Unplugging and Restarting Your Parenting Overseas (or Right Where You Are!)

becca-garber-san-vito-lena-tree

When I told my dad we were moving to a foreign country, he said: “I think this is so good. You guys are young. You can go away and establish yourselves as a family, work out your priorities, without a lot of family nearby and outside influences. This is a great, great opportunity for you, and I am so happy for you.”

I’ve thought about that a thousand times since we moved to Sicily three years ago. My parents raised my siblings and me overseas, so he spoke from a depth of experience. He knew that anyone who lives overseas has a choice. You will be isolated, you will be lonely, you will be overwhelmed, you will be foreign.

But.

You can use the isolation for your benefit. You can take advantage of the distance from the influences that affect your peers. You can reevaluate your priorities, establish new habits, build a foundation for your family. You can train the crew of your little ship so that when the world’s fancies sway this way and that, you can still hold steady to your goals.

For us, Sicily was where our parenting started. Lena was just three months old when our plane landed in Italy. Also, I quit my job when we left the States, and I couldn’t immediately find work here. (You can read about that difficult transition here.)

After I accepted my new status as a full-time mom instead of a full-time nurse, I sat down and thought about the kind of mom I wanted to be, especially as a stay-at-home mom. This move gave us a chance to establish ourselves as parents and as a family and to decide what our priorities would be.

These were the priorities we have established here:

We want to read.

A lot. We love to read, thanks to parents who raised us on a steady diet of great literature. My husband and I read an average of 50 books a year on our own, and we read at least four books a day to each of our kids.

One trick to reading a lot is to surround yourself (and your kids) with good books. There are [piles of] books all over our home, and I recently calculated that we have about 100 board books and 150 picture books. Plenty to keep both the readers and the listeners interested in the stories!

(Note to moms trying to build their home libraries: try library book sales. I’ve filled boxes with children’s books at library sales in the States and then shipped them back to us overseas with the super-cheap, super-slow Media Mail option.)

We want to cook our own clean, healthy food.

We live in a small town in rural Sicily, and we have to drive at least 30 minutes to get good ethnic (ie. not Italian) food. We enjoy going out to a restaurant once a month or so – usually for incredible wood-fired pizza in our town – but it’s stressful with little kids. So… in Sicily, if we want to eat, we kind of have to cook.

And cook we do! Thanks to dearth of restaurants and a cornucopia of produce, I’ve finally gotten the crash course in basic home cooking that I so desperately needed… oh, when I went to college. I do our dry-goods shopping at the U.S. grocery store on base, and then we try to purchase most of the perishable items — fruits, vegetables, cheese, seafood — at the market or in town. Sicily makes this easy.

I’ve watched my friend Rachel beautifully transform the food culture in her home since moving here. Here’s what she said about living and cooking in Sicily:

“Not having the fast food option has helped me to learn to embrace cooking.  I’ve always enjoyed it, but having such easy (and cheap) access to incredible fresh ingredients has motivated me to search out ways to cook them. On top of that, I’ve loved having my kids in the kitchen with me!  … Mussels and artichokes are their favorites these days. (Isn’t that crazy?! We can’t believe it, either!) We love knowing that we’re laying a foundation of healthy eating for them!

We don’t want TV to be a big deal in our home.

By that I mean that we want to spend more time doing other things, and we don’t want our kids sitting in front of screens. For now, our family does not own a TV. Our kids don’t expect movies or computer time; we just fill our days with other activities. We don’t think this is a permanent choice (both Elliott and I grew up with — and loved — family movie nights), but it’s right for us during this season.

I’d like to blog more about this soon, but in the meantime, Amanda wrote an amazing blog post about living without a TV during their three years in Japan. I highly recommend it!

We don’t want to spend a lot of time on our computers or phones in front of our kids.

I wrote more about my decisions to limit my iPhone usage here. (Elliott doesn’t own a smartphone right now, so it’s a lot easier for him!)

I loved my friend Sarah’s comment on that blog post because it shows how Sicily has helped her unplug and restart her parenting as well:

“Since moving to Sicily it has been very freeing to be in a different time zone where social media is not buzzing in the phone…. I have found that also I get frustrated with my kids if I’m distracted by my phone because they’re not allowing me to “focus.” I have noticed that and have now made a point to only check FB and email in the mornings, nap time, and the evenings…. It allows me to be a mother and wife who is present.”

Amen to that! I only wish it were more true of me.

We want to explore alternative employment.

