You’re in a new place. This person is yelling at you in a language you don’t understand. None of his gestures make any sense. You’re beyond tired already. Your diet’s completely changed. You’re achy from carrying the extra weight of your luggage. Finding accessible public transportation is a never-ending challenge. People from home keep asking “How’s it going?” but you know they’d just rather see an Instagram snap of your experience than hear about it.
The shock sets in. This just got REAL. Your life will probably never be the same.
Am I talking about international travel or the first few months of parenthood?
BOTH actually. One prepares you well for the other.
So much to read! So much to do! So much to accumulate!
You start saying your goodbyes to friends and family you know you may not see for a long time. Not that you’re going away for like, forever. But let’s face it: are they really going to want to hang out with you when you do come back? They have lives that have continued despite your new adventures.
You study up. You try to learn the lingo, you put together lists, you make logistical arrangements. How will I get here? What happens if something goes wrong? Do I have all the right phone numbers/emails/addresses?
Time seems to move both quickly and slowly. Just yesterday, it seems, you had no idea you’d even embark on this journey.
Then the journey begins.
The first few days.
Ahhh! You’re off! The first few days are so exciting. Everything is new. People are hospitable and bringing you food. You have new friends who seem to care (even if it’s superficial, and based solely on you going through this experience together…whatever, you are in this together!) There are new smells (some pleasant, some not, but all new…SO EXCITING!) and it’s just so wonderful.
You’re a little tired, and you have no idea what time it is—your body’s clock is all kinds of thrown off—but that’s all just part of the fun! People are impressed with you and your adventuresome nature. Life is gonna be GREAT!
It gets real.
After the first week or so, more of the reality sets in. You’re not just here for a week. This isn’t a vacation from normal life. You have to live this new life for the foreseeable future. You have to maintain your priorities while also going through this exciting but challenging time. Your finances have to work. Unless you have endless amounts of money and resources, you have to say “no” to invitations to hang out and party and travel every weekend. And saying “no” has translated to you receiving fewer invitations to decline. People aren’t checking in on you regularly because they assume you’re busy and doing great.
Some programs—and yes, that’s a metaphor for babies, stick with me—are “easier” than others. Some demand a lot of your time and energy and don’t let you sleep much. Others allow you to have a pretty regular schedule with extracurricular activities (yoga, grocery shopping, making dinner).
You see social media posts with people from home, or even other people going through the same experience as you, and it might make you sad. They all look so happy: They are going on about their normal lives. You wonder if you should reach out to anyone and let them know how you’re feeling, but you’re also worried that people will say “Why? Why are you upset? What you are doing is AMAZING!” and so you post a cute picture here and there of you and your new friend(s) and leave it at that.
The weekends start to fade away. You had such a to-do list when this exciting phase of your life started. Now this timeline of sorts is hanging over your head, placing even more pressure on your already weighed-down shoulders. Soon, you’ll be back to your “regular” life, back in the same places you were before this adventure started. Though, you won’t feel “regular” at all, most likely. There were people you were going to see, and meet-up plans you were going to make, and photos you needed to take to show you were making your way through the bucket list. But, you’re also cherishing moments spent with people you know you may not see forever in places you’ve come to love.
And the thing is, you enjoy this experience. Every moment of it (almost). But you’re realizing that this is a much deeper experience than your photos can depict, than people explained to you, that books you read prepared you for. You feel stronger in capacities you did not know you had—or that even existed. You have become fluent in the language of the experience—and you learn to laugh at what you don’t know, and your failures, and the things that will always remain a mystery about this new culture you’ve lived for the past few weeks or months.
|Living Abroad Version
|You bring five hoodies (way to rep America) and running shoes (you go for a run once) to a warm climate—but forget your bathing suit.
|You have four types of baby carriers (you use all of them once, and one all the time) but run out of newborn diapers within two weeks (HOW DOES IT GO THAT MUCH?!?).
|Someone is trying to communicate with you.
|You smile, they repeat. You muster up the phrase for “English, please?” and they repeat louder. You get closer to tears as their hand gestures get closer to your face. You never figure out what they meant or wanted, but when you get home, you realize your fly is down.
|The baby is screaming. You change, you feed, you cuddle, you rock. The child screams louder. An hour later, you still have no idea what to do.
|You want to eat ALL of the things.
