Therapist Lynne McIntyre explores what it means to raise a family away from one’s own family and place of origin. Lynne shares some of her experiences of moving to Spain and touches on the cultural complexities of not being from the place you call home; all told with a gaze informed by her specialty in maternal mental health.
The first time I lived in Spain, it was for a summer home exchange in a tiny town in the Pyrenees. And by “tiny”, I mean tiny – Castiello de Jaca has about 50 residents outside of August and the ski season. Our boys were 4 and 6 years old at the time and, in an effort to be a diligent mother (and also, let’s be honest, to ensure myself a regular break from mothering), I asked the home-exchange family if they knew of any summer camps in town. They helpfully shared information about the “escuela de verano”, with the caveat that I might not be able to find anything out yet, since it was only late March. “Wow”, I thought, “in DC it’s already three months too late to get your kid into your summer camp of choice. Maybe I have found my people!” I patiently waited until late April, spent hours writing and correcting an email in what was then my barely passable Spanish, and fired off a request for enrollment. In my memory, the response went something like this:
“Dear Crazy American Woman,
Thank you for your inquiry about our summer school. Contrary to the way you psychos in the US do business, booking summer camps before returning from your winter break, we have better things to do with our springtime. As the summer school takes place in August, please feel free to contact us the last week of June for registration.
The Spanish People Whose Lifestyle You Are Now Definitely Sure You Want to Adopt.”
I may have exaggerated for effect, but you get the point. Fast forward five years, and we had sold our house and moved to Barcelona. Although we had lived in Washington, DC for 16 years at that point, this move was not a big departure for either my husband or myself. He spent 12 years of his youth in Latin America, we met in the Peace Corps in West Africa, and before Spain I had lived in six countries apart from the United States. However, there was one very big and important difference to this particular moving-abroad experience: we were doing it as a family, with children in tow. And this changed everything.
Creating, growing and/or maintaining a family far from one’s place of origin is something that humans have been doing for millennia. (I don’t call it “home” because, for many people and families who move, they prefer to think of the place they come to live as “home”, instead of the place they left. It’s a very personal choice). Long before Jesus of Nazareth’s family returned to Bethlehem for the census, the Egtved Girl moved from Germany to Denmark, likely as a result of marriage. Evidence indicates that she traveled back and forth between the two areas during her lifetime, although she eventually died and was buried not in her place of origin, but in her adopted home.
These days, as we know not only from news and social media, but also from literature and film, there are many different reasons that families have for moving to a different country: they may be refugees, fleeing conflict or persecution; maybe they are seeking more and better opportunities for their education or livelihood; they may have moved for love, or accepted a job abroad; or, like my family, they may have simply decided that they wanted something different, something potentially better, than what they left behind. Obviously each of these reasons comes with its own particular set of circumstances, including “pros” and “cons”, challenges and benefits. But some aspects of the experience apply across the board, regardless of one’s reason for moving. I’ll explore a few of those aspects here.
Having a Baby
Childbirth, in addition to being a highly physical experience, is also a highly cultural one. Depending upon where you have your baby, you may not see a man throughout your entire labor. You may shriek and scream from the pain, or remain completely silent. You may be surrounded by beeping and flashing machines in a hospital, or by soft sheets and pillows in the bedroom of a private home. Although my children were not born abroad, I have a particular interest in the circumstances of birth in Spain because I work in perinatal mental health. And I’ll admit that before I moved to Spain, I had sort of lumped it together with other European countries whose healthcare systems I knew better, such as England and France. As such, I had expected a system that was much more focused on non-medicated and non-medicalized births, and also much more aware of important issues like traumatic birth and postpartum depression, to name just two. As many readers probably know from first-hand experience, I was wrong. This is not to say there aren’t places in Spain where one can have a straightforward, physiologic birth (if that’s also what nature intends for you, that is), or get excellent postpartum mental healthcare. But I have come to learn that in many places in Spain, there remain some rather old-fashioned ideas about how we have babies. Now, imagine having a baby not only thousands of miles from your closest family and friends, but going through most of it with the professionals around you speaking in another language and carrying expectations about the way this is supposed to go that are very different from yours. Unfortunately, some immigrant mothers can come away from childbirth with trauma in large part simply because there were long stretches of time when, whether due to problems in cultural or linguistic communication, they didn’t know what was happening.
