Expat Mamas: Johanna Sargeant

Johanna Sargeant, who writes the blog Milk and Motherhood, moved with her husband Duncan from Australia to Switzerland in late 2010. Since then, they have become parents to two gorgeous boys, bought an apartment in a sweet Swiss village and Johanna is studying (in German!) to become a Certified Lactation Consultant.

All the joys and guilts of being an Aussie family in Switzerland, plus Johanna's completely relatable favorite thing about living abroad, straight ahead!

Why did you move to Switzerland?

We moved here because it was pretty. Truly, that is the reason! We were travelling, found ourselves gobsmacked by the majesty of this country, and haven't left! A few months later, my husband managed to get himself an incredible job at Google, and then our plan to go back to Australia to have our babies went by the wayside. We did spend the first few years constantly checking in on each other's happiness, making sure that we both still wanted to be here, but after a dream job, two babies and now having purchased an amazing home here, we are really very settled.

How often do you travel back home to visit? What about family coming to visit you?

We had planned to go back once every two years, but after 5.5 years here, it seems we have gone every year except one! We usually go for between four and six weeks, but this last time we went for only three weeks, which I feel was actually better with small children. My parents have come together twice, my mum has come alone three times (I think?!), and my sister once. Usually we have extended family from either my side or my husband's side coming to visit around twice a year.

Do you feel pressure from friends or family back home to move back?

I wouldn't say that I feel pressure, as such, but I definitely feel guilt. Moving here is one thing, but having children here is another thing altogether. I feel like I have robbed my parents (my mum especially) of the authentic grandparent experience, and though it can be spun again and again into a positive (Mum says she wants to throttle the next person that says, “What a great excuse for a holiday! And in Switzerland!”), it really isn't. My two boys are the only grandchildren for my parents, and I know that my mum has a very hard time dealing with this loss, though she desperately tries to hide it! I know, also, that my sister-in-law would love if we moved back, as we both have kids the same age, and we all get along brilliantly, but there is never any real pressure. Everyone seems to know that we love it here and acknowledge all the benefits to bringing up our children here.

How do you cope with the guilt? 

How do I cope with the guilt? I don't know... I don't, really, I suppose. I just feel guilty. Though my mum would really hate that... she says that she and my dad focused a lot of creating two independent and confident girls, and they succeeded a little too well – my sister (now pregnant!) lives in a remote town in the north of Australia, also a very very long way from my parents, and I live a whole planet away. After years of nagging, they finally got Skype after I had my first boy, and I try to Skype with her as much as I can, but with time differences and work/playgroup schedules, it can get difficult and complicated. She has a smart-phone now, though, and I am so thankful for Whatsapp, as we send each other photos, messages and videos multiple times a day, so I still feel like we are a vital part of each other's lives.

What are the benefits that everyone acknowledges of raising your children in Switzerland?

The main benefit that our family discusses to living here is the opportunity to raise our children bilingual, and potentially even multilingual. There exists such a cultural diversity in our lives here, both with the ability drive or train easily into Italy, France or Germany, and also with the vast range of cultures among our friends – Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, German, French, American, Brazillian, Spanish, etc etc etc. Now that my eldest has turned four, he says that he can speak four languages: English, German, Swiss German and Finnish. - Another benefit is that there are many aspects of Australian culture that I find very harsh – An obsession with appearance, the drinking and drug culture, the extremes of masculinity and femininity, an adoration of sporting heroes... These are things that have never sat so well with me, and now that I have two very sensitive little boys, I absolutely feel that being here is the right decision for us.

What's your schooling plan for your children?

Local school all the way. We want our kids to grow up feeling a firm sense of place and of belonging; true integration not only into Switzerland, but into our little village of Waedenswil, is a big part of that. Local school ensures local language, local friends, local sports teams and hobbies, and will also continue to build my own personal sense of belonging here.

What about English? Do you feel the need to do extra work or classes in their mother tongue?

