The Settlers’ Mentality

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Mooney's Bay, Ottawa, August 2014

Mooney’s Bay, Ottawa, August 2014

“I can’t, I can’t!” I kept on repeating, sobbing pathetically.

“You can’t what?” my mum asked gently.

“I can’t come back to Canada and be all alone again!”

All along our trip to France, I had been dreading coming back to Canada. At first, I wasn’t even sure why. I mean, this is becoming a trend—I didn’t want to come back after the two trips to France we took last year, nor after Mexico in January. And the only reason why I boarded the Toronto-bound plane in San José in February was because I did miss Feng and Mark.

It’s not like I hate Canada or that I’m miserable there. And it’s not like I fell in love again with France—I did not. It’s a great place to visit but life is tough, for many reasons ranging from the high cost of living to the staggering unemployment rate.

But I’m struggling in Ottawa.

Feng and I never really settled there. I came by chance, realized there were opportunities and stayed. I went through the immigration process because I needed a permanent resident status to work in Canada and because I was tired of worrying about visas expiring or not being extended. I became a Canadian citizen because along the way, I truly fell in love with this country and its people.

I hadn’t planned any of that. It just happened. I came, I liked it and I stayed.

But this was before Mark. And Mark changed everything.

Before Mark, Feng and I focused on one goal: saving money to go traveling. Sure, we enjoyed Ottawa. It’s a nice city. But we were mostly busy working and rarely spent any time at home. We didn’t try to fit in much. We were doing our thing, living our life the way we wanted it to be.

But when you start a family, knowingly or not, you put down roots. Suddenly we went from being two free spirits to having to keep this tiny little thing alive and happy.

We didn’t know where to start. Raising a kid is not something you can do all alone. That much we learned.

Right after Mark’s birth, I tried to become the perfect suburban mother. It was an environmental thing rather than a conscious decision: you see all these women on maternity leave pushing strollers around the neighborhood and shopping for swaddling blankets, so you do the same. Why not? I didn’t know any better. I just followed the lead, thinking maybe I would learn something.

The problem was, it did not make me happy. I did not find it fulfilling.

This is not me.

I don’t think I had ever realized before how much work it takes to build a family, and how strong you have to be to tackle the challenge.

Back “home”, wherever “home” is, chances are that you have a support network—close family, relatives and old friends. When you start your own family, you add to the existing dynamic, to a model already set.

For new immigrants, it doesn’t work like this. You need to have a “settler’s mentality” because you are starting from scratch, in a place where you don’t have roots. When it’s just yourself, or yourself and a partner, it’s not that hard. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes more difficult.

You are facing practical and philosophical issues.

On the practical side, you don’t have as much support. Childcare, for instance—you can’t exactly call your parents to help out in a pinch. You can’t use the long-trusted family doctor, can’t buy the medicine you are familiar with, can’t find the toys that kept you entertainment as a kid. Nothing comes easily. You have to rely on yourself, trust your own judgment. All. The Time.

On the philosophical side, you must adapt to various child-rearing theories that may not be yours, or recommendations that aren’t used in your home country. It ranges from etiquette issues to safety matters—honestly, when it comes to parenting, every seemingly innocuous decision is a hot button issue.

I don’t regret my choice of living in Canada and I do feel Canadian. But right now, at this stage of our lives, I wish I could get all the support I need. Life with Mark was easier in France.

But hey, this is not where we live.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

29 Comments

  1. Hi Zhu

    I feel exactly the same like you living in France. Raising kids without family support is terrible. Sometimes, I wish that I can just call my mum to tell her that I need a break, can she keep the kids for a weekend…..but she’s 13 hours of flight away from France.

    Regards
    Ling

    • I hear you Ling! Sometime, I do call my mum but it makes us feel even worst after, because she wishes she could help but she is far, and I wish she could be here. Do you try to raise your kids the local way or the way you’ve been raised?

