Merry Christmas From Costa Rica!

I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season.  I am so grateful for all the blessings we as a family have received in the past year.  This week my parents, sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and nephew are visiting us in Costa Rica as we celebrate the holidays.  In order to maximize my time with my family, I will not be blogging until after the first week of January.  In the meantime, here are some blog posts that you may find inspiring and valuable to review:

Moving to Costa Rica to Rediscover the Joys of Motherhood

5 Challenges of Parenting in Costa Rica

Good Reasons to Move to Costa Rica

How to Teach Your Children to Be Grateful

What is Culture Shock?

What is Pura Vida?

Keep an eye out for my e-Book “Reaching Pura Vida”.  It will be out early 2014.

Have wonderful Navidad and Ano Nuevo!

Pura Vida!

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4 Bad Reasons to Move to Costa Rica

In my previous post, I blogged about 4 good reasons to move to Costa Rica.  In this post, I will discuss the bad reasons.  I am not trying to discourage potential expats from coming to the land of Pura Vida!  I want to make sure you search within yourself to truly understand your motivations.  If you want to move for the wrong reasons, chances are you will not last one year in the land of Pura Vida.  And I want to make sure you do!

Become Rich

You will not become rich by moving to Costa Rica.  This is a very bad reason to move here, as there are many easier, cheaper, faster ways to become rich.  The average income in Costa Rica is $5,000 USD per year, so chances are that you will not find a job in this country where you will make more money than you did back in the USA.   Moving to escape a financial meltdown is also a recipe for disaster.  If you could not manage your finances in your home country, you will not be able to do so here either.  If you are going through a financial meltdown, then fix that aspect of your life first, before you spend money you do not have on airline tickets, housing, and storage fees.

I would never tell someone to never start a business in Costa Rica, but I would definitely caution them to think about it very carefully.  Drive through Costa Rica and you will see many half-finished, delapidated housing developments, hotels for sale, abandoned restaurants, and other signs of failing businesses.  If you want to come here with the idea of starting a business, you can apply for an “Inversionista” or Investor visa, which is a perk.  But keep in mind that once you establish a business here, it is very likely yours for life.  Selling it will not be easy.  Make sure that you have done your research on the market and income potential.  Embrace the mindset that your business will make you a comfortable living but will not make you rich.   While the cost of living is cheaper compared to the USA, Costa Rica is still an expensive country compared to other developing Latin American nations.  So with the combination of low income, risky business, and higher cost of living, the likelihood of making big bucks here is low.

Follow a Friend, Family Member, or Significant Other

I am a firm believer that in order to transform your life successfully in a positive way, your motivations must be internally driven.  Riding on someone else’s coattails or dreams is not a justifiable reason to move.  Just because moving to Costa Rica (or anywhere else) was well suited for someone you know, that does not mean it is the right thing for you.  I know of a couple of expats who moved here to follow a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to break up soon after the move.  In both cases, the expat stayed in Costa Rica after the breakup anyway.  But I have also seen expats who moved here to follow someone they know, and they moved back sooner than planned.

Fix Your Marriage

You know how some people think that having a baby will fix their marriage and then they have the baby and they realize they are wrong?  But it is too late because you cannot return a baby.  The same can be said for moving abroad.  Moving abroad has been one of the most stressful experiences of my adult life.  In the couple of weeks leading up to the move, I was drinking alcohol almost every night, and I am not usually a drinker.  After moving, our family dynamics changed dramatically.  I went from being the primary breadwinner and disciplinarian to a stay-at-home-mom with a much more laid-back attitude about discipline.  My relationship with my children has become stronger.  Amidst all of this, the relationship between Chris and myself has also changed.  The unintended changes in our roles in the family caused tension between us, but thanks to our honesty and communication, we have been able to weather the storm.  If you do not have a strong marriage, moving abroad is not going to fix it.  Your marriage has to be prepared to handle so many changes and challenges.  In fact, much like childbearing, moving abroad will demolish a weak, unstable marriage.

Solve All Your Problems

Moving to Costa Rica will not solve your problems.  You have to solve them on your very own first.  Even though this country is beautiful, eco-friendly, welcoming to foreigners, safe, and has great infrastructure for a developing country, problems still exist.  People who think that by moving abroad they will be able to escape their problems with relationships, dead-end careers, toxic family members, and negative emotions, are in for a rude awakening.  All of these issues will follow you to Costa Rica.  Fix your life first, then move abroad to enjoy your newfound energy and positivity.

Pura Vida!

