Tag Archives: Parenting

An Ode To Expat Mamas

Friends

This post is one of a particularly personal nature and also one that I am very excited to write. I think it is relevant to the general theme of this blog given that it relates to what it is like to be a mother abroad and the importance of social support for mental health. But mostly it is about friendship and its power to transform the experience of living far from home.

When I first moved to Switzerland, my son was just two months old. I had very little experience parenting in the United States much less parenting in a country where I could not speak the language, did not have a job and was far from the support of my friends and immediate family. I made an effort to reach out and luckily, there were a number of ways to meet other English-speaking parents in Lausanne. I now know that, during this initial phase of acclimation, there can be a tendency to open up to anyone with friend potential and very quickly become socially overextended. But, with lack of sleep whittling away patience, I moved into the phase of being more selective with potential social activities.

I was fortunate to meet and connect with some of the most creative, courageous and smart women from all over the world. Our countries of origin spanned most of the world: Taiwan, Ukraine, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Dagestan, Malaysia and the U.S. And despite our differences, we now share a chapter of our lives with one another that we all consider to be one of the most special and unique. We all had our first children around the same time and weathered some of the greatest ups and downs of this new experience together.

As it often happens in the highly mobile expat communities, that chapter is now coming to a close as these women and their families follow opportunities in other countries. Although we always knew the intensity of these relationships would change as our life circumstances did, it is still sad to go our separate ways.

I often tell clients that expat moms get the short end of the stick. In moving to Switzerland, they are usually the ones that experience the most dramatic changes to their living situations and, typically, are tasked with organizing life for the kids. They are immersed in the minutiae of daily life in a foreign country and often juggle a lot of balls. Whether they stay at home or work outside of the home or something in between, expat mamas have to be tough. They enter this life without many certainties about what the future may hold and develop a thick skin that allows them to weather the daily difficulties. They learn how to advocate for their children even if it goes against the grain and how to manage the childcare shortage. Many of these mamas are tireless entrepreneurs who put themselves “into the arena” in a big way. Expat mamas take things in stride, whether it’s the inconvenient laundry room schedule, the train stations without elevators or ramps, the two-hour lunch break from school, or the Sundays where nothing- I mean NOTHING- is open. In short, to be an expat mama, you have to be comfortable with discomfort.

One of the best things an expat mama can do is develop a strong network of genuine social support. Ideally, a playgroup for mother and child-where both moms and kids can enjoy the company of those who understand their experience. I believe that while it is not necessary to have a village to raise a child, it sure is nice to have one. And expat parents are uniquely in a position to enjoy the immense diversity of cultural perspectives while connecting with other parents who share the same fundamental motivation: being the best possible parents they can be.

I do not think I would be the happy and relaxed parent I am today without the influence of my mama friends. Even though moving abroad meant starting over and forging my own way in many respects, I somehow feel like the friendships started here have been there all along. And I am confident that these relationships have left a mark that will last into the future.

(Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Navigating Postpartum Depression and Anxiety as an Expat

Baby_mom

As most parents know, nothing can truly prepare you for what it will be like to bring a child into the world and be charged with raising that tiny, vulnerable creature into adulthood. After reading a dozen books, endlessly questioning my friends with children and buying more baby supplies than anyone could ever need, I thought I was prepared. But, strangely enough, when the nurse put my son in my arms, I couldn’t have felt more unprepared. Somehow, we parents work it out. Our children survive our initially clumsy attempts at diaper changes, feeding and bathing. We navigate the challenges of early parenthood that we could never have anticipated. However, this learning curve is a rocky road, one that leaves many (if not most) feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and perpetually longing for a nap.

Yet, today I write about those parents who feel all of those things but to a degree that is difficult to articulate. Those parents who may, on one hand, feel like what they are experiencing is “normal” adjustment but on the other, suspect their struggle is different from those of their peers, and as such, may be reluctant to voice what they are feeling. It is my hope that this post serves to do a few things:

  • Elucidate differences between the more typical (I want avoid saying “normal” as there really is no such thing) early parenthood experience and symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety (PPD/A) that might warrant extra attention and treatment
  • Discuss how being an expatratriate might exacerbate early parenthood difficulties
  • Assure any suffering parents that they are not alone- that help exists in the form of effective treatment by a professional or by accessing resources available in our community

Symptoms of PPD/A

Listed below are symptoms that characterize the general experience of postpartum depression/anxiety. Keep in mind that not all of the symptoms might apply or that the symptoms may be somewhat different for you. I provide the list simply to increase general awareness.

For at least two weeks at a time following the birth (or adoption) of a baby, you experience some of the following:

  • Depressed mood (most of the day, almost every day)
  • Inability to find pleasure in the things you normally enjoy
  • Not wanting to eat or overeating
  • Not being able to sleep, not wanting to sleep, or wanting to sleep all the time
  • Feeling physically tired or aching to the point that your level of activity is markedly different from normal
  • Feeling physically wound up so that you feel as if you can’t sit still
  • Lack of energy or fatigue nearly every day
  • Intense feelings of inappropriate or excessive guilt and worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or someone else
  • Racing thoughts
  • Constant worry
  • Frequent or constant resentment of your partner or child

And most importantly

  • The way you feel consistently interferes with your normal functioning (e.g., decreased socialization, inability to manage responsibilities, decline in hygiene).

