Moving to another country was so exciting and time consuming that I never thought far ahead enough to wonder whether it was the place I also wanted to raise my children. To be honest some of the things I couldn’t have foreseen anyway! Maybe you’re thinking about a similar move or have one behind you. Here are some of the bigger things I have reflected on lately about being a mum abroad
Language – The biggest barrier or the biggest asset has to be speaking the local language. I live in Germany, in a place where there isn’t a huge expat community, so the choices are to integrate or be alone. Before I had my children I did have a lot of friends from the English language school I was teaching at and therefore didn’t need to speak as much German. Having the children though meant spending the day with people who also had children and didn’t work. Ninety nine percent of these people spoke German. People do like to „practice“ their English with me sometimes, but when they really get down to the nitty gritty of life with children then they always revert back to the language they feel most comfortable with, German. I learnt German when I was eighteen and first came to Germany as an Au-Pair. Speaking German fluently has helped me feel much more at home and less panicked when the children are ill or while I was giving birth. I threw myself into the language and still challenge myself to read more sophisticated literature to increase my vocabulary. Why?
My biggest fear is somehow letting my children down because I am not like the other mums. There are so many unwritten rules in societies and even after being here for ten years there can still be some unexpected moments when I feel like the outsider. When my children have other children over to play I sometimes worry that I will say the wrong thing and the children will wonder why my kids‘ mum doesn’t speak properly! While they are little it isn’t so much of a problem, but when they’re older? Will I embarrass them to death because I used the wrong word order? Probably not, but the fear still lingers. I also worry about getting things wrong at school simply because this is not the system I know! I had a really infuriating moment a few weeks ago when I arrived for the teacher open evening (as I understood it) only to be told by the other smug parents that I should have made an appointment months ago. Thankfully the teacher squeezed me in and was able to understand my confusion, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. What can you do?
Find allies and ask them as many questions as you can! Once the teacher met with me on this „open evening“ she was happy to answer my questions, and I had many! I had to admit to her that I was a bit clueless about the German system, despite being a teacher myself. She didn’t tut or laugh and she was really happy and enthusiastic to tell me all about the different subjects my child was taking and the paths she could take in the future. This put my mind at ease a lot and I’ll be going to her more often in the future with my questions. Most people seem to like being the expert (see Daddy Pig for evidence of this). I have other allies too who help me out with daily life questions, because sometimes speaking the language isn’t enough. For example:
The hard times. What does one wear to a funeral? Write in a sympathy card? Deal with problems after labour? Thankfully I have my mother-in-law nearby who is a native. Wait, but that means my husband is from here too? Correct. However, I think you might agree that men take things a little less seriously than women in some aspects of life. I found this to be the case anyway: What to wear to a funeral? Dunno, black. Hats? Errr, no idea. Write in the card? Sorry for your loss – correct, but failed to mention that in Germany people also put money into a card when someone dies to help pay for the funeral. Sometimes it is the small things, but having an ally to ask is important. Yes, people know you are foreign and make allowances, but they also really appreciate it if you take the time to find out the (local/national) traditions. What this really boils down to is being able to get over your pride and admit (again) that you are a bit clueless. I found that this was less difficult than the awkward moment when you realize you have got it slightly wrong. Even if the people don’t let you know, you know it yourself and it can knock your confidence a bit. Once again you feel your label:
The Foreign Mum in the Community – It does make you a bit of a special attraction if you are living in a rural or provincial area. I’ve listed some difficulties, but there are also the advantages. I’m not all about throwing yourself in and completely assimilating. I am still British. I will not elbow people out of the way to get onto a bus just because that is how this is done here (zimmer frames are used to the owner’s advantage!). I do what I need for my family to thrive and for me to be a good friend, but I also celebrate the things about me that are unique: The language, food, culture, humor and so much more that is great about being British and can be celebrated even more abroad. Maybe not the weather… Which is my last point:
Laugh at yourself! Because if you can’t others will. The Germans never tire at mocking me for the British weather, food, sunburn etc. It isn’t a long list, but pretty repetitive. The amount of stories I have heard about Germans going to the U.K as teenagers on an exchange and then the rant they go on about the food, weather, small houses, lack of sun, too many people in London etc. At first I was a mighty defender of this slight on Blighty! But with time you realize that it is water off a duck’s back. The best way to respond is smile and nod and smile and nod and smile and nod and soon they (might) realize they’re being an idiot and then move on to tell you how they actually had their first kiss on a playground in the rain after a few alcho-pops and then sigh with contentment at that uniquely British memory. Even if they refuse to believe that there was anything fabulous about their one trip to the UK you still don’t have to waste your breath defending a country which has „great“ in one of its many titles. How does the song go? „Kill ‚em with kindness“? This might be a motto for us ex-pat mums to spread part of the greatness of bring British with the world. Keep Calm and Ex-Pat Mum on.