I sell handmade crafts, do copy editing work for my dad’s organization, and blog… and earn a few dollars a month. ;) It’s ok; earning money is not my primary focus right now. I’m enjoying this chance to explore other fields besides nursing during these years so that I have a better idea of my skills and interests (and so I keep developing both of those!) whenever I re-enter the workforce.

Elliott has also enjoyed “building a platform” that might lead to another career down the road. He established a website and podcast while he was here called “The Uncommon Veterinarian.” He also is almost finished with his first novel, a monumental feat of dedication.

We want to stay connected to family back home.

We Skype with family on weekend afternoons, and my blog is a big way to stay connected to our family and invite them into our lives. We also love it when they visit us here!

We want to open our home to visitors.

We love having family and friends come to stay, and we’ve tried to make that a priority in our lives by always having an available guest room, a pretty open schedule, and a welcome invitation to anyone who would like to come.

This year we’ve had week-long visitors every month since October, and we try to open our home regularly for dinners, play dates, and game nights, too. It’s all a part of our life-goal of making room… hence the name of this blog!

We want to spend time outdoors.

That’s why we chose a house that had a whole green valley for a backyard. Except in the summertime, we take the kids on a hike about every week. Often Elliott will take the kids for a walk as soon as he gets home from work and while I’m cooking dinner. They meander down to the piazza and come back with fresh bread and wine to accompany our meal, or sometimes they walk farther to a farm near our house.

——–

For those of us in Sicily – or living anywhere overseas – this is a rare opportunity. Living overseas is an adventure, and there are definitely extra challenges with the distance from family and smaller community and resources. But don’t forget that the community is (usually) ready-made and eager to welcome you; resources are often plentiful and free; and you live in a beautiful-in-its-own-way, once-in-a-lifetime location.

Of course, unplugging and restarting your parenting — or your life! — is important to do wherever you are whenever you need to do it, whether you’re in Bahrain or Boston, Iceland or Indianapolis, Venezuela or Vancouver. Certainly there are more resources and more diversity when you’re in a major Western metropolis. I want our family’s priorities and goals to be something we constantly remember, re-evaluate, and re-prioritize no matter where we live.

Now it’s your turn! Before you had a family of your own, how did you picture your family? How did you envision yourselves spending weekends, evenings, and holidays? What did you think your priorities would be?

If you’re single, how did you picture yourself at this age? Are your priorities in the right place?

And now: what baby steps could you take to help yourself get there? Here are some suggestions (most of which I could really apply to my life!):

  • Waking up 15 minutes earlier to pack a healthy lunch for yourself, or to get a shower in before the kids are up. (I didn’t do that this morning and wish I had….)
  • Going home next weekend to spend time with your parents.
  • Finally making a budget and sticking to it.
  • Reading one book this month that you’ve always wanted to read. Maybe a short classic like My Antonia, or a beautiful memoir like The Dirty Life, or a great piece of new fiction like What Alice Forgot.
  • Making a meal plan this week (just four meals, and use the leftovers for other meals) and shopping for the ingredients.
  • Setting a goal of something to do with your kids today, like reading one book to each of them, or building a blanket fort instead of letting them watch TV, or making homemade play dough in fun colors.

OK, enough talking. What do you think of all this? How can you unplug and restart your parenting right where you are? You guys inspire me! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

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25 Responses to Unplugging and Restarting Your Parenting Overseas (or Right Where You Are!)

  1. Ana @ Lessons From Yesterday May 19, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    Your priorities are wonderful! My biggest goal right now is to get a flexible schedule for our summer. I hope to spend lots of time reading, playing outside, playing baseball, gardening, hiking, camping and fishing, and learning a little Spanish and working on handwriting just to keep our brains from getting mushy. I think we’ll all do better with a loose schedule, which isn’t my strong suit–so I better get to planning, only a week left!

    • Becca May 19, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

      Wow, you have so many wonderful ambitions for the summer! Have you read “Steady Days”? I think that might be an encouragement to you as you think about a summer schedule. My friend is planning to do a VBS curriculum with her boys this summer, and that also sounds like a fun and structured way to get a little learnin’ in each day!