What are some other bad reasons to move to Costa Rica?  Let me know in the comments below.

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4 Good Reasons to Move to Costa Rica

Before you move to Costa Rica, you must search within yourself to gain insight as to your motivations.  If you move for the right reasons, your chances of successful cultural integration will increase.  Below are 4 good reasons to move to Costa Rica.

Enrich Your Life

Moving to enrich your life and that of your family is one of the best motivations to move to Costa Rica to transform your life into a more positive experience.  You will be able to learn Spanish, a language so relevant in both hemispheres.  You will experience a beautiful new culture.  Going through the process of moving abroad will give you the opportunity to foster a better understanding of yourself and what you are capable of doing.  You will satisfy your wanderlust.  You will meet new people, both locals and expats, who will contribute to enriching your life.

Simplify Your Life

Many of my expat friends have expressed that one of the reasons they left their developed passport country (usually the USA and Canada), was to escape the rampant consumerism that plagued their lives.  Before moving, working took center stage over family.  They had so much stuff that their house was busting at the seams.  Their children were becoming entitled and ungrateful as their pile of toys and gadgets increased.  Sadly, I would love to say that this was not the case with us, but that would be a lie.  There were times I would buy stuff only to realize later that I already had three of whatever it is that I had bought.  Moving to Costa Rica is a wonderful way to simplify your life because you will not have as much opportunity to shop for useless stuff; your house will be much smaller so you cannot store as much stuff; and you will not likely have as much money if you are living on your savings or other fixed income sources.  You will also find that purging and decluttering is a necessary part of the process of moving abroad, which in the end will help you realize that you did not need a lot of your stuff to begin with.  Furthermore, the culture of consumerism is not prevalent here, mostly because most people don’t have the money to indulge in it.   So you will feel pretty awkward buying a bunch of toys for your kids if no one else in your community is doing it.

Enrich the Life of Others

If you have a skill set that you would like to share with the developing world, Costa Rica is a great place to be charitable.  Perhaps you want to teach, provide medical care, or promote awareness on child trafficking.  While there are many countries out there that are needier than Costa Rica, they may not be as safe, beautiful, or accessible.  This was not the driving force for my move, but I have been so fortunate to meet other expats who came here specifically to serve, and their lives are full of joy and happiness.  For example, Canadian expat Bryna, who owns the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, is starting a science tools library project in order to promote science education in Costa Rica.  Sometimes, you will figure out how you can use your skills to meet a certain need in the community after you move.  I am currently looking into obtaining a medical license in Costa Rica so I can provide pediatric care in Monteverde, as the community  needs a pediatrician and has never had one.

Align With Tico Values

In the early 1950’s, a group of American Quakers trekked from Alabama to Monteverde as conscientious objectors against the draft.  One of them, Wolf Guindon, has been immortalized in the book “Walking with Wolf” by Kay Chornook.  The Quakers came to Costa Rica because this country does not have a military, as it was disbanded many years earlier in order to use the money on health care, education, and conservation.  If you would like to live in a country where public education and socialized health care is available to its citizens Costa Rica is right for you.  If you are interested in living in a peaceful country with an anti-war culture, this is the place.  Costa Rica also places great value in conservation, making it a haven for tree-huggers, biologists, and other “green” types. The Quakers from Alabama and their families are still here because their value system was well aligned with Tico culture.

While these are not the only reasons to move abroad, as a general rule, you will have better success if your motivations to moved are aligned with these values.  You must also seriously consider whether or not you want to move to Costa Rica for all the wrong reasons, which I will blog about on my next post.

What are some other good reasons to move to Costa Rica?  Let me know in the comments below.  

Pura Vida!

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5 Amazing Perks of Parenting in Costa Rica as an Expat

In my previous post, I blogged about the challenges of parenting as an expat in Costa Rica.  As intense as it is to raise third culture kids, these are offset by all the wonderful benefits of being a parent in a developing country.  You will notice that there is a blurred line between the challenges and the “perks”.

More Time Together

I mentioned in my previous post that one of the challenges of parenting in a developing country is that we now live in much closer quarters, which means less privacy for the entire family unit.  It also means we get to spend more time together as a family.  We can sit on the front porch and talk about the beautiful sunset.  I share the kitchen table with the kids as they do their homework.  Kara and Tristan are in close proximity as I cook dinner.  We watch the same shows and movies, as opposed to each of us doing our own thing like we did in the US.