|You eat all of the things. You use the “This dish is not like this at home” excuse. About three weeks in, you realize you’ve spent half your travel allowance on food and you find whatever local cuisine is the cheapest eats possible. This cheap eat sustains you for the rest of your time abroad.
|You eat all of the things. At first, people might bring you food, and you have some freezer stashes. As that dwindles a few weeks in, you begin to resent any guests who you offer food to that actually say “Yes.” They are STEALING YOUR FOOD. You then find yourself eating peanut butter straight from the jar in the middle of the night and wondering what has become of your life as you pretend it’s late-night pizza after a fun night out.
|You make new friends.
|You make friends with people in the first few days. You love them! You travel with them. You go to museums together. You speak English with them. You have so much in common and you’re in this together! A month in, they all get on your last nerve and you realize you have made .33 friends with someone from the host country.
|You make new-parent friends. Maybe you go to a play group or a postnatal yoga class, or you see the same tired-looking dad with a baby strapped to his front at the bar you snuck the baby into to watch soccer on a Saturday morning. You guys have so much in common and you’re in this together! You promise you won’t only talk about the kids. Several friend-dates later, you still only talk about the kids.
|You find superpowers.
|You find yourself lost on the subway late one weekend night. You can’t really read the signs, and the subways are running strangely—off-schedule, some lines shut down. You exit, look around, and out of nowhere your internal compass kicks in and you realize you can walk home from memory. You’re freakin’ Carmen San Diego all of a sudden.
|You finagle a bottle under your chin as you hold the baby with one arm, crouch down to get laundry out of the dryer with your free arm (get those squats in!), use your foot to bring the laundry basket closer, and use your behind to keep the dryer door open. You have the balance and grace of an Olympic gymnast.
|You seek out signs of normalcy.
|You maintain your Netflix account (fingers crossed it works abroad) and when the going gets tough, you binge watch four episodes of Game of Thrones (while secretly hating everyone who is able to see the new seasons at home).
|You schedule a feeding around a time you know a terrible trashy reality show about rich people with problems will come on. You may not schedule ANY other things for this child, but gosh darn it he WILL be eating or rocking when you’re Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
|You think you’re an expert on all things _______.
|You get home from France, but not before using the last bit of your money buying the coolest trendy shoes all the French girls are wearing, along with a healthy number of croissant cookbooks. (You’ll use NONE of that at home). When people ask you how Alsace-Lorraine treated you, you emphasize your pronunciation of the region because you want them to know they’re morons for not saying it with a better accent. You notice friends’ eyes glazing over or them getting phone calls they “have to take” when you begin stories with “When I was in France…”
|You swear by Butt Paste for your kids’ diaper rashes, and if other moms don’t do the same, well, you need to educate them on the magic of butt paste! It is your DUTY. Maybe you aren’t paid by Butt Paste, but haven’t they provided enough of a service to you that you should just be evangelizing them to everyone who has a baby with a butt? It can be used for so many things, too! Runny chapped nose? The dog got a splinter in its paw? Butt Paste to the rescue! When people ask you how you’re doing, you come up with a standard response, but at some point, you best believe your love of Butt Paste makes its way into your response.
And just like that, the months conclude. You have so much to show for surviving this new experience—even if a lot of it can’t be shown in photos or Snapchat.
You prepare to re-enter your workplace, place of study, normal life—whatever shape that took prior to this experience—and you know that while everything will be somewhat familiar, you have changed dramatically. You feel a little like an expert, and need to be careful not to be that annoying returnee:
Study abroad version: “Oh, it’s actually pronounced BarTHElonAAAA.”
Parenting version: “OH NO. I’d never use non-organic diapers for my baby—and you shouldn’t either.”
When people ask you how it’s going, they don’t necessarily REALLY want to know—unless they have ridden in the same rodeo. Those people—those other returnees, fellow baby battlers—these veterans become closer to you than you ever imagined. You regret not listening to them more prior to adventuring out yourself—but they forgive you.
You settle back in and consider how you’ve changed and where this experience fits into your life. You are not defined by this experience, but it has helped define you as a person.
And then, as time passes, you wonder if you should do it again. And maybe you become a repeat offender, like me.
Next stop: Japan. In June, I’ll be leading a group of U.S. higher education professionals to explore partnerships with Japanese universities.
And another baby, due in October.
Bring on the new adventures.
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- How Living Abroad and Parenthood Are Basically the Same - May 5, 2016