Becoming a mom is an adventure. No matter when, how or where it happens, every mom faces new challenges and a deep need for connection, especially to other moms. Becoming a mom in a new country is a brave thing to do.
I connected with five moms who are doing this. Each one for a different reason. Each one figuring out their motherhood journey alongside figuring out a new culture and for some even a new language.
I find their lives all very exciting, the grand adventure of establishing a family and a life in a new country. But it comes with challenges of course, and big sacrifice. Every mom that I chatted to had different reasons for moving country, different approaches to the questions I asked, but all of them answered one question with a very similar sentiment.
Is it difficult for them being away from their family and support system in their home country? Yes! This is an incredibly difficult thing for them. I see this with my sister who is raising her young family in Northern California. She craves family and makes a big effort to make it possible to be around us when ever she can.
However, each mom also believes in her decision to relocate and she embraces the new opportunities that come with it. She gave something up and in return gains so much as she exposes herself and her young family to a new culture and the possibilities that exist when we are brave enough to venture beyond our comforts. Her children are known as ‘third culture children’, which means that they are growing up within a different culture to that of their parent/s. All of these moms see the benefit to their children of this exposure. They also humbly recognise that just because they grew up a certain way, inside a certain culture, it’s not the only way. I commend them for their willingness to learn from others and in so doing, teaching their children to embrace differences. While their children gain this valuable perspective, they are also growing up inside strong family cultures which are not dependent on the country where they happen to live. Their identities are formed at home, and home is family.
I love what Italian mom in South Africa, Martina says, “My comfort zone is not Rome, is not Italy, is not South Africa. My comfort zone is my own little family, made of Enrico, myself and Eva. I have learnt that I can do everything, go everywhere, jump into new adventures, manage the “unplanned”, as long as they are by my side.”
Let’s do some introductions. Meet Martina, Michal, Mireille, Mandi, Ruth and Helen.
Martina is mom to 16 month old Eva. She is an Italian, born and raised in Rome.
She is currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa.
FOLLOW HER ADVENTURE ON HER BLOG: www.paperandblush.com
“Moving overseas, far from family and friends, is not always easy, but it is an incredible and priceless journey if you approach it with the right attitude.”
“In 2009 I started dating Enrico, the guy who is now my husband, also Italian, and in 2011 we relocated together from Italy to South Africa. It was our decision to relocate abroad, as we wanted to immerse ourselves in a different culture and live a different experience (by then my husband had already lived in India twice, for about 12 months combined, and I was very jealous of his incredible experience!), and we were very fortunate to get this opportunity through Enrico’s job. We were given five options: South Africa, London, Dubai, Philippines and Canada, and we chose South Africa as we felt it was the one ticking all the boxes we were looking – possibility to escape city life and amazing wild nature, but also a business hub and an interesting country from a cultural point of view. We moved from Italy to Durban, where we stayed for 3 years, and then at the beginning of 2015 we moved to Johannesburg, where we currently live. When we left Italy in 2011, the plan was never to settle that comfortably in South Africa – let alone getting engaged, getting married (twice) and having our first child here! In fact, our idea was to stay for about 12-18 months at the most and then carry on traveling. But you know what they say: life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. Since that October 2011, South Africa has become our second home and we couldn’t have hoped for a more wonderful country to collect magical memories for our little family.”
ON LEARNING HOW TO MOTHER IN A NEW COUNTRY
“My biggest lesson has definitely been realising that I
am not able to rely on my cultural references. There are things that you do, songs that you sing or products that you buy because your mom used to do it with you, or because every other mother in your country does it in that way. This is what culture applied to motherhood means to me. Well, as an expat parent you cannot do that, or at least you cannot do that all the time. If you find yourself raising your child in a different country, my advice is to embrace the cultural ‘unfamiliarities’ and be open to learn to do things differently.”
ON PURSUING CONNECTION
“I must be honest, this hasn’t been easy. None of my close girlfriends in Joburg have kids, and the only two close friend mamas I know in South Africa live in different cities – one in Durban and one in Cape Town. But I think in every challenge lies an opportunity. The fact that I didn’t have close friends with kids pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me a reason to pursue something that I have
always been interested in – allowing me to connect with other moms and make new girlfriends. Driven by my passion for writing, last year I decided to start a blog, which captures a lot of my daily life but mostly my journey through motherhood. At the same time, I also decided to use Instagram, a platform that I’ve always loved, to actively engage with other moms (from South Africa, but also from other countries).
