It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since I left my life in the UK behind me and made a new home for myself 10,500 miles away in Australia, where I subsequently met my husband and birthed our two beautiful children. Staying in Australia permanently was never part of the plan, but here I still am a decade on and I am happy and grateful for this life we have created here together. The time has passed so quickly, and whilst Melbourne has definitely become a home away from home I’ve always struggled with the feeling of being torn between two worlds, never more so than since becoming a mother and not having my own mum living nearby to share the journey with. If you too have struggled to adjust, take heart because there are some simple things you can do to invest in your life overseas and help make your new city feel more like home.
- Find your tribe: When living abroad your friends become your family, and you’ll find yourself needing your friends as much in your new life as you needed your family in your old life. Social media is one means of connecting with new people at the push of a button. Websites such as meetup.com offer opportunities for you to connect with other people locally who share similar interests or circumstances in common; and Facebook also has tons of groups both for expats and for parents that you could join from which there is potential as an active, visible participant for friendships to develop and flourish either online or in person.
- Get involved: Find out what’s on for children in your local area and get out and about as often as your schedule and commitments allow. Your children will love it, and you will delight in seeing them enjoying themselves. Whether it’s attending songs and story time at your local library, signing up for classes together such as baby massage or swimming lessons, attending a mum’s and bubs exercise group at your local gym, enrolling your child into a sports program, or heading to the nearest play-centre; the more you get out of the house together, the greater your chances are of meeting new people and creating a sense of connection to your new home and community.
- Find new things to enjoy: Whether it’s a newly discovered cuisine or activity, a sport you wouldn’t have tried back home, a beautiful hideaway you’ve found together, a cool cafe or restaurant; or simply the change in climate or the pace of life that particularly strikes a positive chord with you about your new home; make a point of identifying the things you like instead of focusing on all the things you’ve left behind. This will of course require that you have an open mind and are willing to engage in new interests and experiences without the preconception that you aren’t going to like it. This action in itself will go a long way to helping you emotionally invest in and get enjoyment from your life overseas. Whilst there are still many things about home that I miss, nothing beats Melbourne coffee and brunches – no one does coffee or avo on toast quite like the Aussies!
- Bring a little piece of home with you: Whether it’s hosting a Christmas in July celebration with your new friends complete with Yorkshire puddings, downloading your favourite home radio station or TV show, teaching your children how to say words in your home-language or dialect, or introducing them to the joys of Marmite on toast – consider bringing a little bit of home into your new life and letting your children share in some of those experiences with you. After all, your heritage is part of their heritage too. Your family can get involved too – my parents often send me a parcel filled of treats from home that even the international aisle of our local supermarket doesn’t stock (this is well worth checking out btw, if you haven’t already). And if you’re missing out on the shopping back home you might find they have an overseas branch of your favourite store online, or they might at least provide a delivery service to your new place of residence. I sometimes buy baby clothes online from Next AU, and was very happy when H&M opened its first Australian store right here in Melbourne.
- Figure out how things work: When you move overseas you will become part of a complex group of systems that will affect every part of your family’s lives and likely differ quite considerably from what you are used to. From health, dental care and vaccine schedules to education, employment and pensions; finances and benefits to real estate and interest rates; visas and restrictions to legislation and the highway code (who invented hook turns, btw?); there really is a whole lot to learn. Some of the differences you will simply imbibe along the way, but a lot of it will require you to do your research. For instance, I had no idea how different the process was for buying/selling a house in Australia compared to buying/selling a house in the UK; and though I’ve learned a lot during my time here, many things are still a mystery to me such as why some healthcare procedures are bulk-billed (say what?) and others aren’t, why I have to complete my own tax return when I’m not self-employed, how Centrelink works (baffling), why children start school as late as 6 years old here as opposed to 4 years old in the UK, or why the school year doesn’t include half-terms (why?)! And don’t get me started on superannuation or the impetus for private health insurance vs Medicare – my lack of understanding in these areas will no doubt have a significant impact on my life at some point in the future – when I’m retired, in poor health, and penniless! So when you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to seek advice and consultation from someone who is knowledgeable in that particular field.
