An Intensely Rewarding Year Abroad with Rachael Mogan – McIntosh
This is Impressive on its ninth week. Here, Doctor Kimberley gets to chat with Rachael Mogan-McIntosh, a mother of three, as the latter shares her family’s story of spending a year full of adventures in the south of France.
Listen up as we explore:
- What to expect if you’re considering an international school transition
- The challenges children may encounter and how to help them cope at school
- What are the benefits of moving your family outside of their comfort zone
Enjoy the Episode
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Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00:08
Hello. I'm Dr. Kimberley O'Brien, a child psychologist, entrepreneur, and mum with a passion for problem-solving and family adventures. Join me each week for practical tips and on-air consultations with the smartest, kindest parents and their incredible kids. Find answers faster, do things differently, and take your family further. This is Impressive.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00:34
This is episode nine of Impressive. I'm your host, Kimberley O'Brien. Thank you for joining us. Have you ever thought about moving overseas for a year with your family? Have you thought about the cultural experience, the intellectual stimulation, the new friends that you'd make, the challenges you'd face, and whether that would be worth all the effort? Well, this week, we speak to Rachael Mogan McIntosh, who is an author. She has a blog, mogantosh.com, which is worth definitely checking out. She's a very established journalist here in Australia and she's also a comedian. She's hilarious. When you read some of those journal articles, you'll know what I'm talking about. Now today, Rach is going to join us to talk about transitioning the family from the comfort of a seaside town to the challenges of very colourful French medieval kind of village, and how her three children age 12, 10, and seven adjusted and also overcame some pretty big challenges.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 01:35
Then we hear about coming back together as a family and what that was like coming home. So without further ado, please welcome, Rachael Mogan McIntosh. Rach, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family and your most recent adventure?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 01:51
Sure. Well, yeah, my name's Rachael and I live in Wollongong just south of Sydney with my husband, Keith, and our three kids who are aged 12, 10, and seven. We got back a few months ago from spending a year in the south of France and we've just been spending the last couple of months readjusting to being home in Australia and starting to process what the experience was all about really.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:20
And what have you come up with? Have you had any epiphanies? Are you so happy to be back? Where are you up to?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 02:25
We are really happy to be back. Luckily, where we live is beautiful and very cruisy. We have great friends here and so the kids are really happy to be home.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:36
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 02:37
They had a great time, but it was pretty hard for them and they are very appreciative of their friends at school and the ease of life at school in Australia. I definitely have a heightened appreciation for a lot of the stuff at home, but it all feels a little bit like a weird dream to be honest.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:57
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:59
Do you want to focus a little bit on life at school? So how is that? I'm thinking for listeners that are imagining the dream of traveling for a year and maybe settling into another school and a whole new community, learning lots of things, being out of your comfort zone. How is that for you guys?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 03:15
We were definitely out of our comfort zone. It was pretty intense in a lot of ways. The children didn't speak any French before we left, and my husband, Keith, his French is pretty good because he spent a year in Paris when he was a kid, which is where the whole idea had been something that we discussed doing. So it was this possibility for us to think, well, we both work from home, the kids were all in primary school, the possibilities there for us to just move the whole catastrophe geographically from one location to another, and then it was just a matter of the logistics. The logistics of doing it were really intense. I definitely had a lot of friends who said that would've knocked them out at the beginning because the paperwork, the admin, the process was really bureaucratic and crazy-making.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 04:13
Dealing with the visas and things like that for a year, dealing with enrolling the children in school from another country and renting a house and buying a car and all that stuff, that was really an experience, but we just tried to treat it all as comedy. Mostly, it was comedy. So then the children started school at the beginning of the European school year in 2017, which was the very start of September. They just got thrown in the deep end really. We were living in a small town in the south of France, sort of halfway between Montpellier and Nîmes, which are quite big cities. But the town that we were living was just a very small, medieval, cobblestoned village, which is just as you might picture in your fairytale fantasies. It was totally different from where we live here in Wollongong. It was quite an economically depressed place and a really culturally diverse place. The school was very small, which we had wanted a small school.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 05:12
The kids went to school with a real range of kids from different backgrounds. Obviously, almost nobody spoke English. There was a couple of the teachers that spoke English, but there was no children in fact. There was one kid whose English was okay, but almost none of the kids at school spoke any English. So yeah, then they had a year where they had to sink or swim.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 05:34
