'Living abroad will change your life forever, it’ll open your mind to new horizons, it'll be the best lesson about the world and yourself!'
Lucy is the founder of Lucy Bolin Coaching and works as a performance coach and a corporate trainer with expats and internationals around the world supporting their overall development so that they can not only manage but thrive in everything they do.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR CHILD TO MOVE ABROAD?
Once upon a time in Barcelona
It was already over 4 years ago that Lyan was born, a third culture kid born in Barcelona to a Polish mom and a Canadian dad. How will you raise him? In what languages? What school will he go to? What religion will he belong to? Are you going to apply for the Spanish, Polish or Canadian passport or perhaps all of them?
I was flooded with questions which I realised I hadn’t even asked myself. Having a baby is such a life-changing event for all, let alone when you’re an expat and more so if your child is a third culture kid (TCK). And yet, before I could ponder on these and similar questions and to make matters even more complex, we decided to move abroad…
Well, abroad for our son, as in my case it was yet another move, this time to Cannes in France. It was my husband’s dream to live on the Cote d’Azur, like it is for many French Canadians, and I – a long-term expat, curious and open to adventure – said yes. However, the closer the move loomed, the more anxious I became. Even though I had moved countless times and had already lived in 5 different countries, never before had I moved abroad with a baby…
All of a sudden, all the questions gained in validity and importance. I felt responsible for my family and I wanted to set us up for success. I researched the best moving companies, the neighbourhood we’d live in, the parks, the healthcare, the libraries, the language schools, daycare and much more, but going beyond the formalities, I kept asking myself: “How can I prepare my family and my child to live abroad?”
Having lived abroad myself for 18 years, I had gathered a lot of practical knowledge to fall back on. I was the one to offer the best advice to succeed abroad. However, little did I know that the answer wouldn’t be so straightforward when it’s not only you but your family that’s moving. And little did I know that only 1,5 years later we would be moving again… Due to the pandemic, my dad’s passing and other family reasons we moved from France to Poland, my home country that I left 22 years ago to pursue my childhood dreams.
The recipe for a successful life abroad
Fast forward to today we’ve lived in 6 cities across 3 countries exposed to 5 languages since 2018. So what have I learnt about living abroad as a family? First of all there’s no formula, no one size that fits all. There are definitely things you can proactively do to prepare but you should begin with the right mindset. What do I mean?
Expat life is different to a life led in the country that you and your partner come from. It’s either more complicated, difficult, and challenging or more versatile, more varied and more enriching, or all of it. Depending how you want to perceive it, it will be what you make of it. Your mindset will of course influence your experience. Yes, a very obvious and banal statement, but I cannot emphasise it enough… Ask yourself the following, “How do I feel about the move?”, “What do I think about living abroad?”, “What are my expectations?”, “What am I looking forward to?”, “What am I afraid of?”
Before you start your research, check in with yourself how mentally prepared you are for the new chapter and what is the reason behind the move. Yes, you might be moving for your partner’s job, or the exceptional studying opportunities for your children or a better quality of life in general, but what is in it for you? What is your personal ‘why’? Having established your why will make the planning stage easier. You will get more excited having more clarity about that next stage in your life. And also later on you will avoid blaming others or regretting your decision if you are disappointed. Because, what happens if things are not as you envisaged them?
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Fail to prepare, prepare to fail?
Research and preparation are definitely vital when moving abroad. You’ll have a sense of security and feel more confident with a plan, but we all know that things don’t always go according to plan. So when preparing your move, expect the unexpected, plan for no plan, as it will help you embrace the unpredictable twists and turns. It’s a matter of mindset and not a checklist because if you don’t have the right mentality, you can have everything ticked off on your “moving abroad” to-do list and still panic and stress when the first adversity crops up.
You will have to remain flexible, go with the flow and adapt as you go. Easier said than done if you ask me but you really cannot control it all. I couldn’t possibly know I would need to change flats 3 times in 3 months when I first moved to Barcelona. I couldn’t have foreseen that the cost of living, contrary to public statistics, is actually higher in Barcelona than in Frankfurt.
