Sailing the Mothership: One Expat's Efforts to Navigate Motherhood Abroad

Becoming a mother when living away from her support network was a struggle for writer Erin Boeck Motum. From studying abroad to a spontaneous move to getting pregnant and everywhere in between, the twists and turns offered some vital life lessons. Whether you’re thinking of having children while living abroad or just want to join in on the journey, read on.

When I first wrote about giving birth to twins in a foreign country publicly for an anthology called Knocked Up Abroad, I was in a completely different place, both literally and figuratively, to where I am now. In summer 2014, I had returned home to St. Louis, Missouri for a combination of reasons: My grandma had been given one year to live, and my girls were still toddlers, whereas they’re now in primary school (which makes moving harder). I was lost, and going home seemed like a reasonable way to get my bearings.

To understand what happened, let’s rewind back to 2006: I was taking part in the Missouri London Program. I left my university in America to study at one in London for five months. During that time, I traveled more than I ever had in my life as a Midwestern American. Before taking that leap, though, I logged into my MySpace account (remember that?) to search for someone in England to write to. Like all things in life, I wanted to go into this experience armed with knowledge that would help minimize the number of times I embarrassed myself. I found George.

We wrote back and forth for years; we didn’t actually meet up when I moved to London for the study abroad program, which my friends made fun of me for. But after I graduated in 2007 and found myself without any clear plans or direction to head off in, a friend of mine (rather easily) persuaded me to move to London with her. In the first of a series of uncharacteristically spontaneous decisions, I boarded a plane to London two weeks later without a flat, without a job and without a plan.

As a book lover, I wanted to work in publishing. With an uncharacteristic, all-encompassing feeling of optimism that I have only felt a few times in life, I took my CV to Random House — just walked right up to the doors to hand it in. Turns out, the guy who was working reception there had also worked reception at the charity where I did a work experience placement back in 2006, during my studies abroad. Luck smiled down on me, and he kindly passed my CV on to a friend of his in HR. I got the placement, which only lasted a few weeks but gave me a foot in the door. While there, Penguin called and asked me to do a placement with them. That placement then turned into a job offer in another imprint at Penguin.

At the same time, I had finally met George in person. Given that we had written back and forth (with some novel-sized emails, let me tell you) for years, it felt like we knew each other, even though we had never met in person before. In March 2008, we met in person, hit it off, and started dating, and in January 2009, we got married. Again, that uncharacteristic spontaneity had come into play, and it was once again shaping my life in a big way.

We decided to build our lives in London, where he had a job working for the police. I went back into publishing at Penguin, and when massive job cuts were made (my job being one of them), I began working for a charity. Throughout this time, I had the usual homesickness and out-of-my-element frustrations. One boss scoffed and told me that my suggestion wasn’t right, that although it might have been how things were done in America, it wasn’t how they were done here. (Spoiler alert: I was right, and what I had suggested was clearly written in the company’s style guide.) I couldn’t find the ingredients I needed to make certain meals. Shops had different hours and weren’t as well-stocked as I was used to. The weather was rainy and grey. You know the deal; things were different, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

In 2011, our downstairs neighbour had just had her first baby. After that, I felt consumed by this desire to have a kid, so we decided to try. My sister had spent years trying to conceive, so I was convinced the same fate would fall to me. I got off my birth control, and a short three months and one positive pregnancy test later, we found out we were expecting.

Oddly enough, I took the pregnancy test while I was visiting family in America. George and I had just been to the Grand Canyon with family, but he had to go back to work in England. I had the flexibility to stay a little bit longer, but that flexibility meant that my husband ended up finding out about the pregnancy on the phone while my family found out in person — not always the case for expats. It was just before George’s birthday, so although my family found it strange that I insisted they call him with me to wish him a happy birthday (and open a present for him during the video chat), they obliged and were, in turn, surprised and delighted when they saw that the “present” was actually a baby announcement.

A short while later, I went back to England and began the full process of pregnancy. A visit with the doctor here, a trip to the hospital there. For our first scan, George came with me. I will never forget that sense of anticipation (and then absolute surprise and shock) when we looked at the screen and saw two very distinct entities: twins. Later, when we shared the news, one of my friends accurately remarked, “Well, you’ve always been an overachiever.” To this day, that makes me smile.