      • I raise them according to what I’m comfortable with. The Chinese way is over protective, the French way is too liberal. The funny thing is that my Mexican friend tell me the French are very strict with kids. I don’t dare to complain about having no help to my mum, I’ll just make her feel sad.

        • I find Canadians too liberal with kids, to me French are more strict (and it’s better!). Funny! I find Chinese are overprotective as well, although I do respect the fact they stress upon formal education.

    • It’s funny, eh? And I don’t even like living in France that much. It’s just easier with Mark, that’s all. Do you feel lonely in Dakar as well?

      • Funny ! I don’t even like to leave in france either ! But yes I feel lonely in dakar. My husband is never here. We havn’t seen him for almost 2 months and a half now… My senegalese friends are in a little village very far from dakar. With senegalese from dakar relationships always end with money issues… and expats finish always by leaving the country… I have to figure out something to improve my life !

        • It must be tough, I feel for you. Did you have a plan when you moved to Dakar? I.e., starting a family, working, learning a skill…? I can’t imagine being in Canada alone, like without Feng. I mean, I’d survive, this is my country too now, but it’s tough.

  2. Hi Zhu,

    I hear you. I always feel low after my vacation in Malaysia. I come from a big family, so whenever I’m in Malaysia, we have big family gathering, but once I get back to France, I feel all alone.

  3. Hey Zhu, I found this insteresting – my sister (who hates me being here) said to me that she had read a large proportion of expats move home after birth because they realise they want the support of family. I already feel like I want the support of my family, so I am dreading it! I am sorry that you feel this way 🙁 I do know how you feel, just minus the child!

    • Yeah, I heard the same too about expats moving home after having a kid. Honestly, it would have been tempting if Feng and I were both French. But it

  4. I really appreciate your sharing of thoughts like this. It’s what I think about, but abstractly, since I’m not at that stage yet. I have also seen my parents go through what you experienced, since they were immigrants far from their family. As a new mom my mom did not have the support of family members to babysit and provide emotional support too. There are pros and cons to living abroad for sure. And here I am…

    • It’s tough, yet raising a kid in a multicultural environment is fun and challenging in a good kind of way. That’s the upside 🙂 You can pick what you consider “the best” from each culture!

  5. Time for a change, maybe?
    It won’t change the fact that all your family is across the atlantic, it could give some more challenges but have you thought of having the “where do you want to live” conversation with Feng? Is it Ottawa, elsewhere in the city, elsewhere in Canada, elsewhere in the world… The kind of discussion you didn’t have to have when you arrived in the country!

    • Well, we kind of had this conversation. Thing is, we can’t think of a better place to live overall… because Ottawa is convenient in a way, and we value travel over the place we live. Does it make sense?

  6. Loved this post – I understand completely. We don’t have quite the same distance or culture shock, but all of our family lives a five to six hour drive away, so we don’t have grandparents to take the kids for a weekend, or cousins who come over and hang out, and I sometimes get a little envious of people who have parents who live around the corner. We do have some great neighbours, but I am too independent, I think, and I never want to ask anyone else for help – even if it becomes lonely or stressful.

    You do amaze me with your ability to take Mark on trips and vacations and still have a great time – and I think this will only get better and easier as he gets older. Hope Ottawa feels more like home over time.

    • This is very true and I tend to forget it because France is a such a small place – many Canadians don’t have family nearby as well. How did you do when your kids were young and less independent? How did you get that well-deserved occasional parental break?

      Taking Mark along everywhere isn’t always easy, but it’s a choice we made 🙂

  7. Well, we have only one couple of grandparents, and try not to ask them too much (they are my husband parents, not mine, lucky people). One thing I can assure you is… school changes your life, try and hold out some years more and you’ll see! 😀

    • Buon di Silvia,

      It’s good to hear from you, it’s been a while! How are you? How is life at home and how is your immigration project doing?

