Insights from expat parents living in New Zealand
We’ve got one child, Avalon, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. She’s 14 months old now and every day she teaches me something new about myself. Sometimes I can’t believe what a journey it’s been so far. The past year has definitely seen it’s ups and downs, and I wish I had known how it would change my life completely.
This is not an article about the day-to-day details of having a baby, but the longer-term unforeseen impact over the first year of being in a country without family support.
My partner, child and I live in New Zealand now, but we’re originally from South Africa. I suppose being South African automatically permits us to be suspicious of others, but even though we’re in a safe country, we’ve found it trying to trust others with our child. We don’t have any close friends here or any family and we've been here for 3 years. So throughout the whole pregnancy, we’ve had no-one to count on but ourselves.
Avalon has recently started daycare and as all parents will attest, daycare is a traumatic time for everyone. It’s traumatic for parents because they have to leave their kids with strangers. It’s traumatic for kids because they have to accept these strangers and don’t know where their parents are for hours at a time. She's finished 3 weeks of daycare where she would go 3 full days (8 am till 5 pm) a week, and to be honest I think it's much harder for the parents. Definitely much harder for me.
So it’s something of a mystery really, the way that your child belongs to only you for so long, and eventually, you have to give her up and put her into the care of others so that you can do better for your child. It's such a contradiction, right? You automatically assume you’re the best person for your baby always. After one year with having just myself, Avalon and my partner, I can say this is definitely true for the most part but is it true forever? Probably not. Because there are gaps in our skill sets, gaps that we don’t know about.
It's so important to realise that you are not the only one that can do everything. I can see why parents don’t let go of their kids, because they love their kids a lot and they can’t imagine anyone loving their children as much as them. It’s difficult to trust others with your child if you’ve spent every waking moment with them for 365 days (and more).
My parents have recently come over for 3 weeks for Avalon’s first birthday, and my partner’s parents came over for 3 weeks too, but it was only the day when Avalon was born. These were two very different times, and in between these two times, we haven’t let go of Avalon for even 5 minutes out of our sight. The constant attention needed to manage a baby is surprisingly tiring. It wears you down like you can’t believe. You don’t realise how daunting it is until you’re in the thick of it, not least for me, but for mothers.
The way we have to transition from looking after her day and night 24/7 to “Okay we’ve just going to have to give her up a little bit just to daycare, which is a few days a week.” is pretty tricky. It's tricky to imagine for non-parents. You think to yourself: “Well this is for the best, this has to be done, we need to be able to go back to work, we need to be able to afford a life for Avalon for the future.” and if you think it through a little deeper you realise that for as long as humanity has existed, two parents being the sole providers for their child has never been the case.
You’ve had generations of family members able to keep an eye out, look after and help out with the child-rearing. For a whole year, we had no idea what that felt like. We may as well have been living in isolation in a cave somewhere. We got a glimpse of what it was like to have additional help when my parents visited. They were able to help out, and with that, we realised that it felt pretty good to have a bit of a life for ourselves.
For 365 nights it has been just us two, worrying about Avalon. For the first 6 months, she slept in our bed in a baby nest, and thereafter in a cot next to our bed, so we always heard her throughout the night. The fear of her suddenly stopping breathing only really left me at around 4 months. It was 4 long months of checking on her 5 - 10 times a night.
So when my parents arrived it was so different, not having to worry about Avalon for a night and to just go out have a few drinks. We could enjoy ourselves for the first time in a year. Of course, that’s what we did! Strangely enough, you would think it's something that you would actually feel guilty about, leaving your child behind. You would expect to have doubts about whether she would be OK, and perhaps even a sense of panic. It was actually so easy. It was easy because it was my parents and I trusted them. Once they left back for South Africa, we decided to get a babysitter for the first time and you know what? It was also fine. So maybe all our stress of worrying over Avalon was completely unfounded? Maybe we should have done this every month for the last year? I certainly feel we would have come out of the past year a lot saner.
Daycare is something so different though. Daycare is something that you can’t quite describe. Because it’s not “Ok, I’m having fun” it’s “Ok, I’m back at work at the time that she's at daycare”. And you feel like you had better be working! Because all those times that your child is missing you and worried where you are and could be with you, you had better be making up for it! There’s a great element of guilt and it's been hard to pin down. This guilt feels like I should be doing something better for her. Like I should be there with her, I should be providing more. I should be giving myself and my life good enough prospects to not have to ever put her into daycare. But of course daycare is also not cheap, it all comes down to money, right?