In either case, don’t overdo it with the planning and research because life abroad will surprise you and that’s probably the best part of it. Go with an open mind and stay curious. Trust yourself that you will do your best no matter the circumstances and swap self-doubt and fear for compassion. Should all plans fail, you can never go wrong with following your intuition, speaking the local language might help too…
It goes without saying that speaking the local language will help your integration. I was fortunate to have acquired Spanish well before my move to Spain, which made a lot of things easier for me. However, how do you accommodate language learning if you have a busy job or if you are a stay-at-home parent with little children?
Depending on your constellation as a family, you will have several options to choose from. If you’re moving for your job, your employer might sponsor your language learning. Likewise, you can join a language course independently of your work and if you’re home with a baby, there are plenty of private tutors and online courses that will fit your circumstances. Again, it’s important to focus on the opportunities that you’re creating by learning a new language rather than the obstacles that stop you from doing it.
After our move to France, I could no longer afford private lessons but I found public language courses instead which were free of charge. They were general and open to all, so the groups were big, but at least I continued making some progress in addition to making new friends, some of whom I had to communicate in French with, which was advantageous in terms of practising what I’d learnt.
With the above in mind, explore your options and have realistic expectations. What’s your main objective? Do you want to be fluent as you’ll need the language for work? Or is some conversational level just enough to get by?
Another question to address is how you learn best. What is the most effective language learning method for you? Some opt for the app-based lessons, like Duolingo. Others prefer interesting conversations and new friendships and thus choose the Tandem community.
Whatever your situation, learning a new language can only be beneficial for you, so immerse yourself in it. Listen to the radio, watch movies with subtitles, change your mobile and computer language to the target one, read short articles, surround yourself with it.
The more input you have, the more you’ll be able to output. Send short texts or short audio notes, write your to-do and shopping lists in the foreign language. Challenge yourself, as every little helps but don’t forget to make it fun! Stay curious – a new language is a door to a new world, to new possibilities, to a new you!
How about your children though? It’s common knowledge that children pick up languages easier. “They are like sponges”, I’ve heard many say. If your child attends a nursery or school in your new home country, they will no doubt acquire the local language. It’ll take some time, more or less, depending on your child’s capabilities. Adults tend to acquire language more passively and take longer before they feel ready to speak the foreign language. Children, on the other hand, have fewer inhibitions and start to turn the passive knowledge into active language usage to communicate their needs, make friends and discover the world.
In terms of your home language, note that you have many alternatives here, too. If you both speak different mother tongues, you have a choice to adopt the “one parent, one language rule”, but you don’t have to. You can choose one language as the “family language” that you speak at home. Pick whatever suits you best. What is most convenient and comfortable for your family? I spoke Polish and my husband French to Lyan, and we spoke English among each other when living in Barcelona.
Adding Spanish and Catalan, Lyan was growing up exposed to 5 languages. Is it too many? “He must be confused”, I heard some of my friends say. Indeed, he might be disoriented at times, but definitely not overwhelmed. He finds it intriguing that there is more than one way to call one thing. We play a game of finding the equivalents of one word in the other languages, for instance coffee, café, kawa if we want an easy win or toy, jouet, zabawka when we want a bit of a challenge. The more he practises, the easier it gets for him to do the so-called code switching, that is to switch between the languages. Sometimes he might get a bit frustrated when looking for the right word in one of the languages but is extremely proud and happy having found it.
Language acquisition is fluid and there will be times when one language becomes more prominent than others, which is only normal. If you want to leverage the multilingualism in your family, contextualise the language acquisition and choose a different language for a given activity. To give you an example, when in France Lyan was exposed to a lot of French, so to balance it out, we would play games, read books and watch cartoons in English. Whereas now since the language of instruction in his school is English, we try to do more in French. We subscribed to a French magazine, Pomme d’Api, which is delivered to our doorstep every month and has us read, do activities and learn in French. However, when Lyan is with his grandmother or cousins, he will use Polish. His spiderman magazines are all in Polish too, but when we play Superheroes, it’ll always be in English.
Lyan’s bookshelf is home to books and bedtime stories in all three languages which we also like to sing in. However, when Lyan is in distress or is sad and needs comforting, Polish will work best. Also when he misbehaves I’ll be best able to reach him and meet him where he’s at in Polish. So we’ve found that our language to address emotions is my mother tongue which he has heard me speak since he was in my womb.