- Join a mother’s group: If this is your first child and you live in Australia, you will most likely be enrolled into a group for first-time parents through your local council. For me this has been a godsend, as we hadn’t long moved to the area in which we bought our house and didn’t know anyone nearby – in comparison to the UK, Melbourne is such a sprawling city that we had no friends or family living within less than an hour’s drive away. Fast forward 2 years and my highly supportive mother’s group of 10 still catches up weekly, and we live so close that we often run into each other when out and about and think nothing of organising last minute catch-ups and play-dates simply because we can. Several of us have either had or are expecting our second child, and it has been wonderful to share these life-changing experiences together – I am so impressed by and grateful for these ladies. When your daily routine is dictated by your children’s napping schedules, local friends are worth their weight in gold as much for companionship on your motherhood journey as for providing no end of play-date opportunities for your children. It’s a bonus if the partners are introduced and get along too. If you don’t have a mother’s group but happen to be part of a local church, they might offer a group for parents – if not they could well be open to setting one up so don’t be afraid to raise this with them.
- Strike up a chat: It never ceases to take me pleasantly by surprise how when you have children in tow other parents are often so open to striking up a chat, whether it’s in the local park or play-centre or at the school/kinder gates. The trials and tribulations of parenting seem to unite people, even those who otherwise might not have typically hit it off. If you aren’t part of a mother’s group already and you’re feeling isolated or lonely, try plucking up the courage to seize an opportunity to catch up with that friendly mum you’ve just met for a cuppa, or to organise a play-date for your children together. Before doing so, you may want to read this amusing take on doing just that – but don’t let that put you off! They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to support parents too.
- Investigate childcare options: If neither you nor your partner have family living nearby, childcare can become very expensive as there will likely be no doting grandparents available to offer their assistance for a day or two each week (even if they’d otherwise be itching to do just that); and simple things like going out for a child-free lunch or dinner can become virtually impossible. As a result you might feel like your tanks are always running on empty, and that all you need is a bit of time alone or as a couple to recharge. I use my local gym creche twice/week for just as long as it takes to either do a gym class, go for brunch, or catch up with a friend; and though it’s only for 1.5 hrs per session this little snippet of me-time is just enough to enable me to return to my children refreshed and ready to mum again. The creche has the added advantage of being very affordable as far as childcare options go. If you’re working, you might find that family day care is a more affordable option than using a childcare centre, but it’s all about personal preference. Don’t forget to look online to see if, depending upon your circumstances, you are entitled to any government financial support or rebates towards fees. Consider using word of mouth or recommendations from people you trust to source a babysitter you can have confidence in, even if it’s just once/month. And if your partner’s family live locally, perhaps they will be willing to help out too. If they are – say YES – it’ll restore your sanity!
- Accept offers of help: I initially struggled to accept offers of babysitting from friends because it felt as though I was trespassing on their goodwill and I wasn’t sure how my baby would cope without me or with changes to their routine (just fine as it happens). But one must assume they wouldn’t offer if they weren’t happy to do so, and sometimes you just need a break, in which case it could well be worth accepting even if only for a couple of hours – whilst being prepared to return the favour in the future. There are some situations that will literally push you into accepting offers of help so be grateful whenever they come along – for instance, I once attended a midwife appointment with my active toddler in tow in which I had a 3.5 hour wait to be seen. As you can imagine this was not an experience I was keen to repeat and you can bet your boots I accepted, with great appreciation, a friend’s offer to babysit him during my next appointment (in which I was seen within the hour – Sod’s Law). If you have other friends with children, particularly friends who have also moved from overseas, perhaps you can work out a system in which you take it in turns to babysit given you are all in the same situation and know how tough it is to find help with childcare.
- Tag team: If childcare options are not forthcoming and you and your partner are desperate for some me-time, the only practicable option might be that one of you stays home with the kids whilst the other goes off and does something for themselves. Whilst it’s not ideal to have to do things separately much of the time, you will each appreciate the bit of freedom you have been afforded; and as the years pass and your children become more independent, the opportunities for you and your partner to spend quality time together will increase accordingly. When you’re going it alone with limited family support it is especially important that you and your partner are considerate of one another’s needs in terms of sharing the day-to-day childcare related tasks, promoting opportunities for each other to rest or sleep, and relieving the pressure from one another during the tough and testing times.
