This week it was my daughter’s 6th birthday and of course I thought back of those intense, chaotic, special years. It also brought to mind those challenges that you face as an expat mum. Here’s 3 examples of the expat motherhood minefield.
1. The Motherhood Mafia
When I was a first time mum in Beijing, I really struggled with finding my way (who doesn’t?). Becoming a mum is a huge life transition, and one we seem oddly ill-prepared for in the West.
When I was young there were campaigns on TV, “ A smart girl prepares for her future.” But that was all about career, not about having babies. Apart from a little babysitting in my teens, I was never around baby’s and had no idea about things like breastfeeding, sleep rhythms or reflux. Or that you may be scared to take your baby out of the house in the beginning. Living abroad can intensify the confusion as a mother.
So, I innocently joined a few online forums like Beijing Mamas (Facebook is blocked in China) to ask questions and look for tips. If only I had known. These groups are full of well-meaning but strongly opinionated international mums from different cultures and backgrounds, and you will start doubting yourself even more within minutes.
It seemed I would have to breastfeed, babywear and co-sleep for at least 2 years or I was a terrible mum. Vaccinations were not a logical step to protect your baby but poison sent by the Anti-Christ. And it seemed most other kids were perfect sleepers and eaters, if only I just followed their mum’s advice.
Add this to the everyday challenges of living in Beijing: severe smog, food and water contamination and people constantly touching and commenting on your baby. By this time my Chinese was good enough to understand that my baby should wear socks (yes, even at 32 degrees Celsius), should not be outside, and was not fat enough. Let’s say it took some time for me to find my own way in the minefield.
Mine detonation tip : Trust yourself and find your “tribe.”
Trust Yourself: Humans have been delivering babies for eons. Your biological system will help you out to figure out your course of action. That doesn’t mean everything will be smooth and easy (latching on can seem like an art form and feeling overwhelmed and sleep deprived is your new normal for a while). Trust yourself and when in doubt educate yourself with credible sources (like a doctor or reliable websites), not just a random person on the internet.
Finding your “tribe”: surround yourself preferably offline with other mums you trust, who share your outlook on life. Try and connect already when you are pregnant. My weekly baby group and especially my Nightly WhatsApp buddies were life savers in confused times. Don’t believe other mums are perfect, everyone struggles!
2. Dealing with the Helper/Amah/Ayi
If you live in Asia, you’ll probably be considering to hire a helper. Of course this warrants a whole blog series on its own, but let me make it very clear that I am very grateful for the opportunity to have a helper while living far from family and with a husband who is at work all day. Now, let’s explore the minefield here.
If you’re like me, you were not brought up with a helper, and you were taught to treat all individuals equally. In the Netherlands, it is customary to have coffee and a chat with your weekly cleaner. But abroad they might come every day, or they even live in your house, and they look very strangely at you when you offer them coffee. Yikes.
There is this woman you do not know and who may not speak your language or share your cultural values who will be in your life, and take care of your kids. Maybe she gives candy all the time and let’s the baby watch TV to keep them entertained, and maybe she is afraid to say no to your toddler because she thinks you might fire her. And when you listen to the expat grapevine you’ll hear stories much, much worse. It isn’t easy to figure it all out as a first time mum and expat.
Many expats will tell you you “should” have a helper. I tried hiring a part time one when I just had my eldest in China, but it didn’t work at all. I wasn’t ready to let someone else handle my baby, and I also disliked having someone else in the house all the time. Over time, I slowly increased the hours and tasks that I employed someone, but there was a lot of trial and error.
Mine Detonation Tip: Figure out your needs and hire accordingly
Figuring out your needs for household and babysit help may take time, especially if you haven’t had to deal with that before.
Do not hire someone because other people tell you to, but then you spend your time resenting your helper, that’s not fair on her. What are the tasks that you’d like help with? What do you want to do yourself? What kind of support do you need not to feel overwhelmed (and with under 4’s, you will feel overwhelmed and sleep deprived regularly).
Always ask for references and check them too. Arrange a trial period, read up on cultural differences and establish communication. Helpers are not mind readers, they want to do what you want but need some guidelines on how you want things done. Trust your gut, observe her interacting with your baby, how do they respond to each other? And if it really doesn’t work out between you and the helper? Then find a new helper. Your kids will get used to the idea.
3. Navigating birthday parties
It was hard to choose the third one, as there is so much- dealing with loneliness and isolation as an expat mum, flying with a baby and a toddler for 24 hours on your own, identity loss when you give up your job, expat friendships. But given my daughter’s birthday, let’s take birthday parties. All those books on cultural differences talk about culture in the workplace and managing international teams. However, the authors should try figuring out a model to explain birthday party customs in different cultures…
Everyone wants to host a nice party and everyone wants their kids to be invited to parties. But how? Do you invite a few kids at most (my country) or the whole class (lots of other countries)? Oh and what about inviting parents? Should you provide a few snacks (my country) or a buffet (other cultures)? Are you a “good” mum when you bake your own cake or when you order an over the top themed cake? And what if you just buy a standard cake? Do the party at home, or rent a 5 star hotel meeting room? Have a waterslide plus a magician and bubble blowing (yeah things can get quite crazy)?
Treats at school seem to come in 2 flavours: as big and sugary as possible or sugarless. What to put in the party bags? What the p**p are party bags? Where to buy them? And how much money to spend on a gift- for kids who have a playroom full of toys already?
Mine Detonation Tip: Gather information and decide
Ask around how other people organise their parties. Consider the options then make your own choices. It is hard though, to figure out the right course for you (I still struggle!). But you do not need to keep up with the Joneses- you’ll move again at some point, or the Joneses will.