To sum up, what’s beneficial about having different contexts for different languages is that the language acquisition comes naturally and it is not forced. The structure helps to stay disciplined; otherwise, it’s easy for one language to take over the others and push them to the background, especially if your child, let’s say, spends most of their day at school exposed to one language.
“The age of your children, Lucy, will make the move more or less challenging”, said one of my expat friends who’s been on the road with her family for quite some time and has just moved from Poland to Finland. She has two secondary school age children and she confesses that changing school environments might not be so welcomed by school-aged children. New school, new teachers, new friends, new language might be somewhat overwhelming along with all the other challenges of being a teenager.
But again, all children are not the same. Some will adapt fast and come out from the experience stronger and more open and curious. Some will be less resilient and will struggle as a result. What I’ve observed with Lyan is that he welcomes a new environment and loves novelty. I’m aware though that it might change with age. Only time will tell.
When choosing a school for your children, again explore your options in your area and choose what’s best for your family. Do you want to go private or public? American, British, French, German or maybe international, or simply a local school in your neighbourhood.
It’s difficult to know what the future will bring, as we can only foresee so much, so try to choose what you feel is right today. If things change, you will adapt along the way. Don’t try to anticipate too much where you and your family will live in 3 or 5 or 10 years’ time and what your child would have preferred. You are doing your best now with the choices you have and the decision you will make is the best you can take here and now.
We’ve chosen the British international school for Lyan, as I used to live in the UK. I actually did my Master’s degree in London, so I have strong bonds to the UK and love all things British. If we choose to live in Canada one day, it might also be easier to adapt too, so that’s our reasoning and yours will depend on your constellation, circumstances, plans.
Remember that you can discuss the choices with your child/children and go to visit the schools with them, if possible. Where do they feel most ‘at home’? What does their gut feeling tell them? Children are usually very good at picking the environment they feel safest in, using their intuition, so take advantage of it. But ultimately you’ll be deciding for and with your child/children.
When talking about expat life, we cannot not discuss identity. Trying to define what identity is for me, I discover that it is the sum of my experiences from the six countries I have lived in. It’s to be borne in mind that our children might also experience multiple identities, some of which they will be more or less attached to. They might feel insecure about where they belong. Thus, it’s important to dialogue about the different cultures that comprise your expat reality and acknowledge them.
We talk a lot about our family identity and Lyan embraces all the ‘realities’ without evaluating them. He is well aware that we are living between Poland, Spain and France and will most definitely live in Canada in the near future to experience his dad’s culture.
I see him thriving in the international school he’s attending. He’s curious about the different countries his school friends come from and often remarks about the many languages they speak. To him it’s very ‘normal’ to speak more than one language. He feels comfortable and at ease in this international environment because it’s familiar, as it resembles what he’s lived so far and what he experiences at home.
Often expats ask themselves where they belong. Isn’t home where the heart is? But what does it really mean? To me, home can be created wherever you are. Home is knowing what ingredients constitute your feeling of belonging and how to incorporate them into your life, how to cater for them. I love running so wherever I go, I take my running shoes with me. Some take their favourite tea, or an artefact that has accompanied them for years. Whether an item, a hobby, a fragrance or a song, you can always take them with you to help you feel anchored and grounded.
When I ask my nearly 5-year old where home is for him, he hesitates a bit and after a while states firmly: ”Our house is here, in Gdansk”, which just shows children’s ability to be here and now. His home is his room, his toys, his parents, his routines… I am aware that as he grows older, he might become more attached to one place, so it might be more complicated to move around.
However, leaving doesn’t mean abandoning, being far away doesn’t have to mean being out of touch. We make sure to stay in regular contact with our international friends. When we go back to France or Spain to visit them, Lyan is there and then. He’s eager to enjoy his favourite food and re-visit familiar places. He’s especially excited to reconnect with his friends there, which shows that community plays a big role from early years.
Community is extremely important even when you’re not an expat but with your family and “old” friends at a distance, you want to make sure you create a network of people who will make your stay abroad so much more meaningful.
