Emigrating with kids? The first year is a write off. Be kind to yourself

We emigrated at the start of 2018 from Scotland to Spain. A big transition in many ways. The climate, the language, the settling in, the school searching, the paperwork. It is a lot to tackle when you first set foot in your new foreign country. An eternal holiday? Yeah right. Someone mentioned to me the other day: the first year of moving here? Forget it, it’s a write off, don’t try and get anything done for yourself. I wish I had heard this when we first landed. Being energetic but impatient and keen to get everything and everyone organised within 5 minutes, I was exhausted by the end of year one. A learning curve.

Moving house is always stressful, especially when you have young children who have to adjust and settle into their new environment and potentially a new school. It takes time for everyone to be happy and calm. Moving to Valencia, Spain is of course a whole different ball game. Not only do you leave friends and family behind, you are dealing with a completely new culture. The sunshine made us happy, but the language barrier was huge when we arrived and we felt very unsettled – and still often do after now 20 months of living here. For the children this was no different.

A bumpy ride on the Spanish school roller coaster

The school search in Valencia was stressful. After we had made our decision on one school, it turned out it was full. We had already moved into the right postcode area, but alas – in the end there were no spaces. We were handed two spots in a local Catholic ‘concertado’ (semi-private) school nearby and we just had to accept. I remember feeling very anxious about it at the time, making last minute visits to highly expensive private schools because I wanted the best for my children and thought I was ruining their lives. In the end, after being put off by monthly fees, the traditional school atmosphere and too many Porsches parked outside, my husband and I opted for the local concertado and hoped for the best.

moving to valencia with kids
Weekend excursions into nature are always great for the family

Our youngest went to the 4-year old infantil class (Spanish nursery has three stages – for 3, 4 and 5 year olds) and our 6-year old to 1st year of Spanish primary school. They enrolled in March and while the little one adjusted fairly quickly after a few weeks of tears and meltdowns, the big boy cried till summer. The school wasn’t bad, the teachers were lovely and trying their best, it was just too overwhelming for him. Nobody spoke any English. Imagine needing to go to the bathroom and being unable to ask for directions. Exactly. He was lost, lonely and scared. And Spanish school days are long: from 9am to 5pm. Being the only foreign child, he was also a celebrity and he soon got annoyed with all the unwanted attention. He sat timidly next to the teacher at every break time, overlooking the gigantic typical Spanish concrete playground, where the boys play football and the girls stand on the sideline. The classroom was chaotic, as not only my son was new, his teacher was a maternity cover and didn’t have a clue either. It is fair to say, my son picked up some Spanish and worked a lot on his life skills, but did not do any school work between March and the end of June. Followed by 2.5 months of summer vacation.

Moving to Valencia
A drawing by my eldest son depicting a story they read in school. I think this is the perfect illustration of what it is like to get anything done in bureaucratic Spain!

I thought I had left the rat race

Our eldest got a space in our school of choice in September last year and thank god, he liked it. His little brother joined him the following school year after we had been tackling two different schools for a full school year, about 2 kilometres away from each other, but with similar drop off and pickup times. Every morning and afternoon we were stuck in rush hour, trying to deliver and collect them on time, at two different locations and nowhere to park. It was like being in the rat race all over again.

Fast forward, Autumn 2019. My now 7-year old is repeating the second year of primary – a careful decision made by us after advice from his teacher – and I am so grateful we have done this. Sure, I felt it was all our fault when we had to consider it, because we ‘dragged’ him to Spain and ‘dumped’ him into the Spanish education system with zero Spanish. But it wasn’t just because of the language, being the youngest pupil in his class he was always going to be more immature and potentially behind in Spanish, but also in other subjects. He is much happier now.

The beauty of going to school in Spain: a lot of outdoor learning

From anxiety ticks to the dust settling

Up to then he was demonstrating signs of anxiety (constant need for reassurance, strange OCD type ticks, being annoyed about his clothes, labels, and having a persistant cough), which were clearly caused by stress, as during the summer holidays they disappeared. My youngest, having been fully immersed in Spanish from the start, is taking like a fish to water in his new school. He is learning to read and write just like his Spanish classmates. The dust has settled. At last.

I was so impatient that first year after moving to Valencia. I always want to have everything sorted in no time, rather than breathe and observe. Roll up the sleeves and get going. I suppose it was somehow due to the irrational feeling of being judged from afar by friends and family. “Will they make it? What will they be doing? Have they found work yet?” This pressure, whether true or just in my head, forced me to do too many things in a short amount of time. I set myself up as self employed, frantically looked for work, networked like mad, was anxious about building a social life from scratch and I even joined a new band so I could continue singing. God forbid I would take a break. I had to create the perfect life and prove I could do it all. But seeing the kids struggle, my husband trying to find his feet (he hated me for putting so much pressure on myself and the family), having to deal with stuff in a foreign language, it was no wonder that just before we reached our one year milestone of living in Valencia – I collapsed.

working in Valencia
My job as city tour guide on a bicycle has given me a lot of joy!
A great photo, but never believe all the smiles you see on social media 😉

When words fail and you fall to pieces

I have been a singer in a band for more than twenty years and never have I walked off stage during a gig. It was December, ten months after we moved, when I had a panic attack in the middle of a concert. Both my parents, my sister, husband and children were visiting Valencia, and were watching me. The people who mean most to me in life and love me unconditionally. I lost my lines, blood rushed to my head, I felt I was going to faint, I wanted to dig a hole and disappear. I walked off stage and cried in the bathroom of the venue, comforted by my sister. The mean machine had finally broken down. Smoke coming from the bonnet. I managed to pull myself together and finish the performance, but hell, was it awful. I do remember singing my autobiographic song ‘Nothing’s gonna bring her down‘ from the bottom of my heart with tears in my eyes that night, but feeling so loved by all of my family right there supporting me.

moving to valencia

The first year of living in Spain with children is a write off. It is true. Forget about continuing life as you knew it. In our case, having a young family and no 9-to-5 jobs to go to, we literally jumped in the deep end. You need time to figure it all out. To be with your children, to guard their only safe place they know right now: the family. We were totally out of balance. I ran myself to the ground, carrying it all, and expecting my family to run at the same pace, and “just get on with it”. I couldn’t see straight, it was all a blur. But while I pretended I had it all under control, I was slowly losing grip. I guess sometimes you need to fall on your face to finally see what’s going on. I didn’t come to Valencia to feel stressed out, but then I did.

I reached out to a psychologist for the first time in my life at the start of this year and it was so good to talk. To release. To be heard. I went on an all women yoga retreat, which was pure bliss. I promised myself not to be so hard on myself, to practice self-care. I kept a journal, set intentions. Things shifted. Positive things happened since this Summer, including the school changes. We also moved into a different house which we all love. Most of all, I have accepted that I don’t have to do a million things at once and I don’t have to please anyone. I am getting better at setting boundaries for myself and expressing my own needs, something very hard for a person who has always taken pride in being strong. It is OK to be vulnerable. Creating more time and space in my weekly schedule allows me to breathe and observe. Something I should have done much earlier. But hey, nobody is perfect. Onwards and upwards. Little, by little. Poco a poco.

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