Mummy guilt, expat style

It seems to be a given these days that being responsible for children leads to almost-constant feelings of guilt.  I’m not sure whether this has always been the case – my best guess is that it escalated when psychoanalysis-derived ideas on the childhood roots of adult problems entered popular consciousness (after all, you can’t logically blame your parents for all of your problems without also feeling responsible for all of your children’s!), and has exploded of late due to the internet being awash with heated debates on all aspects of parenting. Taken together, this means that we’re all paranoid that our children will be emotionally scarred if we put a foot wrong, and it’s hard to feel confident about getting it right when we’re never far from an adamantly expressed opinion criticising our parenting decisions.

Recently it’s dawned on me that choosing to live abroad adds an extra twist to the tendency to overanalyse and worry.  Weighing up the pros and cons in theory, it felt straightforward to accept some disruption as a reasonable price to pay for giving the children an international adventure and the chance to become multilingual, but when faced with the reality of a child missing their grandparents or friends from back home, it’s hard not to feel guilty…

After all, there are plenty of potential guilt-traps for expat parents:

  • Obviously, a major one is separation from friends & family back home, particularly for my daughter who was already settled into school in the UK and has had to work at making new friends here.
  • Their lives are not exactly simplified by our choices to send our daughter to the local school (in Luxembourgish), and our son to a French-speaking crèche.  Luxembourg schools also have a very different curriculum & culture to what we’re used to in the UK, which has made it tricky for our daughter to adapt at times and is setting her up for another set of challenges when we eventually move back (e.g. the focus on languages in Luxembourgish schools comes at the expense of early reading & writing).
  • Even before our move, I had a slight wobble when I encountered the concepts of “Third Culture Kids” (expat children feeling disconnected from both their birth and host cultures) & “reverse culture shock” (the difficulty of reintegrating after life abroad).

Luckily, we’re also starting to see some of the benefits that we hoped our move would bring:

  • It’s taken some time, but our five-year old daughter now speaks basic Luxembourgish at school (and can often be heard chatting to her toys in it), and our three-year-old son finds it hilarious to substitute Luxembourgish for French when asked to repeat basic greetings at crèche. (As my husband pointed out, I’m not sure we were even aware of the existence of other languages at that age…)
  • Their range of experiences have definitely been broadened by the move already: my three-year-old son regularly starts conversations about subjects such as the differences between air and sea travel (anyone who knows him will be unsurprised to hear that he preferred the ferry because he ate lunch on it!), and we all enjoyed learning about different countries and sampling a range of cuisines at the huge International Bazaar in November.  I’m hoping that these kinds of experiences are helping them to absorb the kind of “background knowledge” that will support their later school learning.
  • It’s too early to tell what impact all this will have on their eventual character development, but we’re still hoping for gains in confidence & open-mindedness.  I particularly admired my daughter’s courage the day she happily agreed to do a trial ballet class on her own in a room where nobody spoke English, and I find it encouraging that her frequent questions and observations about the differences between her old and new schools show a growing awareness that there are different ways of doing things.

Meeting up with friends in the UK over Christmas gave me a useful reminder that you don’t need to move countries – or even schools! – to have differences of opinion with a child’s teacher, or to find yourself struggling to support a child through the occasional turbulence of a five-year-old’s social life.  When the incidents of normal childhood get tangled up with the complexities of expat life (such as a child experiencing separation anxiety on being away from home for the first time, when the crèche you’ve chosen is French speaking), it’s important to remember that the basic issues are ones you’d be facing anywhere.

Most importantly, perhaps, I’ve found reassurance in one of my favourite psychology books, Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, which is an excellent exploration of the many ways that our judgements can be biased by our rapid – but not always rational – intuitions.  Kahneman points out that regret is an emotion that is triggered disproportionately strongly when we can easily imagine having chosen an alternative option.  Unconventional choices, then, are more likely to make you feel guilty, because “when you deviate from the default, you can easily imagine the norm“. Reminding myself that the tendency to blame any problems on our choice to move abroad may be caused by an irrational mental bias helps me to put any flashes of guilt into perspective.  I also wonder whether this idea explains why parents in Luxembourg seem to spend so much time discussing and reviewing the choices we’ve made for our children: because there isn’t really a ‘default’ here (e.g. some expat children attend local schools, some international or French ones), many of us consider multiple options before making a decision, making it all too easy to imagine that we could have taken another path.

Finally, I’d like to note that I nearly reworded “mummy guilt” in the title to “parental guilt” in an attempt to be inclusive, but I changed it back.  Although I’m just using “mummy” as a shorthand for “default parent” and not implying that it’s determined by biology, it is definitely the case in our house that as the one who is immersed in these issues day-to-day, I fret and stress about them, and at times have had to fight the tendency to blow up each minor upset into evidence that we should move back to the UK immediately.  My husband is able to maintain a clearer, more detached view, considering each problem separately and recognising them as transient, and he is much better at staying focused on the reasons we made the move and the many benefits that it’s bringing to all of us. Now that spring is finally here I’m finding it much easier to share his perspective and not dwell on problems that arise – after all, to quote Daniel Kahneman again, “nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it“.


4 thoughts on “Mummy guilt, expat style

  1. I had 4 years as an expat child. Changing countries and schools – there were some tough times but ultimately it was so rewarding and gave me such a global perspective. I feel very lucky to have had that in my childhood. There were so many great family times – shared new experiences, very exciting. You are doing a wonderful thing, don’t doubt it.


  2. Nice post, Nikki. I’m not really sure why anyone feels guilty about being a parent unless they do something they know has had a profound and detrimental impact. And to be honest, no-one I know has ever really complained about eating too much sugar or not having Backgammon classes as a kid, etc. Well, maybe rubbish food, but only in a ‘surprised nostalgia/society was weird then/l’ kind of way. Not a ‘mentally disturbed/life ruined’ way. That stuff is probably more reserved for severe and *deliberate* impairments, such as sabotaging a child’s opportunities at every step of the way – or more generally, things that just don’t make sense looking back on your own childhood. As a kid, you have no idea what’s “good” or “bad”. As an adult, you gain some perspective on the effect that anything had on you. And it’s rarely either “good” vs “bad” anyway, and much more nuanced.

    Which is to say, you are who you are when you grow up, and you carry on changing after that anyway. And that parenting, I think, is mostly just a case of *being* the *values* you want your kids to *be*. They’re smart enough to get their own “experiences” and decide if they love or hate you after that 😉

    Countries are similar, I would guess. With one Eastern parent and one Western one, I’m not sure how well I ever fitted into “English culture” even without ever moving home. But I’m glad of the mix, and it’s the way of the world more often than not now anyway. I think moving is harder – but more for the disruption to social circles, which can happen anywhere. I heard of one boy recently who started school without all his friends from nursery, and was hating it. He transferred in to the same school as them, and say happier, learning better, etc. And the schools are less than a few miles apart.

    Right, 20 minutes in bed with a cuppa is over, time to go and get jumped on.


    1. Thank you! Another very interesting perspective… I totally agree with you about “living your values” being the most helpful thing to do as a parent – but it’s the moments I fail to do so that I tend to feel most guilty about. Also, that’s a fascinating point about the sense of scale of small children, and how a local change can be just as disruptive from their viewpoint as an international one.


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