My Canadian friend Cheryl, who is a single mom, agrees:

“We now spend so much time doing everything together.  We have become friends as well as parent & child. We have far less distractions like two TV’s pulling us into two separate rooms all of the time.”

I spend a lot more time with my children now than I ever did before.  I realize that is not necessarily a product of living in this country, but also the fact I am not working outside the home and I have more time for them.  I am grateful though, that because we are living a simpler life with a lower cost of living, I don’t have to work outside the home.  I would not have that luxury if we were still living in the US without sacrificing some major quality of life issues, such as being able to send the kids to a high-quality private school.  As Americans, we place a great value on privacy.  I have learned to get over it if that means my kids are cuddled up next to me while I watch a frequently-interrupted “Glee” on Saturday mornings.

Living in a smaller house means we are spending more quality time together as a family.......

Living in a smaller house means we are spending more quality time together as a family……. :-/

Stronger Bond

When a group of people is thrown into a high-stress situation, they develop a stronger relationship.  That is one of the concepts of boot camp.  Moving abroad is stressful, and generates a wide range of positive and negative emotions.  As a family, going through the stressful experience of moving and adjusting to a new country forged a stronger bond amongst the four of us.  We learned early on to either express our feelings or explode in an emotional Chernobyl later.

Cheryl says:

“We have had to learn how to communicate better with one another.  We are better at expressing what we need or want from each other.”

Not only has the quantity of time I spend with my kids increased, the quality of time we spend together has also improved.  I have gotten to know my children much better in the last few months since moving to Costa Rica.  I think this is a combination of spending more time together but also the slower paced life encourages conversation.  I don’t multi-task like I used to, so I am able to talk to the kids when we are walking to the Monteverde library (~50 minute walk) or into Santa Elena town (~10 minute walk).  We eat dinner together every night and we make it a point to ask the kids about their day.

On our way to the parade on Sunday morning!

Walking to the Desfile de Independencia.

Incorporating the “Pura Vida” principles

One of the my favorite aspects of living in Costa Rica is the “Pura Vida” lifestyle.  I love the laid-back attitude of positivity that permeates Tico culture.  As an expat, “Pura Vida” quickly becomes part of all aspects of our lives, including parenting.  I am more patient.  I make less rules.  I am much more easy-going about picking my battles.  I am better at distinguishing between disobedience and a genuine mistake (broke a glass).  I am much more calm when they do make mistakes (which is often) or even disobey (which is not often).  I give the kids more freedom without compromising safety and supervision.

My friend Cheryl says:

“We started by spending all of our time together and now I allow my son to go into town on his own.  He will skateboard with his friends and either walk, take the bus or a taxi home. However when we travel we go back to strict rules.”

We are lucky to have the luxury of allowing our children certain freedoms that we could not allow when we were back in our host country or even in a big city within Costa Rica.  I firmly believe that those freedoms will nourish them to grow into independent, confident young people.  The Pura Vida approach to parenting does not mean that you do not discipline.  It simply means that you focus on the necessary rules and accept that children sometimes learn best by letting go of the reigns.  My kids get messier and dirtier here than they ever did in the US, and I honestly believe they are happier for it.  Getting dirty is one of the best aspects of being a kid, even if it means getting hurt a little.  And when crazy things happen, I have learned that yelling and screaming will not solve the problem.  I hope that I can react like Bonnie Hunt did in this wonderful scene from “Cheaper by the Dozen” if faced with a similar situation:

High-Quality Teaching Moments 

Raising third culture kids in a developing country has also been a source of a wide variety of learning experiences for them and for us.  For example, when we were in Quepos, we came across a homeless man sleeping under the awning of a shop.  Tristan asked me, “Is that man poor?”  While we had encountered homeless people asking for money before, he had never been faced with the harsh reality of where these people go at the end of the day.

My friend Sylvia, who is here in Monteverde with her husband Nick and two children, has had a similar parenting experience:

“I think our biggest difference here that we are really aware of is our conversations with our kids.  Experiencing a new culture together brings up so many interesting topics including:  language, climate, food, shops, plants, animals, education, drinking water, poverty, health, and income.  These same topics may have been discussed in Canada, however, talking about life’s challenges here takes on a different, much deeper meaning and understanding.”

One day, Kara came home from school and said, “Mom, I am starving.  Can you make me something to eat?  A pizote (coatimundi) ate my sandwich at school so I just ate an apple for lunch.  And I did not want to ask any of my friends for part of their lunch since their lunches have less food than mine.”  Through sheer observation, the kids have learned how privileged they are compared to their peers.  While we were living in the US, they felt deprived.  Here, they have been hit with how truly privileged they are, which is a valuable lesson for any child.