The Expat Experience: Feeling Alone in the World

Living in a foreign country far from family and friends can serve to exacerbate feelings of being isolated and alone. There may be fewer sources of support to help you remain balanced and able to care well for yourself in conjunction to you caring well for your baby. There is less access to people who might remind you of your personal resources and help you combat thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness, people who know how to encourage and praise you when the going gets tough. Not to mention the difficulty involved in simply accessing community resources when you do not speak the native language. Feeling tongue-tied is just one more obstacle to picking up the phone and getting help. Furthermore, expat parents often come to a new country for a work opportunity and having a baby can change or eradicate the existing support network that was provided by simply being at work. Depending on your parental leave situation, all of the sudden, you are out of the office and plunged into life as a mom or dad, which is likely quite different from the work environment.

Just to put things in context, clinical psychologists and other health professionals commonly use a scale called the “Social Readjustment Rating Scale” to measure the degree of stress in a person’s life. To give you a taste, “pregnancy (#12)”, “addition of a new family member (#14)”, “change to a different line of work”, “change in sleeping habits” and “change in working conditions” are among the top 30 most stressful events in life. And this list does not even include “Adapting to a new culture in a different country – far from friends, family, and all that you know”! When a person experiences a certain amount of stressful life events in a year, they are more vulnerable to illnesses. And make no mistake: PPD/A is an illness. It is a condition involving daily suffering from which it can seem like there is no reprieve.

You are not Alone: How to Get Support and Support Yourself

As with any health condition, the best chance you have of it improving is if you take steps aimed at healing. For instance, if you have a cold, you rest, drink fluids and avoid going for a jog in the rain. And just like taking care of a cold, there are treatment options for PPD/A that show excellent efficacy. And the things that work range from intensive psychotherapy paired with medication to the simple implementation of self-care activities that your pre-baby self might have done without thinking. Those self-care activities might include things like exercising regularly, meeting weekly with a friend for coffee and a chat, or ordering take-away food rather than cooking. Doing these things does not make you less of a parent. In fact, taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do for your child.

When talking to clients, I often refer to the airline safety guidelines requirement that, in the event of an emergency, the adult should put on their own oxygen mask before helping their child put on his. Our children need us to take care of ourselves first because otherwise, we cannot tend to their needs.

It can be unbelievably hard to reach out for help when you have no energy to pick up the phone or feel overwhelmed by cultural differences or believe that you should just grit your teeth and “get through it, it’s normal.” If increasing self-care activities does not diminish the symptoms or if it is just too daunting to embark on these changes alone, it is important to enlist the help of a professional.

To get started, here are some links to online support resources:

To those parents living abroad who are struggling with early parenthood, please know that you are not alone and you are not without hope. There are many parents and professionals who share your experience and who can help you feel more empowered. Enlisting the support of your partner, a compassionate friend, a group of other parents, a medical doctor, a health practitioner or a psychotherapist can transform your experience of parenthood while enriching the relationship you have with yourself and your child.

(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Parenting in Real Life: Modeling Imperfection

family

We parents are hard on ourselves. It is no secret that the parenting bar is often set ridiculously high. There is some usefulness for these high expectations- they can sometimes provide a boost of short-term motivation or help make clear what is really valuable. But, more often than not, unrealistic expectations only make us feel… well… crappy.

Funny enough, when we find that we cannot leap effortlessly over that high bar we set for ourselves, a common method for dealing is giving ourselves a stern internal talking-to and setting the bar even higher! Most of the time, this strategy- although based on good intentions- only depletes our sense of self-efficacy and further invalidates the very good efforts we are making but overlooking.

There is an alternative that serves to set up a new pattern of relating to yourself and has the potential to impact your child’s relationship with him or herself. As your child’s primary role model, you have the fabulous opportunity to model imperfection. Just as many parents make an effort to help their children realize that the implausible expectations society places on appearance and physical beauty are not reasonable, you can do the same for behavioral and emotional expectations.

You don’t expect your child’s appearance to fit the photoshopped standards of beauty perpetuated in the media. And more than likely, you do not expect them to go through life without making a mistake or never being disappointed in themselves. And you are in a unique position to show them how to embrace the imperfection that helps to make us who we are as individuals. You get to say to them:  “I was really angry today and I can see it did not help the situation. Next time, I am going to try to handle my anger in another way.”

Or: “Yes, I was very frustrated today when I said those words while I was driving. Normally I try not to say those words because they can be hurtful. Next time, I will try to handle my frustration differently.”

And what you are really saying is: “I am not perfect. Sometimes I do things that I am not proud of. But I own that and I am accountable for my mistakes.” That small act of acknowledgment pays dividends. You are actively showing your child how to cultivate self-compassion and how to be vulnerable. Concurrently, you are showing him/her how to take responsibility for their actions, how to be courageous in the face of difficulty and  how to build a innate sense of worthiness.

