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Expatriate Parents: Raising a Child on Foreign Ground

You’ve just heard the news. You feel excited, terrified, overjoyed, and anxious. Your life is about to change.

Parents and child
© dpa

For some expats, moving to Germany was a conscious choice. The pros and the cons were carefully weighed, a decision was reached, and bags were meticulously packed. For others it came as a surprise: being offered an opportunity at your company’s German office or meeting the love of your life and finding out he (or she) is German. Suddenly, you find your life moving in a new direction. Most parents will tell you that they’ve felt the same way.

When an expat becomes a parent, the joys and challenges of two potentially high-stress (and extremely joyful) experiences collide. Some challenges are magnified—a new expat parent is simultaneously confronted with two enormous tasks: learning how to be a mom or a dad and take care of his or her child while learning how to navigate a foreign culture in a new language—but the benefits are manifold.

Language: Living, learning

Every expat blogger tells a similar story: At one time or another they’ve all wrung their hands and pulled out their hair over the issue of language. German can be a difficult language to learn, and making friends in a language you speak like a four year old even harder. Add an infant or young child to the equation and you’ve got a twofold dilemma. No longer can you avoid confronting the language head on. Not when there are teachers to be talked to and play dates to be organized.  Though the thought might seem overwhelming, having a child often helps expats improve their own language skills—if only out of sheer necessity.

Tiffany—known on the Internet as the American expat blogger behind No Ordinary Homestead—lived in Germany for 12 years. But even with a decade of Deutschland under her belt, the arrival of her daughter Mackenzie some nine years ago helped motivate her to improve her own language skills. “One thing that was both rewarding and challenging about becoming a mom in Germany was getting over the hurdle of learning more and better German,” she told me over lunch as Mackenzie sat grinning beside her. “You've got the numerous doctor's visits (both before and after the baby arrives) and plenty of forms to fill out. Not to mention, when you're in a hospital for four days on your own, it's sink or swim. And the more your child socializes with other children, the more you are forced to polish your German skills.”

A child is a good motivation for expat parents to improve their language skills, then the benefits for their children are even greater. Children are capable of learning languages more quickly than adults, and early exposure to a second language can mean the difference between faltering intermediate-level German proficiency and native fluency. 

Of course, adults can’t learn a new language overnight no matter how much they’d like to, and immersion in a foreign language has its drawbacks as well, especially for parents. Making friends in our native languages can be hard at the best of times, but without a firm set of language skills the challenge can begin to feel impossible.  A smaller circle of friends can also mean a smaller support network, and this leaves many expat parents feeling overwhelmed and isolated.  But, as Jennifer —mother of a two-year-old boy—pointed out, the problem of isolation isn’t only a language issue. “Perhaps it is just a function of getting older, being in a relationship, and living abroad,” she mused. “In the States, getting older and being married narrows your friend field.  Add a kid and it narrows considerably more.  Being an expat seems to exacerbate the narrowness in terms of everything else.”

Kinder freundlich

Despite the fact that many German natives describe their country as not being "child friendly" enough, expat mothers tend to see the situation in a different light. "C," an American who lived in Germany during her daughter’s first couple of years, told me about child- and mother-friendly opportunities in Cologne.

“The city of Cologne gives you two tickets to a ‘baby symphony…and a year-long zoo pass just for having a kid. I also qualified for the year of paid maternity leave (Elternzeit) which was an incredible thing to have—someone paying you to stay home and be a mom just seems so civilized. Being a stay-at-home mom that first year also opened up a lot of the city to me, and I was surprised at just how kid-friendly Cologne could be, with play cafes and playgrounds and kid classes on nearly every block. That's one thing I missed terribly in the US—how much there was to do out of the house with your kid and how easy that makes it to make friends with other moms just by showing up at the local sandbox.”

Other expat mothers seemed equally enthusiastic. “Germany is a really beautiful country to raise children,” an expat mother from Mexico told me of her experience.  “You have everything you need: Big libraries, Spielplätze, museums, parks, the possibility to drive bicycle safely on the streets, it's wonderful.”

A global education

Like Tiffany, it was love that brought Jennifer to Germany, and a little over two years ago she gave birth to her first son here. For her it was the values, global perspective, and education her son Max would receive in Germany that made—and continue to make—the experience fantastic. America—where Jennifer lived until she met her husband—is not a country known for its social programs or informed global perspective.

“He'll get a far better education than I could afford to give him in the States including world history,” Jennifer told me. “I don't know your background, but I came from an upper-class white family in one of the best school districts in the states and my world history was limited to how America was created and went on to contribute to world peace. My world history came from dating foreign men. My kid will grow up with an actual sense of the world rather than just California because in California, there are no other states except during a federal election. And a foreign country for a Northern Californian is a trip to the mission district in San Francisco.”  

She went on: “Living abroad allows me to show Max, by societal example, not just familial, the values I want him to have: Compassion and a sense of social obligation from Germany (western Europe, really) and thinking that everything is possible and nothing impossible if you work hard enough from America. Being a bi-cultural family, I can give him the mishmash pretty easily.”