Over the past four years, I have done a lot of planning and arranging in German. I have no issues setting up utilities, reserving a hotel room, planning a vacation, or making coffee dates in my second language. I am pretty much unfazed by any situation I find myself in. I remain generally confident that if I’m not right, I’m close enough. Until parenting comes into play.
The one place I do experience unparalleled fear and uncertainty is making arrangements where my children are concerned. I realized this last night as I paced the floor waiting for my son to return from a playdate. While he left school with his friend, full of anticipation and eager for adventure, I began to replay the conversation I had with the child’s mother. I began to ask myself questions. I made all of the arrangements over the telephone in my second, far from fluent language. Did I really have all of the information I needed? Did I understand everything she said? Had we coordinated everything? I needed to wait, and have a little faith. Faith in someone I barely knew, and faith that I comprehend and convey more information than I realize.
The planned hour for drop-off came and went with no word from my child. I wasn’t exactly panicking, but I wasn’t exactly relaxing either. I told myself I’d wait a half hour before I called. When I called exactly one half hour later, there was no answer. I wondered if it was time to panic yet.
But before full-blown panic could set in, the phone rang. It was the other mom. “Keine Panik”, don’t panic, she tells me. The boys are playing and they’ve lost track of time. They’ll be there in a little while. I feel tension I didn’t even realize I was carrying melt away, although I am not fully relaxed again until he walks through the door a little while later.
In most areas of my life, I am fairly comfortable with a high level of uncertainty. I am married to someone whose job makes uncertainty an unavoidable aspect of everyday life. I never know exactly when he’ll be home for the day, I’m never surprised if work takes him away for a day, a week, a month, a year. I don’t know how long we’ll live in any one place, and I never know where we’ll live next. I am surprisingly ok with that.
But uncertainty in parenting is not something I’m ok with. In all of the challenges I’ve faced living outside of my passport country, the only ones that have reduced me to tears have involved my children. It is a special feeling of helplessness when you can’t read the directions on the antibiotics your child needs. It is a different feeling of failure when you don’t know if you’ve done the best for your child, because you don’t fully understand the language. It is a new kind of despair that takes over when your child is having a problem and you don’t know if you can adequately help them. I know. I have been there.
For me, this is the most difficult part of living abroad. Being the best parent you can, doing the best for your child, operating in a high level of uncertainty and still providing them with everything they need. Even four years later, this continues to be a work in progress. As the children grow, their needs and challenges grow too. It doesn’t get easier as they get older, but it changes.
It doesn’t really matter what the challenges are, when your children are concerned, you always want to succeed. Parenting in a non-native language can seem overwhelming at times. But don’t despair, and don’t give up. If I can do it, you can too.
Here are some of the things that have worked for me.
When coordinating with other parents, have a list of information you need ready to fill out. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by information when you are making plans in a second language. Ask them to spell out anything you don’t quite understand, names can be especially difficult, and your child probably doesn’t know the family name.
Never leave the doctor’s office without understanding the frequency and dosage of the medication, and have them write it down for you.
Always double-check the time and location of events. Ask again if you are still uncertain. Write them down, immediately.
Establish communication with your child’s teacher. Schedule times to talk, email them. Ask them questions, and make sure you understand what they are saying. Repeat it back to them in words you are comfortable using. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you don’t understand something.
As much as you can, include your children. Ask them what if they can tell you what something means. Make sure they understand what you expect from them. Ask them questions. Know what’s going on with them in school, and at home. Include them, involve them, but don’t rely on them.
Find someone you can talk to when it starts to feel like it’s too hard. When there is a problem that seems insurmountable, hearing that one reassuring voice can give you the courage to face anything.
Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn from them, don’t let them defeat you. Tell yourself you’ll do better next time, and believe that you will.
How do you deal with parenting challenges when you are in unfamiliar territory?