They have also experienced the generosity of the people of Monteverde.  Fundraisers for families in need are common here.  The kids have learned that even though most people here are “poor” by US standards, they take care of their own and reach out to those in crisis.

Integrated Social Lives

When we lived in the US, we led very parallel lives.  I had my group of colleagues and friends.  Chris had his own social circle, as did the kids.   Our social circles rarely overlapped, which often meant that during the little time off we had, we each went our separate ways to playdates, birthday parties, or other events.  It was stressful having to chauffeur the kids around to all of this, but it also ate into our family time.  Now our social lives are much more integrated.  We all look forward to Friday Night Burgers each week, where the kids hang out with their friends and we chat with their friends’ parents.  When we get together with the other international families at Creativa, the kids’ school, the children play together while the adults chat and drink coffee.  We go to the library together.  We go to the various festivals and community activities as a family.  A big part of this new social structure is the fact that most people don’t have a car in Monteverde.  So it is difficult to drop off a child somewhere while the parent goes to another place.  I think all the parents here appreciate multi-generational social events.

DSCN7418

Celebrating Halloween at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden as a family.

Overall, parenting in Costa Rica as an expat has amazing benefits that overshadow the challenges.  By no means is it easy, and I do not claim to be a perfect parent.  I am grateful that I am able to show my kids how much I love them against the backdrop of the beautiful cloud forest.  What an amazing experience to share!

What positive experiences or changes in parenting have you encountered after moving abroad or even to another city/state?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

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5 Challenges of Parenting in Costa Rica as an Expat

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.

Overcompensating

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.

Cheryl says:

“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.

Pura Vida!

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What Is It Like to Be an Expat Parent in Costa Rica?

Kara, my tween daughter, recently confided a story to me recently that made me cringe inside.  The local custom in Costa Rica is to dump organic waste (banana peels, uneaten rice/beans, and other food waste products) outside as compost.  We dump it into a creek bed/ditch on our rental property.  The creek bank goes at least 10 feet down and it can get slippery thanks to our cloud forest location.  One night, soon after we had moved to Monteverde, Kara went out to dump the dinner compost.  As she tossed its contents, she accidentally dropped the bucket into the ditch.  She was so terrified to go back in the house and tell me she had tossed the bucket, that she grabbed on to a treebranch and lowered herself into the ditch to retrieve it.  When I asked her why she had done that, she responded that she was more scared to face an angry me, than climb down a dark, wet, slippery bank littered with organic waste, scorpions, spiders, and other scary things.

Ouch!  That one hurt!  Was I really that bad before?  Apparently I was.

Kara then proceeded to tell me that she realized I had changed about one month after moving here.  At that time, Kara dropped a glass in the kitchen.  She immediately shot me with a look of terror.  I calmed her down and told her not to move as she was barefoot, and I did not want her to get hurt.  I swept up the shards of glass on the floor, made sure there was no more broken bits on the floor, and said, “Don’t worry.  It’s just a glass.”  Being her honest self, Kara responded by saying, “You have really changed.  When we were back in the US, you would have gone into a screaming fit if I broke a glass.  Now you are more concerned about making sure I don’t get cut.”  At the end of the conversation Kara said, “If I had known you had changed when I tossed the compost bucket into the ditch, I would not have climbed down to get it!”

When faced with the realization that my parenting style at some point was so harsh that my child would rather slip and fall into a ditch than face me after dropping a bucket (which by the way is actually an old ice cream container!), I began to reflect on parenting my children in Costa Rica, specifically the challenges as well as the positive changes in my methodology.  Some aspects of parenting as an expat in a developing country are very different than in North America, and others are the same.  After all, in the grand scheme of things, people are the same no matter where you go.  We all want the same things for our kids, such as safety, proper nutrition, good education, access to health care, and a nurturing social environment.

If you ask all the Costa Rican expats how their parenting style has changed since moving abroad you will get a wide variety of responses.  Stay tuned to this blog later this week for some of answers from expat parents as they share the challenges and advantages of parenting in Costa Rica.

Pura Vida!

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Reflections on Being a SAHM vs Corporate Mom: Is There a Happy Middle?

Last week, as the kids and I were walking to the Monteverde Library, which is about a 45 minute walk from our house, Tristan, my 7 year-old boy, and I had a good little chat.  It went like this:

Tristan:  “Mom, what do you do for a job?”

