While babies can clip the wings of most of us, other families continue to see the world as their playground. Melanie Dower asked fellow expat mums about their experiences raising kids abroad.
Parenting into a whole new world where everyone is speaking a different language. Not only do people start comparing your baby to a piece of fruit, you have doctors constantly can make you feel as though you've stepped wanting to measure your fundus – and that's just during the pregnancy stage. Imagine, then, trying to do it overseas without the support of your family and where approaches to healthcare and parenting can be baffling at best.
When my husband was offered his dream job in Finland, I can’t say I was overly excited. Although we’d talked about living overseas again, I had always imagined us somewhere much closer to home – and not quite so close to the Arctic Circle.
Our son, Miko, was two years old when we left New Zealand, and although our parents were supportive of our decision, I know they’ve really grieved for the time they’ve missed out on spending with him.
For us, we miss having support that we can call on night or day. When Miko broke his arm in the playground recently, I hailed us a taxi – only to realise I had no idea where to go.
Luckily the driver delivered us to the hospital, however, we arrived to find all the signage in Finnish and our communication with the doctor somewhat limited. Being told Miko might need surgery was even more distressing because I didn’t really understand where we were being directed to go.
Later that night, as Miko called out for pain relief, I struggled to make sense of the instructions on the side of the medication. Despite the wonderful opportunities living here provides, it’s moments like these I really feel the distance between us and home.
I spoke to three other Kiwi mums who are also living overseas and facing the challenges of raising their families amid sub-zero temperatures, over-involved strangers and illegible food labels.
Orient to Skandi
Aleasha Kimber (photo top right), 33, and her husband Simon are from Christchurch. Their daughter, Gracie, was born in Beijing and they are now expecting their second child in Helsinki, Finland.
I met Simon 15 years ago at Victoria University in Wellington. We moved to London in 2007 and lived there for six years before Simon's work transferred us to China. I was seven months pregnant and terrified but the care I received at the private hospital in Beijing was excellent – even over the top at times! Dealing with varying levels of English was the main issue, but we got by. When Gracie was born, we stayed in a hospital suite for four nights and had home visits from midwives in the following weeks.
There were days in Beijing when the air quality was so bad we could not go outside with our new baby. I spent about four months of those two years in New Zealand, returning to visit family and also to escape the pollution. Part of the reason we moved from Beijing to Helsinki was for a healthier lifestyle.
We arrived in Helsinki at the start of the Finnish winter. Temperatures drop as low as -18°C and the sun is only visible for five hours a day. The weather can be depressing and hard on the whole family. Kids still play outside every day though. They get used to the cold. Finnish people say there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Gracie and I enjoy going to the playgrounds where you can join in different play activities, or attending preschool music classes. There are lots of toys and it’s a chance to socialise with other mums and their babies. I've also enjoyed meeting people through my blog, Little Traveller Things, which I started when we were in Beijing.
In China we got a crazy amount of attention every day due to our fair hair and skin. In Finland we blend in entirely. I think at first Gracie wondered what had happened, as people no longer try to touch her on the street. Finns are almost the complete opposite. A hug can make them feel uncomfortable.
There are a lot of excellent health services in Finland and I will soon deliver my second child here. I am entitled to a maternity benefit, which includes the Finnish Baby Box. It contains many of the essentials a family might need for a new baby and the box itself can be used as a bed, if need be. Parents also travel for free on public transport when they accompany a child in a stroller. It's an incredibly safe country to live in and childcare is very affordable, compared to other parts of the world.
I do hope that one day we will end up back in New Zealand. It might be tough to find career opportunities there in our chosen industries, but I would love my children to grow up closer to home. In the meantime, we Skype our family regularly and they come to visit. I'm still trying to find the perfect place to live but I think, after the Finnish weather and the Beijing pollution, anywhere else will be a breeze. I just look forward to being able to read the labels in the supermarket in our next country!
New York, New York
Emma Markham, 36, knew her husband Tom was the man for her from the moment they met in Auckland. They now live with their two boys, aged four and two, in New York City (NYC).
I met Tom in 2005, when we were working at the same advertising agency. Two years later we moved to Sydney and in 2008 we spent a month in New York. We both knew we would do anything to live there, so when Tom was offered a transfer, it was a no-brainer.
We arrived in 2009 and our oldest son, William, was born in Manhattan that year. Later we spent 18 months in Colorado, where our second son, Henry, was born, before returning to live in NYC.
In the US, an obstetrician attends most pregnancies and births, and I had an amazing experience with both my doctors. However, there is no aftercare. You take your baby home after two or three days and you’re on your own. It can be very hard, especially as parental leave policies don’t allow your partner to stay at home for long.
My mum passed away in 2012 when I was pregnant with Henry, but we've been lucky to have the support of my husband's aunt who lives in NYC. We also keep in touch with the boys' grandparents in New Zealand via weekly Skype calls and the boys have a lovely bond with them.
