When you imagine your new life with your family in Nicaragua, what does it look like? More family harmony, more peace and adventure- more happiness? I remember envisioning all of these things before we left the States.
A parent’s dream to move to Nicaragua is often fueled by desires to create a different life for busy, maybe disconnected families who ponder what it would be like to slow down, grow closer together and possibly dedicate some freed-up hours to a meaningful volunteer experience.
To achieve that dream of a closer family life abroad will take some careful mental planning that starts before you get on the plane to Managua. A new reality depends upon a different approach, a slower way of living that requires some preparation and practice to get it right. Implementing real improvements can require that we as parents learn to redesign our way of interacting with each other and the critical scaling back of ambitious schedules.
It can be wonderful to imagine the letting go of the habit of layering one enterprising activity over another (work or leisure), but the actual practice of doing less may not be as intuitive for us adults as it often is for the kids. My son Aiden is a pro at carving out down time for himself (I confess that this gives me an anxiety which I have to own, my problem not his) because I still struggle even after all these years of living in Nicaragua to deliberately remember the very essential pauses in the day.
With that experience and my own personal challenges in mind, I humbly recommend that newly arriving families carefully consider how they lay out their first weeks in Nicaragua to a decidedly slower tempo with the needs of each family member in mind: to start as you wish to go forward engendering the kind of family life that makes all the changes and sacrifices of moving worthwhile.
So let’s take a closer look at the emotional mechanics of this move abroad and the first days of arrival from everyone’s perspective.
The way the children see it…
So much of how your child reacts to the move to Nicaragua will depend on their age, their sense of confidence in heading into the unknown, and the strength of their connections to their friends and home. If they know that they are returning back home with a set date in mind, it will be easier for most kids to accept an extended stay in Nicaragua. However, if this is a one-way ticket to a new life, it is normal for children to exhibit signs of anxiety and even resentment about the move (as is maybe the case with all moves).
For kids, so much of the making of these big life decisions is out of their control. Your children may end up having a fantastic experience in Nicaragua that serves them well in terms of education and enrichment well into their adult lives. But if you ask them if they really want to leave everything behind to go get that experience, they probably would easily decline the opportunity given the choice.
So as parents, we need to take ownership of our decision to turn everyone’s life upside down and really focus on how to make this move work for our kids who will need their parents more than ever to transition well into a foreign space. They are depending on us to create a sense of security and unity regarding this adventure in a new land. They need us to stay positive even during the dreadful stress of packing up a home and leaving it and also during those first hours, days and weeks on the ground in Nicaragua regardless of how nervous, annoyed or dislocated you may feel yourself.
Getting the first impressions right.
Knowing very well myself, how tired your family will be when you arrive to Nicaragua after the packing, the closing down and the emotions of the goodbyes to folks back home, I highly recommend that you view your first week, if not first three weeks, as a family vacation. There is always the temptation to jump into things that might make you feel like you are making progress in your new location (house hunting can be thrilling for adults but not at all satisfying for children), so keep an eye on your family’s health, happiness and well-being first. Children will need a good dosage of support, attention, and opportunities to laugh and play to let go of their own anxieties and stress.
Give your kids the time to fall in love with Nicaragua, to relax and alleviate their fears in the security of your company. Handpick carefully, those first destinations, experiences and memories to start your journey with a wealth of positive associations to recall when inevitable friction occurs. Mindfully choreographing these first weeks in Nicaragua through children’s eyes is an investment in the successful outcome of your entire stay. Trust me, when the children are happy everything else about the move will flow more smoothly.
How to plan those first few weeks.
1. Travel locally. In getting the first weeks right in Granada, my advice is to keep things really simple. It may be tempting to get out to see the sites far and away before school and work begin, but you will have time to do that going forward. Rather, try to focus on bite-sized travel successes that return you to your new hub each night building continuity and a familiar routine to reassure anxious kids.
Aim for small day trips from Granada and try to avoid going on tourist excursions more than once a day, especially in high heat. I have been guilty of over-touring with my son and then it becomes obvious that it is not entertaining for Aiden to do too much in one day. It is best to choose one part of the day to sight see and then use your free hours to eat, play, exercise and rest (by the way the playing part is critical; even if it is just 20 minutes of one-on-one time, please make sure that this connecting time is on the schedule, too).
