22 Aug What does it mean to be a ‘MumAbroad’?
My story begins at the end of 1971 when a handful of international students were invited to a low-key informal party hosted by the air attaché at one of the embassies in West London. Among the guests were a beautiful young Argentine socialite and a quirky English engineering post-doc who came to the party wearing the large Mexican hat he’d bought the previous year at the World Cup. I’m not sure whether it was the hat or his sense of humour that attracted my Mum’s attention, but sparks flew and an anglo-argentine relationship began. After a whirlwind romance, they married a few months later. My sister and I were born in London before our parents moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, the city I know to be home and where my two younger Geordie siblings were born.
Growing up with a genuinely foreign Mum and an equally foreign, i.e. not Northern, Dad, in late Seventies and early Eighties Newcastle was an interesting experience. It can be summarised by the one piece of advice my Mum gave me when I decided to take up the EU scholarship that brought me to Madrid in the year 2000: do not marry a foreigner but if it can’t be helped, at least make sure you bring him back to the UK to have a family. Of course, I didn’t heed that advice and soon met a tall, dark, handsome (Spanish) man who would sweep me off my feet and change the course of my life forever!
The fact is, bringing up children as a foreign Mum was challenging in the Seventies and still poses interesting scenarios today. The tireless effort made by my Mum for us to “fit in” paid off and to this day my siblings and I have never considered ourselves anything else but English, but this did not happen without sacrifice. My Mum decided not to speak Spanish at home for fear that we may not learn English properly. She embraced all the English customs and ways of life so that we would fit seamlessly into a culture that was so strikingly different from her own. As well as feeling the usual insecurities of being a mum of four in a new city, she had the extra burden of adapting to different customs. She did a marvellous job but I think her advice “not to marry a foreigner” was aimed at allowing me an easier time of it whenever I decided to settle down and have children.
Needless to say, I eventually became a “MumAbroad”, and when I did I followed in my own mother’s footsteps. My children, although naturally bilingual, are 100% Spanish in the way that I am 100% English. When we joke about which national team my kids would like to play for when they are older, they never hesitate in saying Spanish. The fact that they could be British, or play for England, is almost an embarrassment for them. They do not have their sense of identity split between two nations any more than my siblings and I never felt a split between Argentina and England – not even during the Falklands War which drew momentary attention to three small dark haired sisters in the corner of a not usually hostile North-East primary school playground one grey morning in 1982.
Being a MumAbroad in cosmopolitan Madrid is a privilege and a learning curve. My kids go to a school that follows the Spanish curriculum but teaches half of the subjects in English. Their first language is Spanish, their cultural identity is Spanish, their flag is “la roja”. Despite everything they watch being in English, (especially YouTubers towards whom we have a strict rule of only allowing them to stream English or American Minecraft gamers etc.) their comprehension of situations is in Spanish. I realise that although occasionally baffled by the way things get done in Spain, I have put the same trust in Spain as my Mum did in England and I know that my children are doing OK. Their upbringing may be different to mine, their cultural heritage foreign to me, but they are settled, they are grounded and they are happy. What more can any parent ask for, abroad or not?
Dominique White is a freelance community manager, content advisor and translator who is passionate about children’s literature. She is a regular contributor to MumAbroad Life.