A couple of years ago, my husband and I decided to stop moving from one country to another. Let’s have children and “settle down” for a while, we thought. Let’s “settle down” in a culture we both know, we thought. Having kids shouldn’t be that hard, we thought. I mean, we both have PhDs; how hard can it really be?
Yes, parenthood took us by surprise.
The adjustment has been hard, but at the same time, some of our emotions during this process have been strangely familiar.
We were surprised to realize that parenthood is like moving to another country. Just like people who move abroad, parents go through several stages as they adapt to their new “culture.” They are known as the five stages of cross-cultural adaptation, but in our current season, they have also become the five stages of adapting to parenthood.
Here they are:
Life is wonderful at the honeymoon stage of living in another country. Even if we notice differences between the two cultures, they are not a big deal. In fact, they might be exciting! The food is strange, but it’s fun to try new things! They seem to start everything later (or earlier) than scheduled - it’s a bit confusing, but it’s a learning experience! The language is weirdly fascinating; they speak so fast!
When we go on short trips as tourists, we rarely move beyond this stage, which is why many of us find vacations abroad so fun.
When we become parents, many of us go through a honeymoon stage too. There is a lot of excitement at first. When I got pregnant, we were thrilled about getting to know and raise our baby. Sure, the morning sickness was rough, and outgrowing most of my maternity clothes before the due date was depressing. But the baby was so precious and worth it all! The pregnancy and the time right after the delivery were our honeymoon stage. Even though many parts of it were hard (giving birth is a memory I won’t forget soon), we were filled with expectation and dreams and soaking in the newness of it all.
2. Culture shock
Then culture shock kicks in.
After living abroad for a while, the differences are no longer exciting. They become frustrating and annoying. What is wrong with these people? This food is gross; why can’t they make good food, like the one I was raised with? And why can’t they ever start anything on time? Or why are they in such a stressful rush to start everything early? My head will explode if I hear another word of this language!
This stage is hard, and it is normal to feel lonely, isolated, and even angry.
We discovered that parenthood also comes with a culture shock stage. Caring for small children is physically and emotionally draining, and there are only so many sleepless nights we can go through and still feel excited about it all. I remember feeling utterly exhausted and lonely during my son’s first year and wondering whether I’d ever get any sleep or do the things I enjoy again. Would I ever survive parenthood?
Culture shock can feel stressful, dark, painful, and hopeless, but it is not wrong. What is actually wrong is pretending that you are not struggling. Shedding an identity and a way of life and building a new one, all while meeting the 24/7 needs of a little human and having an empty energy tank, is a painful process. Culture shock is very hard, but it is also normal. It means we are responding to the changes in our life and starting to adjust.
During the adjustment phase, we are slowly processing what is happening to us and around us. We are starting to grasp how people view the world in the new culture. We might grow to like some of the food, understand how to show politeness, and realize how fluid the notion of being “on time” might be in other cultures. We know what to expect. We’re learning to cope, grow, and live in a new way.
Parents can also go through a stage of adjustment. I am still mostly at this point, as I am slowly (and somewhat reluctantly) learning that I can survive on very little sleep without entirely losing my mind. When I make a to do list, I am starting to be open to the idea that some things will not get done. For example, having both a shower and enough sleep is sometimes (read: never) going to happen in the same day. But I am also learning to have fun playing with my kids still in our pajamas at 3 pm with some or most of my to do list undone, and enjoy it anyway.
After working our way through the first three stages, we no longer feel like complete foreigners while living in another country. The second culture becomes a second home. We find an equilibrium point somewhere between the high of the honeymoon stage and the low of the culture shock. The new culture becomes a home in the same sense that our native one is our home: we know what’s going on and (generally speaking) enjoy life, even if we don’t like everything about it.
I have not arrived at this stage in my parenting journey yet, but I have sensed little glimpses of it. Even if the new normal involves late nights, little sleep, a million diapers and occasional toddler meltdowns, life IS good. Not in a pretend-everything-is-ok kind of way, but there are moments that are rich and deep even in the midst of loneliness and exhaustion. These moments make parenthood feel almost spiritual.
I love our new normal when it comes to meals; with all the messiness and noise, our family meals are delightful with four sets of hungry hands reaching for the food on the table while chattering in toddler talk, baby coos, Spanish, Romanian, and English. Even if my food is cold by the time I get to eat it, our time together feels like a bit of heaven pouring into our home.
5. Reverse culture shock
While adaptation to another country is a sweet stage, we get to have a second wave of culture shock when we return to our homeland. We change in the process of adapting to another culture, so getting back home leaves us feeling like outsiders again. We find aspects of our own culture comforting, yes, but also different and foreign. It’s like my pre-pregnancy clothes: I look at them in my closet, I recognize them as my own, and yet I wonder how in the world did I ever wear something so small. They come from a life that no longer fits.
Reverse culture shock is disorienting and hard. It’s often even harder than the first wave of culture shock because it hits us in such unexpected ways. We have to make sense of our own culture again and learn that we will never see the world as we once did.
I know there will come a day in my own parenting adventure when I will experience a severe case of reverse culture shock too. When my children are all grown up and gone from the nest, things will be as they once were: just my husband and I. We will be able to get enough sleep and showers and eat warm food and have a clean house again, but I will need bulk quantities of Kleenex to be ok with all of this again.
The truth about these five stages is that they are not always cut-and-dry in real life. Also, everyone goes through them a little differently. We might reach a stage only to return to a previous one and then repeat the process again. Regardless, they can help explain some of the struggles we have as we either live abroad or become parents.
The author of Ecclesiastes was right: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (3:1). Some stages are harder than others, but all of them can help us grow.
I write this as I go through the adjustment phase with occasional punches of culture shock and glimpses of adaptation. And then some days, all I know is that I’m thankful to be alive at the end of the day. When it gets hard, I try to remember that each stage is a season and that each one will pass at the right time. Just like when I moved abroad, I will somehow become stronger, or at least more humble, after pushing through the dark and scary (and sleepy and smelly) parts of parenthood.
At whatever stage you may be, I hope that you are able to find a short moment today to breathe, be patient with yourself and (maybe) with others, accept grace, (try to) show grace, and pour yourself another cup of something yummy. It may not seem like much right now, but it is a part of the bumpy journey of “settling down.” We will all get there with God’s grace.
Are you living in another culture or going through the parenthood journey (or both, bless you)? What is it like? What helps you get through it?