometimes it can help to share these more difficult parts of the expat experience. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved and all that….
Lack of family support
Let’s get the biggie out of the way first. If you’re lucky, the grandparents are a short haul flight away, but for a lot of people it’s even further. That means that when you get stuck in traffic on the way to pick up, there’s no grandma to swoop in and save the day, and when you realise that you are 6 months overdue a date night & you are starting to forget what your other half looks like, there is no aunty or uncle to watch the kids so you can go out for dinner…..
It might sound trivial, but as the saying goes, ‘it takes a village’ and when there is no village, it can sometimes seem lonely and tiring. I have so often found myself gazing wistfully skywards and imagining an alternative life when I didn’t choose to explore the world, and rather stayed in my home town and bought a house next to my mum and dad….
Then again…. That does sound just a tad boring….and there are up sides to not having extended family close by. You can do things your way, with no interfering from well-meaning relatives. And when you do get together, all the fun comes at once (and if you’re lucky, the grandparents are so happy to see the kids that you can get some hard-earned time off.)
The other positive of being an expat parent is that the friends you make wherever you live often become your second family. There is a solidarity and a support from friends you make as an expat which can be very unique and special.
Talking of friendships…..
Long distance friendships
Skype friendships. Facetime friendships. Whatsapp friendships. They’re all well and good, but we all know that nothing beats a real hug. If, like me, you’ve done a fair bit of travelling and living abroad, you probably have a trail of school friends, home town friends and university friends scattered all over the world. And thank goodness for technology for allowing us to keep in touch. However it can be sad when it involves a military operation to organise seeing these good old friends in the flesh. (Again I find myself looking wistful as I imagine that parallel world whereby we all live in the same village – you know, the one that’s next to our families – meet up for weekly coffees and Tuesday pub nights… )
The language barrier
After 6 years of expat parenting, I have acquired a very niche vocabulary set: I know the French for nappy rash, gym shoes, snack time, and all the education lingo (prior to becoming a parent I had no idea what ‘maternelle’ ‘cycle’ ‘lycée’ etc referred to.) ………….
On the negative side, the frantic googling of ‘what is French for high temperature’ at 3am was not a highlight of my parenting journey. Neither was the time I told the doctor that my daughter was covered in chickens (note to self: chicken pox is not boutons de poulet in French). Yes, it can be a great advantage learn a second language, but it can also be extremely stressful and disorientating when you find yourself having to navigate the already overwhelming world of parenthood in said second language. There are times when you just want to speak your mother tongue– you’re tired, you’re sick of google translate and you just want the paediatrician to give you some Calpol and not some strange French equivalent.
The cultural disconnect
There are so many things I love about the Swiss and French culture – what’s not to love about the fact that it is acceptable to drink wine at 10am? However, I am and always will be British. My ‘Britishness’ is ingrained in me and no matter how much I love my Swiss / French life, embrace the local traditions and befriend the local people, this will always feel like a second home, and a second culture.
A friend of mine describes this as the ‘invisible barrier’ which I reckon is spot on. That’s exactly what it can feel like and it can be alienating and lonely. Sometimes, it’s only when you visit your home country and feel inexplicably ‘right’, that you realise you have been battling this. Then again, you may also find yourself experiencing ‘reverse culture shock’ which can feel equally disorientating (and I could write a whole other article on that …. In fact maybe I will…)
Extra English lessons? Extra French lessons? A school system that follows the English system? One that follows the American system? Dutch school on a Wednesday? Spanish club? Anglophone drama classes? Francophone singing classes? Judo? Immerse in local community? Retreat into your expat community?
Of course, whether you are parenting abroad or your home country, the choices can be overwhelming. However, I have observed that when ‘expat parenting’ this can be even more intense. You will likely have a number of overlapping social groups –local parents, the neighbours, your expat friends, – and everyone will be making different choices (and often wanting to tell you about / justify these choices.) It can be hard not to feel overwhelmed by what you feel you ‘should’ be doing for your children when there are just so many options.
After 10 years of living in Switzerland and 6 years of parenting here, I have gone through this a number of times and now feel I am out the other side and in a position to offer some words of wisdom: Everyone is doing their best, everyone is doing what they feel is right for them. Indeed, what is right for one family, won’t necessarily be right for another. I have now reached a point whereby my friends literally ALL make different choices to me and to each other. And do you know what – it’s fine. In fact, it’s more than fine. Our children learn from each other, become inspired by each other (my daughter would definitely never have wanted to join the local gym class if she hadn’t heard from a friend how much fun it is.)
My family, my friends’ families, your families -we represent what it is to be an expat parents. It’s rich, it’s interesting, it’s fun, and yes it can be hard and overwhelming, but we’re all in it together….
Liz is originally from the U.K and has been living in Switzerland for 10 years. She combines her role as a Client Manager for TutorsPlus with her teaching and writing work, and not forgetting the biggest job of all: parenting her 2 young energetic children.