The benefits of international experience on a resume are well recognized, but what about the other benefits? Can studying or working abroad enhance additional, seemingly non-related areas of your life? Personally, I have been amazed by all the ways my time abroad has made my life better, in particular and especially, in my experience as a new mother.
Having a family was never on my bucket list—Europe and Asia were. My globe-trotting started with a semester abroad in college and morphed into studying, working, and poking around in a total of twenty-six foreign countries. As my homebound friends found their life partners, settled into permanent addresses, and added people to the planet, I negotiated international roommate relations, hopped continents, and added visa pages to my passport. I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of diving into a new culture and scrambling to learn the ropes. I had nothing in common with my domestic contemporaries—or did I?
In my early thirties, I settled down in the United States and married my dream guy. We soon found ourselves entrusted by the universe with the care and development of a helpless human baby. I should have been scared out of my mind, but, strangely, becoming a parent felt just like diving into a new, very exotic culture. Pregnancy and childbirth delivered the same thrilling, no-turning-back-now feeling as landing in a foreign country, and new parenthood provided the same sink-or-swim scramble that I loved about acclimating to a new culture. During the crazy-hard moments—when any sane person would have been losing her mind—I found myself drawing on the lessons I learned abroad. My travels had given me a lifeline that made parenting a lot more manageable and loads more fun.
Lesson 1: Change Your Liking
“Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic,” said the worn Rick Steves travel guide handed to me early in my travels. “If something is not to your liking, change your liking.” Little did I know how much I was about to encounter abroad that was not to my liking: in Germany, having to lose my dependence on paper napkins and to-go cups; in Taiwan, having to haul my trash bags to the garbage truck and dump them in myself; in China, having to carry tissues and hand sanitizer in my purse for lack of toilet paper and soap in public restrooms. I quickly discovered that resisting these norms was futile. Instead, committing hard and fast to the strange customs turned them quickly into habits. The more I traveled, the faster I could adapt to different lifestyles and the better I could enjoy myself in a new place.
Parenthood, like living abroad, came with its own strange customs. In New Mommyland, people napped around the clock instead of slumbering at night. If that wasn’t enough to cause culture shock all on its own, the increase in household expenses was. And going out for entertainment was suddenly out. Tough stuff. But instead of curling up in the fetal position and crying (except for a few times) I reminded myself that things were not as strange as when I first lived in Beijing. I tried to look at my red-rimmed eyes and vacant expression as badges of honor that entitled me to better parking spots, doors held open for me, and total excusal from annoying social events. To deal with the increase in bills, my husband and I made a monthly budget, which gave us more insight into our spending than we had before. Never much of a cook, I became a puree gourmet! And who needs going out to concerts and shows when you have your own personal entertainer at home? Our daughter wows us daily with vocal impressions ranging from Mariah Carey to Janis Joplin, oxytocin-dosing snuggles, and dizzying developmental strides (faster than an Asian Tiger economy).
Lesson 2: Celebrate the Small Victories
Another lesson traveling taught me was to celebrate small victories. Culture shock and homesickness are hungry and tenacious beasts that will devour you if you let them. To combat the gloom and doom, I learned to fete the tiniest triumphs. I did a mental dance when I tried out a new foreign phrase and the other person actually understood it. I bought myself ice cream when I finally got where I was trying to go on the subway/metro/U-Bahn. And I wrote home about buying the perfect watermelon from the lady with the machete who didn’t speak a slice of English. Harder yet was being ill or injured overseas—never have I known such frustration and loneliness—but when I got myself in front of a doctor or pharmacist, communicated my ailment, and received treatment (wow!), I felt superhuman. Traveling taught me that the best defense against misery in any given place was a stockpile of small victories.
You can bet your bottom euro that this lesson came in handy in New Mommyland. When my breasts began producing a substance of complete infant nutrition, I deemed this a superpower. If I made it through my daughter’s evening colic without crying as hard as she did, I declared myself Mom of the Year. After I finally mastered the dreaded rectal thermometer, I threw my arms in the air like Rocky on the steps of the art museum. The first night that our daughter slept five hours straight, my husband and I hallelujah-ed like we had just escaped the ninth ring of hell. (Of course, because I had adjusted to the new schedule, I was up at the usual intervals, staring nonplussed at the peacefully sleeping babe.) Thanks to my time abroad, I knew to jubilate everything that went remotely well. These victories buoyed us through the storms.