One of the things I love about New York is the lack of judgement I feel as a parent. In Colorado there was a lot of pressure to be an organic, no screen-time, kale-eating, baby-wearing super mum. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not the parents that Tom and I are. In NYC, there's a sense that we’re all just trying to do our best and anything goes.
So much of life here is spent walking the streets or on the subway, so a lot of our parenting is done in public. I have to walk down Wall Street every day to get to and from school. If my children are hungry and tired, I can't worry about what all the tourists will think or I'll be too distracted to be present for my children.
We spend more time indoors during winter, which is often hard – there are long periods of time when the temperature doesn't get above zero degrees. We spend hours in the bookstore and at the library, but in the springtime it’s beautiful and I could sing with happiness.
I met some of my best friends in NYC at mothers' groups when I was pregnant. The groups are privately run and paid for – nothing here is free! I'm also part of an online community that connects over 1500 families in Lower Manhattan. In a city where most people come from somewhere else, this is an unbelievably valuable resource.
It's a long way to visit New Zealand with two children. Both my sons are American citizens and we talk about New Zealand a lot – we can't expect them to feel like Kiwis, but it's important to us that they know where we come from. I love that their first memories will be of NYC. It’s something that people dream of their whole lives and we are so happy to be able to offer them something different.
Originally from Alexandra in the South Island, Maryce Baltasar, 34, now lives with her Spanish husband, Carlos, and their five month old daughter, Ariana, in Madrid, Spain.
I met Carlos 13 years ago in London through a mutual friend. When my visa expired, I moved to Brisbane for a while before Carlos and I reunited and I decided to move back to London, where he was still living.
Carlos was reluctant to leave London after we married, but I didn't feel it was the right place for us to start a family. I was attracted to Spain for the weather and lifestyle I'd experienced there during holidays. We've been living in Madrid for two and a half years now and thankfully we both feel very happy. We'll visit New Zealand for Christmas, but for me, this is now home.
I attended weekly prenatal classes during my pregnancy. They were free to attend and there was no charge to see the doctor. Nobody spoke English at the classes but the other people attending were very patient and welcoming towards me. It was a great way for me to practise Spanish and to meet other mothers.
I was very impressed with the care I received and found the whole experience very positive.
Five months into my pregnancy, however, a problem was found with my placenta, Although it was serious, I had great doctors and I trusted them completely.
Unfortunately, everything changed at 36 weeks, when I had an emergency caesarean. Medical staff saved my little girl's life, for which I will always be grateful, but the aftercare I received left me completely baffled.
Ariana was rushed away to an incubator and I was left in a small recovery room. I didn't know if she was okay, or even alive, and my mother and husband were not allowed in to see me. I asked a nurse about Ariana and she said abruptly "I don't know anything about your baby", which made me suspect the worst. It was terrifying. Ariana was, in fact, fi ne – but it would have been nice to have someone let me know!
We spent two lonely weeks in hospital. My mum had travelled from New Zealand but they only allowed two visitors in for ten minutes a day. Thankfully, things have been great since we've been home. We have home visits from a nurse and meet regularly with a paediatrician, both of whom are lovely.
There are so many differences between parenting here and in New Zealand. In Spain, family time is really valued and children are welcome everywhere. Families always eat together and usually have dinner around 9 or 10pm, so it's often midnight before the children go to bed. There's no need to try to keep them quiet either as Spaniards love noise. In fact, the noisier the better!
In New Zealand, I find children are encouraged to help with chores, while Spanish mothers do everything for their family. It's not unusual for someone in their thirties to still be living at home, with their mother washing their clothes and making their bed every day. I used to think women here were taken advantage of but I've come to realise that they like things this way.
One cultural difference I found difficult during my pregnancy was that people would constantly comment on my weight, saying things like "Wow, you're so fat!". I only put on 8kg but I would get very upset by these remarks. My husband assured me they were actually compliments, but I was disappointed to be told it would be rude for me to reply "Gracias, igualmente!". ("Thanks, same to you!") Apparently the compliment doesn't work both ways!
TIPS FOR COPING WHEN LIVING ABROAD
■ Make a real effort to learn your new local language.
■ Attend pregnancy and postnatal classes– they are a great way to meet other parents.
■ Use expat forums and blogs to connect with other mums. People already experiencing the lifestyle are the best to advise you on what to expect.
■ Have something on the calendar to look forward to: a pending holiday or visit from friends or family always helps when you're feeling homesick or lonely.
■ Get out there and meet people. You'll have to turn up to playgroups, talk to people you don't know and be forward about asking for play dates, but you'll meet some amazing women and without them parenting abroad will be a very different experience.
Melanie Dower is a Kiwi living in Finland with her husband and young son. She writes a blog, heyhelsinki.wordpress.com, to keep in touch with friends and family at home but it also offers a fascinating insight into life in Finland.