This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Expat Parenting. It’s an incredible gift for my husband and I to be raising our children between worlds. As a child and adolescent, I used to lie on the trampoline in my backyard in small-town Texas and dream of traveling to far off lands. On a clear day, my kids get a view of Mt. Fuji on their way to school. They’ve played with lemurs in their natural habitat, Caribbean beaches have been their default playscape. Their lives are so different from they way mine was. So much about raising kids is the same no matter where you go. At the same time, expat parents do a lot without the standard road map (or support) that less mobile families may have.
In this month’s interview, I talk with Rob Newman about what parenting as an expat means to him. I decided to ask Rob to join me this month because as an expat partner and parent of 6 (!) I’ve come to know him as someone who turns toward creativity and exploration in his parenting. Even through challenge, he adopts an air of openness and clarity of purpose with his kids. He has certainly been a role-model for me since my earliest days as overseas.
Read Rob’s responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch his Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with his top 3 reminders for expat parents.
Everyday Expats Questionnaire
Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. My Mom is from Bolivia so I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish and eating Bolivian food. My mom’s entire family immigrated to the United States, but she still managed to assimilate fairly quickly into American culture. The Bolivian cuisine we were exposed to was mostly prepared by my Aunt and Grandmother. My mom spoke Spanish with me before I started school, but switched to English when my Kindergarten teacher expressed concern about my language development. I mostly forgot Spanish and, as a result, understood very little during the dinner conversations at my grandmother’s house on Sunday nights.
My dad is from New York and never learned Spanish, so, despite my mom’s influence, I never really saw ours as an immigrant family. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year in college when I spent two years as a missionary in southern California working with Spanish speakers that I really started to identify with the Latino side of my cultural heritage.
Interestingly, since my wife joined the Foreign Service, we’ve had the chance to be posted in Latin America and Scandinavia, which is where my dad’s ancestors came from. Somehow these people who came from different parts of the world in many ways shape who I am today.
When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?
I went to college in Baltimore. And then I met my wife, who is from Colorado. A year after we got married, we decided to move to Denver, both to be near her family and to be near the mountains. I was really excited and I wanted to move to the West, but I found the transition surprisingly difficult. This was my first real move away from the only home I had ever known. And it was incredibly stressful.
After living in Colorado for a few years, my wife started thinking about joining the Foreign Service. A few of her friends were diplomats and hearing their stories made her feel more and more like she wanted to work for the State Department. I liked the idea, but it seemed like a fantasy. I never really thought we would end up traveling the world. By that time, I had come to love Colorado and felt like there was still so much to explore there. Over the course of the application process, we often talked about and imagined moving abroad with our family, but in my mind it was still a dream. When the offer actually came, I was caught off guard and, frankly, shocked. In just two months, we sold our house and moved to Washington, D.C., knowing full well that we would be moving overseas within the year.
What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?
As much as I dread moving, I also love it. Change is exciting to me, although I know the temporary loss of routine is a also a source of great stress. My favorite part of living abroad has been discovering the history of the places in which we live. I love reading and going to museums. I find it fascinating to try to understand the present by learning about the past. I love to discover peoples’ routines, food, and pastimes. I feel like, no matter how far we travel or how different a place seems, there is a fundamental humanness that I recognize and to which I can connect.
What’s your least favorite part?
The worst part of this lifestyle is the disruption it causes to our family. We usually find out where will be moving next about a year before we depart, and, as hard as I try not to, I find myself pretty immediately starting to let go of our old home and getting ready for our new one. With a large family, the logistics are overwhelming. I start going to bed really late and waking up really early, making mental lists and scrambling to prioritize, organize, sort, or dispose of all our stuff. The length of my mental “To Do” list makes it harder to focus on parenting and I often feel frustrated that things don’t get done as quickly as I had hoped. I struggle with anxiety. As I find myself so preoccupied with the practical aspects of moving, I am less patient and engaged with my kids, even though the stress they are experiencing means they need even more attention from me than normal. This cycle often leaves me feeling discouraged and inadequate. I’ve realized that most of my sense of identity and self-worth comes from my ability to be a good parent. I am also learning to be a little more forgiving of myself and to trust that the love I feel for my children will compensate for the mistakes I make along the way.
What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?
I’ve learned that stuff is just stuff, and, honestly, is more of a burden than it’s worth.