And tell us about that part, letting the kids go into this new zone. How did you feel about it and then how did they adjust? What did they do? Were you observing from a distance or did you just go home and hope for the best?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 05:48
Well, one of the real differences between school in France and school here in Australia was that the gates at French school, they are shut and locked and parents just don't venture behind them unless you have a very specific reason to be there. Whereas here, at our school anyway in Wollongong, the parents are constantly wandering in and out. There's a lot of parents helping in the classroom. You know the kids pretty well. You know the teachers well. There's a lot of interaction, especially when the kids are small. Like primary schoolers, there's a lot of walking them in and out to the classrooms. Whereas in France, you leave them at that gate and behind that gate, it's none of your business what happens. In a lot of ways, Keith and I came to understand it as more like school a generation ago like when we were at school.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 06:32
The teachers are really strict. They really yell at the kids. The expectation of how the kids behave in the classroom, stuff like that is very high, but their expectation of the kind of emotional ways that the children might cope or the ways that they might relate to each other really, in our experience, was just not something that was of much value. The kids would be strikingly mature often in the way that they related to other adults and very charming in those ways, but the ways that they understood relating to each other in terms of the way they spoke to each other and bullying and all of that kind of stuff was quite different to how it is here. Here, I almost feel like we have very low expectations of what we expect children to be able to handle. They shouldn't be bored and they shouldn't have to sit at a table and speak politely to adults. Our children don't have to do that stuff because they don't, but in France, the opposite.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 07:37
They expect a lot of children in these ways, their interaction in the adult world. But the expectation that we have of children in terms of how your words might affect another person and how you relate to your friends emotionally and what's going on for somebody else behind the scenes, these kind of conversations were not something that was part of our experience. So that was another layout in which the children had to adjust to a very different cultural atmosphere as well as the language difference, of course.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 08:16
We really asked a lot of the children and it was very painful for Keith and I to look at what have we done. Have we asked too much? Is this too tough?
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 08:33
Rachel Moran-McIntosh: 08:33
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 08:33
I'm thinking now in Australia, if you weren't so happy with the way things were going in the playground or even in the classroom, we always encourage parent-teacher communication. Did you step forward and do that in France or were you feeling like this is part of the cultural experience?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 08:52
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 08:52
What did you do?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 08:53
No, we did to some degree and especially when one of the kids was really getting bullied, but in that very complicated frenemy sort of way, like friend one day and then being really mean the next day, that very complicated stuff. Where here at home, in my experience of the school, they're very similar size as well, you probably would be dealing with the other parent yourself as well as trying to navigate your way through. You're helping to facilitate the resolving of that issue. Whereas in France, it was supporting her at home and just being like, "Well, off you go into... You really got to sort this out yourself," which she did. I think it was quite profoundly good for her in these ways of learning how to manage difficult situations and resilience type stuff. But there was a level to which you could talk to the teachers and you would try and resolve this stuff, but mostly, it just all gets a bit lord of the flies in the playground anywhere.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 09:57
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 09:57
You can't. There's not a lot you can do.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 10:03
Hey, I'm just popping in to see if you've heard about the Best of Friends program. If you haven't, we offer it for school holidays and term-long programs. That's one hour per week over 10 weeks or a two-hour school holiday program if you'd like a taster. The Best of Friends program is for children aged seven to eleven years. We have between three and six kids per group in the clinic setting, but it's also adaptable for the classroom setting. It's based around an interactive craft book and five stories about making and keeping friends. If you'd like to find out more, go to quirkykid.com.au and look into programs. That's quirkykid.com.au.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 10:50
Yeah, that was really quite tough stuff as a parent because we have to do the school run four times a day because they would come home for two hours at lunch. We would take the three kids to school every morning. Usually, somebody would be in tears because they didn't want to go and swap off between us which kid was most needing the pep talk. Then we'd get them behind the gate and then we'd come pick them up again at lunch and we'd take them home for two hours and we'd repair them emotionally and try and sort everybody out to go back again in the afternoon and talk to whoever was in tears. It really took over the rhythm of life, that schedule of managing the kids' school life.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 11:34
Kind of thinking, well, was it worth it? Do you feel like after all that, I'm sure it brought your family together and then taught the kids resilience
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 11:42