I cannot fault England’s National Health Service (NHS) for how thorough they were, and I am eternally grateful that having a baby didn’t leave us with a huge hospital bill, as it would’ve done in my home country. I had weekly hospital trips, frequent blood draws, and a birth that involved at least a dozen specialists standing around, waiting to jump into action if any problems presented. I was incredibly lucky, for many reasons.

But life with twins — life with any number of kids, I imagine — is not one full of overachievement. Even after more than 7 years raising these two, I frequently alternate between feeling like an absolute failure when presented with the picture-perfect ideals of motherhood and being convinced that anyone who claims to have that 100% perfect, Mutter des Jahres-like experience is a liar.

I spent the first two years of my daughters’ lives in an area without friends or family nearby. My whole identity changed, the very foundation I walked on seemingly shifted, and the experience was soul-shattering. I felt isolated and unable (and perhaps, in some ways, unwilling) to accept help. One kind Jamaican lady who lived down the street saw me walking the girls in their stroller one day and stopped to talk to me. She had twins, too, but they were 27 or so years old now, grown. She emanated kindness and had offered to take the girls, even if it was just long enough for me to have a shower. I thanked her politely and still talked to her on future walks, but I never took her up on that offer. I regret that.

Even the NHS, as great as it was when it came to looking after the girls, couldn’t help when it came to the overwhelming cascade of feelings I felt raising these kids. Note to yourselves: If you’re thinking of having kids away from family and friends who know you well, you’re going to need support from somewhere. I don’t want to add to your to-do list (or to your list of worries), but I am fully convinced that we are not meant to raise children in isolation. It is simply something that you should not have to do alone. You don’t have to have a partner or a large extended family or a huge group of friends, but having someone else you trust (and who you can rely on or who will make you take a break, even when you feel like you can’t take one) is vital. Life-saving, even.

For me, news that my grandma had been given a year to live was the prompt I needed to insist that we return to America and try living there. In some ways, it felt like defeat, returning to St. Louis to live in the same area I had grown up in, but I needed that support and familiarity to put myself back together a bit. Don’t get me wrong; it didn’t magically create this picture-perfect ideal of motherhood. There were still struggles. My family still drove me bonkers, exactly as they always had. Some friends were still wrapped up in their own lives, understandably, which meant that I didn’t see them as often as I had day-dreamed would happen. And American life has its own fair share of major downsides.

In the end, although I was extremely grateful for the time I got to spend there (and for the fact that my grandma ended up living for about four years after that), moving back gave me the reassurance I needed to know that changing locations isn’t a magic fix. Yes, in St. Louis we had more options in some ways, but we also had issues with costly healthcare, the fear of guns being everywhere and an overall feeling that life (especially without large amounts of money) is just harder in America. Exploring the option and seeing for myself that the grass isn’t necessarily greener there gave me a certain peace that allowed me to move forward.

I know that not everyone has the luxury of moving about like that and exploring those options with as few consequences as I had, and raising kids abroad doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have to do that. Given the length of time we were there, I didn’t lose my visa for England, and I actually expanded my work network (since it was during this trip back to America that I started freelancing and rediscovered that once-brainy side of myself). But even if moving back or making similar sweeping changes isn’t an option for you, you can still learn from my mistakes.

In hindsight, I do wish that I had documented and explored my thoughts and expectations a bit more before having kids. Granted, nothing could have prepared me for the surprise and requirements of having twins. Even my best attempts at forward planning wouldn’t have factored in the extra costs and demands that go hand-in-hand with raising multiples. But by simply taking an introspective look at your personality and putting some safeguards into place, you might not end up struggling as much as I did. That’s my hope for you, at least.

For example, are you the type of person who needs to have someone drag you out of the house? Let your friends know to persevere past your protests to get you out.

Do you need some kind of non–child-related tasks to engage your brain and make you feel like you don’t disappear into motherhood? Even if childcare costs make working seem financially impossible, make sure you join some kind of group or take some kind of class that supports your interests.

Networking doesn’t just have to apply to work-related things; it can also be key when it comes to all aspects of life. The women of Clustered have varying likes, dislikes, interests, personalities and goals, so be sure to make full use of our networks to build a tribe that’s based on quality, not quantity. After all, it’s the very reason we exist; we’ve got your back.