I've been living in London as an American expat for just over four months now, and my experiences so far remind me of what it was like becoming a parent for the first time. Now, I've moved to an English-speaking country with familiar foods and a relatively similar culture; I imagine moving to Asia or the Middle East would be like having triplets - but I can't speak to either of those experiences, so just bear with me.
So, here they are, 12 ways that moving to a new country is like having a baby:
1. No matter how much you prepare, you are never prepared. Read all the guide books you want if it makes you feel better (somebody needs to write a book What to Expect When You're Expating), but when the big day arrives you just have to trust your instinct and figure things out on your own.
2. Nobody tells you how hard it will be. As soon as you announce your big news, everyone will say how amazing everything is going to be and how lucky you are; nobody will tell you about the feelings of frustration, loneliness, and displacement that await you. Or if they do, you won't listen because you are too focused on all the excitement ahead. "La-la-la, I can't hear you!"
3. But nobody can adequately describe the highs either. Just as you cannot understand the emotions you will feel holding your child for the first time, you can never anticipate how incredible it will feel walking around your new city as Your. New. City. Not your foreign vacation destination, but your new home where you belong - at least for now. Just like that first child, it's yours and it's perfect - well, maybe except for all the poop.
4. It's exhausting. Between jet-lag, first day of school/work jitters, daunting to-do lists, IKEA furniture assembly frustrations, and walking miles in the wrong direction as you get your bearings, the first few weeks of expat life can be draining. It doesn't help that you are tired going in after months of stress applying to schools, searching for housing, down-sizing all your belongings and preparing your house for sale/rent. But that prep time, like pregnancy, was just the training before the real marathon began. If only most expats had nine months to get ready - I consider myself lucky with five months' notice.
5. The first few months are a fog. In the beginning you are just so focused on this new life that you aren't really aware of anything or anyone outside your little bubble. You don't keep in good touch with people, you don't socialize much, you cannot think straight. After about 3-4 months you suddenly come up for air and see things more clearly. You look back at those early days with a sigh of relief, "Phew, I'm glad that's over!" yet while you were in it you never thought it was bad, thanks to a healthy dose of adrenaline, optimism, and gratitude. And maybe some doses of wine and coffee too.
6. You take way too many pictures. You feel compelled to capture every special moment (and everything is special in the beginning), every "first" - but let's face it, you're way too busy and that empty scrapbook will sit on a shelf next to your unfinished baby books, so facebook will have to do. Sorry friends - that is, if I still have any facebook friends left...
(I bought my older two daughters these scrapbook kits for Christmas, which are still in their boxes, and will probably stay in their boxes)
7. You feel like you're doing everything wrong. You don't understand how to ride the public transport, which way to look when crossing the road, or how to change the light bulbs in your house. If you're not careful you may put your electric kettle on the stovetop and start a fire (Ok, my dad did this, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't almost do this more than once).
8. But pretty soon you learn to fake it and pretend you know what you're doing. After a while you just stop caring what others think, and you pretend that guy honking at you for stepping into oncoming traffic (come on, when will the English start driving on the right side of the road?) is really just trying to tell you that you have a nice ass. Just smile and wave, and keep walking.
9. Even the smallest tasks are huge accomplishments. When everything is so new and seems so difficult, everyday things like making a family meal become a heroic feat. After you figure out all sorts of measurement and temperature conversions, determine appropriate equivalents of certain ingredients (do you use single or double cream in place of heavy cream?), and trek to a grocery store with no car or plan 24-hours in advance for online delivery, you then have to work with limited, low-quality rental cooking tools while your own pots and knives are on a freight ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean. God help the child or spouse who dares complain about dinner during your first month.
(I taped this handy chart to the inside of one of my kitchen cabinets so I could stop Googling measurements every time I cooked anything.)
10. It flies by way too quickly. I feel like I just got here, yet we are quickly approaching 5 months. I want to stop the clock, I need more time, there is still so much we need to do and see here before our time is up.
11. You have a whole new perspective on the world. When you become a parent, the world suddenly becomes a more fascinating place as you begin to see everything from your child's wondrous eyes. Likewise, when you move abroad, you gain a new perspective on your new country and the rest of the world. More importantly, you see your home country in a new light; you appreciate some things about it more than ever, but you also begin to wonder why some things are the way they are (why do Americans have to tip everyone?).
12. Your life will never be the same. Just as becoming a parent alters who you are at the very core, moving to a new country will change your entire family forever - for the better. You will learn so much about the world, but also about yourselves: you'll find that you are more adaptable, resilient, and adventurous than you ever imagined. From now on, your life will be divided into two parts: "Before" and "After" your life abroad.
Becoming an expat is a new birth: a new you, a new life. You go into it with hopes and dreams and fears and doubts, and it's a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but at the end it is worth all the minor headaches, and it is over far too soon.
There you have it, 12 ways moving abroad is like having your first baby.
So, are you ready???
Here I am 20 years ago posing with my Dad and brother before heading off to the airport for my first experience living abroad. Junior Year at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England, 1994-1995.
And here I am outside the hospital at midnight on August 22, 2005, preparing to embark on my next big life adventure: parenthood.
Sadly, I was too busy preparing my family of five plus dog to move to London at Christmas that I forgot to get a picture of myself heading off for this next adventure - but I'm sure I'll take enough photos here to make up for it!