Parenting has never been easy, but parenting as an expat has problems which sometimes only become apparent a few months after the removal van has left. British expat Gail Mowat, who has lived with her family in Russia for two and half years, tells Moscow expat Life about some of the pitfalls.
How many years have you been an expat for?
For 14 years now. We started in Sao Paulo, Brazil without any children but had our first there, then we moved to Hong Kong for two years where we had our second daughter. Then we moved to Bangkok, Thailand for another two years when the girls were very small. Then we were in Seoul, South Korea for two years (third baby arrived), and then Almaty, Kazakhstan when our youngest daughter was born and where we lived for nearly three years. We have been in Moscow since March 2011.
They are 12,10, five and three. Children are very adaptable, and you can take them anywhere, but thinking that it is easy to do is one of the biggest fallacies that people tritely roll out. When we moved our daughter at age two and a half from Hong Kong to Thailand, we thought that she was so young that it wouldnât make any difference to her, and that she would share our excitement to have a new home with a garden full of trees and flowers. But she was absolutely traumatized, she lost her beloved nanny, everything was new, she developed a very naughty imaginary friend for a year and a half, and these problems were really hard to handle.
What is the easiest age group to move children?
I think itâs easiest to move babies, up to about one and a half years of age. From then until around three and half, I think you just have to be very caring and nurturing throughout the whole process, and talk to them about whatâs happening. Then you have the happy period of five to about eight years old when they are at school and are quite happy to stay in groups. They may have a notional best friend but there is a lot of milling around in the playgrounds at that age, one day they are talking to one group and the next another.
After eight or nine, it becomes more complicated to move children because by that time they may have developed really strong friendships, and the school work load leaves less time for playing and meeting new people.
From the age of 12 onwards, you really donât want to be moving your children unless there is a really strong reason to do so. It interferes with their school work, and they are gutted to leave their friends and peer group. I think that most parents try very hard to avoid moving children older than this.
There is a danger for people who are considering moving abroad to think that Moscow is not far from home, that it will not be a problem for the children to adapt. They see the set up here on their look-see and think that because the schools offer standard curriculums and recognizable after-school activities, that life here will be much the same as at home, but with some foreign cultural interest at weekends. They do not realize that the out of school set up can be so different.
I do not think that moving children is a bad thing, but I think that on so many levels, you need to support your children through every move to help them manage their emotional response to such a big life change. People can embrace change but must use sensitivity with their children.
Are there any good things about being an expat with children?
Yes, of course, there are many fantastic upsides. Children are phenomenally adaptable, and they get used to change which is quite a useful skill in life. They are quickly able to deal with new situations and they donât let something being different or new interrupt their stride. Ideally, children who grow up as expats should develop into real citizens of the world, but this requires quite a lot of patient explanation!
I think the rich, diverse experiences they have as expats are also highly educational. As my children grow and their academic studies get more detailed, I find we have many real life examples that they can use in their studies, and which help them to understand their school work, and the world in general.
If you are in a situation like you are, when you have to keep on moving, when you donât have any choice, what advice would you give other people who are in a similar situation? What have you learnt?
I would always recommend that people use their social network to find the good people in new places, so that they donât waste time meeting lots of people who arenât on their wavelength. Listen to what these contacts have to tell you about a new place. Of course, you will have a different approach to some things, but there are always a few absolute gems of local knowledge that they will pass on if you listen. There is a huge amount to be said for local experience.
It is important to keep your joy of living alive, and not allow the challenges to overwhelm you. There are always ways to make life fun, but you need tremendous patience to work out what they are in new places. You also have to be very resilient to set backs and not allow things to put you off your goal of having a happy, fulfilled, balanced family life. After all these years abroad, and so many half-learnt languages, I still get a real buzz from working something out, or getting something done in a foreign country. Variety is certainly the spice of life, and life is good!