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On My Son's First Day of School in Another Country, I Felt Like the New Kid in Class

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This week, my oldest child began preschool. It’s a huge adjustment and milestone for any child and parent, but for me the learning curve felt even greater, because I am an immigrant mom.

I am an American living in the Netherlands with my Irish husband. Before having children, I called myself an expat. It’s a term of inclusion, one that implies you belong to a group of individuals who unite in the experience of living abroad, even if you’d have nothing in common at home.

But the decision to have children here and send them through the Dutch school system forces me out of my expat cocoon. In my son’s classroom, I am an immigrant. It’s a term so often used as a pejorative that its actual meaning — one who comes to live permanently in a new country — gets lost.

Trying to integrate with the local culture rather than live on its fringe is more demanding than being an expat. It means relearning many things you were sure you’d already figured out, including a new language and new customs. I even had to go back to driving school to get my license. It can be isolating and frustrating, and leave you feeling inept and humbled, especially when it comes to being an advocate for your children.

Before becoming one myself, my experience with immigrant parents came mostly through my work back in the states as the executive editor for a McGraw-Hill Education early literacy program.

The research I read focused a lot on the “challenges” of students in the U.S. who did not speak English at home. The conclusions were often negative: the students started school with much smaller English vocabularies, scored lower in reading, and presented difficulties for teachers not trained in working with non-native English speakers.

And now, that’s me: the immigrant mom who sends her child to school in a language other than what we speak at home. It was a conscious decision. English is my strength. I am most expressive and authentic when I speak it. And I want my children to be native speakers, too.

My son learned Dutch at daycare, and while his vocabulary may not be as big as his schoolmates, he functions just fine. But as I entered his classroom with him the first day, a wave of self-doubt came over me: had we prepared him enough for this?

I also feared my own intelligence and commitment to my son would be assessed based on the level of my language skills, and that this judgment would trickle down to him.

I can make small talk in Dutch. I can receive and exchange information. But I don’t have my personality, my way of speaking, or any kind of nuance. And although I understood everything that was being said to me by his teacher and the other parents on his first day of school, I still felt lost, because I didn’t feel like myself.

But the other parents and his teacher were extremely welcoming. Many took the time to speak with me without making me feel like I was beyond comprehension. Some suggested play dates, and offered to explain anything I didn’t quite understand about the school system.

And that is a real gift. The first day of school is hard for any parent, but it’s even harder when you don’t feel you’re doing things right. I was reminded of the old line about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Everyday things can feel like that for an immigrant parent.

Integrating here also means accepting things I may have previously considered annoying or bizarre as normal. For example, children call their teachers by their first names, and my son’s school has a different dismissal time almost every day of the week, anywhere from noon to 2:45 PM. It’s strange to me, but that’s how it is.

I do not have the luxury of assuming anything. To get him excited for his big day, I had bought my son a lunchbox, only to hear that I am to put his sandwich and fruit — the required foods, according to a letter we received — on a tray in the corner of the classroom each morning. I learned this when I was told the teacher could not find my son’s snack, which was, logically, according to me, in his lunchbox on his designated shelf.

Other things about school here I find refreshingly different. At the end of my son’s first day, I met him in the school courtyard. He had a big red mark on his chin that felt like rug burn and was about the size of a quarter. I expected an explanation from the teacher, if not a written report about what had happened.

But the teacher made no acknowledgment of my son’s face. When I finally asked, she lit up — clearly expecting me to be pleased — and said, “Yes! He was playing on the trampoline!” And actually, I was pleased. He fell but was fine, and she was rightfully putting the emphasis on the fact that he had enjoyed his first day and had made a friend.

This is just the beginning, but I’m feeling positive. I will be learning more about Dutch holidays and traditions that my son will celebrate, and spending time Googling children’s songs and rhymes he comes home knowing that I don’t. I will attend parent/teacher conferences and get to know his friends, and the parents of his friends. Eventually, it will be up to me to help him with his homework. I have a lot of work to do, but I also feel a lot of support.

Like every parent feels on their child’s very first day of school, seeing my little boy bravely take his seat in a classroom was emotional for me, not just because he’s growing up or possibly facing a rough transition, but because I felt so proud of him. He’s smart and capable and truly an asset to me. I loved telling the other parents he was mine. And I realized how much I want him to feel the same about me, and that it’s my responsibility to make it so.

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