In a final note, avoid Managua at all costs in the beginning even if you have forgotten something that seems important; there is never a relaxing moment in the capital except perhaps in the enclave of the right hotel. Probably the worst impression you can give your kids of Nicaragua is mom and dad circling around loud, crowded streets feeling lost and out of their element, maybe even catching the eye of a traffic cop with a quota to fill. Not fun!
2. Your first home in Granada can have an enormous impact on launching the journey in the right direction. This home doesn’t have to be the same one that you use going forward. It can be just the healthy retreat home that fosters goodwill towards the rest of the stay. If you can splurge in this area the first month and get a nice home with a pool and maybe even a yard, it is worth the pleasure and security that it gives to do so.
All kids love to have a house with a pool but your older kids in particular will notice the well-presented home and really do appreciate the extra expense. Inversely, if you try to sell your older kids (8 years +) on a cheap dig know that they may point out the flaws right away- they can’t help it and again there may be some anxiety and resentment about the move there.
When Aiden was six years old, I could take him out to stay with my Peace Corps host family in the countryside and he didn’t pick up on any signs of rural poverty at all. When we returned when he was 8 years old, he was much more sensitive to all the sites, sounds and smells that you wouldn’t find in Charlotte, North Carolina.
3. Eating quality familiar food matters. All kids, especially small kids can be picky and with low blood sugar can go sideways on you. Prepare for these avoidable events. Hit La Colonia supermarket on Calle La Inmaculada early on to grab some emergency provisions to stock your fridge and your day bag. Take a taxi there (10 cordoba per passenger) and load up on kid-friendly packable snacks, fruits and breakfast foods (it is not a bad idea to ask your real estate agency to do a mini-shop for you for these items to await your arrival).
For your first few meals, there are great restaurants in Granada but be careful about delaying until you are starving (if you happen to have mistimed a meal and are now ravenous, head to Kathy’s Waffle House across from Convento San Francisco until 2.00 pm where you can find good old American breakfasts that don’t dawdle coming out of the kitchen, or after 12:00 pm go to Pita Pita on Calle La Libertad where the food is fast and flawless and even the pizza comes out quickly.
The way the parents see it…
Moving to Nicaragua is a choice! We as parents choose to do the move to enrich our family experience and emerge from the journey as a stronger team that knows each other well. We have been dreaming of this moment maybe for years and now we are finally here and oh my God the weight of the world and our kid’s happiness is on our shoulders! And they are complaining about everything and will someone turn on the air conditioning and turn off that seriously irritating mariachi next door? And wait! Do we have to be together all the time? Will I ever be alone again for just 5 minutes? Just kidding… kind of.
My point is, we deal with a lot. We each have our individual preferences, sense of fatigue, new ways of interacting and carving out privacy and down time, and we are trying our best to make it all turn out great for others, as well.
So, we matter, too. If we do not take care of ourselves, there will be increasingly less reserves to keep all this heavy lifting going. You as mom or dad, or you as a husband or wife may not be accustomed to all this togetherness that you have been seeking. And particularly if you recognize yourself as an introvert and only truly recharge when you are alone, you are going to have to ask for what you need and make sure you get it to stay well.
There are gyms to join or yoga and fitness classes around Granada. Maybe you want to build fitness into your routine for some well-deserved ‘me’ time. Maybe you need to ask your spouse to take the kids out for smoothies and not to come back for a good hour! And then reciprocate! Chances are, your significant other is feeling the need to have some time away, too.
This vacation like others doesn’t last forever
Moving forward there will be more scheduled activities again and play-dates to support your children’s social life and you will have to figure out once again, how much is too much activity and commitment? It is just as easy to become over-committed in Nicaragua and even as stressed as we were back home by the same methods we did it there. It is really amazing how we bring our culture with us. So if you are like me and tend to over-schedule your time, think about it now how you might change that habit with a new start in a new place.
Being a better parent in Nicaragua is a conscious effort to spend time with our kids and really connect with them while we are all in this stage of our lives together.
Take a cue from the Nicaraguans you will see outside their homes each evening, gently rocking in a chair, shooting the breeze with their loved ones. They wouldn’t miss a night if they didn’t have to. It’s a scheduled connection they have built into their lives.
Maybe our connection is at the dinner table or over a Pokémon battle or Lego creation. Maybe it is the rituals of reading aloud every night, building a project, walking the dog or playing sports together. Whatever our chosen methods are, that they exist and we practice them, makes us better moms and dad to our kids. That we have greater opportunity to do them here in Nicaragua might even make us more connected parents, if we use this precious time well while we have it. And will that make us better parents in Nicaragua?
They’re worth a try.