Me:  “Well, right now my job is to be your mom.  I don’t have a job besides that.”

Tristan:  “So what do you do on the computer all the time?”

Me:  “I am working on a blog to share our experiences in Costa Rica with friends and family.  And I am starting a business on the internet to help people adjust to moving to another country and live healthy in another country.”

Tristan:  “Can you do that job on the computer at home?”

Me: “I hope so.”

Tristan:  “Are you going to be a doctor again?”

Me:  “Right now, I am not sure.  It depends on a lot of things.”

Tristan:  “Please don’t be a doctor again.  I just want you to work on the computer at home.”

This conversation hit me because Tristan is not the type of kid to express his thoughts readily.  I was touched by his honesty, but I also did not want to lie to him.

Me:  “I cannot promise you that I won’t ever go back to work outside the home.  But you know what?  I am going to try very hard to have a job I can do from home.”

As I reflect on what it means to be a SAHM, I have found that there is a happy medium to the SAHM vs corporate mom-debate:  The Work-At-Home-Mom (WAHM).  Once kids are in school and the physically intensive phase of parenting is over, many SAHMs work to some extent from home, either writing/blogging, freelancing,  telecommuting, or selling Scentsy or Mary Kay or some other product.  Others immerse themselves in charity or volunteer work.

Being a WAHM allows for income generation and can function as an outlet for intellectual stimulation and networking with actual grown-ups.  This arrangement also allows for a flexible schedule to spend time with the kids and attend to the family.   Instead of worrying that I have committed career suicide by becoming a SAHM, I am seeing it as an open door to finding a more flexible, family-friendly career opportunity.   I have no regrets about my decision to put my career as an academic physician on hold.  If in the end, I go back to practicing medicine, I will be happy that I had at least one glorious year focused on motherhood.

Do you think being a WAHM is a happy medium between being a SAHM or corporate mom?  If you are a WAHM or WAHD, what has been your experience?   Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

Posted in A Question Worth Answering, Career-Life Balance, Family Life, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 Blessings of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

**DISCLAIMER:  Please know that I am not advocating that being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is more difficult than being a corporate mom or the other way around.  By corporate mom I mean a mother who works in a salaried job outside of the home.  I deliberately avoid using the term “working mom” because it does give the impression that SAHMs don’t work, which clearly is not true.  The choice to either be a SAHM or a corporate mom is a highly personal one, and I think it is unfair for women to judge the moms who choose one lifestyle different than their own.  One is not better than the other. Both lifestyles have their challenges and blessings, which I will blog about later this week.  I am simply sharing my experience and hope to learn from the experiences of others.**

What are the blessings that come with going from being the primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom? 

In my previous post, I blogged about the challenges of going from primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom (SAHM).  While I do not regret my decision, the “perks” I miss the most are those that feed my sense of independence and self-worth.  Despite the downsides of not working outside the home, I have gained a whole new set of benefits that are truly priceless.

Reconnecting with my children

Even if this was the only gain from quitting my job to be a SAHM, the challenges would be totally worth it.  When I was working outside the home, I would leave the house before my kids woke up and got home just in time to put some sort of dinner on the table and get them ready for bed.  During the weekends, I had to run the errands I was not able to do during the week and perform the necessary domestic chores such as laundry and cleaning.  As a hospitalist, I worked about every third weekend, which further ate into the time I should have been with my family.  Needless to say, I did not have a lot of time left for my kids.  Now, I am here every morning before my kids head out to school.  I feed them breakfast.  I am waiting for them after school every day.  We eat dinner together every night.  I am home every weekend and for every school holiday, which is my personal favorite.  The quality of our time together has also increased along with the quantity of time we spend together.  Because I am not chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted, I have more energy for my kids.  We have had more in-depth discussions in the last six months than perhaps their entire lives.  I feel like I have gotten to know my own children better.  I am more involved with their social and school lives.  Kara and Tristan have both expressed to me that they are much happier now that I am no longer working outside the home because they get to spend more time with me.  They don’t care that we don’t have a car or a big house anymore.  They care that they are getting more attention from Chris and I.

DSCN7418

My personal well-being

Now that I have an extra 70 hours or so per week, my overall well-being has improved dramatically.  Even though I was exercising and eating somewhat healthy compared to the average American before moving to Costa Rica, I was stressed out at the brink of burn-out.  I was chronically sleep deprived and frazzled.  There were times I would not see the sun for days.  My hypothalamic-pituatary-adrenal axis was so out of whack that I never felt truly well.  I may have been somewhat physically healthy, but I had no inner peace because of my stress levels.  My heart and soul were not healthy in any way.  Since moving to Monteverde, I maintain a regimen of running, yoga, and healthy nutrition.  I spend a lot more time outdoors.  I get more sunshine.  I sleep much better.  I go on a hike with friends about once per week.  I feel so much better about myself, my body, and my life.  I do not feel stressed out.  I am so much happier.