Look, it was very worth it in that sense of a family, of that kind of intensive bonding and memory-making that you have of being a gang together in this weird world that you are trying to make sense of and figure out. We had a great experience in that way. There were times definitely halfway through or three quarters of the way through even where I was really questioning whether it was worth the pain for the children of going to school, but then things really did turn around and they came through. There's no visible scars,-
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 12:19
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 12:20
... but they came through and the girls particularly. They have a second language. Their French is lovely. They really had to challenge themselves to find ways to manage some difficult situations and they did that. They learned a lot of skills I think in just doing that that will play out in some unknown way in-
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 12:45
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 12:46
... adolescence or whatever. They'll definitely remember it as a good time.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 12:52
So good. There were more upsides in the end than the... After the adjustment, it was just all systems go. Then tell me about coming back and saying goodbye. Was that then hard to pull away from the world that you'd created?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 13:07
Look, yeah. It was very intense because I think partly because in order to try and make that year and that process for the kids be as positive and healthy as possible, it felt really important to me and Keith to put those roots down and to make those connections and to help the kids to find friends and to nurture those friendships. Also, we just connected with some beautiful families at the school who really opened their hearts to us and looked after us. Then I was studying French as well at this beautiful community migrant volunteer-run organisation. I made a lot of really close friends there. Because it was a lot of hard, emotional work that year that our roots to the place felt very strong. By the time we got to the end of that year, we just had a lot of really meaningful relationships. Because most of the people that we were friends with and that we knew, they didn't have any money and Australia's just the absolute other side of the world. You are just not going to see each other.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 14:19
And we've got three kids, so that idea of being able to pop over to Europe again is just crazy. It's not something that is reasonable for us to think about doing for another, at minimum, five years or something if that. So yeah, you really are saying a pretty permanent goodbye. The winding up and leaving, and of course, it was also just really exhaustingly busy to pack up a whole house again and do all that stuff while you're still running a normal life with three small children and we are both working. So yeah, it was pretty tiring, but-
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 15:01
Intense, I'm thinking emotionally and then
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 15:03
Yeah, it was. Yeah, it was.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 15:04
... socially, there's so many beautiful aspects of putting so much effort in and then getting so much in return. Did you feel like you had some epiphanies? Were you like, "This is what I've learned from my year abroad"? What were your breakthrough, takeaway points?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 15:19
Oh, gosh. I don't know. I think that one of the things that we really wanted for the children was just to broaden their horizons. Even though there were times when that schoolyard insomnia was really rough and there were violent things that happened, not to our children, but there were violent things that happened in the town and that happened around us and things that happened in relationships that are just not something that they had ever encountered before in their very safe, very white, very middle class beach town that we live in. That was something that I want for the kids. I wanted them to have this picture of the world that was a little bigger and a little less entitled and safe than their whole childhood has been while still holding them in their safe family.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 16:26
I think that really did happen. What them having that experience in a year of their childhood will mean, I think, is just going to be really interesting to watch, because I don't know that it's going to mean something different to each of them because they each had a totally different experience. That's going to be something, I think, that they will tell me about when they're adults, that this is how I then changed or then thought about things as I got older.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 17:00
It's their story to tell.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 17:04
I'm thinking of if you were standing in the shoes of one of your children, can you think of one example of one event that might stand out and then explain that in detail maybe from a child's point of view so we can picture it and imagine what that might be like? Describe it as a wake up call, but I'm thinking, wow, what happened? What would I be seeing and feeling as a young person in a new space like that? It sounds super diverse and different, but I just wanted to know exactly what they would be seeing maybe for one example.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 17:34
Well, I don't know. I guess in terms of trying to paint a picture that would describe what the different world that the children inhabited in would maybe be. Just that walk to school that we took four times a day where we would walk down the middle of the town through this little cobblestoned medieval town where it was just full of little flats with lots of people living in them. And every day, we just became very close to the people that ran the little shops and all the neighbors because we were just constantly doing that loop. So everybody, you just are very accepted as being one of the residents, one of the townspeople. Then of course, we really stood out because most people hadn't really met any Australians before, so yeah, there was that. There's quite a lot of gypsies in the town and there was quite a lot of kids that didn't go to school from some of those families.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 18:29
