This is not the typical expat mother story. The one where she abandons her career to follow her spouse half way across the world and feels empty. The one where she has a hard time adapting to the new culture and speaking the new language, and can’t wait to go back home.You see, when I moved to the UK I had been an expat for 12 years, and the UK was the fifth country I was going to live in. At that time I was a Russian doll expat of sorts, an expat within an expat within an expat, so the homesickness (where is home anyway?) was not an issue. Nor was language. I started learning English from the age of six, and I had used it daily in my professional life. I had even been a mum for 3 years, so I had already accumulated my fair share of mother guilt and was on the right track to finally come to terms with it.
To aggravate things, it was because of my job that we relocated our whole family of four. Dad, following me, was offered a good position, but it carried a hefty price tag, and it was all on me. Dad was away an average of 2 weeks a month, which, if you think of it, is a hell of a lot of time. And now picture it without any family around and having just landed in a new country where we didn’t know anyone. Hello, isolation!
Needless to say, it was terrifying. I flew some family over on the first few trips but considering that Dad travelled about 50 times during our time in the UK, it was just not sustainable. I tried hiring a nanny that helped me after work (yes, I worked four days a week). But in the end, it felt more like an extra chore, having to interact with her and give her instructions, rather than just doing it myself. I was exhausted the days that Dad was not around, and I started resenting him for having to carry the whole weight of our families on my own. That was not what I had signed up for.
At some point between trips 30 and 40, I discovered a bump while taking a shower. A bump that had never been there before! Alarmed, I checked it carefully and came to the conclusion that it could be nothing but my self-pity gland, which had become dangerously enlarged. This discovery triggered something in me as if I could suddenly see everything from afar, with perspective.
I took pen and paper and started to note every hard time I had gone through as a mum:
- birth and a rough breastfeeding relationship with my first born which led to some serious baby blues
- being at home alone with my baby without my close family nearby
- going back to work and feeling the guilt consume me
- having to watch my son being put to sleep tackled by four nurses on an operating table while he desperately tried not to breathe the anaesthesia
- having a newborn while that happened
- figuring out how to live with two kids
- moving my whole family to another country
- working with two kids
- carrying on with life without Dad there all the time.
And it hit me. I had been through all that. Through all the things mothers go through, but without the support network that local mums do have. Without anyone that we could leave our kids with for the evening if we wanted to go out. Without anyone to turn to if the kids were sick and we had to work. I had done all that, and we were all right. I had actually done it well.
My kids were happy, we used stickers on the kitchen counter to know when Dad was coming back, Dad Skyped every night to tell them the good night story and sent pictures of one of their toys who always travelled with him, Amélie style. They actually loved their time in daycare, even if I had not given up my job and my identity to be with them all day long. They were actually fine without me. I also realised that those nights when Dad was not around, those evenings were my me-times. I could do whatever I wanted, I could binge watch Game of Thrones, or take a MOOC, or just curl up and sleep. It was actually not that bad, and I was rocking it.
A curtain lifted in front of me. I decided I was a good mum. I decided I was allowed to enjoy my job and to leave my kids in daycare for the day. I decided I actually liked being greeted by my four-year-old and cuddling up in bed the mornings Dad wasn’t around. And when he was, we cherished it. We were happy.
As I promised, this was not the typical expat mum story. We have since left the UK and I try to rationalise what is that made me have such a profound (and fortunate, even marriage-saving) mindset shift. And I think I figured it out.
I believe I artificially created the one thing that expat mums miss the most, their support networks. But the shocking part is that it was not completely composed of people. I did, of course, make a few close friends who I knew I could call if we had an emergency while Dad was away (talk about peace of mind!). But it was more than that, I had developed systems. We expat mums cannot have the help that locals mum take for granted, so we need to build it ourselves.
So, next time you feel frustrated when you want to go on a date with your partner and you can’t because the nanny is not available, take a deep breath, put the kids to bed, share a cup of wine with your other half and take a hard look at what you have accomplished. Expat mums must be amongst the most resilient and resourceful group of people in the world. And we’re rocking it.