Faraway File #6 - Cynthia: Eindhoven, The Netherlands
This series aims to give a snapshot in to the lives of parents living faraway from home – the good, the bad and the ugly! If you'd like to be featured, I'd love to hear from you – please get in touch!
You could say that some people are born to be ‘faraway’. A self-proclaimed ‘third culture kid’, Cynthia was born in Argentina, raised in Sweden, and lived in Spain, Tanzania and back in Sweden again, before settling most recently in the Netherlands with her Belgian husband and their two daughters. Her experiences of parenting in three different countries have furnished her with some incredibly thoughtful reflections about raising children in different cultures and circumstances, which I’m thrilled to share here in our latest Faraway File. (And if you’re after a little light relief, you can also find Cynthia on Instagram where she posts as @expatmemes – always good for a giggle!)
Give us the basics: where are you from, where do you live now, and what took you there?
I come from a mixed relationship, my father being from Chile and my mother from Argentina. I was born in Buenos Aires but we moved to Sweden when I was just a baby, which is also where I grew up. Having grown up always feeling neither here nor there I guess I am a true third culture kid! Right now we are living in the Netherlands due to my husband’s work and it’s my third host country.
Tell us about the pre-baby / kid you.
Growing up in a place where I never truly felt like I belonged, I always felt certain restlessness. Is this really it? Is this all there is to life? I traveled a lot for holidays and I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t making the most out of life. So one day I decided to take a leap of faith and packed everything into three suitcases and moved to Barcelona. I still remember the feeling right before I left when I had given notice to insurance companies, electricity, water… I didn’t have anything tying me down anymore. I’ve never felt so free!
I was working in human resources and quickly found work in Barcelona. After a few career moves I became the HR manager for a company that deals with advertising sales on a global scale. I had the best time! I got to travel to exotic places and my free time was spent surfing, shopping, eating tapas and drinking mojitos.
Through my job I met my Belgian husband who was then working in Tanzania and had invested in a company there. After a year of a long distance relationship, I packed the same three suitcases and joined him there. Living in Africa was such an amazing experience, hard but rewarding. It was confusing since on one hand you had all the luxuries of people cooking for you, cleaning for you, going to amazing beach resorts at the weekends etc. On the other hand you had to deal with struggling with the basics like proper healthcare, water and electricity shortage and poor infrastructure.
Finding a job in Tanzania was tricky since there are restrictions for foreigners when it comes to work permits and such, and the jobs that would have been the right ones for me as a next step in my career were not available to me, but I was lucky to find work within my field and work for an amazing Irish guy who also supported me a lot on a personal level.
And how about now?
After Tanzania we went back to Sweden to welcome our second baby. It was great being so close to my parents with the little one. I had raised our first born in Tanzania far away from everyone. Being in a developing country with a small child is challenging because you are constantly worried about things like malaria and dengue and other really serious diseases. Robberies, dangerous traffic and scarcity of things like diapers are all things you have to take into consideration, while not really having anyone else to rely on. So being in Sweden felt so easy in comparison!
Now we are in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and the challenges revolve more around language and integration. When we came here our children were 3.5 and 1.5 and didn’t speak any Dutch. Here children start school at the age of 4, so our oldest daughter had a short sprint before she was fully submerged into Dutch schooling. We considered international school but we were not really impressed with the one here, which is also pretty far away, so we chose to put them in Dutch school.
For me, having to manage everything that has to do with the home and the kids’ schools and daycare, where all the information is in Dutch, has been a challenge to say the least. I have taken some Dutch lessons, which have helped, but I still struggle with the feeling of always being a step behind.
Since we came here I have started my own company that deals with international recruitment and also coaching internationals in their job search (http://www.xpathglobalcareers.com). Here there are hundreds of expat spouses struggling to get into the Dutch labour market. There are so many competent people who are battling loss of motivation and confidence due to constant rejections. I work to remind them of all the things they have accomplished and support them in keeping their enthusiasm, at the same time that we work to improve their techniques navigating their job search.
How does where you live now compare to your home turf?
Sweden as a country is very child-focused, meaning children stand right in the centre of everything – the way parental leave and childcare is organised, how the work place functions. Parental leave is 1.5 years, day care is practically free and nobody lifts an eyebrow when the head of the department closes a meeting at 3pm because they have to pick up their child.