There was the drug house that we'd walk past every day where it took us quite a few months to work out why everybody was always hanging around outside this one particular kind of stone stairwell where everybody was and who the guys were that always hung around outside the back, the guy in the bookshop and then-
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 18:52
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 18:53
... yeah, Liliana, the old burlesque dancer that ran the junk shop that loved the children, and things and stuff like that. She would always love to see us. Then of course, every person that you meet, you have to kiss them three times. Every part of that walk was novel. Every sound, every smell, every thing that you see was this polar opposite on the other side of the world to their normal life in this little surfy village that they live in. But to them, it was just completely normal because a year is a long time. They would ride their scooters down and often, Georgie would be riding on the back of our little neighbour, Swan, his bike. He would just tinker down and they'd swing around all the old ladies with their market baskets and they knew all the shortcuts to cut through the alleyways to get everywhere. That crazy world is just buried somewhere in their psyche as this alternative universe that they inhabited for a while and is now gone.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:08
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 20:09
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:10
So many different characters and such. It feels like live theatre. You're almost walking through a movie set-
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 20:16
Yeah, that's how it feels.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:18
... eyes popping out of the sockets and then all of a sudden, the kids just settle in and they're on their scooters and it's like any other day in a different setting. It is quite surreal, isn't it? You process all that.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 20:28
Totally. Then just to think that through that whole process of every day, we were all having to speak French. We were having to speak this other language all day long to varying degrees of good and bad and especially towards the end the girls were just fluent. So just cruising through this world at this weird, magical, backwards land, it now seems, because now of course, we don't speak any French ever. Every once in a while, something will come up and we'll sort of, "Oh, what's that word?" or whatever and we remember. Oh, yeah, this will be stuffed in the back of our mind or something.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 21:02
Yeah, somewhere, stored there in your memory. I'm sure it'll be of use later and just imagining the girls traveling back to France and it all coming back to them at some point.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 21:15
Yeah, that's what I hope. I hope it's some gift to them and that at some point in their future and in their adult lives, they'll cash it in and they'll be like, "Okay, now I'll make use of this."
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 21:29
Did that happen to Keith, your partner? You said that he'd been when he was a child and now going back as an adult, did he have this, I don't know, a different perspective on things or this is going to be worth-
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 21:41
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 21:41
... the effort? Yeah. Tell me about that.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 21:43
Well, I think that was always part of the conversations that we would have about our plans, was that his memories of it were really just that it was a profound year for him. It was really difficult and it was really transformative as well. Then he did go on to study more French.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 22:05
Was that when he was a child, it was really profound, like that was-
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 22:13
Yeah, he was nine. He was the same age as my son. Then he went on to study whatever and then he did go on to travel and live in France again on and off at different times, but mainly, his ability to speak the language came from that year.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 22:30
Then as an adult now living there for a year with his children, were there more memories flooding from when he was a child or was it more caution? How did he tackle that as a parent?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 22:42
I think that there would've been a greater degree of understanding of what it was like for his parents then being in the other position, but it was just a very jam-packed year in that sense for Keith and I. There was just a lot of heightened managing of everything, every aspect of life, including the children's emotional health and everything and always some level of anxiety for me around what if something goes wrong or something happens on my job. I always felt like I was just skating on keeping all my balls in the air. Luckily, nothing ever did. Nobody ever did get really sick or had a car accident or any of those things, but there was always that slight fear for me about it's all fine day to day, but if the shit really hits the fan, I'm in trouble.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 23:38
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 23:39
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 23:40
So has there been a massive sense of relief coming home now? Do you feel like you're just going to lay back? What's the shift been like? You said the kids are happy to connect with their friends.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 23:50
Yeah, the kids are very happy to be back and at school. I'm really happy to be back now too. I'm feeling more like I have my feet on the ground. I really struggled for a couple of months. I found that adjustment to being home much harder than I would have expected. One of the main reasons was because we were just walking everywhere in France and I would be in the car a couple of times a week to do the supermarket, really, and that was really it. Other than that, it was just walking around and doing all that stuff. It was this sort of shared... And even though we still had this kind of division of labor where I did all the cooking and ran a lot of the house stuff and things like that because that wasn't really different, it was just a different sense of it being a shared system.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 22:43
