I used to think that my life would change after getting married, but all that happened was I had some lovely memories, a load of extra photos, and a huge honeymoon bill to pay. But having kids, and especially being an expat parent, now that really changed things.
Ask any parent how their life has changed since having children and sure they will either nod enthusiastically, say “Yes, of course,” or possibly shed a tear.
Expat Parent: Rocking Your World
Having children turns your world upside down, back to front, and then inside out.
It’s not an easy ride, especially if you have two kids close together as we did.
With only 18 months between them, it was as if we’d chosen to have twins. It seemed like an idyllic idea at the time; deciding to have another baby while our youngest hadn’t even started walking.
I don’t actually remember the conversation of agreeing to have another child, but it had something to do with wanting him to have a playmate, and that my wife didn’t want to be pregnant over the intense summer heat here in Seville.
If you’re thinking of becoming an expat parent, as most stages of life, there is good and bad news. Let’s start with the bad.
Expat Parent: The Battle With English
I’ve listened eagerly to a lot of expat parents talk about teaching their kids English. Everyone has said it’s a lot more difficult than you think, especially to get your kids’ English to a high standard. I just shrugged everyone off though, thinking that I’d come up with some magical way of teaching my own kids English, but it really isn’t that easy.
I’ll just let you know how it works in my house. I speak English to my kids all the time, apart from when I’m trying to say something funny in Spanish. The TV is in English, most of their books are English, and they watch the tab in English too. My wife is Spanish, so if she’s on her own then she’ll speak in Spanish; sometimes she speaks in English if we are together.
My kids are four and two and they both show signs of being bilingual. I have to remind my son to speak to me in English, but with me, he does 90% of the time. His pronunciation is spot on, and his vocabulary is quite varied, but I wouldn’t say he can construct long phrases as he can in Spanish.
He will ask me to put the TV on in English if it comes on in Spanish. The other day we were at my brother-in-law’s house, and he put on a film in Spanish. My son asked if he could watch it in English. Everyone was quite shocked but also impressed that he preferred English.
My daughter is more stubborn. Typical conversations go something like this.
“What color is this?” I asked, pointing at a red apple.
“Can you say red?” She nods her head. “Go on then, say red.”
“Rojo,” she says, pointing to the apple, which is often followed by a cheeky grin, and sometimes a tongue poke. It’s more of a battle with her, but she’s younger. She’s a big fan of music and songs, so I’m hoping to catch her out that way. She can sing, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Spanish, but not in English.
I suppose the battle is half the fun. Obviously, they are going to be better than your average local kid, but I’m starting to accept that they’ll probably be way off a native speaker. Hopefully, over time they will improve, but it’s a lot more challenging than I thought.
Expat Parent: Bringing Up a Foreign Kid
I’m effectively bringing up two Spanish kids, rather than two British kids. They are still young, but I try to feed them bits of English culture, especially via songs, the TV, and books. I’m a massive fan of Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, and all her other books.
Luckily, we have most of the books in the series. On the weekends when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story. It’s great for expanding their vocabulary. The stories and rhymes are amazing, and the pictures often take me off to a magical world. I hope it does the same for my kids.
Obviously, when we go back to England, they get a decent amount of knowledge about life there, and they’ll learn more each time we go. Luckily they have a couple of cousins they can play with too. The only downside is that now there are four of us, it’s so expensive to fly home, so we only go maybe twice a year.
Personally, that’s hard for me. It means they are not learning the British way of life, picking up phrases from their mates at school, battling through those cold snowy mornings. They will never have the childhood that I had. I can only tell them how it was, but they can’t experience it. Sometimes it’s hard to think about that.
I try to teach them what I know about Spanish culture, but I’m still learning myself. There are so many differences here in Spain: the school system, the language, the humor, the culture. Even silly things like football. Will my kids ever feel the same passion I have for the Premier League? The FA Cup?
I guess they won’t, but they’ll have their own passions. Instead, they are Spanish, growing up mainly outside, learning more about religion, and the festivals. It’s a great life here, and they could be a lot worse off.
Now the good news:
Expat Parent: United With a Country
I spent years really trying to integrate into Spanish society. I learned the language well, got married, bought a house, and even became Catholic and took part in Semana Santa.
But it wasn’t until I became a father to Spanish children that I really felt as if I belonged here.
You get tarred with the guiri – foreigner – brush when you are here. Only the other week I was at the gym chatting with a guy, we were taking it in turns on one of the machines, and he said to me.
“Tu no eres de aqui, no? – You’re not from around here, are you?”
It’s a common expression here. Sometimes it can get on your nerves, as it’s pretty obvious I’m not Spanish, but depending on the tone it can be fine. When I explained I was married to a Spanish woman and we had Spanish kids, he sort of relaxed and patted me on the shoulder as if he accepted me as one of them.
To be fair, it doesn’t really bother me what strangers think. I feel more united with Spain now anyway. Part of my blood is here. I’m raising two children who are Spanish, so I have become part of the country and am growing along with them. I like to think I have more respect from Spanish people who really know me though. They know I have made a solid commitment to their country.
Expat Parent: More Friendships
I’ve always found it tricky to make local friends in Seville. I guess it’s the same everywhere you go, really; people have their own sets of friends from when they were kids at school and have grown up in tight groups.
It was partly the language barrier, but finding decent Spanish friends and developing those friendships has always been hard. I think it’s mainly because of the humor. The banter you get between native speakers, whether British, American, or Australian, is distinct from Europeans. We just find different things funny, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The world would be a boring place if we were all the same. But why was making friends so difficult?
Since having kids, we have more friends now with other parents of kids at the nursery and school. We have more in common, mainly our children. We have sort of been forced to be friends. It’s not like I meet up with the dads and go out on the beers regularly, but I know more people now and we chat about more stuff that we have in common.
I should also add that I live on the outskirts of the city now, so it has been easier to make friends with the locals here as they seem a tad friendlier and more open than people in the center, but I’m not one to stereotype.
Expat Parent: A Better Understanding of the Language
My last point has to be that by having children in a foreign country, your level of understanding of the language improves dramatically.
I’m not saying go out and have a couple of kids to develop your understanding of a second language, but it’s definitely a way to advance your level.
There are more opportunities to practice speaking. Chatting with fellow parents, teachers, and especially doctors (because you tend to see them quite a bit when the kids get ill, and also during the pregnancy).
You also learn new vocabulary with regard to babies and kids. The fun part is learning new vocabulary along with your kids. They pick up a word from school, bring it home, and you learn it.
I’m a teacher, so I absorb a lot of Spanish from the local kids. However, there are often times when my kids say something to my wife and I have to ask what they are saying, and they are still young. I’m dreading what it’s going to be like when they are teenagers.
So, to wrap up, becoming a parent is an adorable experience, but it can be pure madness, especially as an expat. Be prepared for some life-changing moments.
It should help you feel closer to the country you are in, make more friends with the locals, and also develop your own understanding of the language. It’s not an easy run, but definitely one of life’s magical wonders.
If you have some expat parent experience, you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them!
by: Barry O’Leary