As discussed earlier, self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Modeling imperfection does not mean that all of the sudden your “expectation bar” is tumbling down to the floor and you spend the rest of your days lying in front of the television with a gallon of Nutella (although that may happen from time to time). It simply means that you make a conscious effort to cultivate a different kind of internal conversation that is more kind, fair and balanced. One that is more along the lines of “Yeah, that did not go as well as I had hoped but I am proud of what I did accomplish” versus the tired old refrain of “Everyone else could have done that and you didn’t. Tomorrow you’ll have to try even harder because failing is unacceptable.”

And how wonderful would it be if you could simultaneously help your children to cultivate this same kind of dialogue?

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Self-Compassion and Parenting: Talking to Yourself Like You Talk to Your Kids

Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful
Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful

Following a very fun and thought-provoking workshop about mindful parenting on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of infusing more self-compassion into parenting. Specifically, how parents can cultivate self-compassion and what responding to difficulty with self-compassion rather than guilt and anxiety would look like in reality. I believe that careful cultivation of self-compassion can provide much needed balance to our habitual reactivity.

First, I think it is important to elucidate what self-compassion is not, as it can easily blend with some of the other “self-” terms that exist in our modern vernacular, like “self-esteem,” “self-indulgence,” or “self-care.” As self-compassion researcher and advocate Kristin Neff explains, self-compassion is not self-pity:

Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence. Again, Dr. Neff explains:

Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything.  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of icecream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  

Instead, self-compassion is an acceptance of our humanness, an acceptance of those things that make us flawed, imperfect and relatable. And it’s about responding to those difficult moments (when those challenging aspects of yourself feel so front and center in your mind that you cannot think of anything else) with kindness and gentleness. Luckily, we parents have an advantage when it comes to cultivating self-compassion because we have a lot of practice with compassion in responding to our kids.

Think about it: when your child comes home complaining about a bully, or feeling sad, or feeling angry- you respond. You likely relate to your child’s suffering and attempt to make your child feel better by responding with warmth and understanding. Ok, now let’s flip the script:  what would it be like to respond in this same way to yourself when you are experiencing similar difficulties?

Self-compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of difficulties as they arise, and to be able to observe them without over-identifying with them. With mindfulness, we can simply notice the experience without judgement and without getting swept away in unhelpful reactivity.

But, like all new thinking habits, cultivating self-compassion takes time and a consistent effort to try something different in the face of a difficulty. It takes a) recognition that you are indeed being triggered in this moment, b) stepping back to decide how to respond and finally, c) deciding not to do the same old thing, like talking to yourself with reproach or self-criticism, but instead noting that a mistake was made and that imperfection is normal (and, dare I say it, even desirable!). See if you can replace the punishing self-recrimination with the idea that you are doing the best you can.

We parents are quite adept at helping our children to cope with the stressors and difficulties that they encounter everyday. But, somehow, it is far less easy for us to treat ourselves with the same understanding and kindness. You’ve likely seen that the “carrot works better than the stick” with your kids, that they are far more motivated and effective when rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for the bad. And what about for you? What would it be like to modify your internal dialogue and talk to yourself more like you talk to your children? With time, you may find that intentionally cultivating self-compassion can help you to be a more effective parent.

Mindful Weekend: Mindful Parenting

Beginner's mind in action
Beginner’s mind in action

In a few weeks, I will be hosting a “Mindful Parenting” workshop. Preparing for this has really prompted me to think more about ways to integrate practice with the daily rigors and joys of raising kids and managing a household.  I find that being a parent can be an interesting mix of overstimulation (stress!) and understimulation (monotony), and that practicing mindfulness brings me back to “center,” to a place where (most of the time) I can find a sense of calm and effectiveness alongside whatever is happening.

There are days when I feel profoundly un-mindful; when I catch myself constantly plotting how to plan out the day or analyzing what happened at breakfast or daydreaming about my next Ladies Night Out or just watching the time slide by. Some days, I feel like my mind is flipping through channels rapidly and consequently, I rarely attend to what is happening in the moment.

Yesterday, for instance, I left my cell phone in the refrigerator. I don’t know how long it was there but thankfully, I got to it in time to save it from a slow, cold death. To me, forgetfulness and absent-mindedness are cues to slow down and zoom in. And when I do, I am usually rewarded by a more profound sense of being engaged in an activity, being more connected to my son, and enjoying our time together more.

After rescuing my phone, I paused. I brought my attention to my breath. And then, I pulled out some coloring books and crayons and my son and I dug in. And it was a great mindfulness practice: each time I noticed that my mind wandered away from the image or the feeling of the movements in my hand or chatting with my son, I just picked up a new crayon and began again. After ten minutes, it was interesting to see how many times the color changed. The picture was a visual representation of my practice during that period.

Kids are such good mindfulness teachers. They provide great examples of approaching life with a “beginner’s mind,” where we can come to a moment with openness and interest, as if we are experiencing something for the first time. This experience made me wonder: If coloring was so enriching, what other activities could anchor me to the present moment?

And what about you? How do you practice parenting while being mindful? Does it impact your ability to be effective? To connect more deeply? To feel gratitude? I would love to know.

In the meantime, why not do some coloring this weekend?

(Image courtesy of papaija2008 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)