What they don’t tell you when you start having a kid is you had better start looking at how much daycare costs in your area, and you had better look at how much you earn because for every hour that your child is in daycare, your child is going to be costing you. You had better make sure the daycare rates are reasonable and you had better make sure you’re earning enough to cover it. Man! That’s the last thing you want to think of when you want to have a kid. “She's just a number and it's going up against how much I earn”. In this day and age, Auckland has one of the highest costs of living in the whole world, and it's so clear.
Daycare costs a lot.
Daycare is costing half of my partner salary at the moment, so for every two hours she spends at work, one of those hours goes directly into the daycare’s pocket. That’s pretty bad, right? Because then of course at our age, we also think “Hmm, what if we had another kid?”. Having another kid would mean having another kid in daycare, and this would literally mean every hour of my partner’s working day, every hour goes into daycare. So what is the point of daycare? Right? So it seems pretty much cut and dried - have multiple kids and don’t worry about daycare. But what they don’t prepare you for up until this point – and you can never really be prepared – is how much toll a child takes on you mentally. Because it's DRAINING, you know? You have this feeling you have to be this person, you have to do this parenting thing and you want to be the best!
So you think to yourself: “Well, I’ll just be a full-time mom because I love my child, and that’s what loving people do. I want to provide the best for my child for the future.” Well let me tell you, without any support, it’s a pipe dream. The fact that you can never have a day off, let alone an hour off. The fact that you don’t have anyone that you can ask to help with the changing and feeding means that everything must be done in partnership. But relying on your partnership also takes a strain, you know? The tension rises, and inevitably money becomes a factor.
Nevermind the scans and hospital fees, the ongoing costs of a baby can quickly creep up. There’s nappies (we prefer disposables due to performance), formula, and heaps of clothes to be bought. Toys, books, cots, carriers, sleeping aids (we love our white noise machine), dummies, bottles, sterilisers, bedding, car seats, strollers, baby food. There’s petrol spent from just driving her around trying to get her to sleep, and hospital/doctor fees when she’s unwell. All of these you’ll willingly fork out because you love your child and you want the best for her. It’s never a burden until you start tapping into your savings every month trying to maintain your pre-baby lifestyle of expensive whiskeys and eating out 3x a week. Sooner or later, you’ll have to give some of your lifestyles up as you’ve only got one salary coming in. If I had known all this, I would have moved to a cheaper place.
Eventually, the tired parents get all serious because the baby doesn’t stop crying for hours on end and nobody knows what to do because there’s nobody to help and they’ve never done this before. Finally, your sex life starts to suffer because you don’t even get a chance to sleep, for several months! Avalon was a good sleeper for the first year, she would sleep regularly through the night, waking up only once or twice. Mostly once to be honest. Even so, waking up so many times means you don’t always fall back asleep easily. Avalon also goes to bed late, at 8 pm or 9 pm which is very late for a baby, but what can you do? So you spend 1 hour or 2 hours Netflixing, talk about having sex (who has the energy for that?), cleaning the house, doing the dishes, or whatever. But mostly you just vegetate and start to neglect yourself quite seriously. You forget your body because you aren’t exercising enough, you neglect your sex life which leads to frustration and tension. You neglect your friends and family because you just don’t have time to see them and all of this takes a hit on you trying to be Super Mom and Super Dad.
The pressure of mommy groups doesn’t make it any easier. The pressure to buy the best clothes, the pressure to feed your child the best. The pressure to place your child in the best daycares. The pressure to continue breastfeeding, or to feed only organic home-cooked food and never buying anything from the supermarket, and to be socially active, and also look fit. Mommy groups are truly a double-edged sword. They are invaluable for support, but can also be a source of anxiety, especially if the parents are doing this on their own. You have to know your values, and what’s important for you, because it’s too easy to get sucked into buying boutique clothing for your 3 months old which will grow out of it in just 3 months. You might find mommy group members that are minted, with fancy cars, designer clothes, and can afford a full-time nanny “Being a mom is so difficult!” - sure….
