We are very fortunate to have come across our new member and founder of Mothers Abroad Cristina Pop. A truly international mother living and breathing our values of raising children as global citizens, Cristina has lived in Romania, France, Austria, China, South Korea and Germany. Like many of our members, she has a hard time answering the question “Where are you from?”. Cristina is the mother of a 19 month-old little girl who had already lived in five countries during her first 18 months of life and took 54 flights.
Where are you and your family from and where do you currently live? Is there anywhere that you consider to be home?
I am Romanian and French if you look at my passports, but I am from everywhere and nowhere. I have lived in Romania, France, Austria, China, South Korea, and now I live in Germany with my husband and our daughter. My husband was born in France and also lived in those countries. My daughter was born in Austria and was raised in five countries in the first eighteen months of her life.
“Where is home?” That’s a tough question. I think for people like us, home is not a place, it’s a state of mind. Happiness is our home: wherever we are happy, safe and all together- it is our home.
Your expertise revolves around your sharing stories about being a mother abroad. How does being a mother abroad differ from living abroad prior to having kids?
On my personal blog www.mothers-abroad.com I share my own experiences as a mother abroad. By “abroad” I mean “out of our passports’ countries”. I am not counselling or advising mothers, I’m just sharing my own experiences. I write to process and make sense out the life abroad. And I know that many moms resonate with my stories and that helps them make sense of their own experiences.
Having children abroad had a huge impact on our life overseas. We decided to go to China before I got pregnant. We didn’t expected the pollution to be that high and to be such a threat for a baby’s health. I had to spend many days indoors and we soon found out that even indoors the air was extremely polluted and that the water was full of heavy metals. We could have lived in this environment when we didn’t have children, but I couldn’t accept the fact that living in Beijing meant taking a risk for the health of our baby. I ended up heading back to Austria where I gave birth to my daughter.
On the other hand, while in Austria during my pregnancy, I became very attached to the country. I discovered that my values regarding birth were very close-minded compared to the Austrian birthing culture (natural birth-oriented).
Do you suffer from loneliness, raising children far away from loved ones? How do you surmount these challenges?
Yes, one of the things mothers abroad have in common is loneliness, because we live (far) away from our families and friends. “It takes a village to raise a child” they say, and we don’t have that village. We need to build a network of support from scratch. And sometimes, when we change countries, we need to build it once again. And again. And again.
When I returned to China where I knew no one with my five week-old, it was helpful to to join an English-speaking network of both expat and local mothers. Most of the communication happened over WeChat, a Chinese Social network (Facebook meets WhatsApp and much more), where we shared resources, and supported each other through good and bad. At least once a week, we’d meet up in coffee shops and on playgrounds depending on our children’s age and the district we lived in.
Many interesting discussions happened on that WeChat group, because sometimes the high levels of pollution in Beijing made it impossible for us to leave our flats. That added loneliness to loneliness. Being forced to stay indoors to protect your baby from exposure to dangerous levels of pollution is an extreme experience. I’m writing about this in an anthology of stories “Knocked up Abroad Again. Bay bumps, twists and turns around the world”.
Despite these hardships, do you think what you and your family gain from living abroad is worth being far from loved ones?
I know that living in different countries has been a valued experience for my husband and me. We have learned so much about ourselves, about our dreams and values and about who we are as a couple and as a family. I also believe it was a beautiful and rich experience for our daughter. When I see how much she enjoys travelling and meeting new people, how she interacts so naturally with people who have Asian features, how she mixes four languages when she talks, how much she loves eating tofu and drinking coconut milk, I can’t help but think these experiences have opened her up to the world. They are now engrained in her soul and who she is now. Let’s see what she says about this when she grows up!
Because we are from many different backgrounds and we have friends all over the world, we are always far from someone we love, no matter where we are. But that’s part of the journey and that’s what makes us love so many places and feel like home in so many parts of the world.
I personally know a lot of people who live abroad, but once they decide to have a family, it’s time to come home to be near the family. But many of the members in Bébé Voyage do not have the luxury of raising their kids close to family, as they live abroad like you. How do you deal with the distance?
Now that I am a parent I understand this need of being closer to the family. For us that meant relocating from Asia to Europe. We still don’t live in the same countries as our parents and friends, because that’s too many different countries, but we are closer now and we can see them more often. When I see how happy my daughter with her grandparents, I’m glad we made that decision.
Like many families who live away from their families and friends, we use technology to be in touch. I make sure to take a lot of pictures every day and share them with our families on WhatsApp. Although we speak on Skype every week, I admit Skype does not replace the atmosphere of a family dinner with several generations around the table.
Many of our Bébé Voyage members are also from all over, have been raised abroad and/or are raising their little ones abroad. Would you say that people of nationalities/cultures are more equipped for the world?
Studies* have shown that people who are growing up internationally are more creative, flexible and complex thinkers. I guess we need to develop these skills to navigate our every day life in a new country. Also, many studies show the advantages of being multi-lingual (from better salary to less probability of having some diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer). A lot has been already written on this topic.
Personally I believe in all of these benefits, but let’s not forget that there are challenges too. Many TCK (Third Culture Kids) struggle to understand who they are and where they belong (identity crisis). When they change countries and have to say goodbye to their friends, they also need to learn how to deal with loss and grief. When we raise our children abroad we also need to find ways to support them through these experiences.
* Study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD
To me, you and your family are citizens of the world, people who feel at home wherever they travel. I also think citizens of the world are very curious people who may speak several languages and are well-traveled, just like you. For those parents who aren’t so lucky to be able to raise their children abroad or travel as often, but still want their children to be citizens of the world, what do you recommend they do?
I think that the way we travel is much more important than the frequency or the amount of tr
aveling (quality over quantity). If we try to get as close as possible to the local culture; if we look at the host culture with the eyes of a child — full of curiosity and wonder; if we do our best to spend our days in the country we visit like a local and not like a tourist by enjoying simple activities with mindfulness, instead of running everywhere to see everything); if we try to learn the language even just a bit to interact with people… Then we can be “citizens of the world”, even if we only travel once in a lifetime.
Do you think traveling with children at the youngest age is impactful on their development?
I can only talk from my own experience, as I haven’t seen any study on this topic. My daughter and I took 28 flights in her first 18 months. If I count also those she took while she was in utero, that makes 54 flights in total. I do believe that these flights had an impact on her. She is now 19 months and she loves travelling and seems to be at ease on a plane or in an airport. She likes to be on the move and meet new people.
While she really enjoys travelling, I have also noticed that the first one or two days after the journey are more difficult than the journey itself. She cries more, needs to be in our arms more and wakes up more frequently during the night. I think she needs time to readjust to the new environment.
So yes, I do believe that travelling has an impact on infants and children. I also think we can help them have an easier journey and transition by preparing for the trip. This means taking the time to explain to them what is about to happen and teaching them how to say goodbye well. Babies and children understand much more than what we think they do.
Cristina blogs about her greatest adventures, nomadic life, and parenting on her website “Mothers Abroad”, where she invites mothers who live and raise their children abroad to share their wisdom. Check out her recent article on her tips on how to survive jet lag with a baby. Cristina is a life coach and she is passionate about the learning environments that help children thrive and learn naturally.
na has also recently contributed a chapter to the anthology “Knocked Up Abroad Again: Baby bumps, twists, and turns around the globe” in which 26 mothers from 25 countries share their amazing stories of motherhood abroad.
You can also follow Cristina on Facebook here.