My children tell me I have changed a lot as a parent in a positive way since we moved from Texas to Costa Rica. I think there are many reasons for these changes that are completely independent of living here, such as the fact I am now a SAHM; we moved from a big city to a small town; and we have taken measures to simplify our time, goals, and emotions. Even accounting for those factors, parenting in a developing country as an expat can add an element of intimidation to an already daunting task. Though I am happier as a mother than I ever was, here are 5 challenges to being an expat parent in Costa Rica.
Living in Closer Quarters
In the past, I have posted about the benefits of living in a smaller house, including the reduced carbon footprint and the increased interaction within the family. The downside is……the increased interaction within the family! Most homes in Costa Rica are small by American standards. Which means that you are living in much closer quarters. There is no concept of privacy. I am acutely aware of my kids’ bathroom habits and schedule. I know what they are watching or playing on their iPADs. I hear their conversations on Skype or FaceTime. I hear everything they talk about with their friends when they come over to play. This can be great as far supervising, but sometimes it is TMI. The lack of privacy is a double edged sword too. I am not sure how Chris and I are going to be able to watch “Game of Thrones” when season 3 comes out on iTunes. I cannot have a private phone, Skype, or FaceTime conversation when the kids are in the house. Chris and I have a difficult time having a private conversation too, and have been known to have discussions in whispers at night when we know the kids have fallen asleep.
My Canadian friend Cheryl expressed similar feelings:
“At the start of our adventure here, and still quite often, I find that my teen son and I are sometimes together 24/7. This can be challenging for any parent. All of the programs we watched, all of the books we read, everywhere we went to eat, all of the meals I cooked were all what my son wanted. We have one computer which is our main source of entertainment. Back in Canada, like most families, we had two TVs and would migrate to our own spaces and do our own thing.”
As much as I love my kids and feel incredibly blessed to have this time with them, sometimes I would like a little “me” time which I don’t really get anymore. I used to wake up early on weekends when I was off work to drink a cup of coffee in my pajamas and watch something that I wanted on TV (BBC’s Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Blue Bloods, Woody Allen movies, silly romantic comedies), and the kids stayed in their rooms until 8 am or so. Now they are up at 5:30 am since the sun is up so early, and they can hear me get out of my room. They hang out with me on the couch while I drink coffee and watch Netflix in my pajamas. Currently, I am watching “Glee” season 3, and I keep getting interruptions since Kara is watching season 1. I have to pause as I get bombarded with questions such as, “Why is Mr. Shue getting married to the scared-looking counselor if Terry is pregnant?”, “Santana is gay?”, and “Finn and Rachel get together?”. So I don’t get my “me” time on weekend mornings like I used to. And I will likely have to watch Game of Thrones with earplugs and the kids on the other end of the couch when it finally comes out on iTunes. I may be a bad enough parent to let my tween daughter watch Glee, but Game of Thrones is off the table.
The Added Challenge of Cultural Adjustment
Parenting is difficult and stressful on any given day, and adding the challenge of adjusting to a new culture does not make it easier. Culture shock can cause an overwhelming array of intense emotions, which can be positive or negative. Your judgement can be clouded by either the honeymoon phase or the hostility phase of cultural adjustment. Try parenting when you are feeling hostile towards your new environment, and you will find that you are not making the best decisions of your parenting career. The same goes with making parenting decisions during the honeymoon phase, where you might allow your children to do things that you normally would not because you are looking at your new environment through rose-colored glass.
Your and Your Children’s Social Support Circles Suddenly Shrink
My friend Cheryl summarized this key feature of parenting as a newly-relocated expat:
“Neither of us had friends here in the beginning or someone else to talk to, so we were each other’s only company.”
The sudden reduction of circle of friends for both you and your child is another source of stress. While social media, the Internet, and technology make it easy to communicate with loved ones back in your passport country, the truth is that Skype is a poor substitute when you need to vent over a hot cup of coffee with a trusted friend. And if your children are anything like mine, they are still not sophisticated at navigating email, Skype, FaceTime, or other forms of communication, which often leaves them frustrated at failed attempts at “talking” to their friends.
