Truth – be – told, we never dreamed we would conceive, birth and raise a family in a country other than our own. When we accepted our international, short – term work assignment, we anticipated enjoying the “European” scene for a while and then, with great ease, slipping back into our old lives just in time to start our family once our feet were firmly planted on American soil.
Life didn’t exactly go according to our plan. When our short -term work contract extended to five – years, we had to seriously consider starting our family while living in Switzerland. For my husband, the decision was simple, for me, the one who labors over every decision, the convincing took a bit longer. After many conversations, we realized time was of the essence (we weren’t getting any younger) and the best time to start our family would be NOW.
There was no way for us to prepare our lives in advance for becoming parents. We, like everyone else prior to taking the parental plunge, could not even begin to grasp the magnitude of our decision. There were no parameters to gauge how we would feel, respond and/or handle the new person placed so lovingly into our lives. Now add in a new healthcare system, birthing without the support of family close – by and in a language that had not yet been mastered and it is easy to see how stress can slowly creep in. After having two children in Switzerland we have experienced both the positive and negative aspects of raising a family abroad.
Loneliness – The day we were discharged from the hospital with our first born in our arms, we looked at each other with a deep sense of loneliness. Without the support of our own mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, we felt extremely isolated and melancholy. We longed to share the arrival of our son with our family and to have him embraced by grandparents, aunts and uncles, but because of our distance, that did not happen.
My God, as a woman did I ache to have my own mother and her parental wisdom at my side to help guide me, to show me and to soothe my every concern. But instead of visits from family and friends, we birthed silently, retreated home quietly and fumbled through together just the three of us. We did have the loving support and wisdom from two incredible Midwives who made home visits with both of our children. This was an absolute life saver!
We realized very early on that the love of our family and friends was able to extend across the globe in very unconventional/delayed ways. However, the day – to – day of raising our family would have to rely solely on our new family unit.
Relationships – Just like anyone in a long distance relationship will tell you, it takes extreme effort to maintain relationships both with family and friends while living abroad. Time zones, work schedules, travel, and a slew of other reasons make it difficult to remain in close contact with everyone, all the time. We know we can do better in the way of reaching out, scheduling routine phone calls, but often as our long days are winding down, children need to be fed, bath time lingers and bed time beckons, calling friends and family seems to slip out of the schedule.
Those relationships require extreme, ongoing effort, thought and consideration in order to remain constant. We often come up lacking in this area and know this is one of our downfalls.
Helping Hands – “It takes a village to raise a child,” as the old African Proverb says, but in our case, it took and still takes just the two of us. The fact that we are alone in Switzerland without the support of family can at times be a tough pill to swallow. Certainly the choice was ours to make, but there have been times when having family close by would have been invaluable. Having an extra set of hands after the arrival of our son, during hospitalizations for serious illnesses, or when my husband was required to travel for work, leaving me, a new and vulnerable first- time -mom alone with our newborn would have been incredible.
Creating a community with trusted friends, healthcare professionals, and excellent babysitters were resources we learned to have in place to offer support, reprieve and peace of mind. Our advice, do not delay on setting your support network in place – you never know when you will need those trusting friends!
Excellent Healthcare and Prenatal Care – Raising a family outside of your home country isn’t all sorrow and loneliness. The moment we found out we were expecting, we were wrapped in the glow of the Swiss healthcare system. Experiencing two pregnancies and two births in Switzerland has been a truly wonderful experience for us both. The care, the attention to detail, the refreshing respect of the midwives in the hospital, made us grateful that we elected to bring our children into our Swiss world.
Travel Has Become the New Family Classroom -One of the greatest joys we have experienced while raising our children abroad is our ability to travel so frequently. We have been committed to “getting out there” despite having small children and we have made the most of our central Swiss location. Each new trip provides the opportunity to teach our children about traveling wisely, hiking with deep respect to those pristine settings, visiting museums rich with culture and history and trying new foods in remarkable countries.
Reflecting on our time in Europe has felt like such a rich educational experience not only for our children, but for us as well. We value each new opportunity to travel and hold each journey dear to our hearts.
Home Visits Are Not Vacation – Please do not perceive this as ungrateful or rude, but after years of living abroad, we have found that trips home are wonderful in the way of seeing family and friends and reconnecting with loved ones, however, such visits are not without stress.
The emotional, financial, and logistical planning all weigh heavily on us. We long to have the time to squeeze in every last visit with friends and family, but inevitably come up short every single time. We run around with expectations that are never filled and we often retreat back home wondering how things could have been different. At the end of each trip, we are often depleted from the heart-wrenching “hello’s and good-bye’s,” and our inability to visit both coasts, hug every relative, chat with each friend and visit those places that feel special to us.
We All Learn Together and We Grow Tremendously – Travel is not the only way in which our worlds have expanded while living in Europe. Learning to navigate a new language, culture, school system, tax system, health – care, work environments and managing our lives on a day-to-day basis are all ways in which we have grown as individuals and as a family. Certainly there are moments when we sit down with our head in our hands and think how much easier this would all be in our home country, but year after year, we elect to stay. We have faced tough decisions, remarkable highs and tremendous lows, but overall, our life feels incredibly rich and for that, we are for now, staying put.
Living Small – There is no doubt, had we chosen to stay in the States we would have been wrapped in the frenzy of a consumer filled lifestyle. We would still own a home, two cars, trinkets and gadgets and spent countless hours deciding how to decorate the baby’s nursery. While there is nothing wrong with that lifestyle choice, we have now come to appreciate living on a smaller scale. Living abroad has bestowed upon us the value of collecting memories rather than things.
Overall, the ride to parenting is full of joy, though bumpy to say the least. Most days we retreat to our bedroom exhausted from the day’s work. We sit for hours conversing about what went well, what didn’t work and what we can do better.
We struggle over parenting decisions like all parents do, but instead of being plagued by the routine parenting woes, we are also confronted with the elements of raising our children outside of our home country, in a culture that is foreign to us.
Most days we feel confident with our decision to live abroad and have vowed not to live with regrets. And above all, what a tremendous opportunity we sought all those years ago, stretching us out of our comfort zones, but that is not without deep reflection. Some days, particularly when stress levels are high and sleep is aloof, we dive into the deep stream of,
“Are we doing the right thing?”
“What about connection to family?”
“Are you providing our children with enough of their American culture?”
“Would this journey feel easier if were were at home?”
The reality is, there is no way of knowing. When we left the States, we left as a newly married, childless, working couple. Our lives were incredibly different back then, but this is now and we are here to live the best life we possibly can.
In the end, we have come to the realization that we must be at peace with our decision to live outside of our home country, knowing that we have the ability to self – correct at any given moment. Though deep down, we feel that this life we are creating is profoundly rich with experiences we may not otherwise be able to provide.
We seek solace in knowing that our children are happy, their days in local schools are boisterous, they have local friends, enjoy travel and are able to communicate effectively with others and connect with us. And so for right now, our decision to stay still feels oh, so very right!