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE
“We don’t know whether we are going to stay in South Africa forever, move back to Italy or relocate to a third country, but we do know for sure we want Eva to be able to write and speak Italian fluently. Wherever life is going to bring us, she must be able to communicate with her cousins, uncles, aunties and grandparents. I am half Israeli, as my mom was born in Israel and relocated to Italy when she was 8. Although my almost entire family from my mother side still lives in Israel (where I have been many times and try to go whenever I can, to visit my relatives), growing up I wasn’t spoken the language and therefore I didn’t learn it. I tried to study Hebrew later on in my life, but it is a very difficult language – especially if you don’t practise – so I speak very little. Enrico and I know we don’t want to make this mistake with Eva, so we are 100% committed to make sure she learns the language as mother tongue. We are Italians after all, and so is she.”
ON MISSING FAMILY BACK ‘HOME’
“Since we moved to South Africa, I have always missed my family and friends, who I am very close to. But it is only after Eva was born, that I truly understood the challenges of creating your own family far from home, and raising your child without any sort of family support structure. Eva was born in January 2017, and as first time parents we were presented not only with the challenge of how much a child changes your life (which every parent faces, everywhere in the world) but also with the inevitable fact that we couldn’t rely on our family to help us. In addition to that, I lost my mom last year in June, in the most sudden and unexpected way, only five months after I had become a mother myself. Saying that 2017 was an emotional year that changed my life forever is an understatement. But, with all the above, relocating to a different country was our own decision, and Enrico and I have always lived the past 6 years with a smile on our face and good attitude, grateful for the opportunity we had despite all the challenges. So we approached parenthood in the same way. Our families and best friends are not in South Africa, but we’ve met very special friends over these six years, friends who have become our second family and who we know we can rely on, whenever we need.”
“Embrace the experience!!!! That is my best advice. Moving overseas, far from family and friends, is not always easy, but it is an incredible and priceless journey if you approach it with the right attitude. Be curious, engage with the local culture, hang out with local people, find your own routine, make some places YOUR places, find familiarities, be open minded, ask questions, learn from others, do not be shy, always push yourself, share your feelings, embrace the opportunity.”
Michal is mom to Miller (5) and Rachel (3). She is a Zimbabwean born South African
currently living in Sydney, Australia.
FOLLOW HER ADVENTURE ON HER BLOG: www.allthingsmomsydney.com
“There are so many people in a similar situation and you become each other’s family!”
“We moved to Sydney from Johannesburg three years ago, but Port Elizabeth is where my roots are and my parents are still there.”
ON FACING BIG CHANGES IN A NEW COUNTRY
“I have learnt so much from being here but most of it is as a result of not having a maid I know that may sound silly but it’s been so good for us as a family to be with each other in the tiredness, the grumpiness, the mess and the chaos. It’s like now being married to my children – in sickness and in health, in the morning, noon and night, when we all have to do the washing or all have to stack the dishwasher. I love it. I’ve learnt so much about them and about myself. Yes, I never get a break from them and sometimes they make me crazy but I’m very glad I learnt this now.”
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HER CHILDHOOD IN SOUTH AFRICA AND THAT OF HER CHILDREN’S
“For me the biggest difference between how I grew up and how my kids are growing up is that I saw people in need. From as long as I can remember we as a family were giving back and being involved in helping people less fortunate that ourselves. It’s not to say that we don’t want to raise our kids like that, but in Sydney, especially where we live, the children don’t see need as clearly as we did. They don’t understand how lucky they are. They can’t understand that people don’t have homes or food to eat. Real need is just so foreign to them. I want them to be compassionate, empathic and generous but they see everyone as being the same and potentially themselves as having less.”
ON PASSING ON HER CULTURAL IDENTITY TO HER CHILDREN
“My children were born in South Africa and my husband and I were South African so of everything I would like my kids to know their culture. The various languages, the foods, the animals and the different cultures. I want them to see it all woven together and feel as though it’s part of who they are.”
ON MISSING FAMILY BACK ‘HOME’
“Oh my gosh! Every day I think about this and I think about how much I miss my support structure. It is the biggest loss when you move. There is no one to call when you need to take a child to the doc, to look after the other or when you’ve had a bad night, you’re sick and just want to hide in your bed. It sucks! But there are so many people in a similar situation and you become each other’s family!”
“Every person is different and will experience something slightly differently. I suppose my best advice would be – reach out to people, you never know when that person you once knew a long time ago, becomes the person you need or can rely on.”