I did realise recently that all their knowledge of English and English literature was now in my hands, and that is actually a wonderful feeling for me! I worked in Australia as a teacher of English (not as a second language, more as literature, media, cultural awareness and philosophy), but only for older children, and it is incredible to now be able to watch them actually learn this language from its roots. I do feel, therefore, the need to simply remain aware of this responsibility – so we read a lot of great quality books, we have fun playing with words and vocabulary building, but that is all so far, and I will take it on board myself as the need arises.

What's the hardest part about raising your children abroad? 

The unrelenting nature of it, and knowing that if we were doing this in Australia, I would get a break. For example... I was six weeks pregnant with my second child, my husband was away in Tokyo for three weeks, and both my son and I came down with rotavirus. The horror of this is inexplicable! And you know what? My mum would have been there in an instant with a surgical mask and gloves and dealt with everything. It is incredibly hard to not have somebody that can just look after the kids for a couple of hours while I go to the doctor, have a nap (!), a shower (!) or maybe even go to the hairdresser. Finding a babysitter is particularly hard when I suffer from anxiety and when my two children are both highly sensitive 'velcro kids'. My mum says that if we lived in Australia, she'd come over on Thursdays to play with the kids, do a load of laundry, make some dinner, and all the rest, while I go out and do whatever it is that I'd need or want. It's hard to know that I am choosing to not take her up on this option.

What's the hardest part for you personally - as a mother, or professionally, or other?

I feel as if I have lost a lot of my independence by being here, and as a fiercely stubborn and independent woman, that took a while to adjust to. My husband already spoke German, and I had to rely on him for almost everything when we came here, particularly as we were initially living in a very rural setting. After arriving in Zurich, I threw myself into my intensive German lessons, but his German will always be better than mine, especially now that he has the opportunity to study Swiss German once a week through his work. He is also the sole money-earner of the family, and has been for the entire time we've been here, which is again something that has taken quite a bit of adjustment. As a mother, it is very hard to be in a place where everything functions differently to my version of normal, and where I have to be the adult and step up and out of my comfort zones for the good of my children, when sometimes all I want to do is collapse into a heap of 'too hard'. I have struggled with depression and anxiety since having my beautiful two boys here, and sometimes all I crave is the simple and the familiar. Not having my family here means that I have had to learn (and am still having to learn) to ask for help and for understanding, which is so very hard for me.

Do you ever plan to go back to Australia?

Nope! We have always said that if one of us decides tomorrow that we can't do it anymore, we will go back. Both of us have to be okay. But to be honest, that freedom is not really there anymore, as the economy in Australia is pretty terrible right now, and we are in a very lucky financial situation here with my husband's job. As time went on, Switzerland felt more and more like home, and Australia felt more and more foreign each time we visited. Whenever we fly back into Zurich, I feel a lightness and a sense of belonging here. We have recently bought a beautiful home with a garden, fruit trees, close to the lake and in a village that we love, our eldest will begin kindergarten in August, I am working hard studying, volunteering and networking to eventually start a private practice here, and we have no plans of moving anywhere!

What's the best part of living abroad?

Well this is kind of strange, but it is being able to really be myself, as I am right now. Nobody here knows the me before. Nobody has any preconceived notions of who I am, everyone knows me and befriends me because I am who I am right now. Also, for all the difficulties it brings, I absolutely love the chance that I have been given to learn another language and to bring my children up bilingually. This is such a gift. Switzerland itself is such a gobsmackingly beautiful country, too, and to feel in awe of nature on such a regular occurrence is good for the soul!

Thank you so much, Johanna, for sharing with us your musings on the major life choice to raise your children abroad. Nothing is ever perfect, but you do such a good job of balancing and accepting the not so good with the wonderful!


  1. This is lovely! I've always wondered what it would be like to up and move abroad. Alas, the guilt of being away from family keeps us close to home. I always lived far away from family as a military child, and vowed my kids would go to the same school, live in the same area, mad be close to family. Now that I have kids, I do still often feel this need for a true sense of home, but that frequent moving definitely instilled a wanderlust in me!

    1. Oh, I know just what you're saying about guilt to be near family and the feeling that your kids should have a really stable childhood. We lived in three different countries by the time I was ten, and naturally I switched schools a lot. I love the idea of my kids not doing that...but, at the same time, I think it made me resilient, adaptable and intuitive in ways I really value. Tough call!


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