      Wanna laugh? Back in the days, i.e. two years ago, I vaguely toyed with the idea of home-schooling, just because I really enjoy teaching (not because I wanted to push a crazy agenda on my kid!). Well, let me tell you… I won’t! 😆

      • We are fine, just back from a week holiday at the seaside! Tomorrow on duty again…

        The immigration project is exactly where you left it: I sent the application on July 4th, and no signal has come back as yet. I know some months are required before the receipt is notified, so we are patiently… thinking about anything else, cause waiting would be too frustrating 😀 The carrier confirmed the delivery, anyway, so it should only be a matter of time.

        I totally understand why you don’t think about home-schooling anymore! 😀 Anyway Mark is really growing up well, he’s so cute, and his smile is the evidence your parenting wins!

        • I hope you had a chance to relax and to “reboot” during your holidays. Where did you go? Yes, I’m curious!

          Patience is good, you will need some for the process. It feels slow, slow… until you finally get some news and suddenly you’re like “oh shit, is this happening?!” 😆

          • Yes, that’s exactly what I think it will be like. Just figure a climb up a roller coaster, the longer the time you need to get up, the faster you’ll rush down when the time comes 😆

            I rebooted fine, but I would have appreciated some time more all the same!

            We went to Gargano, in Apulia, one of the many wonderful places this country offers. I think Italy is really one of the best countries in the world, speaking of vacation 😆

  8. Preach girl preach !! Love the post ! This is exactly what i have been feeling these few months (plus crazy hormones) ! I started thinking about the settler’s mentality before i moved her, but now that i am here, it is tough to practice. I have to just take it day by day.

  9. Hey
    I found your website today and started reading. It is VERY elaborated and full of accurate observations. This post stirred something in me. Especially when you say “Life in France would be easier”. Can I say that it is an “Emigrant Myth”? Like the eternal Myth of Return? Let me explain: I am a Polish mother of two: my little son, 3.5 y.o. was born in Brussels. Then we moved to Florence, Italy, and my little daughter was born here this year. My husband is Canadian (as are my kids) and I got a research grant to do research in Canada starting this December. A lot of moving for the little ones, I know. I had the same dream: life in my home country (Poland) would have been so much easier with the kid. Well, guess what, maybe not. Maybe the grandparents want to have their own life and are not necessarily there for you each weekend to take care of the children? Maybe your foreign experience has already changed you and your views about the world and these are just incompatible with the way people raise children in your home country? Maybe the social norms your children would have to respect are not yours anymore? We managed to deal with this, we bring up kids alone, two parents learning how to do it, plus changing countries 🙂 Literally, I spent the first year of my son’s life dealing with him and his needs by the book (American one, BTW, but very popular in Europe too 🙂 ). And then, in every country you live in there are fantastic things your children will learn and enjoy. And grandparents? we invite them to stay with us every 2 months for 10 days or more: during that period they are for our kids 100%. So it is a better quality grand-parenting, I think 🙂 Best of luck (we can talk about it one day – we are moving to Ottawa-Gatineau, BTW)

  10. It’s so hard to word it without making it seem as though you’re ungrateful. I understand you though. You can love a place; the perks, the people, the reasons that made you come, stay and settle but sometimes…it’s not enough. For me, it’s like a wave of homesickness even though you know why you left in the first place (and there were plenty of reasons I left the UK). It’s the feeling of being a fish out of water. I don’t have children and I think one of those reasons (and, again, there are a few unrelated to this) is that I just don’t know if I could find a compromise between what, culturally for me, I would expect and what is culturally acceptable in Canada. I genuinely believe it’s a hard balance to find and those that do it are geniuses! I know that this doesn’t just apply to children, it applies to everything but I suspect children are one of the biggest balances you have to make.

    • I felt this way before I had my son, and the feeling didn’t go away. I just try to adopt what I think Canada does best (in terms of education, parenting, whatever) and shrug the rest away, but it’s hard because at times, you feel like you are fighting against windmills. And I don’t even want to fight, really, I just want to do my best the way I know best.

      I don’t get homesick much, mostly because I left at 18 and France changed a lot since 2001.

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