Mireille is mom to Joshua. She is a South African currently living in Belgrade, Serbia.
FOLLOW HER ADVENTURES ON HER BLOG: http://youmeandawholelotofadventure.blogspot.com/
“I feel positive that we have a strong family culture which solidifies that “home is where the family is” thus creating a strong foundation to springboard from.”
“Straight after our honeymoon we sold everything that we had (which was not much at all) and packed our bags. We were headed to Hong Kong to teach English. It was a gamble but we did it. To cut a long story short we loved this new life. After three blissful years in Hong Kong, my husband finished his masters in psychology and he landed his first real job within his field as a school psychologist in an international school in Shanghai. We fell pregnant in Japan on holiday and gave birth to our son, Joshua, in China. After eight months we moved to Belgrade, Serbia where we continue the adventure.”
ON CONNECTING WITH MOMS FROM OTHER CULTURES
“There are incredible mothers groups in all the countries that I have lived in. They are easy to link into. This too showcases multiculturalism in a profound way. Woman share how they do things in their countries and you get this melting pot of wisdom and input. It is pretty spectacular. They become your family. I have been able to relate to most woman. However, even when I haven’t been able to relate it has given me the opportunity to question my ways of doing things and examine myself.”
ON THE IMPACT OF THE EXPOSURE TO CULTURAL DIVERSITY
“The international community, which we are a part of as traveling expats, is diverse. There is also a diversity of culture in each country we have lived in. The impact on my child in terms of growing up in a global community will allow him to be more aware and empathetic. He will have real and authentic experiences which is invaluable. I feel positive that we have a strong family culture which solidifies that “home is where the family is” thus creating a strong foundation to springboard from.
ON MISSING FAMILY BACK ‘HOME’
“That is by far our biggest loss. We miss our families immense amounts. It is not so much for the support but for sharing our lives together. We are home every six months to a year which makes a massive difference and so does Whatsapp video calling. Our lifestyle is different. We don’t get to drop the kids off at granny and grandpa to have free time. We do most things together as a unit which generates that family culture that I was talking about. We do have a babysitter which we use for the odd night out.”
“I want to say do it!! DO IT!! I also want to say it’s not for everyone and that is ok. We are thriving in our lives living and working overseas. It has given me the opportunity to be home with Joshua whereas in South Africa that would never have been an option financially. Its a gift and I am grateful for all our shared experiences and the journey that we are on as a family.”
Mandi is mom to 16 month old Sofia. She is a South African currently
living in Chihuahua, Mexico.
“I need to be strong for my baby and I need to find my own support structure within this new place to be able to be just that for her.”
“My husband is Mexican and we met in South Africa and got married there. After two years of being married we decided it was time for me to get to know his country, his culture and to learn Spanish. I was about 18 weeks pregnant when we arrived in Chihuahua, Mexico.”
ON COVERCOMING THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
“To be honest it hasn’t been very easy for me to connect with other moms especially because when I arrived in Mexico. I could not speak a word of Spanish which made it difficult to connect with anyone. However, there is a lovely international group of moms in my city which has been a real God send. As I am picking up the language more, I am trying to put myself out there with other moms that I have met along the way.”
ON EMBRACING THE REALITY OF RAISING A THIRD CULTURE CHILD
“Growing up in a Mexican culture will be a very interesting experience for Sofia as she is growing up to be bilingual, speaking English and Spanish. She will have a completely different childhood experience than what I had and sometimes that is difficult for me to accept. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing and I think it will be amazing for her to experience this beautiful Mexican culture. I feel that the world will be such an accessible place for her with her being able to speak Spanish and of course English as well. I hope and pray that she will also really treasure the value of family that is so strong in Mexico. There are things that I wish she could experience of South Africa though, and it does sometimes make me sad that she probably never will.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF FINDING HER OWN SUPPORT SYSTEM
“The biggest lesson I have learnt with being a new mom in a new country is that I think being a new mom is tough no matter where you are. The struggles are the same, but for sure it is more difficult when you do not have your support system around you (especially your own mom). What I have learnt is I need to be strong for my baby and I need to find my own support structure within this new place to be able to be just that for her. It is so important to be able to ask for help as it really does Take a village to raise a child.”