Lesson 3: Don’t Rush the Hard Stuff
A third lesson I learned abroad was not to rush the hard stuff. Travel has a way of speeding up time; it doesn’t matter if you’re away for a weekend, a month, or a year, before you know it, you’re on that flight home. For that reason, I always tried not to speed through any parts of my trip. When viewed through Rick Steves-colored glasses, sitting in traffic can be a great chance to get the taxi driver’s political views and restaurant recommendations. Waiting forever for a bill in a restaurant is an opportunity to watch the Romans do as they do. A night train affords time to zone out and cultivate some dolce far niente. Since every trip I ever took slipped through my fingers at ludicrous speed, I tried very hard to savor even the most difficult moments.
The journey through New Mommyland has been equally fast. I blinked, and my daughter had outgrown her newborn onesies. I turned my head, and (snap!) she was over breastfeeding. A year and a half ago she was suspended in fluid in my abdomen; now she’s careening around our coffee table playing squeal tag with her father (and I mean literally right now—it’s very distracting). Yes, being responsible for an entirely dependent human being has been daunting and exhausting, but it helps to remind myself that now is the only time she will ever need me this way. Thanks to my travels, I am prepared to savor the current road—potholes and all—and lay off the accelerator.
Lesson 4: Recognize the Climb as Just Part of the View
A final lesson traveling taught me was to appreciate that the climb is just part of the view. When I look back on my travels, it is the highlights that form the majority of my memories, but those memories would not exist without a lot of slog in between: the waiting in airports, train stations, and consulates; the overnight layovers too short to get a hotel room and too long to stay in the café; the endless collecting, submitting, and resubmitting of visa documents; the unreliable Wi-Fi; the spine-shortening bus rides; the stomach pains; the miscommunications; the getting lost; the confusion. They are the dues I paid for getting to see the sunrise over the Alps, the moon shimmering in the Andaman Sea, and the I-have-fallen-into-a-tropical-aquarium coral reefs. I’ve eaten freshly steamed crabs with no tools other than chopsticks and my own teeth, drunk beer fresher than fresh-squeezed lemonade, and admired bridges built in BCE. I’ve ogled David on his marble pedestal and shared dorm rooms, offices, dance floors, and meals with people Mother Nature never intended me to meet. Living abroad has taught me that the climb is a necessary part of the view.
New Mommyland is the most challenging place I’ve ever been, with hassles and dangers around every (sharp) corner. Anything I want to do now takes three times longer than it used to. And don’t even get me started on choking hazards. (You’re rolling your eyes, but I have had to perform the baby Heimlich on my daughter three times—that’s right, three times!) On the flip side, I now take more photographs per day than I ever did abroad, and I have more non-English conversations too.
Counting on such rewards has helped me survive the mental fog, the ground-shaking cries, the floods of bodily fluids, the mountains of laundry, and the oceans of dirty diapers. But in the midst of all of that, my daughter’s first smile stole my breath. Her first word, “Mom,” shot me through the heart like Cupid’s arrow. Her laugh—which she hurls from somewhere behind her spleen—ignites my soul, and her sleepy head resting on my chest fills me with the warmth and wonder of a thousand perfect sunsets. The trouble, in other words, what trouble?
Stubborn positivity and ferocious adaptability: that’s what I learned abroad that has made me a better parent. Traveling has taught me how to function in subpar conditions, embrace new paradigms, celebrate everything, and not let logistics distract me from the beauty before my eyes.
Oh, and one last thing, travel and babies are not mutually exclusive. Infants fly for free. Whee!
Ingrid Lombardo McCoy is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia; she writes travel fiction under her pen name, Ingrid Anders. Chinese professor David Moser called her novel, Earth to Kat Vespucci, “the best account I’ve read of the psychological and emotional adjustment of Americans studying abroad … while being completely fun and entertaining.”