An expat mom on what raising kids in a foreign country can teach us all, wherever we call home
Ever ask yourself, “Am I the only one who feels this way?” When Lisa Ferland did, she discovered a whole world (literally!) of kindred spirits.
These moms all share the fish-out-of-water feeling of raising kids in a foreign country. Five years ago, Ferland and her husband, Jonathan, relocated for his work to Sweden, where they’re raising Calvin and Lucy, now 5 and 3. The ensuing culture shock led to Ferland’s first book, Knocked Up Abroad, and entrée to a thriving social-media community.
The inevitable result: Ferland has collected 26 more stories from her fellow expats, set in 25 different countries, for a sequel, Knocked Up Abroad Again, which she plans to self-publish later this year.
Cultural practices may differ, but parents’ desire to connect and share is universal, she’s discovered. And so is a kid’s innate spirit. “My daughter thinks it’s hilarious to speak English at her all-Swedish preschool. She giggles deviously knowing that her peers can’t understand her,” Ferland says. “I think I’m going to have my hands full with her.”
She shares some of her parenting-abroad insights:
3 things I’ve learned from parents who’ve raised kids in foreign cultures:
1) There’s no “right” way to parent.
2) Children being potty trained use an excessive amount of toilet paper everywhere.
3) Children are extremely adaptable and often adjust faster than we do as adults.
How it feels to raise children abroad: I used to feel a lot of guilt and sadness about raising my family far away from our extended family. But I’ve since realized that our lives are better balanced in Sweden—mostly due to the Swedes’ workplace and parental culture.
My take on traveling with babies: Babies are so easily transportable, but they can be very unpredictable. It’s like traveling with a ticking bomb except it’s the diaper that explodes. I found babywearing indispensible so my hands were free and I had a decent shot at getting my baby to nap.
My take on traveling with kids: Kids point out so many things that I wouldn’t have ever noticed if we weren’t traveling at their slower pace. We were traveling in Lyon, France, a while back and decided to explore the city with an impromptu playground hop. My son saw a water fountain and stripped down to his underwear and started splashing around—very un-Frenchlike but something totally appropriate for a child in Sweden. We joined him in the fountain and had a ball.
I have always found traveling with kids to be incredibly enriching.
Secret to making air travel easier: Cheap bribes (toys, stickers, candy) to distract them with something new throughout a long trip. (We usually fly 8 hours non stop.)
An international kids’ activity I love: Throughout Scandinavia, kids head out into the forests to pick blueberries and mushrooms. I love the connection with nature and freedom to explore.
An international newborn ritual I love: The kraamzorg in the Netherlands. She’s a postpartum practitioner who helps mothers with household duties and chores for eight days after a baby is born.
An international family ritual I love: Fredagsmys (“fray-daghs-moose”), a Swedish custom that roughly translates into “cozy Fridays.” We turn off our phones, eat popcorn or chips, and watch a movie snuggled under blankets together as a family. It helps us stay sane in the long, cold, dark winters.
My kids’ favorite bedtime stories right now: Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit by Chris van Dusen and the Who Would Win series by Jerry Pallotta, are big hits with my son. They both love absolutely everything by Matthew McElligott.
Favorite family movie at our house: The Princess Bride. It has sword fighting, giants, princesses, magic, and horses—a bit of everything for everyone.
A useful family app: AnyList for synching grocery lists and to-do lists.
A great overlooked family vacation: Cascais, Portugal. It’s a very tourist-friendly beach resort popular with the Brits and perfect for families but mostly unknown by Americans.
My kids’ favorite snack: Frozen yogurt. But no fancy Häagen-Dazs version—just fruit yogurt poured into a reusable mold, then stuck in the freezer.
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: Pippi Longstocking. In the stories, she’s a 9-year-old girl who essentially has zero parenting influence (her mother died shortly after her birth, and her father is a captain sailing around the world). But she’s adventurous, precocious, and extremely generous with her friends. I find myself wanting to raise my children to be little Pippi Longstockings—children who are independent, confident, and empathetic.
The one tip I recommend to every parent I know: I’ve told parents around the world this trick I learned in the U.S.: To calm a crying infant, bounce on a yoga ball. Hold your baby in a carrier while bouncing up and down and watch with delight as your baby’s eyes softly close with the bouncing motion. It works everywhere!
Biggest difference between American parents and Swedish parents: Swedish parents seem fairly laid back about giving their children lots of space and freedom to make decisions and mistakes—even if it means falling from a great height.The thing I miss most about the U.S.: Family and friends…and Mexican food.
If I could introduce just one idea from Sweden to the U.S., it would be: Paid parental leave.
My motto as a mom: Everything is a phase, so you need to either live in the moment and enjoy it or hang on until it passes.