Raising children in a country which is not your own

23 Aug

Occasionally I like to read blogs by parents who live abroad because there are certain issues when bringing up children (mostly of an emotional nature) that only crop up when you live in a different country. The other day I found this post on Babelkids (check out this family’s mind-boggling language mix, it’s inspirational how they organise their life to enable their children to learn several languages as they grow up). It struck a chord.

“A realisation dawns on me: My children will probably never take part in adult celebrations in the UK. We have no family here; the only celebrations we get invited to are children’s birthdays. […] My daughters are missing out on this part of culture, because neither of BabelDad nor me are home.

I wonder how this will impact on their perceptions of fun and sense of belonging somewhere. Where will home be for them?”

I had actually been thinking about this, prompted by my mum’s recent visit. Although my daughter’s dad is British, he is estranged from his family for good reasons. My family all live in Germany, but it would probably be accurate to say I’m estranged from all of them except my mum, and I wouldn’t see them more often than I do now if I lived in the same city as them. I realised that my daughter is probably going to miss out on many aspects of a typical childhood, positive and negative: it’s unlikely she’ll ever experience stifling family occasions with coffee and cake, play with and look up to cousins, confide in aunts, be mildly uncomfortable and bored in the presence of uncles who have no idea how to talk to children, proudly show off achievements, cringe when I show off her achievements… While I’m glad most of these experiences are behind me, they nevertheless constitute staples of childhood which are so common that they frequently occur in books and film, and I’m worried that if she doesn’t experience these aspects of life she might have issues later, or feel lonely.

What I have been preoccupied by recently is that there are several types of relationships that my daughter won’t get to experience. I’m trying to tell myself that this is fine, after all, for example, as a heterosexual woman I won’t experience a romantic relationship with another woman, so perhaps there are just some relationships people miss out on. The difficult part is that her life is already deviating from the life I had, so in a way it’s all uncharted territory because I don’t know what her life feels like. Her life is already not the life I had hoped to give her, and the older she gets, the more it will deviate from the paths I had hoped to make available to her. There were plenty of things wrong with my childhood, but having my daughter has also demonstrated to me how privileged my upbringing was. My daughter will, to varying degrees, miss out on (full) siblings, a gentle school starting age, music lessons (at least to the extent to which I had them), holidays, geographical stability, visiting family and feeling anchored in a place and traditions (and knowledge about certain things) through them. Added to this is that she doesn’t even share my language because I have been rubbish about teaching her, which means she won’t be able to read the books which shaped my views, e.g. age-appropriate books about the Second World War, or the book that made sure I’d never try drugs, or appreciate the truly great bands from my home city.

There are of course also things I valued as part of my childhood which I can’t provide my daughter with either because I don’t have the knowledge (gardening, bird calls) or the financial resources (spacious house with big garden in a thoroughly middle-class area – seriously, I realised the other day that only one of my friends in 13 years of nursery to secondary school was brought up by a single mum), or the inclination to live my life in that way (e.g. I’m much happier in the city, but as a child I loved running around in corn fields and generally being aware of how the countryside, farms etc., works).

What I will pass on to her is the assumption that university is where you go when you have finished school because that is just how it works because university is interesting and allows you to do cool things. (I am aware this probably reeks of privilege and arrogance, but my parents were both the first of their families, and the only ones in their generation, to go to university.) I am trying to establish seasonal traditions, partly because they help children to orient themselves in the world, and also because it is an easy fun way to share my culture with my daughter (who usually shouts ‘no!’ when I say a word in my language), and because traditions make a family, which is hard enough to do in a single-parent-only-child family.

I’m aware my recent posts have been quite negative, mostly because that’s how I feel at the moment. Most of it can probably be summarised as a feeling of sadness/horror to find myself in circumstances which are not of my choosing and totally beyond my control, together with crushing parental guilt. The guilt is bound to come around occasionally, so I guess this is my turn. But dammit, I just want to go home.

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