Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tips for the First Year Overseas...Single, Married, and With Children

Ten years ago I moved overseas for the first time.  Single, barely 22, with no earthly clue what I was doing.  That first year was rough.  Quite rough.  But I survived – and not only that, I learned some really important lessons. 

A few years later I returned from leave as a newly married woman – so grateful for my new companion and relatively unprepared for the pressures overseas living would put on our newlywed life.

And a few years later I transitioned from full-time teacher to full-time mom.  Talk about a big learning curve on absolutely no sleep!

I grew a lot through each of these transitions.  I’d like to share a few tips, particularly from all the things I didn't do well, but you know...that's how you learn.

Tips for the First Year 

…As a single woman
Be prepared to need your teammates more than they need you.  Maybe they are experienced and have a wealth of established relationships, maybe they are a family who is up to their ears in interpersonal interaction. Their fondest dream is of “alone time” when 90% of your life is just that (and not so rosy as they’d imagine).  Help them to understand your needs and work to understand their perspective as well.  Figure out what your team can do to help meet your needs and figure out how your gifts and abilities can benefit your teammates.  You may be new at everything, but you still have unique offerings!

Be prepared to feel helpless and useless and confused…fun, huh?  Get ready to be humble and glean others’ experience about culture, about your new roles, about how to buy fruit.  A trip to the store will be exhausting, and it’s not because you are weak – it’s because your mind is trying to process 50000 new stimuli and you are getting smarter by the minute.  You may feel like you have never been dumber, but actually you are learning more than ever before.

Take care of yourself.  Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Rest.  Pretty basic, but let’s be more specific.  You will need more sleep than you used to because you are working really hard just at daily life.  Eating well does not mean heating up a tiny package of tomato soup in the dark and calling it dinner (obviously I have never done that). Exercise may look different when running past five thousand gaping strangers who are trying to figure out what is wrong with the crazy foreigner.  Talk to your teammates for ideas, and experiment to see what works for you (say, running after dark!)  Don’t feel guilty about watching TV or reading a book or doing a puzzle.  You need breaks, and if you don’t take them you will not last.   We all know that 5 hours on Facebook is not helpful, but it’s easy to feel guilty about any “indulgence.” Rest is not selfish; it’s healthy.

…As a married woman
You and your husband will handle the transition differently.  It’s bound to happen.  Maybe one of you is super adaptable and seems unruffled by all the transition, while the other is feeling the effects of everything (I’ll let you guess which one is me).  Maybe one of you is gifted in language while the other is struggling.  Maybe one is in your element and the other is feeling totally out of place.  These things can cause a lot of tension that can easily lead to resentment.  Talk about how the transition and your new roles are affecting each of you.  Then keep talking about it, because this is not a one-time thing!  Work really hard to understand the other person and to make yourself understood.

It’s easy to blame culture stress on your spouse.  Culture is vague and hard to yell at, while your spouse is right there, such a visible target.  Try to think carefully, “Am I really mad at my husband or have I just had it with bargaining?  Is he frustrated with me, or did he just have a frustrating morning at the bank?”  Try to become allies instead of enemies as you work through cultural frustrations.

Your relationship is going to change.  You might be spending more time than ever with your husband in shared work.  You might be adjusting to long hours or days apart.  McDonalds might be the hot new date night location.  It will take some time to adjust, but you’ll work out a new normal.  You’ll likely depend on each other more than ever before, and hopefully you’ll realize that in all the crazy changes, you have someone who sticks with you and “gets” your life – past, present, and future - like no one else.

…As a mother
You are strong.  You went through the trials of pregnancy and the “I can’t do this!!” moments of childbirth, and you did it anyway.  Or you agonized over paperwork and more paperwork and waiting and setbacks and uncertainty until your child could finally come home with you.  You have made it through sleepless nights and the days when your children seemed to be testing out new torture methods. You have survived parenthood thus far, and that’s how you’ll survive this difficult first year.

Think basics.  When I first became a mother, I quasi-joked that my goal for the first year was for us all to be alive at the end of it.  This is a pretty good goal for your first year in a new country.  Everybody ate.  Everyone has bathed sometime in recent memory.  Everyone is alive.  You win!!  Keep your expectations low and give yourself a lot of grace.

Whatever your long-term goals are, your first year will probably be a lot about your home and family.  Maybe you are learning how to home school for the first time. Maybe you are trying to figure out how to buy diapers and milk or how to carry three bags of groceries and two clinging children around the block and up 5 flights of stairs.  You will be helping your kids through their own adjustments, and that’s huge.  The wellbeing of your whole family is an important factor in being able to stay.  You may feel like you aren’t doing anything useful, you aren’t doing anything you couldn’t do in your home country, but don’t believe it.  This is make-it-or-break-it stuff you are dealing with.  You are vital.

Get out of the house.  You may need to put a lot of focus on what’s happening inside your family, but you also need to get out.  You need breaks from your children and their ever constant needs (who doesn’t?).  You need to feel connected to the culture and the reason you are there, even if it’s not as much of your life right now as you imagined.  You need to connect with people who are not related to you.  Talk to your husband and your team about how to make this a reality.  For the good of everyone, make it happen.

You will get through this.  With support, reasonable expectations, and a lot of grace, you will thrive.  And if you’re like me, you’ll be blessed to look back 10 years later and wonder where time has gone.