Life as a single parent can be challenging at the best of times, but what if you find yourself living abroad, having moved for love, not speaking the language and face to face with an elk? Anna Bainbridge talks to Frolo about the realities of being an expat single mum.

Expat single mum - living abroad as a single parent

One cold January afternoon, my son Zac and I cycled to the local playground with some friends.  As we arrived at the beautifully situated pirate ship playground, a stranger approached us. With wide eyes and a worried voice she said ‘there is an elk roaming the village streets and right now he is in that garden over there.’ She nodded to a nearby house. 

My brain sprang into action – cogs whirring away, interpreting the Swedish this lady spoke and judging how best to respond to this elk-near-playground situation.

Let’s rewind a bit shall we?

Here’s a quick bit about me: I was born and raised in South East London and moved to Sweden six years ago with my then husband to start a new life and new family. Things didn’t go as planned and after five years together we decided to go our separate ways, whilst still co-parenting our little son Zac. 

Growing up in a rough area of London, I learned to be street-wise: never walk down a deserted dimly lit street on your own, don’t talk to strangers etc. This is all very well in London but a lot of that street wisdom is simply not applicable to my new life here in rural Sweden. For example, all roads are dimly lit here and most are deserted so if I kept to that rule, I’d never go anywhere! 

Anyway, back to the elk.

As I mulled over how seriously to take this elk threat, (aren’t they just like rather large ponies? Surely it will be more scared of us than we are of it? Maybe we should just go home?), my friend Sara, who is Swedish and therefore an expert in elk-related matters, grabbed her daughter, ran to the pirate ship and hid. 

‘OK’ I said to myself, ‘I guess this situation is more serious than I thought.’

‘I’ll just take Zac up to the top of that rock over there!’ I shouted to Sara’s retreating back. ‘Surely elk can’t climb rocks?’ I yelled hopefully.

With my question still hanging in the air I turned to Zac, and as I did so came face-to-face with the elk himself! There he was in all his elk-like glory standing just metres away. Bigger than a horse, staring at me with large glassy eyes situated on either side of his massive head. 

Without thinking I grabbed Zac under one arm and climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop behind me. Climbing one-handed with a four year old is no easy feat but adrenalin gave me the push I needed.  There we stood, breathing heavily and wondering what the elk would do next. No one moved. No one spoke. I turned to look at Sara in the pirate ship and she returned my glance nervously. We didn’t even dare wave to each other. 

With all the excitement, my son inexplicably began to shout, ‘the elk is coming! The elk is coming!’ Perhaps trying to warn the other villagers. His voice seemed to enrage the elk still further and he began to gallop towards us, his huge body appearing to move in slow motion. ‘So much for him being more scared of us,’ I thought. 

Being a single parent is much like spotting an elk for the first time:  scary and a bit unpredictable.  But also, an opportunity to dig deep and find strength you never knew you had. 

I gently silenced Zac and the elk eventually wandered off into the centre of the village. After an appropriate amount of time had elapsed, we all came out of our hiding places, laughed hysterically at what had happened and then went home to my garden for a Covid friendly fika.

In some ways, I think this elk episode sums up what it is like to be a single-working-mum-living-abroad-during-a-global-pandemic. A total roller-coaster! 

expat single mum living in Norway

So for anyone else facing a similar kind of life challenge, here are some tips:

Learn the language

Unless you are living in an English-speaking country such as USA or Australia, you will have to learn the language.  I can’t over-emphasise just how important and life-changing this is.  Learning the language of your country of residence will open so many doors.  Doors of friendship, job opportunities, better services in places like the job centre or welfare office…the list goes on.  Every new word you learn is another foundation stone for your new life.  I use the app DuoLingo and also completed Sweden’s Swedish For Immigrants course when I first arrived.

Get a job

After my marriage broke down in 2019 and I lost my business at the same time, finances were a great cause of stress.  I had to find an income quickly.  The only job available to me at the time was stacking trays in the local bakery.  They had to be stacked in towers of 15 or 20 and it took ALL day to do this.  Yes, it was hard and hot work, (the baker’s ovens made the factory floor as hot as 30 degrees some days!), but it didn’t require a lot of Swedish, was close to my son’s nursery and it gave me a wage.  After years of financial challenges in my marriage, I was finally earning money just for me and that felt very empowering!

If you’d told me 10 years ago that I would become a full-time working single mum living in Sweden, I’d never have believed you.  But here I am doing just that!

After the bakery I worked in a local department store’s delicatessen (so much fun!) and then a year as an English/Music teacher at the village school (hugely challenging and growth-filled for me!)  Now I work three days a week as an English teacher at an international school in the local city and two days a week music teaching in my village school.

All of my jobs have enabled me to earn money to support me and my son.  They have given me a opportunity to be a part of something greater than myself and take my mind off the problems of my divorce.  The jobs have shown me how strong and resilient I really am.  If you’d told me 10 years ago that I would become a full-time working single mum living in Sweden, I’d never have believed you.  But here I am doing just that!  Yes, it can be hard some days but it is most definitely worth it.

Make friends

I can’t stress this enough.  You need friends.  You cannot do this alone.  Being a single parent is hard enough at the best of times but throw in living abroad away from friends and family and things just got a whole lot harder.  Make sure you have people in your life with whom you can be honest about your struggles.  

Keep your sense of humour

Watch Olive and Mabel videos, read funny books, call your funny friend.  A good belly laugh can up your well-being no end.

Play the long game

A bad day is so much easier to bear if you have something to look forward to and you know where you’re going in life.  Make plans and dream big!  Want to own your own home?  Start saving, visualise what that dream house looks like in detail.  What about your dream job?  Chances are, before your relationship to your child’s other parent broke down, you were using a lot of energy to ;keep it all together’.  You don’t need to do that anymore.  Now that energy can be used to plan your new awesome life.  What will it look like?  What will you look like? (Time for a new hairstyle?  Clothing style?)  How will you feel?  What do you want your family vibe to be?  For example, my ex was not very interested in sport and now I am enjoying being much more active.  This year I tried skiing for the first time on a school trip and loved it.  I have also purchased my first pair of ice skates and have been skating on a lake for the first time with my son.

Having an exciting plan that motivates YOU (yes, you!  Not your ex, not your child, not your parents but YOU) will keep you motivated on those inevitable low days.  The days when you’re behind on the housework, your kid is sick and your social calendar looks like a wasteland.  Play the long game.

In summary then, being a single parent is much like spotting an elk for the first time:  scary and a bit unpredictable.  But also, an opportunity to dig deep and find strength you never knew you had.  Remember me climbing one-handed to the top of the rocky outcrop with my son in the other hand?  Sometimes we don’t know the strength we possess until life forces us to use it.  You DO have it in you to start a new life abroad with your family.

You DO have what it takes.  You can do this!

Want to find out more about my expat single mum journey?  Head over to Instagram @annawithflair

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