Raising that Baby
There will always be tension between how we were raised and how we raise our kids. And in this day and age, that tension is even greater due to the fast pace of technological change. Just the other day I was feeling glad that my kids were toddlers before the age of the smartphone and tablet, and they’re still kids! Raising our children in a culture that’s not our own can exacerbate this tension, and even more so when only one member of a couple is an immigrant. Whether or not mom should work, who cares for the children when she does, when kids should start school, and how old they should be to travel around on their own are but a few of the vast number of issues that can come into conflict in another culture. Fortunately, Barcelona is a fabulously multicultural and cosmopolitan city, so it seems that one can find a like-minded group for almost any child-rearing approach. (Having said that, I still smart from the “hairy eyeballs” I get when picking my boys up from their public school with nary a bocadillo or tupper of diced fruit in sight). On the flip side of the tension, though, is the delightful discovery that sometimes the way we want to raise our children is perfectly in line with the mores of our adopted home. Our last year in DC, we wanted our 9- and 11-year-old boys to be able to leave school on their own. To gain approval for this completely bonkers request, we had to have a meeting with not only the school’s principal, but with its director, and the Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit that ran the school! I was very pleasantly surprised here, when we made the same request and the response was “Sure, sign here.”
Multicultural Kids with Monocultural Parents
Despite the many and diverse places I have lived in my adulthood (Senegal, South Africa, and France, to name a few), I still consider myself a one-culture person. I was born and raised in the United States, went to university there, was married there and had my children there. My kids, on the other hand, will likely end up considering themselves what have come to be known as “third-culture kids”. They fluently speak three languages and have important relationships in all of them. Instead of learning the 50 United States and their capitals, they have done that with the “comarcas” of Catalunya and the countries of the European Union. And in addition to celebrating July 4th and Thanksgiving, they get Christmas gifts from a pooping log and when someone says “September 11th”, they are much more likely to think of what happened in Catalunya in 1714 than they are about what happened in the US in 2001. We wanted our kids to be multilingual and multicultural, and it’s a big part of the reason why we made the move. But it can be hard to be so different from one’s kids, and harder still to watch them navigate with ease in a culture and language that I still struggle with sometimes. On the flip side, I can honestly say that I doubt I would have learned Catalan if we hadn’t plonked our kids in local school and essentially said “Good luck with that!” (They did already speak Spanish, so we’re not complete monsters). Since we were asking that of them, we certainly didn’t feel it would be fair to coast by on our Spanish. The result a few years later is another language in the hopper and a connection with our adopted community that we would not otherwise have.
You Can’t Take Them with You
When we go to live in another country, we inevitably leave family, friends and loved ones behind. For me, this has always been one of the most difficult aspects of life abroad; with children in tow, it’s multiplied. Now, in addition to missing you, grandmom, grandpop, aunts, uncles and cousins are now missing your kids as well, it can definitely make the leaving and the living feel heavier and more significant. And this is true not just for the adults in the family, but it can be for the kids as well. As I mentioned, our boys were 9 and 11 when we moved to Barcelona. Young enough, one would think, to spend some time missing friends left behind, but not to feel real grief or to spend the intervening years maintaining deep and lasting friendships with kids of the same age. Yet that is exactly what happened in our family – our boys were very close friends with two sisters of the same age (and we were friends with the parents). Last summer, more than two years after moving and after having not seen each other for more than a year, the two older children ran to each other and embraced like long-lost friends with decades between them. It was a beautiful thing to see, though also somewhat painful, knowing that we would be saying goodbye again soon. Fortunately, we can say from experience that there is a positive side to living far from family and friends but in a very popular destination like Barcelona, and that is – visitors! I have six siblings, and three have already come to visit (one twice!). We’ve also had visits from many friends, nieces and nephews, cousins’ kids, and even a former colleague with her mother and sister. I can honestly say that I’ve spent more quality time with some of these visitors than I ever would have were we still in the States. And, playing tour guide on a regular basis helps remind me of what a wonderful city we now call home!
If you’re reading this and living abroad, you already know that it’s an experience filled with many ups and downs. Whether you’re here temporarily or permanently, by choice or by necessity, you will face challenges that will sometimes leave you questioning your decision. But you will also have moments when you realize with complete and utter clarity, and with a shock of joy running through your heart, that you are really, truly, living.
*I have always felt that idiomatic expressions are one of the final frontiers in learning a foreign language, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that “a fish out of water” translates literally into the Spanish ‘como un pez fur del agua’; that one will be easy to add to my repertoire!
Lynne McIntyre is a therapist in private practice in Barcelona, specializing in women’s mental health. She is also a graduate student in Anthropology at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, a wife, mom of two, avid baker, and jivamukti yoga fan.
You can learn more about her at www.lynnemcintyre.com.
Feel free to send her any thoughts or questions you have!