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Updated 8 Jul 2010

Expat advice on braving the elements and bringing your baby overseas

Imagine my reaction when my husband announced our next assignment in the American Foreign Service Diplomatic Corps was to Damascus, Syria. I was three weeks pregnant and still had houseguests sleeping on our living room floor; I also had just two weeks to organize the move. I knew it was do-able, but I wasn’t sure where to start.

Taking baby steps

First and foremost the baby was my priority. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have concentrated more on learning Arabic and researching Damascene culture. I would have hit the library hard, used resources at the State Department to pick up titbits that could have eased my transition, and found others - through my husband’s contacts - who had lived there in the past.

Instead, I focused on giving birth in the States and making the necessary preparations for the two of us to meet my husband, who was already working overseas.

To prepare for relocation as a new mom, I bought what I thought I’d need for a baby going into a third world country.

I filled an entire cart with nothing but diapers, a commodity I refused to negotiate on. I ordered clothing through catalogues, just as you can do via the Internet today. I bought powdered milk (it has a longer shelf life) and pacifiers, my two biggest necessities. I made arrangements to ship off the baby swing, crib and playpen at a later date.

As a result I arrived in Syria largely uninformed about the customs and traditions of my new location. I had to learn as I lived, and with the information superhighway at your fingertips in this day and age, expecting mother’s can better prepare for their big day. It’s also possible to pinpoint just what supplies are available and up to standard, and what products are better off stockpiled and shipped well in advance.

A labouring wait

Initially, we’d planned for my husband to fly home for the birth. Unfortunately the baby came four weeks early, and the emergency C-section just couldn’t wait for him to catch the next flight.

One of the most frustrating parts of managing my motherhood single-handedly was organizing all the appropriate documents and then having to wait patiently for their arrival in the midst of plumping my preemie with breast milk and recovering from my C-section.

After getting her passport picture (pretty tough to get a newborn’s picture done eyes open) and her visa, and waiting on the mail to deliver her Social Security Card and birth certificate, I still had to sit still long enough for the doctor to give his nod to travel. It took some cajoling, but in the end, I left at nine weeks postpartum.

When travelling with a new baby, your destination of relocation will of course dictate how comfortable you are with the medical facilities. After the doctor has given you the green light to travel, you must make an educated decision on when to relocate based on your comfort level with the baby.

Nursing your network to health

In every move, especially with a newborn, I never forget to pack ample thank you notes, as certain angels will carry you for the first several weeks.

It’s very important to form a support system as a new expat mom because it gives the foundation of security, warmth and familiarity. There are always people ready to hold out a hand for you to hold onto in every country. Welcome the hands, write them a thank you note, and learn quickly from them how to move onwards and upwards.

At home, there are friends and family around to lean and count on. Without this network, though, it’s easy to feel lonely, and I can recall times I begrudged my husband for taking me so far away.

Though caring for an infant single-handedly can give you a huge boost of courage and self-esteem, an expat mom who’s been in the country longer can be a lifesaver. Alternatively, meeting a local mom, even if there’s a language gap, will help you learn the ropes, too.

These moms became my support system, telling me where to go to buy what I needed, and what doctor best helped with each ailment. There were no phone books, let alone Internet, but I managed quite well under their concern to better meet my needs.

Point me to the paediatrician

Most of my medical concerns were taken care of at the health unit in the embassy. The embassy nurse would refer us to a local doctor for further medical care. With my 20 plus years of overseas tours, I’ve always found a reputable paediatrician that I valued.

Of course I was terribly sceptical about trusting local professionals in the beginning. Upon arriving at the paediatrician’s office recommended by the American embassy, I first had to wait for the donkey cart to pass before finding a parking spot. The dirt road was narrow with buildings that seemed to lean in on each other.

But upon entering the office, I realized the paediatrician was very well educated, from the States and an excellent doctor. I relaxed immediately when she treated my newborn; I was in good hands. Although some of her equipment was not as up to date as back home, I was confident I had the best doctor the embassy could find.

Even if you’re not in a position to benefit from a similar body, the expat marketplace of mothers’ is invaluable when it comes to making meaningful recommendations about physicians in the area.

Does hindsight bite back?

Many have asked if I’d do it all over again, knowing what I know now. But I can’t help wondering how I couldn’t do it again.

Living the expat lifestyle was what my husband and I chose. We knew having a baby wouldn’t be easy, but we did know it was do-able and we’d have help along the way.

The most important advice I can offer for those relocating with a new baby is once you and the baby are healthy enough to travel, it’s important to reunite with your family as soon as possible. Your family is your biggest support system. Being together not only grounded me, but gave me the confidence to venture out and enjoy the new and wonderful country I was in.

In fact, the process worked so well, I was expecting again before arriving at our next overseas assignment.

Laura Wilson Our Expat Expert

Laura Wilson has lived in beautiful Wassenaar, The Hague, for one year. Biking has become a new way of life, and once again, she's taking on the task of learning a new language. She came from Vancouver, Canada, where she lived for five years. While there she did snow shoeing and ran in the lush rain forests. If she could go back, she'd be there in a minute. Other past posts include Frankfurt, Germany, Paris, France, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Washington, D.C. and of course, Damascus, Syria. Writing has always been a part of her life, but with four kids (from ages 16-8) and constant moving, there's hardly been much down time. Now that the kids are getting a little older, she has more time for herself playing tennis and taking (much needed) salsa lessons.

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