Celebrating our 15-year wedding anniversary in the Mayan Riviera.....Pura Vida! Mayan Riviera, May 2014

I dedicate more time to my well-being.

Stronger marriage

When I was working, my marriage was not a priority. I had to cut corners and take care of the things that could not take care of themselves first.  So after work, kids, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, running errands, the dogs, and extra-curricular activities, there was not a lot of time and energy left for my marriage with Chris.  Oh we tried.  We would go out on a date once per month.  We would go on a trip just the two of us once per year.  But in the evenings after the kids went to bed, we did not talk.  I would turn on the TV and fall asleep within 5 minutes.  I was too exhausted to do anything else.  Now I have more time and energy to spend with Chris.  Our communication quantity and quality has improved.  I appreciate his efforts to be the primary breadwinner now that I am no longer burdened by that responsibility in addition to running the household.  While this may give our marriage a more “traditional” 1950’s structure, I do not resent the arrangement because I came to it by choice.  No Kramer vs Kramer here!

Exploring a new career

I am taking advantage of the extra time I have from not working outside the home to explore an exciting new career as a writer.  I am currently starting an expat/lifestyle coaching and writing company and I am writing treatments to submit to the movie and film industry.  I am also revising a YA fantasy fiction novel that I wrote many years ago in order to polish it for resubmission.  I would not have these opportunities if I was still working as a physician.  As terrified as I am of failure and rejection, I have decided to set my fears aside and pursue these dreams.  If I fail, I will have no regrets because I at least made an attempt to make this dream a reality.

Time with my parents and sisters

One of my biggest concerns about moving abroad was being so far away from my extended family.  Like many Mexican families, we are very close.  My youngest sister and I both lived in San Antonio and we would see each other quite often.  My parents lived 5 hours away from San Antonio and we usually saw them about once a month or so.  All 20 of us (my parents, sisters/BILs, nieces, nephews etc) would get together for Thanksgiving and a summer vacation where we would rent out a pool house every year.  We have some wonderful memories of those times.  I was very saddened that we were not able to spend Thanksgiving or the summer together this year.  But even though we are further away, I feel like we spend more time together.  We Skype or FaceTime almost every week.  And when we do we are able to spend more time online together.  When I was working, I never called my mom or my sisters just to see how they were doing.  Now I do.  We spend a lot more time communicating than before, even though we are further away.  I am so grateful for technology.  I know that the pendulum has swung the other way and people in the blogosphere like to write about how we need to unplug.  I dont want to unplug, because if I do, I am disconnected from my family in the USA.  We text, Skype, FaceBook, and FaceTime.  My BIL follows me on Twitter.  I do not want to lose that.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful. Papa and Pita are in the center.

Even though we are further apart, I spend more time communicating with my extended family.

The blessings of quitting my job to be a SAHM are centered around the time I now have to improve the most important relationships in my life and to recharge as a person and professional.  I have no regrets.

What blessings have you experienced from putting your career on hold to be a SAHM or SAHD?  Let me know in the comments below.  

Pura Vida!

Posted in A Question Worth Answering, Career-Life Balance, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

5 Challenges of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

**DISCLAIMER:  Please know that I am not advocating that being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is more difficult than being a corporate mom or the other way around.  By corporate mom I mean a mother who works in a salaried job outside of the home.  I deliberately avoid using the term “working mom” because it does give the impression that SAHMs don’t work, which clearly is not true.  The choice to either be a SAHM or a corporate mom is a highly personal one, and I think it is unfair for women to judge the moms who choose one lifestyle different than their own.  One is not better than the other. Both lifestyles have their challenges and blessings, which I will blog about later this week.  I am simply sharing my experience and hope to learn from the experiences of others.**

What are the challenges of going from being the primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom?

In the summer of 2013, I made the life-changing choice to put my career as an academic physician aside and move to Costa Rica to be a stay-at-home mom (SAHM).   I was the primary breadwinner for our family for eight years before this.  When Chris was teaching at a private school, I was making 3 times his salary.  When he left teaching to join the corporate world, I was earning double his salary.  He is a confident husband and father and never felt threatened by our salary discrepancy.  The decision to leave the workforce was terrifying for me, as a huge part of my identity as a person was derived from my career.  While I have no regrets about my choice, 6 months into my new life I have come to appreciate the challenges of having gone from primary breadwinner to SAHM.