  2. Katie | The Surly Housewife May 20, 2014 at 4:17 am #

    I agree 100%. We live just 3 hours from my parents and friends and it feels like we were able to establish our own goals and family routine. I love this idea of family goals. I have set them for our homeschool but not really our family. I guess my big goal is to create a more regular routine and schedule. I always liked the freedom of just seeing where the day leads us but my oldest is totally not that way. She wants a play-by-play of what is happening that day. It’s gonna be a big adjustment for me but I think it will be less stress as well since hopefully I won’t have to answer “when is snack time? When is tv time? Is it almost lunchtime?!” Thanks for this awesome post. I will have to share it :)

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

      Thank you, Katie! I have a feeling Lena is going to be more of a play-by-play girl as she gets older. I really loved “Steady Mom” and “Simplicity Parenting” to help me with routines so far, but I am sure there are better resources out there for older kids, too!

  3. Monica May 20, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Great post. I *so* hope we get to live abroad someday…but until then, I can still try to apply some of the ideas you share here. By the way, I was at Costco today and saw this beautiful cookbook that made me think of you! http://www.amazon.com/Sicily-Editors-Phaidon/dp/0714863521

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

      Wow, thanks for sharing! That cookbook is GORGEOUS! I have one Sicily cookbook that I love, but I’ll probably get all sentimental and buy more after we leave. :)

  4. Amy May 20, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Thanks for this great post, Becca! I think it is so important to set priorities about how you want to live.. Your comment about the television really spoke to me, as we have been living without a working TV aerial since we moved house last October. We can still make the decision to have a movie night, but can’t get sucked into mindlessly watching whatever happens to be on TV that evening, usually combined with surfing the internet on our laptops. It’s a massive improvement. I hope that I can draw inspiration from your post to take further steps toward setting priorities for how we want to live.

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

      Always so good to hear from you, Amy! I read two books this week by Liane Moriarty and it made me think so much of Australia!

      I hope we can always use moderation with TV, especially if we get cable or an actual TV down the road. But for now we’re content… surfing the internet in the evenings certainly takes up enough of our time. :P

  5. Amanda E. May 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    This is an awesome post, full of food for thought and consideration. Our goals and priorities for this season are homeschooling as a family unit (mom teaches some; dad teaches some; older kids help younger kids) and we’ve really see the fruits of that pay off in our closeness. We also prioritize outdoor time, though we live in Minnesota so…ahem… We must be creative. :D Daily reading (our older kids still have ‘quiet time’ when the littles nap so they can have a solid 1-2 hours of reading) and daily practicing a skill or craft is also pretty up there for us. We also try to volunteer as much as we can as a family.

    We have kids 7, 6, almost 4, 2.5, and 1 so these of course have shifted and will continue to shift as the dynamic changes – we’re kind of loving our slower yet busy pace right now. :-)

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

      I love all these priorities, and I hope our family one day looks like yours! Five kids and all! But I have to convince Elliott first…

      I also love that you talked about rest time/nap time. I am wondering how to incorporate rest time once Lena finally grows out of her naps. Right now she still takes a 2-hour nap in the afternoons when Gil does (I started to coordinate their naps as early as I could!), but she’s over 3 so that might change anytime. I remember we always had rest time growing up and entertaining ourselves wasn’t that hard. Hopefully this will be a smooth transition when the time comes!

  6. Abi May 20, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Great food for thought, friend! You know me, I am a busy-body, so the way that I have “unplugged” recently has been to intentionally slow down and enjoy the richness and fun of these days with Lucie when she is still little (16 months) and before Baby #2 gets here. Every afternoon when we get home we take a walk around the garden and stop to smell the flowers. Her little sniffs are sooooo cute! She loves to pick up rocks and line them up on the bench; actually, she is more interested in the rocks than the flowers! We also say “hi” to the dogs (who have recently moved outside) and often go for a wagon ride. Sometimes thoughts of “I need to get dinner started!” and “there’s a huge pile of laundry to do!” try to invade these precious moments, but so far I have been able to ward them off at least for a little while so that I can enjoy my little girl!
    On the TV topic, we got rid of cable last year in a effort to cut down on expenses, and I am so glad we did! We sometimes watch shows or movies through Amazon Prime, but it is usually only one night a week, or less than that (especially since their contract with the Food Network ended- boo! No more “Chopped”! :( )
    You implied this in your post, but I think one key to “unplugging/restarting your parenting” is to COMMUNICATE! You and Elliott set a wonderful example of this since obviously you have talked about it and made plans together. Jorge and I have discussed some of these topics, but of course they can (and should) always be revisited from time to time as our family grows and changes.
    Thanks for a wonderful post that made me think!

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

      Thanks for these thoughts and all the sweet pictures via email, too! I have always thought you were someone who knew how to focus on the right things, to take time, to rest. I know you’re doing that now with little Lucie, and I know she benefits so much from it!

