Expat Mamas: Doris Pfaffinger

Doris Pfaffinger is a Lecturer in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies at Tufts University. She and her husband, Christian, both grew up in Bavaria and met for the first time in Regensburg, Germany, where they both went to study. During their separate adventures pursuing their doctorates in Oregon and Austria respectively, with a post-doc for Christian in Brazil, they came together via the power of the Internet. I remember their courtship well because at the time, J was taking classes from Doris and she and I had become friends in the process. Doris and Christian communicated via Skype and wrote emails and even sent each other actual letters, which I thought was the absolute sweetest. We met him for the first time when we went to Eugene for Doris's graduation from her Ph.D. program in 2008. Shortly afterward, when he accepted a position at Harvard, she applied at Tufts. And the rest is history. 

All the details on how Doris and Christian are living the American Dream in Boston, straight ahead!

What's the main reason you're living abroad? 

Fate?! (If there is such a thing.) I came to the US 15 years ago to pursue my MA degree while teaching German. Now, Ph.D. degree, husband, house, and two children later, and I am still here.

How often and for how long do you travel back to Germany to visit? 

On average, once a year for about 2 weeks; starting next year though we are planning to spend the summer in Germany/Europe. Our dilemma is that both sets of grandparents live in Germany and only within 30 miles of each other – as soon as we arrive at the airport the battle begins: who gets to pick us up? Where do we spend how many nights? Etc, etc... It’s stressful, not just for us, but also for the kids. For two solid weeks they are the center of attention, with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and nosy neighbors descending upon them with gifts, questions and whatnot. Quite overwhelming for a 5 and a 3 year old.

What about family coming to visit you? 

Ha, LOVE this question! My parents visited me once in my first 10 years here – since the grandchildren have been born, they come twice a year for about one week or two!

Have you got plans in place like a will and where your children would go in the worst case scenario? 

We don’t have a written will. Christian and I both talked about what we would want the other one to do should either one of us die. For the worst case scenario situation: My brother is the godfather for both our children and they would live with him and his family in Germany as long as they are young, or he would make the best decision for them for (or with) them.

Do you keep things in storage back home? Do you have a home there? How does that work? 

My room in my parents house still looks like I left it back in 2000. On a recent visit home, I did go through all my drawers and sorted through books and belongings because my parents want to re-appropriate the room. I have maybe a total of 3 boxes with sentimental memorabilia, but that’s it. I don’t hold on to many items from the past. Even from my years in the US, I haven’t accumulated much.

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

Oh, most definitely cultural differences. I am constantly deliberating my choices...Is it ok for my kids to pee in public? Can my kids still take a bath together? Can my daughter change into her swimgear at the beach or does she need to go to the dressing room? In Germany, I would not second guess myself at all; here the standard is quite different. Should I feed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and read “Little House on the Prairie” so Lotte & Emil can talk to their friends about their culinary and literary experiences, or is it okay to stick to German classics? Germans in general trust their children more and let them be more independent than many families here – I often get into trouble or questioned for my decisions. For example, I let me kids play in the front yard, while I am in the house, which I know some neighbors frown upon.

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

Finding Work-Life balance for sure! I teach at the College Level and when the semester is in session, I feel spread completely thin. I either have patience for my students or my family – the mood can be lousy in these weeks and I have contemplated quitting my job many times so that I can be patiently present for my children more.

Do you think work-life balance would be easier in Germany? How so?

This is tricky to answer. Just a few years ago I would have said “for sure” now I’d argue “it depends” where you are in Germany and what your job is. If you are close to family and have a traditional 8-5 job, then it’s easier for sure. But that would possibly hold true here as well. If you live away from family and aim to be successful balancing work and private life, it can be just as challenging. What is true for sure though is that Germans do vacations better, and that they take days off more seriously. Traveling in general is more affordable and there are better family options. It would possibly be easier, because the welfare system allows you to live a more low stress, carefree life. It’s no secret that Europe in general has better parental leave policies, and although we do pay higher taxes on average we see the benefits stemming from it: free preschools, free education, affordable health insurance, etc.

What's your schooling plan for your children? 

Oh boy – our daughter is about to start Kindergarten and we will give public schools a try. Luckily schools in MA have a good reputation and we live in a suburb with well-ranked schools so we’ll go the public route for now.

Why "Oh boy!" about the schooling choice?!

“Oh boy” because so much thought (and money) has gone into this topic already. Also, because we moved to a suburb, which is known for its good schools, with the intention of sending our children to public school. However, I would have kept Lotte at our current daycare for another year. Both, her and Emil are at the most fantastic home daycare, which is attended by 10 kids aging from years 1-5 (though Emil started at only 12 weeks) – the children make the curriculum, so whatever “theme” the kids pick, the teachers go with it. They also spend at least 2 hours outside everyday, even in the deepest New England winter. Oh boy, because I am worried about Kindergarten - I profoundly disagree with kids having to fill out worksheets and completing busy work in their kindergarten year instead of playing and exploring outside. There are however 15 kids in our immediate neighborhood who will start Kindergarten this fall, so we decided to give it a try. I am very anxious though and would much rather have her at a school with smaller classes, more free play and space for creative thought. I could go on forever...

Do you anticipate augmenting that plan at all - with German or other? 

We are a mono-lingual household and both our children speak German better than English, at least at the moment. Lotte is attending a German Saturday School, because we’d like her to learn to read and write and eventually Emil will go there as well. It’s a big commitment and we are not thrilled about giving up a weekend morning, especially since we don’t have much time together during the week. We could send both kids to a German School, but the student turn over is high, and we’d like our children to feel rooted in the community we live in. That’s why they will attend the neighborhood school.

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

Not anymore. Luckily, these questions have stopped, although we know that both our parents cling to the hope that we will move back one day.
And, do you ever plan to go back? 

This is a tricky question. If ‘back’ means to the area in Germany where we grew up, then the answer is no. Other than our parents and siblings, we don’t have strong ties to that area anymore. We do, however, sometimes fantasize about living in another country, most likely in Europe. Denmark and Sweden are personal favorites, but who knows – currently we don’t have a timeline in place.

What's the best part about living abroad? 

You are asking loaded questions!! I feel like I am being judged less, and I don’t have to live up to expectations other than my own. I love meeting new people, and here in the Boston area I have been blessed to meet wonderful smart people from diverse backgrounds who I am constantly learning from.

Do you have any regrets about living abroad? 

No. I am a better person because I live abroad. I do lament the fact that my children grow up without grandparents close by and that they miss out on family holiday and birthday gatherings. A sense of family, so to say. But other than that, I am living a dream!

Thank you so much for sharing your life with us, Doris! If you want to read more about other Expat Mamas, check out Kate and Johanna's interviews, too. Thank you so much for reading!


  1. I love this and I don't want to preach or patronise but please please make a written will or your assets can be tangled up in red tape while your kids need them. Having seen the problems that can ensue when the worst happens (kids moved hundreds of miles from one set of grandparents and not allowed to see them) my husband and I have concrete written directions that stipulate everything for our daughter if something happened to us. You can't take a chance on your children's future even if you are tragically absent from it. Write it, get neighbours to witness it and it's done and you never have to think about it again.

  2. Hi Lucy, thanks for your response. I totally agree with you - C and I are actually working on drafting our will. Prompted by Lindsey's question!


Post a Comment