Money

I miss making my own money.  That sentence pretty much sums up the most glaring downside of quitting my job.  This big change was brought to the forefront of my attention a few weeks ago when I tried to open a personal line of credit with my USA-based bank, mostly to have it as a back-up in case of an emergency while Chris was out of town .  After spending over a half-hour answering questions on the phone for the application with a friendly customer service representative, he asked me what my current income was.  I responded, “I do not have an income right now.  I am on professional leave.  My husband is the sole earner in our family.”  I have to grant it to the gentleman on the other line as he really did try to be as diplomatic as possible.  He said, “I am so sorry.  If you do not have an income, then your husband needs to open the personal line of credit with you.”  Ouch!  I would be lying if I said that did not hurt my feelings and my pride just a little bit.  Actually, a whole lot!  After spending most of my adult life as the primary breadwinner and knowing that the MD next to my name pretty much guaranteed that banks were throwing money at me, my bank’s rejection was a slap in the face.  After the initial shock and frustration of the situation wore off, I told myself that the value I added to my family was no longer measured in money.  Now, I am here for my children every morning, after school, every evening, and on weekends.  I am more involved in their lives.  In fact, my job as a SAHM is very similar to being a pediatric hospitalist in a strange way:  Pediatric hospitalists rarely make money for the hospital, but they add value in other ways such as improved quality of healthcare delivered, patient satisfaction, and through-put efficiency.  As a SAHM, I may not make money, but I add value to the quality, satisfaction, and efficiency of our family.  Regardless of my rationale for getting over my pity-party, I still have to say that not earning a salary sucks!

External Validation

I miss hearing the praise, gratitude, and adulation that comes with being a doctor.  Regardless of the current state of the healthcare system, most people out there still appreciate their physician most of the time.  Not only was I receiving external validation from patients and families, I also received it from nurses, therapists, consultants, hospital administration, unit clerks, medical students, residents, pharmacists, security guards, and colleagues.  And it felt good to be praised!  Don’t get me wrong, my kids and husband do express gratitude and appreciation for what I do now as a SAHM.  But let’s face it, I don’t derive the same level of satisfaction from hearing, “Hey mom, thanks for making these (from scratch) brownies” or “Thanks for doing the laundry” as I did for “Thank you, Doctor, for saving my child’s life”.

Time Management

When I was working full time, I still had to do laundry, cook dinner, pack lunches, and attempt to parent my children.  To survive, I cut corners every way I could and I lived by my iPhone calendar.  I entered every little detail of my personal, social, and professional life into that calendar and set multiple alert systems to keep me on task.  I had an established routine from which I did not deviate for fear of turning the whole system upside down.   If I let my guard down about managing my time effectively, I was acutely aware that my children would not be fed or picked up at school.   When I became a newly minted SAHM, I did let my guard down about effective time management.  I found myself attempting to “wean” myself from the iPhone calendar with disastrous results.  I would forget simple things like doing laundry, taking the kids to guitar lessons, or baking their school snacks.   I was not careful about utilizing the most efficient methods to perform tasks such as grocery shopping.  I had to adjust to the innate inefficiency of life in Costa Rica, such as having to go to 2 separate banks to be able to pay my rent.  I was no longer outsourcing many household tasks to Chris.  I need him to work so he can maximize his (our!) income potential.  If he spends time folding laundry, that is money lost as it is time he could have been working.  When I fold laundry, it does not cost our family money.  I found it difficult to adjust to my increased household responsibilities initially.  After a few weeks of chaos I reluctantly returned to my iPhone, and I was able to manage my time more effectively.  I planned out meals, shopping trips, errands, baking, the kids’ guitar lessons, social events, and volunteering.  I mapped out my blog and writing schedule.  I narrowed my exercise, social, and professional activities.  Old habits die hard, and I found that I thrived with deadlines and checklists even in my new life as a SAHM as I did as a mom who worked a crazy schedule outside of the home.  One of the best pieces of advice I received after moving to Monteverde was to wait at least 6 months before getting involved with community projects.  Because many of the expats that move here suddenly find themselves with a lot of time, they tend to spread themselves thin.  I was able to avoid this thanks to following this advice, and now I am able to focus on a few projects that are very important to me.  The best part is that I do have “wiggle room”.  If I need to change my schedule to help out a friend in need or if one of my kids gets sick, my life does not plummet into chaos.

