Yesterday, I woke up at the crack of dawn, made lunch, schlepped across Zurich for my 10 year old son’s German class, schlepped all the way back home, dropped my son off, picked up my daughter and travelled all the way across again in order to attend Durga Pujo – the Bengali/East Indian iteration of the Navratri festival which is celebrated across the Indian subcontinent. Once I arrived – looking bedraggled – I draped my sari – badly – in the bathrooms before asking my friend to fix it for me. She had to start from scratch. Meanwhile, another friend dressed my daughter for her dance performance. I forgot to mention that earlier on in the day, my son practised his poem which he was to recite, on stage in the evening, on the train, in the station, on the road.
Expat living – with family – is not always so extreme. You are not necessarily always spinning so many plates, trying to keep so many cultures on the boil at once but at the same time…You kind of are. Or at least, I kind of am. I am nearly always on the brink of glorious disaster.
Take today for example. I woke up at the crack of dawn, made lunch, packed bags, packed my dhin-chak-bling-bling BUT I forgot my daughter’s hat (the evenings are already getting old) and I forgot the colours that my children would need for today’s sit-and-draw competition. The humble ‘sit-and-draw’ competition (which does exactly what it says on the tin) is a cultural institution as far as Bengali pujos are concerned and my oh-so-cool-tween-son actually cried ‘Oh but if we forgot our colours that means that we can’t take part!” This is the same child who insisted that he didn’t want to recite the poem but then changed his mind at the last minute because he didn’t want to miss out . This is the same child who bounces out of bed on six hours of sleep because he wants to run around the Pujo venue like a headless chicken with his friends, for five days straight.
Even though I am dropping plates left, right and center, it is all worth it. The kids are having fun. My husband and I are having fun (most of the time) and that’s really all that matters.
Moments like these make me want to take stock of the last eight years. Spectacularly beautiful and fabulously meticulous, Switzerland runs to its own rhythm in the heart of Europe. I left behind my life in India and in England in 2013 and followed my husband to this little Alpine gem.
In the beginning, it was a fantastic adventure but slowly, it metamorphosed into life -mundane, ordinary and utterly bewildering life. On one hand, I was footloose and fancy-free with a toddler; On the other hand, I felt unmoored and um, unemployed. In my late 20s, when all my contemporaries were making their career, I suddenly said goodbye to mine. Along with that, I had said goodbye to my network and safety net. In Switzerland, I would have to start again from scratch. Expat parenting was at the core of my identity and I would express myself through my Instagram handle, @themigratorymum.
After a lifetime of living abroad and seeing life abroad from both sides of the fence (I am a Third Culture Kid myself) – as a child, and as a parent – here are my top 10 tips for expat parents.
1. Find yourself a Facebook parent’s group
A lot is written about Facebook and its vile and vicious ways but believe me, when you are an expat parent, Facebook is your friend. Find yourself a Facebook parent’s group for the country or city you are moving to and engage with them.
If you find yourself face down with a problem, ask on the group or search through it. It is more likely that your problem has been solved by someone already and they are only too willing to share.
2. Make An Effort To Learn The Local Language
Even after eight years of living in Switzerland, I can only manage very halting German but whenever I trying talking in German, I get a much warmer response than if I launch into whatever my question is, in English.
If you have a school-age child, you will begin to learn the local rhythms through them. They are going to have a lot of fun teaching you and you do need to be a good pupil. If your child is younger, try to join parent-and-baby activity groups. These will give you the interaction that you need with fellow adults (because being stuck at home with a small child with no other adult company can be taxing). You will find more people in the same boat as you.
4. Make Use Of MOOCs
MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses which are available for anyone to enrol. Both affordable and flexible, MOOCs allow you to keep learning and keep you buys.
5. Domestic skills are life skills, not gendered skills
The household work has to be divided up between your partner and yourself. There has to be a proper conversation about it and it is important that both you and your partner agree to the terms and conditions of your roles.
I find it is helpful to have a rota. Yes, I did the cooking yesterday but my husband did virtually everything else.
Indeed, on that note, my main advice to anyone thinking of moving abroad would be to talk. Talk, talk and talk till the cows come home. Talk to your loved ones, talk to your partner. It’s a big change. When you are a parent, moving countries is not a piece of cake and its never going to be a decision that you would make lightly. But being a parent should never stop you from chasing your dreams, children can become part of the professional dream just as much as they are a part of the DNA of your personal one. Moving abroad with children seems overwhelming at first. Without your ready-made ‘village’ either urban or arcadian – things can definitely be challenging but there are ways in which those challenges can not only be anticipated but they can also be managed. Slowly but surely, before you know it, you are having a grand old time.
