Tag Archives: Testimonial

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)

You Can’t Run Away: Mindfulness as Freedom from Exercise Addiction

Mindfulness made sport fun again
Mindfulness made sport fun again

 

The following experience is generously contributed to this blog by a mindfulness enthusiast who wishes to remain anonymous but hopes that sharing this story may inspire others to try something different in their lives.

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These days, I can’t remember the last time I went to the gym. Even so, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the drumming of footsteps on the treadmill, the distinctive smell of sweat and disinfectant and coffee, and the damp strain of my perspiration-soaked teeshirt. Throughout the formative years of my life, exercise was a constant companion, so much so that when I could not exercise, I felt jittery, couldn’t sleep, wasn’t hungry. What many people call “discipline,” for me became “addiction.” It is with hindsight that I now recognize that my quest for fitness, and the time and mental energy involved in maintaining this elusive quality, was not healthy. In fact, it interfered with my functioning and the quality of my life.

In university, I  often chose a workout over studying for exam. I meticulously planned my daily academic routine around a two-hour allotment of gym time. During a summer research tenure abroad, my first thought was “how do I find a gym?” Anxiety-driven runs punctuated even the seemingly all-encompassing early days with the man who became my husband. He regularly found amusement in my early morning treks through massive unplowed snowdrifts to the nearly empty gym.

My desperate quest was not about weight or appearance (for the most part), but about wanting to maintain evidence supporting my narrow view of what an athlete should do. Since discovering my penchant for long-distance running in middle school and the recognition my success in this area garnered, I became obsessed with maintaining work out regimens that I felt revealed my level of fitness. No matter that very often these regimens were actually sabotaged by the extreme dedication I showed in their pursuit: the six stress fractures in high school, the anemia that depleted my energy, the dehydration that resulted in a miles -long blackout running along a busy road, and the fatigue and depression from being trapped in an endless loop.

If I couldn’t run exactly 7.6 miles per hour for 45 minutes on a treadmill with a 1.5 percent incline that day, I was obviously just days away from muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness and ultimately, losing my identity as an athlete. Vacations were plagued by anxiety and furtive runs were crammed in among planned pleasurable pursuits. My mood could swing from post-workout elation to an extreme irritability resulting from what felt like the worst cabin fever imaginable.

With the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that each workout was avoidance of what I feared most: being unfit and what that could mean. And if I weren’t fit, or an athlete, or dedicated to the pursuit of my physical maintenance, I did not know who I was. It took having a child and a move abroad to face this difficult reality but by the time I chose to steer my life in this direction, I was ready for change.

However, the real key to unlocking the cage of exercise addiction was the practice of mindfulness. At first I found the practice of sitting with myself, with no distraction, for minutes at a time, to be exceedingly uncomfortable. But, I made it my goal to confront my doubts about this motionless mental exercise and keep on practicing.

It was by establishing a regular mindfulness practice that I finally became more comfortable in my skin, doing whatever my body happened to be doing, feeling whatever happened to be present during that moment. When I could not exercise, I directed my attention to the movement in my body during routine activities like walking to the grocery store, doing the laundry or washing dishes. Additionally, I opened to the anxiety I felt, befriending it and getting to know its ebbs and flows. Rather than this increasing my anxiety, this approach helped me to manage it and continue to live the life I valued. By facing my fears, I gathered evidence that the worst would not happen- that I would still be a human being worthy of connection, value and belonging.

With time and mindfulness and doing things differently, I have slowly and steadily forged a different relationship with exercise. I recognize that it is not the exercise itself that caused the problem, but rather my relationship with it and its power to influence how I felt about myself. I am grateful that these days, I know I am a hard-working and healthy person who makes the time to invest in the things that I find important: friends, family, my work, and even, sport.

In high school and college, I was a competitive runner and triathlete. In high school, I placed in the top ten for my state’s cross country run. After repeated injuries, I started swimming and found triathlon to fit nicely to my interest in exercising as much as possible. A simple formula developed: a good race = pride and a feeling of accomplishment; a bad race = anxiety and self-punishment. After this frantic roller-coaster ride of a life, I decided to abandon competitive sport. For some time after college, I was so paralyzed by the threats posed to my self-image by athletic competition that I refrained from racing competitively at all.  I preferred the quiet, easily controlled and anonymous comforts of the gym. I convinced myself that sport was overrated and that I simply enjoyed working out.

But I missed the community of sport, the joy of a big road race and the enthusiastic supporters clapping as the runners passed their front lawns. I missed the dialogue and the thrill of connection to the world of my sport. I now realize that this approach to managing my anxiety was not satisfying.

Now, I practice mindfulness during my run. I intentionally choose to run for the love of movement and from the moment I start to lace up my shoes, I am tuned in to my experience. During my runs, I experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that each step is a gift. I am grateful to be outside, to be moving, to be in my body and with my thoughts. When I am uncomfortable, I adjust my body to compensate. Rather than try and maintain some arbitrary metric that I can use to compare myself to during the next run, I open to the sensations in my body and decide how to respond to them. And I compete! I smile at the supporters and feel proud that I am engaging with the community around me. I open my eyes and look at the things I pass as I am running. I notice if my mind gets stuck on anxious thinking or comparing and bring the focus back to my breath or to the sound of my feet on the pavement.

It is thanks to both sport and mindfulness that my relationship with myself and with exercise is balanced and flexible. Most days, I am comfortable in my own skin and can respond with compassion to impulses that do not match my values. I am happy on the days that I can get in a run but am equally content when days pass and my main activity is building a Duplo tower with my son. I am grateful that even in the early stage of this new way of relating to exercise, I already feel stronger and more powerful than I did when I was more physically fit.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)