The Social Factor

I have met some incredible people and made wonderful friends in Monteverde.  I have more time to socialize, and I love that the kids, Chris, and I have integrated social circles.  But it takes more effort to make friends now than it did when I was working outside of the home.  People in Costa Rica work a lot, creating a wide gap between my stay-at-home-expat-mom lifestyle, and the rest of the community.  While American SAHMs have perfected the art of mommy socializing, the practice has not fully reached Costa Rica.

After living in San Antonio for eight years, I was fortunate to have built a strong network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Because I spent most of my time working, most of my friendships were from my work.  Sure, I was friendly with my neighbors, most of whom were SAHMs and I was so blessed that my childhood BFF also lived in San Antonio.  But the biggest proportion of my circle of friends were people I met through work.  As a chronic multi-tasker, I was comfortable with my friendships with my colleagues because when we would socialize, I felt I was “getting work done.”  We could discuss patient cases, quality improvement projects, our trainees, other co-workers, educational endeavors or techniques, and research data.  Sure, we would also talk about our partners, children, and life outside the hospital, but eventually, our discussion often turned to shop talk.  We also understood each other.  They knew what it was like to be under the pressures of juggling home life, motherhood, and our high-stress job.  They understood my fears of feeling inadequate as both a mother and a doctor, because I felt I had my feet in two completely different worlds.  Also, the sheer intensity of our job brought us close together whether we wanted to or not.  Once you have shared the care of patient with someone, you are bonded with that colleague for life.  It is an intense situation that forges a relationship almost automatically.

The upside is that even though forming friendships takes more effort because I don’t have a steady social pool like I did when I was working, I have the time and energy to put forth that effort.  Though it is more challenging to find friends with common interests, views, and values, the people of Monteverde are worth the effort!   I have also continued my friendships with my friends from the US, thanks to Twitter, FaceBook, and Gmail.

Intellectual Stimulation

I am an overachiever.  I was that annoying kid sitting in front of the class with her hand raised high in the air whenever the teacher asked a question.  I was like this from elementary school through medical school.  I don’t think anyone who knew me was surprised that I chose a career in academic medicine.  I loved the intellectual challenges derived from analyzing diagnostic dilemmas.  I also loved teaching young medical students and residents how to think critically and sharpen their clinical reasoning skills so much that I made part of my career in that niche.  One of my favorite parts of my job was when I would get a phone call from an outlying hospital and the referring doctor at the other end started the conversation like this, “Well, I don’t know what is going on with this patient, and I hope you can figure it out.”  Generating a differential diagnosis was like a hot cup of chocolate with extra whipped cream on a cold, rainy day.  Nowadays, my biggest intellectual challenge is making sure I put the library books back on the right shelf at my children’s school, where I volunteer a couple of times per month.  Laundry, cooking, and running errands are important, necessary, and valuable needs that I meet for my family.  But they are not exactly intellectually challenging.  I do miss going into the hospital and having a colleague ask, “Hey, can I run a patient case by you?”  Try as I might, I do not derive the same cerebral satisfaction from exchanging banana bread recipes.

Stay tuned later this week as I will share a blog post about the blessings I have experienced going from the primary breadwinner to SAHM.

If you have given up your career to be a SAHM, share your experiences with me in the comments below!  What have been your biggest challenges?

Pura Vida!

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Reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratitude In Pictures

In the end, I am thankful for family and friends.  I am thankful that I am able to see the world, even though I own little of it.

Thanksgiving 2008, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2012, Hot Springs, AK

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2011, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2010, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2009, Villa Hills, KY

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

Thanksgiving 2008, San Antonio, TX

The "hostility" phase of cultural adjustment can be very, well, hostile!

I am so grateful for these kids, even when they are not being grateful.

Kara and I "selfie" in the Pantanal, Brazil.

I am grateful that I am able to share the world with my kids.

The "paler" side of the family. Chris's mom in the center.

The “paler” side of the family.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful. Papa and Pita are in the center.

My side of the family. We are quite colorful.

This is the view I wake up to every morning. Pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming!

This is the view I wake up to every morning. Pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming!

Spending more time outside at Selvatura Park.

Spending more time outside at Selvatura Park.

The kids and I on the beach at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

The kids and I on the beach at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Share your favorite Thanksgiving moments, no matter what time of the year they were, in the comments below.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Pura Vida!

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