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I'm an Insecure Mom, But Not Because I'm a Foreigner

It's autumn in the Netherlands, my favorite season. I'm walking on fallen leaves, wearing scarves and buying squash, just as I would be doing back home in the States. One thing I'm not doing is fussing about Halloween costumes, because we don't actually do that here. As with most things when you live abroad, the big fall holiday here is similar, but different.

Sint Maarten was a Roman soldier turned monk whose feast day is celebrated on November 11. On that evening every year, Dutch children roam door to door carrying handmade lanterns and singing songs about Sint Maarten for candy.

I've known about this for a long time and, before I had children, it just seemed like one of those charming things that happen in another country. Then last year, for the first time, my son wanted to participate.

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It was his, my eldest's, first year of actual school, and I was a neurotic mess. In an attempt to keep this from my son—to make him believe he had nothing in me but a pillar of confidence and, more important, competence—I had volunteered to help with crafts at his school.

My one task was to put the lights—basically a small fishing rod with a tiny white bulb at the end—into the lanterns the children had made from plastic bottles. It went horribly wrong pretty quickly.

Because, really, none of us feels sure of what we are doing all the time.

I don't "craft" and had only volunteered for the task because I figured it wouldn't involve a lot of talking, which I was then especially shy to do too much in Dutch, especially in situations where I wanted to appear capable of things.

The plastic bottles had been decorated and glued in such a way that making an opening to insert the light was impossible without damaging the lanterns. The little pointy tool the teacher had given me to work with snapped in half on my first attempt to poke a small hole in the neck of the bottles.

After interrupting the class and being assisted by an understanding 4-year-old and the teacher from across the hall, I found a method. But it had taken me 15 minutes to do one of 20-odd lanterns. It got done, but they were not perfect like I wanted, and it had not been achieved without some humiliation.

As the night of the 11th approached, I realized my son, eager from a safe distance to participate, was definitely going to get shy and bail on me the second the first neighbor's door opened. I would have to stand there and sing by myself. That is what a mother should do, I thought, even if she feels like a total jackass.

After spending time on Youtube, I learned one song that I felt I could easily remember, even though the words confused me and translated roughly to, "Sint Maarten, Sint Maarten. The cows have tails. The girls are wearing dresses. Then Sint Maarten comes."

In such situations, I often think how much easier parenting would be if I didn't live abroad. But then I think of my sister in the States, who has two sons and was also unsure of herself the first time she had to run a craft table at school or host a playdate.

Parenthood is the most foreign territory I've ever explored.

Because, really, none of us feels sure of what we are doing all the time. Becoming a parent doesn't mean you won't have doubts or insecurities about choices you will make or new situations you will find yourself in. You're still just you.

My additional challenge is learning a new language and culture, but these are relatively superficial compared with what is unfamiliar to all of us as our children enter new phases and pull us along with them.

Parenthood is the most foreign territory I've ever explored. I get stressed when I'm not sure I'm saying the right words in Dutch to someone else's child who needs to be consoled or even scolded, but the deeper challenge is knowing what to say at all—in any language.

I have been very lucky to find Dutch mom friends to help me understand things that are a little different here, to know what to anticipate. But they just as often want my advice on how to handle more universal questions, like how much television is appropriate and whether 4 is too young for a sleepover.

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In the end, on my first Sint Maarten's evening, I was saved by the mother of my son's best friend, now my friend, who organized several parents from the school to walk together—because she also didn't want to do it alone.

So I'm still a neurotic mess, but I'm oddly comforted to know it's not because I'm parenting in another country, but because I'm parenting at all.

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