6. Go outside every day
It is that simple and also, that difficult. Go outside, walk around, drink a coffee, read a book, meet and make new friends, join a conversation class.
Do something that tickles your fancy but whatever it is that you choose to do, get yourself outside the house. It will do wonders for your mental health.
It will banish the demons of isolation that will at first threaten to swallow you up. Going outside is an example of a daily ritual you can follow to help you feel grounded in a foreign country. I’ve been living in Switzerland for eight years now and I still do it. If the weather is rubbish, then I head to the shopping centre. Something as basic as the exchange of a smile and a nod with the barista can make all the difference. Walk the streets, use public transport, own the city and make it your home. You have brought something of yourself to this new country, this new city. You are lucky to have it in your life, it is lucky to have you.
7. Dressing Up/Down in Switzerland
When dressing your children (and yourself), it is important to remember the old Scandanavian proverb that there is no such thing as bad weather, there are simply bad clothes.
In the winter, it is best and safest to dress yourself and your children in layers. There’s a lot of fluctuation between outdoor and indoor temperatures so it is wise to prepare in advance for that. Contrary to popular belief, European and American summers can be blisteringly hot. During the summer months, light and airy, (full-sleeve and full-length, if like me, you burn easily) cotton clothes are a blessing.
8. What happens if you, the trailing spouse and parent, find a job or if you launch a business?
Well, congratulations! Being a full-time parent is incredibly hard work and so is being a working parent. In order to make the most of this opportunity, you need to find appropriate care for your child.
Each country has its own childcare culture (this is where the Facebook groups really come into their own) and my only word of advice (as someone who has worked in childcare) would be to be nice, friendly, and respectful to the people who look after your children in your absence.
Additionally, familiarise yourself with the laws of your host country and mug up on what you are entitled to if your child gets sick and whether you and/or your partner needs to stay home to look after them. Even if you have lived as a nuclear family before, the experience of looking after a sick child in a foreign country is a little more daunting simply because it’s unfamiliar.
If you are a trailing spouse, try to seek opportunities for a portable business, a source of income that you can take with you. I’ve met numerous women (and I am afraid, all the trailing spouses I have met so far, including myself, have been women) who are finding ways to keep earning and working towards financial independence through online consulting, managing property portfolios, freelance work and so on and so forth. Uprwork, Freelancer, Fiverr – these are some venues that you might like to check out. This will have an impact on how you view and value family time which can only ever impact your children positively.
9. Involve the extended family:
The family Whatsapp group is going to take on a different appeal. During the baby years and beyond, both your child and you will continue to have many firsts. Take pictures and make the videos and send them to your nearest and dearest. Schedule Zoom calls each week, make time for each other across the continents.
To be honest, I’ve even used a Whatsapp video call so that my mum babysits my two-year-old while I can send off a job application.
We are surrounded by technology so its important that we make it work for us. We even did a ‘haathe -khori’ (a secular Bengali custom where a child is introduced to the world of learning and letters) over Skype. Necessity truly is the mother of invention!
10. Make time for each other and a hobby:
In the initial honeymoon days of moving abroad as a family, you will find yourself living for the weekend. You will count down to the weekend and if you live somewhere as beautiful as Switzerland, you will want to keep exploring. However, those heady days later settle into halcyon days when real life takes over. When it does, welcome it.
Find a space in your life for yourselves, both together and apart. With the children in school/daycare/nursery, allow yourselves to date again even if it is ‘only’ a day-date.
Talk to your partner and see how you can support each other to pursue your own passions. For example, my husband has discovered running and cycling. I, on the other hand, have finally begun to take my writing seriously. If it hadn’t been for Switzerland, I would probably still have been waiting.
The great thing about moving abroad is that along with meeting everyone else, you also get to meet yourself. You get to learn who you are without the props that have been holding your life in place all along. I was happy to live in England and then I was happy to fall in love and move to Kolkata. Kolkata introduced me to a new me. Switzerland did the same. It taught me resilience, it taught me to sustain friendships across borders, across cultures and across communities.
If I were to move again tomorrow, I would do so in a heartbeat.
An earlier version of this article was published, in 2019, in Kidstoppress
Have you downloaded our free ebook – 21 Hidden Gems of Switzerland? If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to download it while planning your Swiss Getaway.
To read posts from September, click here