All of that pressure quickly weighs down on your partnership, so my advice to anyone reading this is you have to be in a good place before you do all this. You can’t be in a place of daily suffering. You can't be in a place of unresolved childhood issues. You can't be in a place of resentment and hate towards family members that might just be trying to help. You can’t be in a place that’s not financially secure. Thankfully, even though we’ve had to tap into savings for the past 6 months or so we were financially secure. What they neglect to inform you of when you have a child is that you still want to do things.
You still want a holiday and even more so than ever before - but who’s going to pay for the holiday, right? In any case, your holidays different from now on. Your holidays aren’t spur-of-the-moment Airbnb’s - this just won’t happen anymore. You’ve got a baby now and lots of places don’t accept babies because there are all various levels of “baby”. There’s the newborn baby, there are crawlers and older toddlers which is basically chaos. So you basically have this situation where you can’t easily go on holiday and it’s a pressure cooker waiting to crack.
You’re having a baby every waking moment of every day needing from you: changing clothes and nappies, feeding, playing, trying to put to sleep. You gotta figure that out mostly alone without support. The sad part is that once you figure all those challenges out, you don’t have time for yourself - let alone your household which is in permanent disarray with dishes, washing, vacuuming and toys strewn everywhere.
So yes, the first year was been really rough. You know you just have to give up so much for your child, and your child just needs your attention at all times. How do you balance the needs of yourself vs the needs of your child, vs the needs of your spouse, vs the needs of your work? Somewhere along the line you also have to feel a sense of purpose with yourself, and your own life. Somewhere along the line, you have to improve your life, especially if you have this pressure cooker situation. You don’t want to stay in there forever, so you put in extra hours, upskill yourself or look for another job, finding ways to make additional money.
All of this just puts further stress and tension on a partnership already at breaking point. Eventually, it dawns on you. It becomes apparent that having other people makes the situation easier. Money comes and goes. Money is there to be spent, but having other people around that can assist exhausted parents to claim some time is absolute gold. You can’t buy family and friends that can truly support you.
Sometimes you learn these things too late though. My partnership almost fell apart because we actually didn’t know how to balance at all.
There’s also the part they don’t tell you the most, which was pretty hard for us, was the way that when breastfeeding Avalon everything was delicious. Everything was awesome. Everything was amazing. Sex was mind-blowing! My partner was doing fantastic, she loved me, she loved the baby, she had no sleep deprivation, she was doing so well. But as soon as she stopped breastfeeding, something changed drastically when switching to formula. The thing that changes is something that no one tells you about but becomes quite apparent when it’s missing. You don’t feel as good anymore once you stop breastfeeding. In fact, you feel completely exhausted and overwhelmed.
So why would that be? Well, you don’t feel as high anymore because you don’t have the oxytocin release, but nobody tells you about the love drug release when you’re breastfeeding. Nobody tells you the addictive nature of this drug and once you give up on that, once you stop it, it’s gone. This led her into postnatal depression at 6 months for (thankfully) 2 months.
We also had passport issues with my partner and Avalon. South African Home Affairs are the worst. We couldn’t leave New Zealand even if we wanted to go back to South Africa for support. We also had the passing of my partner’s mom during pregnancy from cancer. It was a serious shock to her because they were best friends. Because of the passport issues, we couldn’t even return home for the funeral, and at the time of writing, we still haven’t been home.
We didn’t know we needed more support, and during the first year trusting of other people came very slowly, in fact, it deteriorated quite rapidly for my partner, because the less time she spent interacting with other people, and the more time she spent alone at home, she came to wonder whether other people are actually worthy of our trust. New moms are completely out of the human rhythm of work and seeing other people.
Trust is a fickle thing, especially if you’ve been betrayed before. Family, your own people that you’ve chosen to love. All of these betrayals can easily add up, and stacked on top of the loneliness and isolation of raising a child. It’s not always the dream that they make it out to be! It’s really trying to have no-one for support, and there's no way around it. It’s magical and incredible and awesome, but where do you find the strength and determination to carry on alone? To push through the sleep deprivation, the difficult times of when your child sick and you don’t know what's going on - with nobody to help you? The disconnection of friends and family being 12 hours away.