ON MISSING FAMILY BACK ‘HOME’
” It has been really tough for me not to be around my family as I would really have loved to have had them around to see Sofia grow up and also just to ask for advice when I’m struggling. She is the first grandchild in the family so it would have been really special to have had them around. My husband’s family have been wonderful though, always willing to lend a hand and are extremely in love with Sofia which has been amazing to see. I also have a few mommy friends who have been a great support.”
“My advice would be to find your support system as soon as possible. Being a mom is lonely as it is and in a new country it is even lonelier. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, people are more willing to help than you know but sometimes they don’t know what you need from them. Be vulnerable, put yourself out there and learn the language of your new country as soon as possible (if need be).”
Ruth is mom to 7 year old twin girls, Blake and Keena. She is an American currently living
in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
“Living cross culturally keeps an ongoing conversation open in our household that there are many ways to do or communicate things. ‘This’ is the way they do it in SA, ‘that’ is the way it’s done in America – neither is wrong or right (most of the time), just different.”
“I was born and raised in America but have lived overseas for 18 years with 11 of those years in South Africa. I am married to a South African/ Zimbabwean and I love it in SA! The quality of life I’m able to give my daughter’s is phenomenal and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
ON BEING OPEN TO LEARNING FROM OTHERS
“Having kids actually enabled as a cross cultural mother- it gave me common ground and a natural connection point with other woman. My experience as a mom is so different to how woman do it in my passport country do it… I’ve had to humble myself and ask the SA woman around me about many seemingly basic things that are just different to what I’m used to. And sometimes I just can’t see the logic in why some things are done a certain way here but.. I am not bound to any one way. My mantle as the matriarch of my family is to do what is best for and works for US.”
ON HOW RAISING THIRD CULTURE KIDS PROMOTES GOOD CONVERSATION AT HOME
“Third culture kids (which is actually the norm at this point in history) are SO blessed and privileged. They have the opportunity to take the best of two amazing cultures and live a rich full life. Most of the things I love about my culture are values and traditions that I can pass down with a bit of effort. There are things I don’t like about my culture that I’m thankful my girls don’t have to be exposed to and can learn another way from where we live or just coming up with another option. I get a bit bummed sometimes that they won’t get to experience some of my favourite childhood experiences but I try to translate that into what is available in our current context. And living cross culturally keeps an ongoing conversation open in our household that there are many ways to do or communicate things. ‘This’ is the way they do it in SA, ‘that’ is the way it’s done in America – neither is wrong or right (most of the time), just different. And we have to respect the way it’s done in each place if we want to connect to the people there.”
ON SEEKING OUT CONNECTION
“My best advice is to seek out friendships. They won’t just fall into your lap – look for woman you click with, ask to meet for a play date and share your life. Learn from those women and share your cross cultural story with them. If you don’t look for friendships you can easily become an isolated, lonely and miserable mom which serves no one! Let your friends be your tribe and lean on them unashamedly!
Helen is mom to Hope (two and a half) and Rose (6 months). She is a South African currently living
Northern California, USA.
“They will live less ordinary lives and get to experience and embrace two very different cultures growing up. I think it may cause them to question things more, in a good way.”
Helen didn’t give me any info here, she just said, “you know”. So let me tell you. She married a guy from Minnesota. He lived in South Africa with her for two years before they decided to return to his home town, Minneapolis. It is very cold there, but they did love the city. In 2012 they moved on a whim to Redding, Northern California. It is very hot there. They love life in Redding and this is where they started their family.
ON THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF AN INTERNATIONAL LIFESTYLE
“Raising children in another country form my birth country is forcing us to build lives that facilitate travel so that they can also spend a lot of time in South Africa. So I think the impact it will have is that they will live less ordinary lives and get to experience and embrace two very different cultures growing up. I think it may cause them to question things more, in a good way. I’m excited for them to grow up this way.”
ON WHAT SHE WOULD LIKE HER CHILDREN TO EMBRACE FROM HER CULTURE
I’d like them to learn South Africa’s history. Also, the braai
ON WHAT SHE HAS LEARNT TO EMBRACE FROM HER NEW CULTURE
ON MISSING FAMILY BACK ‘HOME’
“It has a big impact and we feel it almost daily. The older my oldest gets the more I feel it because I realize what she is missing not having extended family around her regularly. It would also be nice to have extra help. But it forces us to build exciting lives. I live in a place where there are a lot of other moms who also live far from family so that has made it easier to connect and relate, so we do have somewhat of a support structure. But nothing replaces family.
“Embrace the culture you are stepping in to while not letting go of what you love about your own. That way you are not fighting one or the other but gaining from both .”