Moving Countries With a Toddler
Written by Carrie Hendriks
Taking a walk today, Miss A (my 5-year old ball of energy and attitude), launched into a disgusted discourse at the litter that was lying on the path. I am extremely proud of her environmental awareness and sense of responsibility, but it wasn't that that stopped me in my tracks. It was her accent. Gone was my little South African girl and in her place was a true blue kiwi kid. Well that didn't take long!
My husband and I had never really considered emigration as a serious option, until we held our longed-for bundle of joy in our arms. Suddenly the state of the economy in South Africa, schooling and future work opportunities (and opportunities in general) came into super sharp focus. So we slowly and tentatively explored our options, all while navigating Miss A's first two years of milestones.
Long story short, three years ago today, we signed the contract with our emigration agents to help us make our goal to relocate to New Zealand a reality. I think, if I had known at the time what it would be like, I may have torn up the paper and put my head back in the Durban beach sand.
Emigration is not easy at the best of times, but it's harder when there are kids involved.
Our emigration journey with Miss A involved a 4.5 month separation from her daddy and a stark lesson in single parenting for me. (As an aside, I am humbled by single parents and their ability to keep it all together). Not only was I working full-time, but I was also dealing with the logistics of packing up a home (Marie Kondo has nothing on me), dealing with the Negative Nellies who were telling me what a mistake we were making and navigating the confusing governmental rules around travelling out of the country with my child.
But this is also where the strange dichotomy of moving to another country, half-way around the world takes hold. I was trying to ensure that Miss A's life stayed as normal as possible, knowing that it was going to change fundamentally. I was trying to make sure that she was excited and positive about all the new experiences that were coming, knowing that she would quite possibly not see her cousins (who she is very close to) for at least 4 or 5 years.
I was trying to provide stability in a situation that is inherently so unstable. I was constantly reminding her that she was going to see her daddy soon, knowing that my mom (who thankfully was travelling with me to help) would have to go back to South Africa after 3 months. It's like walking a tight rope - because while you are focusing on your child, you are dealing with your own emotions too. Late night tears and fears can be pretty overwhelming when you are alone.
Personally I think waiting for Immigration NZ decisions is worse than waiting for that pregnancy test to give you the lines you so badly want to see. And then after 40 odd hours of airports and layovers and airplanes (and prayers answered as my child slept the whole way - WIN!) I watched her run into her daddy's arms and her new life in NZ and she has never looked back.
It hasn't always been smooth sailing. We had some sleep regression - I mean why would you want to go to sleep when the sun is still up at 9pm? I still cannot get her to let most vegetables pass her stubborn little lips. We moved house twice and she was not always happy about it. We have moments when her little face crumples and she tells me her heart hurts because she is missing her Nana or her cousins. Sometimes she will ask about her school friends back in South Africa, but that is starting to fade as her new friendships take priority.
Thinking about what we did to get to this point, I would highlight 3 things (and I don't think it matters whether you are emigrating with a toddler or a teen):
Structure and routine
When my husband left for New Zealand, Miss A's routine stayed the same. She still went to school. Dinner, bath and bedtimes stayed the same. Discipline was still required. Once we arrived in NZ, we stayed with family and it was a little bit more difficult, but we did our best to stick to her normal structure.
It took some experimenting with products to find the peanut butter she liked or the juice she would be willing to drink, but it was worth it to give that sense of normality. We tried to ensure that the move was not completely disruptive for her. It's very tempting to give in to allowing the routine to slip, but structure and routine gives kids something familiar to hang on to for stability and a sense of reassurance. For teens it may mean ensuring that the boundaries don't slip - the rules still apply, but that you are always there for them to talk to.
Expectations of your child
I discovered through this process that my child is far more astute and aware than I gave her credit for. We thought that moving just after she turned 3 meant that she would not remember much of South Africa or be very emotional about it. Big misconception!
Little people have big feelings that they cannot understand or explain.
Result - tantrums and meltdowns at unexpected moments, clinginess and a fear of mom or dad being out of sight for very long and the aforementioned sleep regression. I'm a bit of a control freak and if I'm completely honest, this was so unexpected for me.
We had spent weeks talking and reading about our new country, her daddy bought her all sorts of gifts to replace the ones we would be leaving at home. I only used positive language and any negative thoughts were only voiced once Miss A was asleep. I naively thought we had it all under control and the transition would be a piece of cake.
Looking back, it was unfair to expect her to find it simple and easy, when I was experiencing the same emotions. Just because I could bottle up my emotions, did not mean that Miss A could. We have to allow our children, no matter how big or small, to feel what they are feeling, listen to them and acknowledge it and help them find a way to cope (and that may be allowing a little meltdown every now and then).
Look after yourself
Ironically this is the one I battled with the most. It's easy to get so wrapped up in ensuring that your child is transitioning well that you forget to look after you. Whether you talk to someone, journal, meditate, take a walk, run around your new neighbourhood, join The Mum Tribe - whatever you decide to do, you have to find an outlet for what you are going through.
Emigration is HARD! Accept that things are not under your control and rather control how you react to it.
In most cases we have made this decision to ensure that our children have better lives - that means you being ready and present for them to look to for guidance. And find a school that is supportive. I will always be thankful that we found an ELC for Miss A that was fantastic - they not only helped her to integrate, but the whole family.
I watched her walk all the way home - confident, strong, focused and independent and I felt proud. Proud that we have been able to guide this little girl through three years of major change in her life and that we have succeeded in making our transition successful.