How to 'Build your Village' as an Ex-Pat Parent
Becoming a new parent is a challenging time under any circumstances. A lot of emphasis is put on the importance (and rightly so) of seeking support, asking for help and 'building your village'.
'It takes a village to raise a child'
But what happens if you don't have ready access to that village? With an estimated 50.5 million people globally living outside their native country, many people are starting their families a long way from home, and a long way from existing support systems of family and friends. When we add in the restrictions in travel that Covid-19 has brought us; getting the support you need when you start a family can become very challenging indeed.
One of my key motivations for becoming a doula is to support families in the ex-pat community in Paris. We moved here when my second daughter Elsie was 7 months old. The newborn stage was behind us, but we were in the thick of sleep deprivation and introducing solids. It was a messy time. For the first 5 weeks we lived in a hotel with some very basic cooking facilities and a lot of suitcases! We were focused on finding somewhere to live, furnishing it from scratch, and my eldest daughter starting school at just 2.5 years old. My husband went straight into his full-time job, so a lot of the life admin was down to me. I was stressed out! I needed to find my village, and fast!
Here are the top 5 things that helped me to make connections in a city where I had none.
1) Talk to strangers (if you feel comfortable doing so). And it can feel HUGELY uncomfortable. Often it won't lead to anything, but sometimes incredible things happen. One of the best things that happened to me in our early days was that I got chatting to another English-speaking mum at a bus stop. Although she was due to leave the area shortly, she asked me if I wanted her to introduce me to some people. She introduced me to two families who have gone on to be like family to us here. We have holidayed together multiple times, and even spent our 'Covid Christmas' together when we couldn't get home. She also introduced me to her babysitter who has now been our nanny for over 18 months. I will forever be grateful for her kindness!
2) Social media is your friend. There are huge numbers of ex-pat groups on social media, particularly Facebook, which can be invaluable in helping you to find information on how to navigate admin, cultural differences, and local knowledge about the best experiences to be had in the city you're living in. You can even join most of these before a move which may help you to find out information in advance on areas to live, schools and more.
3) Find out what's on offer locally, and volunteer to help. If you have the time, offer some of it up and volunteer for a local organisation. Shortly after our move, I learned about Message (messageparis.org), which is a community of English-speaking families in Paris who arrange lots of events and run support groups and forums on just about any topic you can think of. I offered to help out with their regional newsletters. It didn't take up much of my time at all, but I made connections and always knew what events were coming up in my local area.
4) Make connections through work and school. Many people move to another country because of a job opportunity for themselves or a spouse, which may bring opportunities to socialise. And if you are parents, you may become connected with a local creche or school. Again, it can feel uncomfortable, but here is an opportunity to get involved and volunteer. Join the WhatsApp group for the parents of your child's creche or class. And if there isn't one, you can be the person to set it up. The WhatsApp group for my daughter's class has led to me participating in an outdoor fitness class and a book (wine appreciation) club.
5) Sign up for a new activity. After the dust had settled and we had found a flat to rent, furnished it and unpacked all our stuff, I had spent so much time in the place, that I was desperate to get out! I found a local yoga club which became a total refuge for me. It has now unfortunately closed due to Covid, but it was really nice to go there and get some space, and feel like I was becoming part of the new community that I was now living in.
This probably all sounds a bit braggy and like I found it all a total breeze. Of course in reality, it wasn't. There were times when I felt really lonely and I looked online for flights home more times than I would like to admit. But plodding on with being open to making connections paid off, and although I still miss home, I feel grateful that we are connected to a wonderful community of people here.
Becoming a parent is a huge undertaking and its easy to feel overwhelmed a lot of the time, particularly if you are experiencing feelings of isolation. Just knowing that you are not alone in your experience can make the world of difference, which is why connection is so important at this time of your life. Being an 'open door' is a useful approach to take - it may make you cringe initially, but you might find that you make some of your strongest and most lasting connections as a result.
If you are struggling with feelings of isolation and would like to talk to someone, please contact me and we can arrange a no-obligation chat.