      I loved your observation about communicating with Elliott. Yes, we do talk about this stuff a lot! We are constantly challenging each other and sharing things that we’ve read or thought that contribute to our priorities as we try to follow and honor Christ. I know I am so blessed to have a husband and best friend who is striving to “walk circumspectly” through life… even though sometimes I’m just like, “But a TV show every night would be sooooo nice!” or he’s like, “But I really want to watch this movie even though I know you’d rather read!” It’s all about balance and figuring out what’s right for your family. Being “bendy,” as a recent book I read said so well.

  7. Joy May 20, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    Great post! I totally agree that being in a foreign country with young ones is a great way to forge your family traditions and bonds. You remind me so much of my husband and I when we were living in Spain with little Jayna and Skyler. We had the same problem with eating out, too!! Also, the restaurants didn’t open until at least seven, usually eight! Tough with littles!

    You have great ideas listed here. I had to laugh, though, about only planning four meals and eating leftovers because with our family of six now, there aren’t many leftovers!! I think we’d starve! ;-)

    I would also suggest, as your kids get older (and I’m sure *you* will do this! I’m speaking to the greater “you”), establish time to read chapter books to your kids. That is something I’m so glad I started doing! We take books with us when we travel, read while we’re waiting at restaurants, for doctor appointments, etc. It’s the best!!

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

      Haha, I would have loved to have been friends with you guys in Rota back in those days. I know we would have had lots of “jumbled up” adventures with our littles!

      And yes to chapter books… I can’t wait! My dad and Elliott’s dad read aloud from chapter books every evening to the whole family. Those are some of our most precious childhood memories.

  8. Courtney May 20, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    I absolutely LOVED this post, Becca! It challenged me to sit down and write out my mothering priorities– and to talk with my husband about our family priorities. Thank you!

    • Becca May 20, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      That’s so encouraging to hear, Courtney! I hope you blog about it. :)

  9. Carly May 21, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    My husband and I have spent the first 2 1/2 years of our marriage away from our close family and friends in Northern CA. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done – we’ve established our marriage foundation on our own terms. I’m so happy that we’ve had this chance to establish routines, communication styles, and financial habits that are intentional and unique to our marriage. Our marriage is consequently much different than that of our parents. Being away from our families gave us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and explore what kind of husband and wife we’d like to be without the pressure of being like our families.

    • Becca May 21, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      “Our marriage is consequently much different than that of our parents.” I think that’s so important. The distance lets you (hopefully) keep the good things that you learned from your parents, and it lets you make the marriage your own.

  10. anneke June 3, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

    I love all of this. I think I’m the only single person commenting, but since you addressed us, I thought I’d represent. I’m almost 26, and I saw myself starting a family by this point. I would love to have a friend to marry, to raise kids, and to live in a place that makes a lot of the priorities you talked about possible. Instead, I’m sad and fairly lonely, even though I have friends and keep busy with activities I enjoy. I’m almost finished with a PhD, enjoy my job, and am making enough money, but none of it’s what I really wanted, and I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t want to marry just anyone, after all, and the eligible people I meet are pretty unremarkable. I try not to feel sorry for myself, but I really wish things were different and don’t have any reason to expect them to change any time soon.

    I love your blog and though I’ve never commented before, I think it’s great. Good luck on your move to SD; it may be so different from Sicily that you’ll feel like you’re living abroad even though you’re in the States. :)

    • Becca June 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

      Anneke, thank you for this comment. Your gut-wrenching honesty left me breathless. Honestly, I imagined myself to be in your shoes at almost 26 (since I hadn’t been on a single date in my life until my now-husband asked me out), not in the place I’m in, and so your story sounds oddly familiar, a situation I’d imagined and played out in my mind for myself so many times. Life takes some crazy turns sometimes, some we’re grateful for and some we wish with all our heart weren’t true.

      I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna, but I do want to say that I deeply admire you for earning your PhD, something that I doubt you’ll ever regret and will be thankful to have earned before your days of little children, limiting TV, and making dinner every night are your primary concerns. I wish I had more than a bachelors degree, if only to offer more to my husband and children, and now I will have to work very hard and sacrifice a great deal if I want higher education anytime in the next 10 years. You have so much to offer a home and a family one day because you have used your time wisely before those things came along.

      I’d love to keep hearing from you. I’ll send all this in an email to you in case you don’t come back to check the comments. Your story and your honesty meant so much to me. Thank you for sharing!

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