When I was pregnant, I took classes and read books about birth, delivery, newborn care, breastfeeding and cloth diapers. Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the real transition to parenthood. Raw, bleeding, sleep-deprived, and stunned, I waited desperately for the magical six-week mark that I had heard about. When that day arrived, I awoke, instead, to a wave of despair. I would never catch on to this. I had left my old self in the brightly lit delivery room, and my new self was somewhere still in the making.
Yet this mix of hopelessness and frustration felt oddly familiar; it was the same sensation that had hit me when I moved to Provence at the age of 21. My year in France taught me much more than how to conjugate verbs and how to order a pastry at the corner bakery. As I held my screaming baby in my arms, I took a deep breath and tried to draw on the lessons I had already learned about dealing with change (never my strong suit). Here’s what I realized about both experiences:
1. The initial shock is rough.
There is no real preparation for stepping off the plane alone or holding a squirming, wet bundle in your arms for the first time. Any experience with such a steep learning curve requires large doses of patience and flexibility. Even if you are lucky enough to have these traits in abundance, you face lots of learning through failure and some of the biggest ups and downs of your life.
2. It changes your identity.
Living in a new culture and becoming a parent transforms you in profound and unpredictable ways. The lens through which you have comfortably seen the world until now shatters in a matter of minutes. When you think back to the former version of yourself, you hardly recognize it. She never had to provide fumbling explanations of the Second Amendment in French to skeptical foreigners. She never broke a hair dryer while trying desperately to calm a wailing infant. She also never experienced the sound of medieval cobblestones ringing under her feet or the soft rustling of a tiny body as it slept in her arms. The unbridgeable gulf between these two selves is astounding.
3. You bond with others going through the same experience.
You don’t plan to, but in the same way you naturally gravitate toward other international students, you also gravitate toward other parents. Who better to understand your daily triumphs and failures than other people struggling in the same ways that you are? You can chat together about that mysterious faux pas you made in a restaurant or that time your baby projectile vomited on the neighbor’s new carpet. With members of your support crew, you don’t feel judged or humiliated. You can safely share advice, fears, doubts, frustrations, and even a few tears together.
4. Observation is key.
When it comes to parenting and living abroad, you really have to learn by doing. How do you accomplish this? Through trial and error after careful observation. I learned the small nuances of French culture—how many times to kiss on the cheek for greetings, how to hold my fork and knife, how never to yawn in public—by watching my host family and the people around me. You can apply these same observation skills to your baby: What are their sleeping and eating patterns? What does they like and dislike? How are they likely to react in a certain situation? This information is crucial for the new life you are both building together.
5. Families are like other cultures.
Each culture has its own particular history, values, beliefs and rituals that combine to create a worldview and set of practices unique to one group of people. However, cultures can be invisible to the members living inside of them. It is only when we move outside of our own way of life that these hidden, ingrained beliefs and practices really come to light. Families function much like cultures: Each one has its own collection of principles and standards, its own lore, and its own way of bringing up children. There is nothing like becoming a parent to highlight your own “culture”—the way you were raised and how you believe families and parents should function.
6. You can choose how you blend those cultures.
Studying abroad teaches you to reflect critically about your own culture and to expand your worldview to include different ways of thinking, talking, eating, playing, working, studying, traveling and living. Just as you can combine different parts of the cultures in which you have lived, you also have the freedom to incorporate the best elements of your family and others’ families, creating a unique path to adulthood for your child.
As my baby’s screams subsided and she settled back into sleep, I began to calm down too. I realized that my daughter’s infancy was only the beginning. Soon I would have her toddlerhood, adolescence, and even adulthood to contend with. Yet I knew that I had the skills and knowledge to tackle these changes and that, in the end, it would be worth it. Like living in another culture, parenting would be a tangled, beautiful mess—nearly indescribable, unimaginably difficult, and infinitely rewarding.