I often get asked whether to blend with locals in order to integrate or to look for fellow expats. I’d say both. If you’re open to meeting people and making friends, you will attract your type of crowd that you have things in common with. So what to do exactly to create a community? I’ll share what I’ve done and what has proven successful for me throughout the 20 years abroad and for my family in the last 5 years.
First of all, you need to be honest with yourself that if you’re not ready to make an effort and take initiative, you will get lonely and overwhelmed, as blunt as it sounds. And this, in turn, will have an impact on your family. I’ve had a client who admitted she didn’t want to integrate and didn’t wonder when her son refused to speak the local language or to go to school.
Be present, be curious. I met my husband on the tube! Yes, romance and serendipity still exist when you don’t have your face glued to your mobile’s screen. I bumped into our now best friend in France when taking the rubbish out. Another friendship was created at the supermarket when Lyan hung onto a lady’s cart and wouldn’t let go. Being a primary school teacher, she started talking to him, in French of course, and he felt really amused. We exchanged phone numbers (I could hardly do the numbers back then) and a week later met for dinner and have been in touch ever since.
Set an intention to meet new people and try to strike up a conversation at the bus stop, at the post office, in a queue, with your neighbour, when walking your dog. Smile. You’ll see that your effort will pay off and you’ll feel at home surrounded by more and more people who know you and care.
You can be even more proactive and join Facebook expat groups which are a great place to learn about local activities and initiatives, as simple as meeting for a coffee or a picnic. You can publish a post in such expat groups yourself, looking for new friends with shared hobbies. Through such an announcement we met a Mexican-Polish couple who used to live in France and have recently moved to Poland with their 5-year-old who is a great play buddy for Lyan. Having so much in common, we hit it off straight away. On another occasion a French-Polish couple who moved from Ireland to Poland was looking for a play date for their 4-year-old daughter and Lyan and Lotti were inseparable in no time.
Facebook is a good meeting point, for sure. I joined an International Moms’ group in Gdansk and a BCN Hungry Mamas community that I learnt about through Facebook. InterNations is also a great place to make meaningful friendships. We joined their hiking and dining events and met some amazing people from all around the world. Of course not all of them will become our friends but those that we immediately connected with, we invited them over to get to know them further and nurture the relationship. Through some of them we learnt about other groups, activities, initiatives and came across a running group that we trained twice a week with.
Your children’s school will also present various opportunities to meet new people. Greet the parents of your child’s friends and be open to having a chat that can lead to a long-life friendship. Lyan’s school offers zumba and football classes as well as regular social activities for parents to network. If your children attend extracurricular activities, like karate, swimming, guitar lessons, and the like, you will automatically meet other parents there.
If you’re attending a language school, you will want to take advantage of that too. Mingle with your classmates and you might overcome the challenges of foreign language acquisition by supporting each other, practising the newly learnt material.
Fitness classes at your gym might also be a perfect meeting point for like-minded people, so remember to smile and break the ice by chit-chatting. I attended prenatal and postpartum yoga and the group of moms I met there became my support network.
It’s as important to look after your well-being as it is for your children. A happy expat parent makes for a happy expat child. If you’re overwhelmed and struggle to integrate, your child is likely to pick that up and feel the same way. In any case, the best piece of advice I’ve received when it comes to parenting regardless of being an expat or not, is that children are the happiest when they are noticed and understood, so make empathy your best friend and seek understanding and connection with your children, especially when fraught with challenging situations.
Exciting as it is, expat life doesn’t come without challenges; however, living abroad will change your life forever, it’ll open your mind to new horizons, it’ll be the best lesson about the world and yourself! I’ve been on the road for 20 years, lived in 17 cities and moved 30 times, so I know the good and the bad about the expat lifestyle. You may have to prepare for uprootedness and accept that you will no longer belong anywhere. You may also feel at your best wherever you go. So what does it depend on?
Throughout my expat journey, I’ve been very lucky to follow my passion of unlocking people’s potential as a coach, talent manager, L&D partner, performance consultant, corporate trainer, lecturer and a teacher. It is my firm belief that with the right tools and support any stay can be a great stay. You can dare to thrive!
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