Lessons Learned from the First Year of Expat Parenting

Our daughter is on the verge of becoming a toddler.  Next Friday she turns one (a day after my husband’s 35th), and I’m still grappling with the fact that we’ve been parents for a year and we’ve been parents for only a year.  The last 51 weeks seem both eternal (haven’t we always had our daughter in our lives? how did she ever not exist?) and impossibly fast.  The days when she curled her legs under and slept like a ladybug lump on our chests seem eons ago; walking, pregnant, under the blossoming boughs of Ayranci and Besevler seems like it was last week. Must be the first few months of sleepless nights and the rush of everbusiness that accompanies a baby.

But taking this year to a close, I realized I’ve learned a few things that I really wish I knew (or had been able to convince myself of) from the start, for it would have made the first year of parenthood much easier.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is important – without it you can’t properly function as a normal human being.  Attempting to run on less-than-adequate sleep while diving into a brand-new, full-time, highly demanding job with a boss who doesn’t even send memos (and can’t yet speak your language) is nearly impossible.  Prioritize sleep for the first six weeks. Don’t take on new assignments; turn down projects if need be. Take naps.
  2. Following on this: Sleep train early. This was especially hard for us, as my husband gets really nervous whenever our daughter cries and, at first, whenever she stirred in the night (is she still breathing? Can you just check on her?). Most babies make lots of noise in their sleep for the first few months.  They make even move around and flutter open their lashes without actually waking up.  “Checking on them” can  wake them up; wait a little bit and let them settle themselves down if they can.  Likewise, watch your baby to figure out when their natural bedtime is.  We were having an awful time last August: starting around 7 or 8 our 2-month-old would just fuss and fuss, until she finally fell asleep, exhausted (no less than we) at 10…or 12, usually after I’d rocked her in the sling through an entire playlist of songs I collected expressly for this purpose.  Then I figured out that maybe she just wanted to go to bed around this time.  We started switching off or dimming all the lights in the apartment by 8 and, voila! suddenly we had hours more in the evening to enjoy being adults (and catch up on lots of overdue sleep).
  3. Continuing in the same vein: take night shifts.  After the first few days, there’s usually no need for both parents to get up.  So split the night in two shifts, say 8pm-2am and 2am – 8am.  Let whoever’s not on duty sleep on the sofa if need be – but let them get a full six hours of sleep, and you’ll both be more civil, rational, and all-around happier creatures.
  4. To make the above possible, get your baby used to occasionally drinking from a bottle from the beginning, even if you plan on exclusive breastfeeding.  Little-little babies do not discriminate: if it has milk, they will (usually) not object.  But if you go for several weeks without giving your baby any milk from a bottle, you may discover (as we did, when she was around 2 months old), that they will no longer drink from a bottle – and then there goes all hope of having your partner put them to sleep or having an evening out.  Relatedly, start going on date nights and having someone watch your baby early on, before they are old enough to realize that you’re leaving.  I think if we had started this earlier it would have seemed more normal to her and induced less anxiety.  As it is, she’s generally fine when we leave her with the sitter (who’s watched her since November and is thus a familiar face), but clings to us when we get back, and has a hard time going down for naps
  5. Don’t belittle the contribution of your spouse, however little it may seem.  If you’re female, or the primary stay-at-home parent, then you’re most likely doing more work around the house and in taking care of the baby than your spouse – both when they’re at work and when they’re home.  It’s easy to be scornful of their contribution when it seems so small (Congratulations.  You made one meal and cleaned the dishes. What about the other twenty meals in a week?), but it’s important to keep their experience in mind.  Babies bring big changes and force adjustments in everbody’s life; while what my husband contributes may not be a significant portion of all the work that goes on around here, it is a significant contribution (and a significant change) for him.
  6. That said, things will (would for us) be much easier if you talk to some current parents, figure out all the new chores you’ll actually have once the baby arrives, and then create a system for divvying them up before the baby arrives. One of the issue we had was that I watched our daughter alone from 3-6 weeks, after my husband had to come back to Bishkek for work.  Weeks 0-2 we stayed together with his relatives, and the third week we stayed at an all-included resort hotel in Antalya (great idea for new parents) and didn’t really have to worry about food or laundry or cleaning up. A lot of changes occur in those second three weeks, and, when I came back, my husband had no personal experience in that area – and thus no idea how much work went in to watching and taking care of a baby. Having clear areas of responsibility going in means discussing a lot less later.
