Moving abroad on your own is one thing, but when you have two kids, a husband and a couple of cats tagging along it is a different ball game. Especially when half of the family is Dutch and the other half British (hello Brexit!). It can feel pretty overwhelming. Think about all the paperwork you have to get organised, in particular when you are not fluent in the language of your new country yet. Our first quarter was one with ups and downs. Moving abroad as a young family is wonderful, but not without its challenges.
We moved to Valencia in Spain earlier this year and it was hectic! Our boys, 4 and 6 years old, are at the perfect age for moving abroad, at least, that is what people keep telling us. Still, it is a huge change for these little ones. It certainly can cause a lot of anxiety and meltdowns. After all, we took away all they had ever known in their short lives. Their home, their garden, their school and nursery, their wonderful childminder, their friends, neighbours and village.
The kids, I must admit, are OK now. But not without a good two to three months of very emotional behaviour, abandonment issues and absolutely not wanting to go to their new school. It has been in the past month only that both of them have been happy to walk into their classrooms by themselves. I am very proud of them. It must have been a nightmare those first weeks, being in an unfamiliar environment, not understanding a word.
Anxiety in the first few months of moving abroad as a young family
My boys were proudly announcing to every man and his dog back in Scotland that they were going to go to a Spanish school and making new friends. The actual settling in phase however was far from pleasant. Once the novelty had worn off after a very exciting first day, they soon realised this was reality. It was not nice at all being put in a strange Spanish school ALL day and having lessons different from their old school. The times were weird and the days long (9am to 5pm!). There were strange teachers, strange children, all speaking in a strange language. How scary can you make it for little ones without their mama by their side? Needless to say, for at least eight weeks every single morning was a drama.
I just waited for you to come back
I had to walk my normally very confident, happy 6-year old into his new classroom where the teacher literally had to peel him off my legs. He was clinging onto me, begging and screaming not to be abandoned. It was awful. I left many a morning in tears, feeling so, so guilty about the whole move and what I was doing to my children. Was this really worth it? Why was I being so selfish? Had I been naive?
This was not what I had in mind at all for my family, starting a new life in Valencia. My youngest was only slightly better, but also always crying at drop off. At pick up time both boys were generally calm, usually telling me their day had been ‘ok’. But I shall never forget the day when I asked my youngest what he had done at school. He replied with:”Nothing mummy, I just waited for you to come back.”
Ending up in a 100% Spanish school with zero Spanish
The selection of schools did not go entirely to plan either. In November of last year we selected this great bilingual semi-private school on the outskirts of Valencia. We even chose to rent a house in the right postcode area in order to be eligible to enroll the boys. A bilingual school would be best in our opinion, to learn Spanish but also still get a good English based education so they would not struggle too much.
We arrived in Valencia late February. Although the staff of our preferred school suggested that there was a high probability of at least one of our children getting a space (in infantil, the Spanish equivalent of nursery), this unfortunately turned out not to be the case. With the school not being fully private, it was the council who eventually decided and they were unable to provide a space for either children. What a disappointment! We had already moved and the children were at home. What to do next?
Our 6-year old has to be in school by law, so the council was obliged to find us a school in our area. They were only able to offer us two spaces in a local Catholic ‘concertado‘ (semi-private) school we had never even heard of. We are not religious ourselves and were also worried about the 100% Spanish school they were suggesting for our children, so we were apprehensive. We were also very annoyed with ourselves for not visiting more schools beforehand. But we shouldn’t have worried, as when we arrived at the school for our first introduction, the staff greeted us like family, kissing us on both cheeks and making us feel very welcome. We were the only foreigners in the school. The school turned out to be lovely.
MAKING FRIENDS AND NAPPING AT LUNCHTIME
The kids in school, young and slightly older, are all very kind. And although my eldest son gets a tad bored of them all trying to practice their two words of English during break-time, he has already made friends. Teachers all work together to adapt lessons for our eldest, who of course didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
The local language Valenciano (yes! another issue when enrolling your children in a school over here, as they have at least four hours of it each week!) is toned down for the time being in order to bring the kids up to speed with Spanish first. During the first few months at nursery, his lovely teacher let our exhausted 4-year old nap in the classroom while she took the rest of the kids outside to read them a story so he could fall asleep. How sweet is that?
NO HOMEWORK, VEGETABLE PLOTS AND TRIPS TO THE THEATRE
Another plus at our school is that there is no homework, which is rare in Spanish schools – but for which I am so grateful! School days in Spain are very long, so having to spend even more time staring at letters and numbers really isn’t what I believe any kid age 6 should be doing after school. The school also has their own vegetable plots and they do plenty of (affordable) school trips to museums, theatre and other out of school places. Teachers with terrible Spanish accents teach English at the school, but my kids being native English speakers already, I don’t mind at this point in time – we do plenty of reading with them at home.
For now, it is good, so we will stick with this school for at least the next year before reviewing our decision and deciding whether this is going to be the school for our boys long term. Just now, all we care about is that our boys are happy, fit in socially, make friends and become fluent in Spanish. Within two months my children were able to understand basic sentences, use some words and count to 30 in the most adorable Spanish accent. That is at least something to celebrate!
MOVING ABROAD A YOUNG FAMILY…four months later
We are now almost four months here and the boys are doing much better, integrating at a faster speed than us. They are both happy to go into school by themselves, no more tears. They are having swimming lessons in Spanish and will also be going to summer camp in July (in Spanish of course!) at our local sports centre. On the weekend we often hang out with international families. This gives them a bit of a break so they (and we too!) can ‘just’ chat in English. Learning a brand new language is tiring!
Our youngest is a sponge, knowing so many words in Spanish already. I guess for him it doesn’t really matter what language he is learning, as he is only 4. He is still developing his English grammar and vocabulary as well. He happily picks a Spanish book at bedtime now, rather than English or Dutch and is hardly aware of it.
Routine, cuddles and a safe home environment
Our six-year old is still showing some anxiety and a need for reassurance, especially at home. I can understand the reasons why and we are trying our best to just be there for him. Being in a Spanish speaking environment all day not knowing what is going on, must play havoc on your brain! Sleep, routine, cuddles and a safe family home is the best cure.
Now summer vacation is here (oh my, nearly three months long!). Perhaps the boys will have their huge anxiety issues again in September when school is back, but a teacher told me that most Spanish kids have exactly the same issue after such a long break. At least a row of other parents and their upset children will join me in the first week of school. To be continued…