When I came home and I had this shock of being back in mum's taxi, just running the kids. And of course because in France, we had no family and we had no friends really. We had friends. We made beautiful friends in France, but you could always be unavailable to people.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 25:00
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 25:01
Didn't have responsibilities of family and friends like you do at home. So that was really relaxing.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 25:10
Yeah. It's like commitments.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 25:11
Yeah, you do. Of course, there's no extracurricular stuff for the kids. Any play dates happened at our house because most of the time, I just didn't know who was all a bit wild and wooly. A lot of the other families and a lot of the other houses and the kids just couldn't speak the language well enough to be that comfortable about them going and playing a lot at other people's houses. So kids would come and play at our place or it would just be us. So coming back home and it was like, that's right, I'm in the car all the time running everybody around, running this really full-on mental load schedule of life. I'm sort of readjusted now to how to do that in a way that doesn't drive me nuts, but it was a shock, yeah.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 26:00
Good job. It pulls out the things that are not your preference, thinking, how can I juggle it so I don't have to drive so much, maybe less after-school activities?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 26:09
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 26:11
You have to start recalibrating how it is that you live happily and what's the most functional kind of system and then do that. When we first came home, it was all that mum thing where you just are like, okay, just in service to all the other members of the family and making sure that everybody else settles back in and is okay. Then you get to some point where you're like, what about me? What is this? Then I had to go, okay, no. I need to carve out time for my writing and my own stuff. So it's all starting to feel much more settled now.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 26:54
And now just want a couple of quick questions. One is just around family and you mentioned family commitments and Christmas is coming, so I'm imagining everyone's coming together. How does that feel to have all of that intense support around again? Has there been any-
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 27:09
Oh, it's lovely.
It's great. That was part of what I think was very overwhelming when we got home because then of course, we'd been gone for a year and we'd both have big families too and friends. So there was a lot of trying to do a lot of catching up and a lot of dinners and a lot of reconnecting with people that we hadn't seen. So it was very, very intense
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 27:33
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 27:34
The kids are connecting up with all their friends again. Keith and I have got all these things booked in to reconnect with people. Then the family are all wanting to see us and do things. So that's now just calmed down back into the normal zone of life that we are not having to do a lot of socialising, which I don't like. I'm a hermit. I don't like doing. I find it really draining to do too much social stuff. It's good for me that I'm just a bit more on top of now where our limits are.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 28:13
Love it. And Rach, just lastly, you mentioned you're back into writing. I know you'd written a couple of really good blog articles during that experience with lots of comedy. Where can people find out more about your writing and what are you currently working on?
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 28:30
Well, I'm currently working on a final draft of a book actually that I've been writing for a few years. It's a memoir about motherhood that I have to try and sell next. I'm right at this exciting point of trying to put the last touches on this final draft so I can send it out into the world a bit and then turn to writing a book about our year in France, which is my next project. I wrote quite a lot of magazine and online stuff when we were in France and some blog posts as well. All of that's on my blog, which is www.mogantosh.com, M-O-G-A-N-T-O-S-H, if anybody wanted to have a look.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 29:15
I would love to. Thanks so much for your time today, Rach. I just really enjoyed hearing those details. It's timely with everyone connecting with family as Christmas is coming and also probably thinking about new things to do in the new year to keep things interesting.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 29:30
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 29:31
I feel like my takeaways from that were just that there may be some emotional struggles and some new skills, coping skills for kids, but in the long run, it's going to be an intense, positive experience and you may come home and feel like things need to change and that is going to be a good thing.
Rachel Mogan-McIntosh: 29:48
Yeah. I think for me, the main point around the whole thing for me that was like, it's really like so much of parenthood where there can be great work and then great reward. It was really, really hard work, a lot of it, and very intense, but the rewards were just enormous.
Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 30:07
Love it. That was very interesting. Thank you so much to Rachael Mogan McIntosh for joining us this week on Impressive. If you like that episode and you know someone who might be thinking of traveling for a year who might benefit from some of those stories that Rachael told, please do share on your podcast app. And if you like listening to Impressive, I'd love it if you click subscribe and join us every week. But for now, it's goodbye. Have a great week and I'll see you next week. I'm Kimberley and this was Impressive.