Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Foreign Mom

"No one else has ever done that before.  That's not what we do here." 

Those were the words (in Spanish) we were hearing as we tried to explain to the school director that we would not be sending our preschool-aged daughter to school every morning.  We didn't feel like it was necessary or healthy for our little girl to be away from us every morning; they thought that was really strange.  We ended up being the weird foreign parents that year... all year.

"Children aren't supposed to be here.  This was supposed to be a surprise for them." 

I heard giggles from other moms as I blushed after hearing the teacher's words.  I quickly steered my kids back out of the classroom and to our car.  I'm not sure how I misunderstood the note sent home from school.  I thought we were supposed to bring our kids to school in the afternoon to do a special craft with them, and I'd gotten my kids all excited about it.  What I was actually supposed to do is come to school alone to do a craft that would be a surprise gift for them.  Why do I still make mistakes like this in Spanish? 

"Please re-do this.  The syllables need to be organized differently."

I had already cut out hundreds of little squares with letters on them and organized them alphabetically.  Here, at the beginning of the year, we were given sheets full of each possible syllable in Spanish.  It was the parents' job to cut them out and organize them.  The problem?  I had no idea how to organize these many flashcards.  It took several attempts, but finally my little project received the teachers' approval.  For the non-foreign moms?  This was just a rite of passage; every parent of a first grader knows how to do this because it's what their parents did for them.  It's how children learn to read and write here. 

"Your son has gotten behind in Spanish.  Please work with him at home to help him catch up."

I read this note sent home from school, and then look over the 30-something pages of worksheets that we would need to do at home.  I don't even understand this!  What's the future going to be like if I can't even understand first grade homework here!?

All of these interactions take place in Spanish, of course.  I have so many other stories like this.  Being the foreign mom is rough!  And, I'm really still just at the beginning of this adventure of educating kids in a foreign country!  I have so much more to learn, but here are some tips I've learned so far:

1)  It's ok, and understandable, that this is hard.  None of the quotes above were said to me in a mean way.  But, I still have felt guilty and like a bad mom and a bad missionary because of things like this.  But, then I realize, of course this is hard!!!  This is something new and different and unlike anything I can reference from my childhood.  It's ok that it's hard.

2) You need help.  Acknowledge this.  Ask for help.  That day that I misunderstood the note about the craft time at school?  That was a bit of a turning point for me.  The next day, I was at ballet class with my daughter.  Three other moms from her school were there with their daughters as well.  All year, I've been building friendships with these ladies.  I shared with them what had happened the day before, and how being the foreign mom can be hard.  They were sweet, and promised to help me in the future.  After class, one of them took me to a craft shop and showed me what supplies I'd need for the craft, and told me to bring them along on the playdate we had previously arranged for the next day.  While our kids played the next day, she walked me through the craft I was supposed to have made at school.  It was a huge blessing and encouragement to me.  And, it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't opened up to those friends.  Now, they frequently check to make sure I understand announcements sent home from school!

two of the ballet class moms that have helped me through this school year!
3) Consider occasionally recruiting a native speaker to help with homework.  Since finally realizing and accepting that I couldn't do this alone, I've asked one of my friends from our church to help me help my son with his homework.  Sometimes this looks like texting a photo of the worksheet to her so she can help me understand it.  Other times, it looks like actually having a friend sit down with my son at our table to help him one on one.  This has been such a help and relief to me!

4)  Pray.  I have many days where I feel like this is too hard.  I'm sure all of you, no matter what decisions you've made regarding your kids' education, often feel the same way.  I know God uses these times to draw him closer to Him as we realize our dependency on Him.  I know I need to be better at praying specifically for God's help and strength as we educate our kids in Costa Rica.  Just as I can't do it without these native friends, I absolutely can't do it without Him. 

How do you feel as the "foreign mom" where you are?  What tips have you learned through your experiences so far educating your kids overseas? 


  1. I think in some senses, we as foreign moms, experience many of the same sorts of things that folks new to any school/school system experience, just on steroids... because at any new school, there are new routines, new traditions, new and unfamiliar expectations and a new culture. When you throw in the fact that the new school is in a totally different culture (or even a slightly different one), then the possibilities for mix ups, faux pas, and confusing circumstances increase exponentially.

