Last week, I wrote about building mama confidence. A big reason this topic has proved important to me is that I became a mother in a foreign country where my confidence has been especially put to the test. Without my tried and true tribe, and family nearby, I've had to navigate some tough mothering terrain at times. Some of the voyage has led to insight.
Five Things I've Learned from Becoming an Expat Mother In Chile
Saying Yes! to What Is
For the first couple of years in Chile, I longed for the comfort of my quirky mix of mom and not-yet-mom and never-going-to-be-mom friends in the States. I missed Boulder terribly, and all of it's social and temporal comforts. I bemoaned the new mentalities I encountered here. I fought what was around me. I had to strain to see the benefits. Then, as my daughter grew towards one, something incredible happened. She was healthy and vibrant and gorgeous. All our struggles the first year were dissolving and my little mama heart was rejoicing in the one year mark. I realized that everything was not just okay, but pretty darn good. I thought, "Here we are. We did it. I did it. Yes to this!" And learning to say yes to all the little pop-up joys of life, and inconveniences, has been liberating. My now nearly-two year old is also teaching me to say Yes! all day every day. It's like the difference between honey and vinegar. It's a choice, and the more I choose to embrace my life, the happier I am. Now I know better that this is what it's all about, happy over perfect.
Comfort With Being Misunderstood
Who understands me? No one. Not one person in the world really gets me. I don't really get anyone else, either. Sometimes, we come close, right? Our besties, our partners, our children. But in the end, all relationships close and far, easy and strained, are frought with misunderstanding. As a former communications professional, wordsy-wordsmith, and songwriter, speaking to be understood has always been a big part of my life. In fact, I'd say that being understood has been a key driver in my artistic and professional pursuits. Being in a foreign land is a sure-fire way to laugh in the face (my face) of that need, and whittle it down into what I now think it is: a simple, naive but sincere desire to me loved. Well, let me say that there is one thing I am certain of in this life, especially now after all this expat emotional hubbub: love. That I love others and I am loved. So what if my mother-in-law thinks my homebirth inspirations are cuckoo. So what if even my partner can't understand why waiters here piss me off so bad. Who cares if the taxi driver thought I said "Right" instead of "Straight ahead"? They love me (well, gee, maybe the taxi driver, too, in that "we're-all-one-love" sort of way), we're here, in this big tough messy life together. And we're fine. Love abides, even when it's not dancing gracefully on our faces and blowing warm breezes through our hair. Resting in that, my seemingly primal urge to be understood can rest a little. Thank goodness.
When in Rome... or not
I didn't arrive in Chile expecting to start a family, and a year and a half later I gave birth to my daughter with still not having a very good handle on the language. Oi vey! When in Rome, speak Italian. When in Chile, speak Chileno (even Chileans make fun of their very difficult-to-understand Spanish). Also, I hadn't really learned to navigate the systems I was participating in very well with even my "gets-me-through-town" Spanish. My Chilean partner and I lived in English, and we easily fell into a habit early on of him making the phone calls and getting me to tricky places. It was very sweet of him, and I accepted (life was hard enough in a new country, after all) but this handicapped my mobility and my confidence. I have since learned to be more independent, more like I was in the States (but not entirely, ha ha). The third trip-up I learned from was mistaking "difficult-to-find" as "impossible-to-find" and spent way too much time and money bringing things from the States. From cloth diapers to organic coconut oil to shoes to... well, the shoe thing really was necessary, because my big size 10 feet never have been able to squeeze into where the size charts top out at 9. I could go on, but I think you get my point. Of course, this kind of finding things is generally contingent on getting around, and both depend on language, so this here is the trifecta of skills to develop in any new place, mom or no, and doubly important as a mom. Now, I do all of this with a toddler in-tow (in back carry these days, unless we're nursing in our carrier). Lesson learned. It's a bit of a spin-off of the "Yes!" notes above, I suppose. So, "Yes to Chile!"
As for the what not to do in Rome... well, long story short, Chile has a lot of lovely qualities, but its national relationship to birth and conscious parenting are not included. With great joy, I've found my little pocket of naturally-minded mamas leading a movement, but that took some doing (see Find your Tribe for more on that!). This country reportedly has the highest cesarean rate in the world (90% in private hospitals, the same ones that generally prohibit rooming-in, have no water birth facilities and liberally induce labor with synthetic oxytocin), has very few homebirth midwives, has a general population that considers powdered "milk" in a can superior or at least as good as breastmilk, pierce their baby girl's ears in the hospital directly after birth (as well as shave their heads), and usually nurse their babies for only six months. So, these parts of my "Rome" I've forsworn, naturally. Luckily, I can play the "gringa" card and just politely explain that this (extended nursing, cloth diapers, not piercing ears at birth, etc.) is just part of my culture. Since most of my mothering inclination come from experiencing my clan of mother friends in Boulder, Colorado, this is absolutely true. Pleading "tourist" or "outsider" can be helpful when the natives are challenging your e. ve. ry. move. Also good to not jump on the chance to explain to said natives why my way is better. I just try find the most graceful way around the local customs I consciously choose to forgo, and carry on.
The Importance of Finding and Recognizing Your Tribe
This universal mama truth is well, universal. It has taken me some time, but I've finally found a big beautiful handful of moms who are all homebirth-breastfeeding-gentle-co-sleeping-conscious-foodie-types like me... here! Only one is from the U.S. Many are from places other than Chile, but they include some wonderful Chilean women as well. I imagine that even in the far reaches of the earth, there are ways to connect and find moms with whom we share commonalities, to be a part of and nurture a tribe, to be a catalyst for others to find theirs, too. Maybe we don't all co-sleep, or breastfeed a baby for years, or not give our babies sugar, or whatever it is that we can get ruffled about or long for commiseration over. But there are relatively few exceptions to the commonality that makes us all a big mama tribe: we love those littles like nothing before or since. That is a powerfully binding understanding shared between mothers. It's the thing that makes us nod and smile knowingly to another mother in the grocery store who looks nothing like "our" way of doing things. Sure, I prefer to spend my time with mothers that are gentle parents, that are choosing nature over modern convenience. I do. That's my micro-tribe. But I know that it's a sub-set of the bigger tribe that I'm happy to be a part of.
Mining regret to build awareness
Living in a "foreign" country is tough, especially if it speaks a different language. It is way harder than anyone will tell you, or than I had ever imagined in my little romance-driven ideas of living abroad. Give birth to your first child in said foreign country, and holy H is for get me the H out of here! I learned that family and close friends, and cultural understanding are very important, dear things. That I needed. I didn't have them. This made my postpartum really difficult, and is a continual challenge. Though I can honestly say that I am happy here now, and have made some really good friends, I would not have given birth to my first baby here, so far away from my own mother and my mama tribe in Boulder. I wouldn't have, no way, no how. That's my "so think about it good, long and hard, mama-to-be who is straddling cultures" wink and nod.
This realization has spurred me to think harder about choices that affect our future as a family. I used to move like I could make it work wherever I was, however things were arranged. Now, I look at my daughter and my relationship and ask, "What will give us the best, most joy-filled, easeful life most naturally?" This is about conditions, generally. We just completed a move to a more family-friendly and progressive town in Chile to better answer this. I'm so happy for the move.
What about you? Are you reading this from a country your weren't raised in? What things have you learned as an expat mom? I'm still learning and I'd love to hear your thoughts!