science of us

The Double Culture Shock of Becoming a Mom While Living Abroad

Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

A few years ago, I moved to the Netherlands with a six-week-old baby. My husband was already working there and we agreed that I would stay behind in his home country of Germany, where we had been living, to give birth, joining him once I recovered. After months of living apart, I was feeling optimistic about finally reuniting. But I didn’t know how brutal my double transition would be.

You’ve probably heard of culture shock, the feeling of disorientation a person feels when faced with another culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. For me, it was twofold: I was in a new country and I was a new mom, two ways in which my own life suddenly felt utterly unfamiliar.

“Cultural shock is that ongoing feeling that this is ‘weird’ or ‘not normal’ to me,” relocation consultant Julia Simens, author of the book Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, tells me in an email. “When things are overwhelming but in a positive way, it does not seem like culture shock, it seems like an adventure. It is after things become frustrating and miscommunications are not funny or cute anymore, I realize that I am having culture shock.”

And culture shock doesn’t only have to apply to moving abroad. “Each new stage in your life is like a new environment. Therefore, the change brings along miscommunications, frustrations, and even infatuation at times,” Simens says.

Culture shock has four distinctive phases. It starts with the honeymoon stage, in which people love everything about their new home country. Next come frustration; adjustment, in which people finally start to feel more settled; and finally acceptance. New motherhood often follows a similar arc: Women talk about their fond memories of the first few hours with their newborns, of falling in love with their brand-new children, before sleeplessness and angst — and, in some cases, postpartum depression — set in.

I went to this second phase almost immediately after moving to my new home abroad. I wasn’t exactly depressed, but I was not doing well. The baby didn’t sleep, so I didn’t either. I struggled with the sheer volume of her crying. Bonding with other new parents may have made things feel more bearable, but I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak the language, either. Each type of loneliness — as an expat, as a mom — seemed to reinforce the other.

And both of the new worlds I was inhabiting required me to learn a whole new set of rules, behaviors, and habits. “It is a new experience, and you don’t have a complete set of rules or even self-expectations,” Simens says, “so that type of daily living can create challenges.” Shopping: I had to figure out a whole new world of products (diapers, formula, nipple cream) at the same time that I was learning to navigate Dutch stores with their unfamiliar brands. Transportation: Getting around with a kid in a stroller presented as much of a challenge as planning a route from point A to point B in an unknown city. Communication: Attempting to decode my baby’s cries, I felt the same frustration as I did when trying (and often failing) to convey information from across a language barrier.

In hindsight, I wish I had made those comparisons sooner – reframing parenthood as a whole new culture may have helped me with the transition. I didn’t move to the Netherlands expecting to feel at home right away; if I could talk to my past self, I’d remind her that adapting to motherhood also takes time.

And as the baby grew, I found myself reaching the adjustment phase, settling in to both my surroundings and my role as a parent. When my daughter was big enough, we signed her up for a day care close to our house, and that freedom gave me the push I needed to get out there, work on my Dutch language skills, and make more friends. I sought out resources for expats, resources for new parents, and eventually found a group of mothers in similar situations to mine. Suddenly, I wasn’t struggling anymore. I wasn’t exactly thriving, but the feeling of always having obstacles in my way was gone, replaced by a cautious optimism.

“Often when we can get some familiarity, and we can use some of the resources we have, we start to feel at ease in our new environment,” Simens says. And then comes acceptance.

The Dual Culture Shock of Becoming a Mom While Living Abroad