Moving Abroad: Sheona Gillespie, Germany

For the third interview in our Moving Abroad series, Johanna Derry asks Sheona Gillespie, originally from the UK, how she’s found it raising two teenage girls in Germany, with her husband Michael…

In a globalised world, the chance to bring up your family in a foreign country is no longer restricted to those who work in the military or industrial high-flyers. Flexible working and greater freedom to travel means some families are choosing to settle with their families abroad.

The Early Hour has been asking parents who’ve done or are doing this to share their experiences. Here Sheona Gillespie, 52, tells us about how she and her husband Michael fared raising their two teenage daughters – Saskia, 19, and Eveline, 18 – in Germany.

What anxieties (if any) did you have about raising your children in another country?
I’ve lived in Germany, albeit as part of a British military family, for most of my life, so I wasn’t anxious really. We didn’t have children until we’d been married for a long time and so were well established here with work. Germany isn’t that different to the UK, and thanks to the EU we didn’t have any worries that we’d suddenly have to move.

Are there any obvious cultural differences when it comes to parenting or attitudes towards children?
Germans really like to focus on children and are quite traditional when it comes to parenting. Unfortunately that mostly means mothers staying home for the early years and then going part time. German school hours are mornings only, until children are about 14.

Parenting in general is pretty much the same as the UK but there is a definite trend towards anti-authoritarian parenting

Kindergarten started when my children were four – it’s three now. Unlike in the UK, there’s no reading, writing or arithmetic, it’s all about socialisation and playing, and parents are very involved. I’d gone back to work and was considered a rarity because I worked full time, but my husband took 18 months parental leave and did some of the things at Kindergarten with them, which was great fun.

Parenting in general is pretty much the same as the UK but there is a definite trend towards anti-authoritarian parenting. So instead of ‘Stop doing that’ you’re much more likely to hear ‘I don’t like it when you do that’.

 

I’ve also found, but it could be because I live in a small village, that children are allowed a lot more freedom. They ride their bikes to school, at first with their parents, and then together with their friends, go alone to the playpark, and run over to the bakery to fetch things, without an adult hovering around a lot.

How different is the school system and were you tempted to send your children to an international or British school?
I didn’t go through the German school system, and nor did my husband so that was a leap in the dark. For primary school we could have sent our girls to a British Military school but it was quite expensive and I didn’t see the point because they wouldn’t have learned German to a high enough standard to transfer to a German secondary afterwards.

When they go to junior school it’s a big thing. The parents spend weeks making a huge cardboard cone, decorating it and then filling it with sweets and pencils and things that they need for school

At the time, the British bases were closing down and I worried that they wouldn’t be able to finish secondary education by that method, even if I could have afforded it. Also, although British qualifications are recognised here, going to uni is really difficult if you don’t have the German school leaving certificate. We also felt that, since we’re not planning on living in the UK again, it would be better all round if the girls went to the local school. Aside from anything else, it really does help with integration and that was the deciding factor.

Have you made any cultural faux pas with your children?
When they go to junior school it’s a big thing. The parents spend weeks making a huge cardboard cone, decorating it and then filling it with sweets and pencils and things that they need for school. They take them on the first day and have their first official school photo with it.

I hadn’t appreciated quite what a massive family occasion it would be. There was a church service, then the children went to meet their teacher while the parents had coffee and cake. And then most families go out for lunch at a restaurant. If you know any Germans ask to see their first school photo.

How much German culture have you adopted into your own family life and how much have you kept a sense of ‘Britishness’?
Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve here, but we restricted it to one small present and a more traditionally British present-fest on the 25th. We had turkey a few times but the girls weren’t that keen.

In the run-up to Lent, Germans celebrate Karneval, which involves dressing up for parades. We get stuck into designing and making costumes every year, but we also made sure we kept up Pancake Day and eating hot cross buns, neither of which are a thing in Germany.

In fact we’ve kept our ‘Britishness’ mostly through food. We eat sandwiches for a start, as well as marmite, bacon, baked beans and cheddar. We usually buy our books in English unless they were written in German, and try to watch films in English.

Michael and I support our local German team quite fervently, but for international football tournaments we hang up an England flag (and in the Euros a Northern Irish and a Welsh flag too). Our daughters are particularly keen to emphasise that they are British-English, and we only support Germany when they’re not playing a home nation.

What have been the benefits of raising your children in Germany? And what have been the challenges?
We’re lucky to be on mainland Europe, within 20 miles of the Netherlands and about 30 from Belgium. We’ve driven to Croatia, Switzerland and Italy, and I’m not sure we’d have been to so many countries if we were on the other side of The Channel.

The biggest challenge has been keeping up with the family, who are all in the UK. Social media makes it a lot easier, and although we do write, visit and keep in contact, it isn’t anywhere near enough. I worry that, especially when we’re gone, they’ll be left here with no family except any husbands/ wives/ partners/ children of their own.

Still, I think the loss of family is outweighed by the openness to European culture we’ve gained. I think being bilingual may help if they decide to work in the UK.