On the surface that all sounds wonderful, which it of course is, but there is also a downside to it, which is an enormous collective pressure to be the perfect parent. You should never pick up after 4pm, you should dress your children in non gender-specific clothes, feed them homemade organic food, not give them any sugar, always breastfeed the babies, not having them in a buggy but a carrier etc… As a parent it is pretty exhausting to deal with the judgment all around about how you raise your child.
The Netherlands is much more relaxed. Dutch people really know how to have fun and they like to celebrate things and do a lot of that in school also. Children are taught from a very young age to “zelf doen”, which means “do it yourself”, so they are raised to be more independent and self-sufficient. Children play without the parents helicoptering around them at all times and learn to manage themselves more. Of course there is a downside to that as well, in the social interaction, because it is much more unsupervised it is more ruled by the law of the jungle. The older and stronger kids run the show and are pretty merciless towards smaller children. Also in the schools the focus on performance is extreme and not a lot of attention is given to social skills, whereas in Sweden the focus on empathy and social interaction is huge.
Another big difference I see is that in Sweden the focus on gender equality in schools and daycare is immense, and here in the Netherlands I haven’t seen anything related to it. Here it is still outspoken in class that boys are stronger than girls or that boys do this, girls do that. At home I do what I can to empower my daughters to not feel limited by other people’s expectations but I wish this sentiment were more widespread than it is.
And what does that mean for your family?
I see that our values and beliefs at time clash with the Dutch and their views on what is normal and acceptable. As parents we try to balance raising our children true to our values while at the same time trying to integrate into a new society. It is challenging when the clashes revolve around core values we are not willing to compromise on. Raising children away from home means you have to pick your battles when it comes to ways of doing things. There will be things you can let go of but there will also be times where you have to put your foot down and stand up for what you believe in.
What does a typical day with the kids look like for you?
My oldest one goes to school every day and my youngest goes to daycare 2.5 days a week. If both kids are out I take the time to work and, since I have limited time, I have to-do lists for those days so I really focus on the things I need to do and not get distracted with things I can do while they are home. I pick them up at 3pm and we spend the afternoon playing together, or if they are tired and over-stimulated they sometimes choose to play different things. My husband comes home around dinnertime and we sit down to eat together. Then it’s unwinding time, with bath and some TV before we do the bedtime routine.
If a family was visiting the town / city where you currently live for a day, what must they see and do?
Great question, I wouldn’t know! Haha, Eindhoven is really an industrial city so there is not really much to see! I would probably take them somewhere else, like The Hague or somewhere a bit nicer.
Favourite family activity: We like going to Centerparcs, which is like a park with bungalows, a petting zoo, a lake for water sports, an indoor adventure pool, miniature golf, pony riding, wall climbing, paintball etc. The kids love it and always have fun there.
Children's book: I don’t know about Dutch books, but Studio 100 is big here, which is a Belgian-Dutch version of Disney with its own super heroes and characters.
Parenting hack: If there is something you don’t know, ask your neighbor! Neighbours are really close here and you can ask them for pretty much anything.
One thing you can get faraway that you can't at home: A house! Houses are much more affordable here than in Sweden.
One thing from home that's been a godsend: Swedish outdoor-wear for the kids – you can’t beat it!
What do you love about being a faraway mum?
I love how we get to experience different places and cultures as a family. I love how open-minded it has made my children and how curious they are about the world and how other people live. For them everything that is different is interesting and something to explore rather than something scary or to be wary about. I love how living in different places has made them so adaptable and flexible, and whenever we go to a new place they immediately feel at home. I can’t wait to see where life takes them.
And what do you struggle with?
That they don’t get to see their grandparents as much as I would like. They have an amazing relationship so it would have been so nice to have them close by.
I also struggle with not having a support system. My husband travels 75% of the time and it all lands on me, so if I get sick or something happens while he is away I am really in trouble. I have had to take care of them by myself while suffering with the stomach flu, and one time they suspected my oldest had appendicitis so we were stuck in the hospital for hours and I had to have then youngest with me the whole time. Those were times it would have been nice to have someone like grandparents close by to jump in.
Are you forever faraway, or is this just a temporary thing?
Since my husband and I are different nationalities we don’t have a home country in common. So I guess one day one of our faraways will become our permanent home!
What advice would you give to parents new to living far from home?
Pick your battles, cut yourself some slack and try if you can to surround yourself with people who give you energy and support you. Being a faraway mom can sometimes be overwhelming so don’t forget to take care of yourself as well!
Thank you so much, Cynthia, for sharing your experiences and advice – I found it really fascinating. I hope you and your family continue to enjoy your amazing faraway adventure for as long as it may last!