What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?
I’m one of four children. The family I grew up in was very close, and I always knew I wanted to be a father. I also knew I wanted to have a large family of my own. I got married when I was 24, and we had our first baby a year and a half after our wedding. Since then, my priority has been my children. We now have six kids ages 14, 11, 10, 7, 5, and 1. I’ve stayed home full-time with them since my wife joined the State Department ten years ago. When we only had small children, I gave up a lot of my personal desires and interests. But, as they have gotten older, I’ve been able to figure out how to incorporate my passions and interests into my relationship with my children.
With their wide age ranges, it is very difficult to engage all six kids in an activity at the same time, but it’s not impossible. It is important to be flexible and patient, and to have realistic expectations. When I first started hiking with my oldest child, I had to figure out how long he would sleep in the baby carrier and anticipate everything he might need along the way. It took me a while to figure out how to quickly thaw frozen breast milk in the middle of a hiking trail. Once he started walking, the challenge became moving forward. At that age, everything is interesting, and he couldn’t take more than a step or two without stopping to look at a rock or pick up a leaf. When our second child was born, it was back to the baby carrier while simultaneously trying to motivate a toddler whose curiosity distracted him at every step. With the next baby, the older ones were getting better about expressing their feelings and opinions.
With each child, I had to adjust my routine – and my expectations – and look for ways that we could do something together that everyone would enjoy. Fourteen years after the birth of our first child, it felt like an amazing opportunity and accomplishment this summer to hike with him to the top of Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, above the Arctic Circle. If I hadn’t had the patience when he was young to make hiking fun for him, he might not have had any interest in climbing that mountain with me. If I had hiked by myself all those years, I might be a stronger hiker, but I would be hiking alone.
Two years ago, when we were living in Swaziland, I decided to take the kids hiking up a small mountain that had amazing views. I’d been considering doing it for a long time, but I didn’t think all of the kids would be able to reach the top. One day, on a whim, I suggested we try to hike that mountain. I made it very clear that I had no intention of reaching the top and that I mostly just wanted to enjoy the hike and the views. Surprisingly, the kids all agreed.
Since we had no expectation of reaching the top, we took our time and just enjoyed being there together. At about the halfway point, I realized that we had a good shot at actually reaching the top. When I mentioned the possibility to the kids, everyone got excited and wanted to go for it, except for one. I bribed him with ice cream and found him suddenly hiking at an unprecedented speed. He lead the pack until we reached the top. When I tried to imagine hiking to the top of the mountain with five kids (ages 2, 4, 6, 8, 11), it seemed impossible and I put it off. But when I decided on a smaller, more manageable hike, I was surprised and amazed by my children’s endurance and determination. Instead of worrying so much about reaching the top, we took our time and really enjoyed just being outside together, which ultimately made reaching the summit so much easier.
I love biking, camping, swimming, and rock climbing with my kids. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but I feel like the time we spend together and the experiences we have are an investment in my children. Parenting has taught me more than anything else how to love someone selflessly and unconditionally, which I think is ultimately our greatest source of joy.
I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?
Moving and living abroad will be stressful on a family. I found these things helpful:
Children need more attention during and right after a move. While it is impossible to give them one’s undivided attention, it is important to prioritize them, even if it means taking longer to get unpacked and settled. I think it’s important to prioritize children’s needs, even though it will take longer to take care of all the practical things. Of course, you have to strike a balance; it’s hard to be at peace if you are living in a mess. But I find it impossible to feel settled in a new environment if my kids aren’t settled first.
Saying goodbye to all of my friends does not make me feel super motivated to go and make new ones. In the beginning, my family members are the only friends I’ve got. I think it’s important to guard against loneliness by doing things together. I find that limiting screen time is helpful. Although TVs and movies are cheap and effective babysitters, too much screen time makes my kids grumpy and more prone to fighting. It is not a substitute for human and family interaction. Feeling a sense of connection and security with people you know is really important during transition.
Don’t be shy or too proud to accept help. Expats bond quickly out of necessity, and the common experience of moving abroad makes them more empathetic and compassionate. The people who offer help are usually very sincere about it because they’ve been in a similar position (and because, more often than not, someone helped them when they most needed it). This system of paying it forward works pretty well, so don’t feel an obligation to somehow repay them for their kindness. Rather, look for ways to help others once you are in a position to be able to.