    I've now been "the foreign mom" in two radically different expat situations: in W. Africa and in Quebec, Canada. And strangely enough, I'm finding our Canadian experience to be more shocking and confusing... perhaps because it keeps catching me off guard because it doesn't look or feel as different - until we dive in!

    One thing we had to be very careful about, particularly with our girls in W. Africa national schools was the fact that many of the young boys/teens sought out our girls. We had to teach even our very young girls a lot about safety and being responsible for their own safety - and how to evaluate situations where we weren't comfortable and had to take additional steps (i.e. having our guard stay/wait while one of our daughters was taking a national exam because the typical school supervision wasn't there or attending birthday parties so they could be a part of their class, but not be exposed to potential dangers/threats from the plethora of older children/adults that were also typically present at those sorts of of fetes) to make sure of our girls' safety.

    1. I had kids in school in Quebec for one year- Kindergarten & third grade. I think it is so surprising because we expect it to be basically the same as the US. But the approach and underlying ideas are slightly different which leads to a different way of doing things.

  2. I just happened to read this
    right after I read here, so I had to come back and post the link. They seem to fit together quite well.

    I haven't done the whole foreign mom experience, but even just with public music school I've had my share of experiences. What kind of mother misses her child's first-ever piano recital?!?! :-( I just misunderstood. And there were other things, too. However, now, six years in, it has gotten way easier. There is hope! At this point, I have other (non-foreign!) moms asking me questions, and I love helping them navigate the system, even if it's really basic little things. What kind of mom does a little dance (inside) when someone asks her a question that she knows the answer to? And loves to think, "Wow. I actually know what to expect and how to do all this!" A foreign mom, that's what kind. :-)

  3. Thanks for this post. I can totally relate. We are in our first year of national school. Sometimes we feel so lost. But we are learning and will know a lot more what to expect next year. We also learned to ask for help. one of my sons was struggling and we just didn't know what to study for the tests. So he goes to tutoring now. It has built a better relationship with the teach, showing we trust her, and she helps him study for the test and I just help him learn the material at home.

    One thing I recently with was not being able to attend all the school activities. Parents are just no allowed. My daughter worked for a month with her class to put on a play to present to the other classes, but parents were not invited. I am realizing how cultural even expectations of what a good parent is.

    It is encouraging to know that it does get easier :)

  4. In Africa, I have homeschooled, so I haven't had to do the foreign mom thing in school. But just in Sunday School was confusing enough. Because it was organized by an American, I must have subconsciously expected things to be more "American." My kids missed out on some things because they didn't really understand the announcements. Sometimes it was the language, and sometimes it was because the culture is much more rough. You have to grab opportunities. I was used to the US where there is normally an attempt made to make sure everyone is included. They weren't left out because of any unkindness on the part of the Africans- things were just differently organized and communicated.

    We did learn with time, and it helped that the organizer switched to a compassionate African man with a tender heart. He went out of his way to make sure we understood what was happening and that our kids were involved. I appreciated his grace so much, and it has taught me to be more patient and graceful with others.

  5. Hey there, I came to your blog through Velvet Ashes and was just thinking "where was this woman when I was in our last city?!" I so needed blogs like yours! It looks like your blog begins in 2012 - which explains at least why I never came across you in my searches for things like this! :) Last city was 2007-2011, then home assignment for 2 years. Anyway - i'm commenting because your post made me tear up. And then go, "why am I tearing up?!? i'm doing fine here!" and I am - not even kidding myself. But I realize it was just my soul responding to the reality of this always being hard! After having finally gotten to do language school (still in it now), I can certainly figure out more on my own than I used to be able to, but it is still a struggle to parent at all and, especially, cross-culturally - and it's exhausting...especially do it well. Thank you for your post, your encouragement, and your helping me to acknowledge that even while i'm doing well, there is a deep layer of m-mom weariness going on right now that I should probably tend to.