- Optimise your maternity leave: It’s not often one births a baby and therefore has the benefit of up to a full year off work – and what better way to spend it than in getting a fix of home and giving your parents a fix of their grandchildren without the encumbrance of time – all whilst your child is still under 2 years of age and can therefore fly for only 10% of the adult fare. In my son’s first year we spent 2 blocks of 10 weeks staying in the UK with my parents. These trips home had multiple benefits in that they gave my parents a wonderful opportunity to bond with their new grandson, they were able to offer a lot of practical help and childcare when needed, and I got to get my fix of home, family and friends. Whilst flying such a long distance with a baby was no doubt challenging, overall it was worth the stress and did wonders for my well-being. My husband has always been very understanding that I need regular time at home, and during those trips we Skyped regularly so that he and my son could maintain their connection too. He also joined us for the last few weeks which meant I had help with the baby on the return flight to Australia.
- Have them come to you: If the thought of flying overseas with your baby has you quailing in your sensible flat shoes, or you have several children and the cost of travel has become too high, perhaps you can negotiate for your family to come to you that little bit more often than they would have done before you became a parent. Since I had children my parents have visited Australia more frequently than ever, and having the date of their expected arrival in the calendar gives us all something to look forward to.
- Meet in the middle: If you are struggling to settle into your new life overseas it can be really helpful to have something planned that’s worth getting excited about. If for whatever reason a trip home is out of reach for you at the moment, consider working out a compromise with your family whereby you meet in the middle instead. A week in a Thai resort could be just as restorative as a month back home – and it may well work out to be a more affordable and convenient option for all of you.
- Explore: If a trip overseas is out of reach, perhaps you and your family could go on a road-trip together and get to know your new home on a broader level by discovering exciting new places and things to do both nearby and further afield. A change is as good as a rest, as they say.
- Skype often: Whilst the time difference and your children’s routines can make it difficult to establish a regular Skype schedule, it is well worth putting in the effort to have face-face contact with your family at least weekly if you can. A cup of tea and a good chin-wag with your family or friends back home might be just the boost you need to get you through the day, and the regularity of the contact can help your children develop and maintain a bond with their family overseas so that they even recognise them when they come visit you or vice versa.
- Get support: If homesickness or feelings of being torn or overwhelmed with your parenting responsibilities (especially if you have a limited support network locally) are getting you down, it could be worth seeking the support of an objective listening ear outside of your immediate family to help you work through it, as one issue can exacerbate the other and everything can feel more intense when you’re away from your familiar home comforts – especially when you’re sleep deprived to boot. Certain times of year can intensify those feelings, particularly Christmas and New Year; or certain events happening back home such as the illness or passing of a loved one, or missing out on a close friend’s wedding. Make sure your partner is aware of how you are feeling and see if you can work out a plan together that will help you feel better; whether it’s something as small as going for a beauty treatment in peace or organising a date night to look forward to, or something as big as a mini-break or planning your next trip home.
- Give it time: Try not to get stuck on the idea that the grass is always greener back home – you left for a reason (remind yourself of that as often as you need to), and the people back home may well be thinking that exact same thing about you! You may even be taken by surprise to find that when you next visit home lots of things are different to how you left them – not just things, but people too. Sometimes all you need to settle into your new life is time, and enough of it to at least experience your new home in all its seasons and get a feel for the things you enjoy. The more years that pass by, the more invested you are likely to feel and the more rooted you and your family will become. If that isn’t the case though, just remind yourself that nothing has to be forever and you can return home, even if only temporarily, if that is what will bring you joy. This is understandably a more major decision when you have children to consider, especially children who might even be citizens of your new country, but complicated doesn’t have to mean impossible. And if things don’t work out one way or the other you will at the very least have experienced a few adventures along the way and will no doubt return to your country of choice, whether that’s home or abroad, feeling more grounded and certain of your decision than ever.
Raising children away from family and friends is a tough road that can be lonely and isolating at times, with limited options for practical help and childcare support. But there can be many benefits to a life lived overseas for you and your family too – whether it’s better job or education opportunities, a higher salary, warmer weather, a fresh start, or an improved quality of life; and these benefits will only become more and more apparent as time goes on and you become more knowledgeable about and invested in your local area. If that isn’t the case there is no need to rule out a move back home in the future – and the enriching experience of having lived overseas will bond you forever as a family who have taken a chance and shared a great adventure together.
Whether you stay overseas for 1 year or 50, I wish you and your family luck, happiness and contentment wherever you decide to make your home. Sometimes what makes a home is the people you choose to surround yourself with rather than the place.
Are you a parent living overseas? Do you have any tips you could share on what helped you and your family adjust to a new life abroad?