Far from home
When my parents came over they realised that being in New Zealand is not fucking easy because everyone you know is 12 hours away. Their day is your night and vice versa. So you can’t go: “Hey granny, my child is sick, what do you think we should do?” because mom’s sleeping South Africa. In any case, you kinda want to figure these things out yourself. We didn’t have anyone that could help us. We didn’t have anyone that could go “Don’t worry, let me show you how to nurse your baby, how to treat nappy rash, how to help gastro along with guidelines on how much fluids should be replenished”.
If you think of it - the whole point of a family unit is to transfer generational knowledge. To pass on information of how it’s been done before. You don’t want your children to suffer so you tell them how to stop the suffering. It doesn’t even cross your mind to reach out to grandparents for help because she’s not here. What would she know, she had a baby 30 years ago - a long time ago! Things have changed since then! In any case, you feel that you owe it to your child to make it work. You want to be the super parent. Instead, you see doctors, hospitals, and contact other mommy group friends for support.
Nobody tells you when you get pregnant that all your friends that you used to hang out with and have a good time won't be around anymore. Even if you have close friends, they won’t be around anymore unless you make the effort to be around them. They cut you off in their minds: “Well they’ve got a baby, they don’t have time for these things, and can’t actually do anything”.
It’s true, you're not going to go to a bar out for drinks every Friday night like you used to, but the fact that new parents aren’t even considered - it’s something unusual. It's actually quite painful to deal with, and no one tells you this:
You have to make new friends.
We thought this might be the case though, but not to this extent. In preparation for this, as soon as we went to the prenatal and hypnobirthing classes we started reaching out to people and trying to connect. You could clearly see those that are there to make friends and those that already have enough friends. Unfortunately, this is New Zealand where it seems that friends are only made in university or high school. The End, mate. Unless you get the exceptional people that have been abroad for extended periods themselves to realise that it’s not easy to make friends as expats and throw out a lifeline for you. I’ve got one or two friends like this, but as I said, they are few and far between and haven’t had the parenting journey yet so still aren’t very relatable.
So all in all, you have these situations that you didn’t know about along with the social isolation and loneliness. If you aren’t the most social person then it becomes quite trying, especially in a place that's as cliquey as Auckland. It’s not just us though, all the expats we’ve met say the same thing. They say that it's pretty difficult to make friends with Kiwis- they have enough friends. Isn’t that sad? They are friendly enough I suppose…
When I lived in Buenos Aires, their entire culture is about making new friends. I had tons of friends in Buenos Aires for no apparent reason, just because I was new and I was different I suppose. I made friends so quickly, and I had girlfriends, and I went out lots and did loads of activities. I was always included, expats and locals too. Here in New Zealand, it's not like that at all. Lots of talks: “Let's get together!” - only to never hear from them again, or a convenient excuse when pressed about hanging out.
Include the fact that you have a baby into the mix and the chances of doing anything fun diminishes incredibly. Your whole life basically needs to be re-adjusted from going out to being at home. Plus you suddenly don’t have that much income since you only have a single salary for a year. So it's a bit of a nasty mix of everything if I have to be quite frank about it. These truths you don’t actually even want to think of. I wish I had known though.
I don’t think there are any solutions to these things because everyone has individual cases, but if I had just known how this was going to be. If someone had just been able to tell me their story, I would have approached having a child quite differently, and a little bit more open-eyed. Instead of hoping everything just works out.
Unfortunately, that was my attitude: “We don’t have to worry about this” or “We’ll figure this out later.” Eventually, the pressure starts building of all the things you were going to figure out and it becomes an increasingly difficult challenge to manage all of that together along with, as I said, the support. The emotional support, financial support.
The support that you don’t even think you needed. My partner and I have always done fine with just each other. We’ve never been one for big groups. We love each others company and love being with each other, but eventually, you get sick of each other too! So how do you even go about re-establishing friendships with other people if you haven’t done it in so long?
I’ve learned so much in just a single year. All of this compounded that as a Dad, I feel I need to be with my family as much as possible because my family needs me. How do I balance that as a person that likes my own time, likes to do my own things, likes to be alone too? How do I reconcile all of this together, but also being support with my family? And there’s a lot more to support than just playing with the baby or changing nappies. There’s looking after the house, there’s looking after your partner. There’s knowing what she needs, and being her friend and companion.
At the end of the day, remember to be present, and flexible for your family. Your child needs you.