5 things I’ve learned as an expat parent

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I wondered if my kids would make friends and learn the language, and if we would drive each other

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As I prepared to move to Israel for my husband’s sabbatical year, I was excited about the trips we’d take and the food we’d eat. Even routine chores such as grocery shopping sounded exotic when I imagined doing them in a foreign country.

But there was one thing I was not excited about: being an expat parent. I wondered if my kids would make friends and learn the language, and if we would drive one another crazy living in close quarters.

As we approached the end of that year, I reflected on how things went. Here’s what I learned:

My kids are more adaptable than I thought. When I worried aloud about how my kids would adjust to life in Israel, everyone reassured me. “Kids are so adaptable,” they said. But I was skeptical. I knew people who had moved overseas with their kids and reported that the transition was rough.

That didn’t surprise me — moving to a foreign country is a big life change, especially for kids. And my husband and I weren’t making the transition especially easy for our kids, who were 4 and 7 when we left for Israel. We wanted them to be immersed in the language and culture, so rather than sending them to a school for English-speaking expats, we enrolled them in Israeli schools, even though they knew barely any Hebrew before we arrived.

But my kids have made friends, learned Hebrew and, according to their teachers, integrated easily with their peers. Although they occasionally complain about school (especially about having to go on Sunday, considered a weekday here), they generally go and return home happy.

When I hear my daughter greeting a friend in Hebrew at preschool or my son singing the Israeli national anthem quietly, I know this has been an enriching experience for them, even if it’s been hard at times.

I’m better at keeping my kids busy than I realized. I don’t normally relish the role of camp counselor. When my kids have down time at home, I expect them to keep themselves busy.

But in Israel, we’ve had many more hours of down time to fill. The school day ends much earlier here, and I didn’t enroll my kids in the aftercare programs run by their schools, as I do at home — I figured going to school for six hours a day in a foreign country was tiring enough. The kids each do a couple of afternoon activities per week, but still, they are home much more than I’m used to.

While I still expect them to entertain themselves, I’ve also done more activities with them — crafts and puzzles and board games and homemade science experiments. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed doing these things much more than I thought I would.

My kids don’t need so much stuff. Back in the Land of Plenty, whenever I need to buy something for the kids, I head to Target or use Amazon Prime, and the desperately needed item is at my house in short order.

In Israel, I don’t have those options. There’s no Target equivalent — a place where I can pick up everything from baby carrots to shin guards to Disney-themed Band-Aids. And shipping things here is expensive and slow. That means that sometimes I spend an entire morning going from store to store until I find what I need. Sometimes I find a suitable substitute (I never found baby carrots in Israel, so I started — gasp! — cutting carrots into sticks myself). Sometimes I come home empty-handed.

But mostly I’ve dealt with the dearth of shopping options here by buying less stuff. Sometimes, the items the kids “need” really aren’t essential. The best example is clothes — I’ve noticed theirs becoming increasingly dingy over the months we’ve been here. At home my instinct would be to head to Target to replenish their wardrobes. But because clothes are expensive in Israel, and everything I buy ends up looking worn out within a few weeks — the result of a dusty climate and hard water that never completely removes stains — I usually don’t bother.

It’s hard being the new mom in town. Some of my closest friends back home are the parents of my kids’ friends. Our friendships developed easily, evolving from snippets of conversation at school pickup to long evenings over a bottle of wine. Making mom friends has been harder here. Part of the problem is the language barrier — though my Hebrew is decent, it’s not good enough to engage in witty banter with someone new. I’m also not up on the classroom gossip and inside jokes.

I’m so grateful to the moms who have made an extra effort to be friendly, chatting with me after school, filling me in on details I’ve missed. It’s not the same as having a BFF, but it helps me feel a bit more part of things.

Sometimes it’s nice to make a fuss over the kids. Like any good privileged American parent, I engage in my share of hang-wringing about the pitfalls of coddling my kids.

Israeli parents don’t seem to share this concern. Nearly every week in my daughter’s preschool, a parent brings in a treat for the class, sometimes for no obvious reason. And I often see Israeli parents ignore the kind of misbehavior from their kids that would earn a stern reprimand from most American parents.

While I don’t always agree with this approach, I appreciate how obviously Israeli parents delight in their kids, and how comfortable they are expressing that. When a teacher posts pictures of the kids on the class page, there is an immediate chorus of parent comments — “What a sweetheart!” “How adorable!” “Such wonderful children!” — and a stream of emoji.

I’ve heard it said that all this doting is directly related to the fact that Israeli children must enlist in the army when they turn 18. Parents know that in the not-too-distant future, they’ll have to send their kids off to face potential danger, the explanation goes, which causes a lot of angst (and more than a smidgen of guilt). So they fawn over their kids while they can.

Although I don’t have to contemplate the same reality, as my kids get older, I’m aware that before long I too will “lose” my kids as they make their way in the world. Being in Israel has reminded me that I should enjoy them exactly as they are right now.

I hope I’ll carry these lessons home. I hope I’ll have more confidence in our ability to adapt, that I’ll be friendlier to the new mom in town, that I’ll take more time to appreciate my kids. And yes, I hope I continue to buy less stuff. But I won’t lie — I’m excited to return to Target.

Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @jrichler.

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