Prevailing wisdom says that an international assignment is a great time to start a family, particularly when the accompanying partner is not able to work or has decided to take a break from working.
For a couple who are about to embark on an overseas assignment, the decision may seem straightforward. After all if you are not going to work for three years why not use the time to start a family? Maybe you’ll be able to avoid another career break for maternity leave at some point in the future? Besides having a baby to look after will give you a focus in life. But, as with many things in expat life, it’s just not that simple. Here are some of the issues to consider before you make a decision.*
• The level of prenatal care and delivery options in the host country may not be to the standard wanted or needed. The availability and logistics of medical care need to be carefully considered in advance. Few people expect to have a high-risk pregnancy but it is worth researching the care options for that possibility in advance. Families often find themselves split for weeks or even months if pregnancy complications mean that Mum has to be cared for in another country.• Giving birth overseas means that the new parents may not have their normal support systems around them. Family members may not be able to travel to help out when the baby arrives. Other forms of support may or may not be as readily available as they would in your home country.
• Consider that not everyone gets pregnant straight away. The self-imposed time constraint on having a baby while on an international assignment can magnify the stresses and feelings of inadequacy that can be experienced by couples who are trying unsuccessfully to conceive. This may be particularly important if the accompanying partner postpones involvement in aspects of life in her new country because she is hoping to be pregnant.
• Few accompanying partners anticipate the extent to which their identities are challenged by moving overseas and taking a break from work. The mind numbing boredom and sheer physical exhaustion of being at home with a baby who seems to sleep for most hours of the day and cry for the others.
• New motherhood can be a time of isolation and loneliness. Lack of confidence or lack of energy can stop a new mother from getting out of the house for days on end. New surroundings can increase the reluctance to get outside and engage with people and places. This can even start prior to the birth of a new baby when a woman might find herself reluctant to commit to activities in her new location knowing that her life is going to change again in a few short months increasing her sense of isolation
• Moving to another country can place a great deal of pressure on a marriage or partnership. New parenthood can do the same. A relationship that is less than rock solid might not survive this double whammy of stressful life events.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are many positive factors that can tip the balance:
• If you are in a location where affordable household help is available, the lack of support from family or friends may not be such an obstacle. Trusted help in your home can also give you time out over a sustained period to focus on yourself and your relationship.
• Expat families tend to support each other at times when family support is typically needed. Many expats form very close relationships with people they meet during ante-natal classes or through playgroups and activities for small children
• Babies provide opportunities to make new friends. For those who are comfortable in their new environs, getting out to baby groups and baby activities can be a great way to meet other new parents. There is instant common ground and often a basis for a friendship
So, is an international assignment a great time to start a family? That’s for each individual to decide but don’t forget to question the prevailing wisdom and make a decision that considers the needs of your family and the circumstances in which you are living.
* Full disclosure – both of my children were born while we were on international assignments; the first in Hong Kong and the second in Switzerland. If I had to go back and make the decision now, I wouldn’t change anything, but I’d have been a lot better prepared for what lay ahead of me if I’d known what I know now.
Evelyn Simpson is a personal development coach who works with the accompanying partners of expats helping them to transition to expat life and to find happiness and fulfilment in their lives overseas. Evelyn has spent almost all of her adult life living as an expat on 3 continents and in 5 countries. She’s been a working expat, an accompanying partner and has founded her own portable business, The Smart Expat, while overseas. Evelyn and her Australian husband have two children who have yet to live in either of their passport countries.
You can learn more about Evelyn and her work at www.thesmartexpat.com where she blogs regularly about expat life.