It happened at my first ever expat coffee morning. You know the one where you arrive flustered because you haven’t quite figured out where anything is in your new town, you don’t speak the language and you don’t know another living soul apart from our significant other.
I’m much better at these things now but back then I was utterly out of my depth. A fairly sudden decision to accept an offer from my husband’s employer had thrown us into a whole new life with little to no preparation. I hardly knew what an expat was and I had absolutely no plan for how I would cope with the complete change in lifestyle. To say we were winging it would be generous.
I finally got up the nerve to say hello to some of the other ladies at the coffee meet up. It was one of those stand around and mingle things. I exchanged pleasantries with a couple of people and then got into a conversation with a woman of around my age. It seemed to be going well and I began to feel a little more optimistic about my new life. Until she asked me if we had kids. When I replied that we didn’t, she smiled politely and turned on her heel and walked away. Conversation over.
Now I’m older and wiser these day and I know that her behavior was completely about her. But at the time it was devastating. We don’t have kids and they whys and wherefores of that aren’t really something that I’m ready to discuss here. It is something that we thought we had made our peace with. Until we became expats….
Back in our ‘old’ life it never really came up – many of our friends were made through our professional networks, we are honorary aunt and uncle to several and it just never seemed like that big of a deal.
But struggling to build a new life for ourselves in the expat world brought our grief back like a wrecking ball. It isn’t just that parenting is a major issue for the expat community – all of the regular challenges, joys and stresses but you add in moving, school transitions, language, multicultural families and I honestly don’t know how any of the expat parents and kids we know manage it all and emerge with any sanity – for us, it was a change in lifestyle, a step away from the career focus that we’d both had over for the last few years and yes, the division between those with kids and those without.
At another expat coffee meet up, I met a wonderful woman who has become an amazing friend. She is one of the experienced expats whose generous sharing of her wisdom and experience helped me so much in my early months in Norway. A mother of three who has lived in more countries than I have fingers, her response to my childless was tender but firm.
She kindly explained that yes, it would be harder for me than it had been for her – no instant school community, no playdates to meet other moms, no meeting people at the gates at pick up time or through the swim team or helping out a after school activities – all things that had helped her meet people. And we both acknowledged that I was little older than the young couples just starting out on their expat life, with the potential of parenthood in their future – I was a bit less clubbing and a bit more book club. She also reassured me that I’d be fine.
And I was and I am. It took a while but I learned a few things along the way and I offer them here in case there’s someone else out there who is feeling a little bit like I did during those first few months in Stavanger.
It is hard. It will vary with locations but yes, it is hard. Even with good friends, I find myself unable to contribute to conversations about schools, education, transitions. I’ve learned though that even when I think I have nothing useful to contribute, its fine to ask questions about things I don’t understand and sometimes a good friend just needs a set of ears. I needed to make the choice to include myself in the conversations and not automatically count myself out.
I have paid more attention to the idea of empathy and learning to be more empathetic. I may not have shared your experience as a parent but I can try to empathize with you and in doing so, create connections beyond our very different life experience.
I’ve also learned that I’m every mom’s potential best friend and that helped me a lot in terms of my own value and purpose in our expat community. As a good friend told me this year, she’s thrilled that I am the emergency contact for her sons. As she says, if (heaven forbid) something was to go wrong or happen, I have no-one else to worry about at the school except them. I can be there 100 per cent just for them. Even among all the parents and family focused activity, I have a place too.
Expat life has also taught me to be ‘age blind’ when it comes to relationships. Some of my greatest friends in my early days were much younger than me – we were decades apart but our lifestyles were similar. No kids, one income and an interest in reading and hiking. I have wonderful memories of hikes and book clubs with people who I am just old enough to have given birth to! Equally, my tribe also includes a very high proportion of empty nesters. Making the move to expat life at a later stage in life, I can understand so much of what they go through.
At the Families in Global Transition Conference 2017, Terry Anne Wilson talked about finding purpose and joy in her expat life as an empty nester. Her words resonated with me despite our very different experiences. There is an expectation that as an ‘accompanying partner’ your purpose is to parent, perhaps even more so than in my home culture. I remember being asked what on earth I did with my day if I didn’t have kids?
I’ve never been great at dealing with other people’s expectations and pressures. I’m torn between wanting to offer them a single, inappropriate digit and wanting to please everyone and keep the peace. I’m still not sure that I have completely figured out my purpose but in the meantime, I am trying to life purposefully, in ways that bring me joy. Sometimes that’s hard too.
Expat life is like any other walk of life. There are expectations, social pressures, even norms of behavior. Whatever your experience of expat life happens to be, sometimes it’s hard to be even a little outside the norm. I wonder if my experience is unique but I suspect that it’s not. So please be kind to the individual who might be a little different from you. You could be missing the best babysitter you’ll ever meet.
And to the fabulous expat friends, and their equally amazing children, who we have been fortunate enough to spend time with, thank you for never making our childless an issue in any way.