  7. Going back to Antalya – take vacations with your baby!  But take it slowly, and make sure it isn’t more work than fun.  If you can go with a relative or reliable friend who will sometimes watch your baby so you can sleep in an extra hour, or take an after dinner walk (drink in hand), it’s more than worth their room rate.
  8. Enjoy being parents.  This can be hard if you’re overtired or stressed out or if it feels like too much work or someone is complaining or you feel your spouse isn’t doing their share.  But parenting – reveling in your child’s smiles and discoveries – is actually a lot of fun, if you let it be. Part of enjoying parenting thus relies on having some time off to yourself, and being able to relax once in a while before diving back in.
  9. Don’t plan on doing anything else while your baby’s awake.  I don’t know about all babies, but ours certainly does not play in her crib, and she’s only now starting to play by herself.  Plan on being present when your baby is awake, and don’t think that you can get work done while watching them, as composing more than a text message can be tough. Divided attention means that you end up doing neither task very well, and  you’ll have a frustrated baby on your hands.
  10. At the same time, choose one thing to work on or complete each day that isn’t related to your child.  This should be something that will make you satisfied, whether it’s actually finishing a film or updating your resume or getting some work done.  But it should be one thing.  As soon as your child goes down for a nap – do it.  Don’t first pick up the living room or wash the dishes or this or that; you c do these things later.
  11. Buy lots of clothes, preferably second-hand, preferably easy-on and off. For the first two months babies get a lot of their own liquids on clothes.  Just when their bodies are getting better at self-regulating, their introduction to eating produces a whole new realm of wardrobe wonders.  Having extra clothes on hand (and not having to do laundry every second day) makes life easier.  At the same time, as cute as baby clothes are, you have to know that they’ll get dirty before lunchtime and your baby will grow out of them in two month’s time anyway, so buying them in bulk off of departing expats is fine.  I found an American couple leaving Bishkek and bought about two bags of baby clothing off of them…I wish I’d been less picky and bought more, knowing now that anything
  12. Arrange “double dates” and make an effort to get out (even in winter, especially in winter).  Babies get cabin fever too, and it’s better for everyone if you have others to interact with (and commiserate with)
  13. Have dates with your spouse (and -see above – get your baby used to having evening with a babysitter early on). You need time together to keep up a whole relationship.
  14. Fret less.  Being first-time parents in a country that isn’t exactly known for its great infant health and overall public hygiene, we were nervous about everything.  Exacting, I could say.  And yes, babies are fragile creatures when newborn, but there’s no need to be tense about every little thing.
  15. (A running theme…) Start things early so they’ll be easier later.  Our daughter is now starting to toilet train herself (!) – she squirms in her seat, has a dry diaper, and then pees the moment we put her on her toilet – probably in great part because we started giving her “toilet opportunities” as soon as she could sit, and she soon discovered that it’s much more pleasant to not poop in her diaper.  Eating is also an area of no concern (though plenty of mess), because we let her eat with her hands as soon as she discovered she could use her fingers to pop food in her mouth.  Don’t push, but let your kids begin when they’re ready – and give them early opportunities to explore.
  16. Stock all your bags. The minimum you need is a diaper, wet wipes, and a change of clothes (for the earlier months).  Keeping a smaller bag stocked with the essentials and a larger diaper bag stocked with everything you could possibly need for an expedition (I sometimes feel like I’m a human caravan…), and replacing things as soon as you use them will make getting out the door much easier, as well as ensure that you never discover that your bag has five pairs of fresh socks, but not a single pacifier.
  17. Exercise.  Yoga will save your back, and tight gluts/hamstrings/shoulders/anything affected by suddenly carrying around a growing infant. I do ten minutes of yoga as soon as I wake up and again before sleep.  If I slack off for a few days I can definitely tell.  Likewise, having a strong core will help you put less strain on your back.  Plus exercise reduces stress, gives you endorphines, and will all around make you a happier, more energetic person 😉
  18. Meal prep.  Trying to prepare breakfast or lunch while watching a baby is no fun, while being able to pop things out of the refrigerator ready to eat is fantastic.  Plus, if you plan ahead, you’ll more likely eat more logical meals.  I often take an hour or so on Sunday to make two big salads (one cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, scallions, herbs, olive oil and lemon juice, the other grated carrot, grated beet, thinly sliced onion, fresh mint, vinegar, and cooked chick peas), soup for lunch (usually Turkish lentil soup with carrots, mint and pepper), and sometimes overnight oats or oatmeal muffins. I also prep the French Press before I go to bed, so I don’t have to think about making the coffee before my mind is fully functioning (and don’t end up trying to screw my thermos lid onto the coffee canister or scooping coffee into my oatmeal…)
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