My friends, family, and colleagues had been such a strong source of support and sounding board for parenting crises. When I first moved to Costa Rica, I felt like that safety net had been swept out from under me. As hard as it was for me, my children had a more difficult time adjusting to going from a place where they had lived all or most of their lives (we had been at their former school and house for over 7 years) to a place where they knew no one. Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers said it best when they sang, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” It takes time and effort. Fortunately, after living in a new country for a while, you will make new friends, but the initial shock parenting after losing your face to face social circle can be daunting.
After uprooting my children from their school, home, friends, and family in Texas and bringing them to a country to learn a new language and culture and a much simpler lifestyle, it was easy to fall into the habit of overcompensating. Because of finances and limited access to shopping, I don’t buy them more stuff, but I have found other ways to overcompensate. From a discipline perspective I definitely let them get away with behavior that I normally would not have tolerated. I also ask for their input about choices such as dining, play dates, and the meals I cook, which I did not ever do when we lived in Texas. I have a homemade treat ready for them after school every day. Their bedtime routines have become more elaborate and time-intensive, even though they are 7 and 12 years old. In fact, I probably spend more time on their bedtime routines now than I did when they were toddlers. This drastic change in my parenting style has caused tension between Chris and me, because I used to be the “tough” disciplinarian, and now he has had to take up that role.
“You try very hard to overcompensate for everything your child may be missing from home which of course includes their comfort foods, their friends, their families, the convenience of being able to go to a movie or even just over to a friends house. It has taken a long time for me to start giving my own needs equal weight, and I was very grateful when school started as this gave me the time I needed to focus on myself.”
Like Cheryl, once school started last August I had a little more time to myself. In fact, Cheryl and I do yoga together while the kids are at school. But it doesn’t change that when my kids get home from school, I do turn into a pumpkin that is totally focused on them. Please know that I am not complaining about this. Of course I am happy to be spending more time and attention on my kids. I cannot deny, however, that overcompensating is usually a result of guilt, which is not a good thing. I am by no means a perfect parent. I am still working on finding a balance between providing my children with the appropriate time and attention without giving in too much because I feel bad about all the recent changes and upheaval I caused in their lives by moving them here. Until I figure that out, Tristan gets a story, a back rub, and cuddling until he falls asleep at bedtime.
Cutting the Umbilical Cord
We moved to Costa Rica to embrace the culture and language here. As a parent, this has presented some challenges, such as adjusting to the higher level of freedom Tico children are given. I am not saying this is a bad thing, simply commenting on an obvious difference. American parents tend to be too overprotective, which anyone can attest to when they see a child skating with not only a helmet but shin-guards, knee-pads, elbow pads, and wrist protectors. Tico children are allowed more freedom. I think in Monteverde this is because the area is truly safe. It is a small town and everyone knows everyone, so when your child is walking down the street, they will likely pass a handful of people who know them and will keep an eye out for them. My children have embraced this “new normal”. After a lot of debating and negotiating, I finally let them go to the nearby “mini-super” by themselves. They also walk to and from the bus stop on their own, and they have walked into town by themselves to meet me at a coffee shop.
With regards to this, Cheryl says:
“It takes a long time to let go of the reigns and give your child some independence in a foreign country. What is safe for them to do on their own, where can they go, who can they be with is a learning curve. Children don’t have the same sense of fear that adults do so they don’t grasp that downtown San Jose at night is not as safe as down town Santa Elena. My son is a teenager so it is a bit easier than with a young child but I find he is still very naive.”
Cutting the umbilical cord in the context of living in a new, unfamiliar country is an overwhelming but necessary parenting challenge. Of course, before you allow your children any new freedoms, you have to make sure you know the safety of the area and the local customs.
Overall, parenting in Costa Rica has been a wonderful experience despite the challenges. In the next blog post, I will discuss the “perks” of parenting in Costa Rica as an expat. As you will notice, the line between the challenges and the advantages is rather blurred.
What challenges in parenting have you encountered after moving abroad or even to another city/state? Let me know in the comments below.