Singaporeans Abroad: Raising our family overseas brought me closer to my husband
By Lisa Twang, Jan 28, 2021
Last week, we heard from Vanessa, who spoke about the joys and challenges of relocating to Dubai for her career. This week, we speak to 34-year-old Pearlyn Koh, whose Dayre account is @pearlynkmin.
Over seven years, she moved from Singapore to South Korea, Spain and now Sweden, to be with her husband Eugene (who is also Singaporean) as he relocated for work. The designer and illustrator behind Pearlyn and Paper also has two kids: Rey and Jude.
Having enjoyed the nightlife in Korea, tapas-filled days in Spain, and snowman-building in Sweden, it’s easy to see Pearlyn’s life as idyllic and full of adventure. But living far away from her family can be tough during difficult seasons of marriage. Through trial and error, Pearlyn has learned that she and Eugene are each other’s lifelines in foreign lands, and that their love and patience will see them through.
Here, Pearlyn shares how moving from country to country has strengthened her marriage, and given her the tight-knit family she always dreamed of.
To most people, relocating overseas sounds like a never-ending holiday. Others often tell me I’m lucky to have the chance to experience life in another country, and I am.
I feel myself being influenced by the different countries we’ve lived in, because they bring out different parts of me. In Korea, I enjoyed socialising with friends; going to cafes, karaoke bars, and enjoying street food at 4am. I’m an impatient person by nature, so living in Spain — where everything moves ultra slowly -— taught me to slow down as well.
Now in Sweden, I enjoy living a much simpler lifestyle: buying very little for myself, and being out in nature with my family. We live in about an hour’s drive away from Sweden’s capital Stockholm.
On social media, my life abroad looks really amazing and fun. But living overseas also comes with challenges: it can create strain in your marriage.
You don’t have your family around as a buffer, so your lives truly revolve around each other. This intensity can be stressful when you don’t get along. It gets tougher when you have kids, because you don’t have the usual help from parents and must learn to survive on your own.
Eugene and I met in Singapore, and have considered moving back, like when he lost his job in Seoul, and then in Barcelona. Miraculously, God has always given him new jobs so we can continue being overseas. We don’t know how long we’ll stay in Sweden, but we’re enjoying our time here, despite the challenges.
I always knew I was going to get married and start a family abroad, because Eugene and I dated long-distance for two and a half years before we tied the knot and settled down in Seoul.
Eugene works in the gaming industry, and relocated to Seoul while we were dating. He has a lot more career opportunities overseas, compared to Singapore. I didn’t mind leaving Singapore to be with him, because as a freelance illustrator and designer, I can work anywhere.
I was also younger then, and a lot more fearless. I’ve always had the wanderlust in me, and living in a new city felt exciting. I’m close to my own family, but thanks to technology I can call them often and not miss them too much.
As newlyweds, we had to find our rhythm because we were two very different people. Eugene has always been more of a homebody, whereas I’m more outgoing. I made friends easily, and we’d go to cafes, or have karaoke sessions and drinks at night. I’d ask Eugene to come with us after work, but he wanted me to stay home with him, and our arguments grew more serious. Sometimes we’d just stand there in a stalemate, feeling like we had nowhere to go.
Most of my friends in Seoul weren’t married, so it was hard to share my marriage troubles with them. I didn’t really have anyone to confide in back then: it was hard to keep in contact with the time difference, and I didn’t start reconnecting with old friends while overseas until I’d lived abroad for a few years. My family and friends felt far away, and I felt lonely at times, plunged into a new country alone.
The good thing about being overseas together was that we had to face our struggles head-on. We had to get to the heart of our disagreements, and be each other’s ride or die when we had no one else to rely on.
As much as we loved each other, Eugene and I realised we were two individuals, who needed to get used to the other person’s ways. If we were back in Singapore, I could’ve gone to my parents or friends when I had marriage troubles. In Seoul, Eugene and I only had each other, and there was nowhere to run to.
Hard as it was, we learned to compromise, and see things from each other’s point of view. I saw that Eugene was an introvert working very long hours in a high-stress environment, and needed time at home to relax. And he realised I was lonely at times, and needed company when he was busy in the office.
We learned to adjust, and found a balance between working, socialising, and having dates together, building our foundation as a married couple.
After a year in Seoul, we moved to Barcelona when Eugene found a job there.
I was excited to move, because Korea had never really felt like home to me as we were only there for a short time. Barcelona is a very modern, vibrant city with lots to do, so it was a whole new experience. The Spanish pace of life was a lot slower than Korea and Singapore, so I took some time to get used to it, but we enjoyed the local food, drinks, and the warm, sunny weather: I’m a tropical girl at heart!
We had Rey about two years after moving to Barcelona. At first, we struggled to look after her with almost no family help.
Before Rey came along, I was used to having nights out with friends, and relaxing with Eugene. Having Rey was like pressing the reset button: I realised it was a new life with the three of us, and a lot more responsibility.
My parents and in-laws took turns visiting and helping out the month Rey was born, which was great. But when they went home to Singapore, I felt so handicapped: especially when Eugene went back to work after his paternity leave.
Rey wasn’t easy to look after: she had eating problems, sleeping problems, and stranger anxiety. She refused to let Eugene carry her, and only wanted me. We spent a lot of money ordering different milk bottles from around the world, but she rejected them all and would only drink my milk.
I was exhausted and missed my old life: there were times when I hated being a mother, even though I loved Rey. While I didn’t have post-natal depression, I suffered from baby blues and would sometimes cry for no apparent reason.
Eugene and I never had so many fights as we did in the first six months of Rey’s life. I felt like Eugene wasn’t doing enough to help out with Rey. He thought he could still play video games after work, and go to bed. Meanwhile, I got down and dirty: changing diapers, bathing Rey, and attending to her cries in the middle of the night. I thought I could go back to work a month after Rey’s birth, but it was impossible because looking after Rey took up so much time.
I felt the imbalance between Eugene and I, and resented it. Sometimes, I lost my temper at him. We’d usually walk away from heated conversations, but never talk about the subject again, which was terrible.
Thinking back, we were really thrown into the deep end when we became parents far from home. But it helped me to be patient, and taught Eugene to step up and become a more hands-on dad.
After six months of anger and resentment, we learned to compromise again. One thing I learnt that helped was writing a text to Eugene instead of telling him off: I could take time and edit my words, ensuring they were constructive criticisms instead of complaints. I also learned to close an eye if he needed to be on the computer for a while, as long as he still made time for me and Rey.
Eugene’s love language is acts of service, so he’d help me by bringing Rey out for a stroll so I could sleep for another hour, buying meals, or stocking up on household supplies. Eugene grew closer to Rey, and we slowly trained her to bottle-feed so she wouldn’t only depend on me.
If we lived in Singapore, our parents would help us a lot more. When our family went home to Singapore for a visit, I came home one day to see my mum-in-law holding Rey while she screamed her head off, and my mum struggling to feed Rey her milk, while Eugene sat happily on the couch watching TV.
I’ve realised having family or a helper around mainly relieves the dad, and the mother’s role doesn’t change as much. She still makes milk and cares for the baby, even with extra help. But because we were away from home, Eugene stepped in as an equal caregiver, which I really appreciated. He now takes on as much responsibility as I do, or more.
Navigating marriage and parenting with Eugene while moving countries was tough, but going through all that together really strengthened our relationship.
Sometimes as a mum, you’re so consumed by your kids that it’s hard to remember that marriage is the foundation of your family. Though we’ve had hiccups along the way, I’m glad we worked things out and found our footing as parents.
Things also improved when we sent Rey to nursery, and I had more time to go back to work. Because we share our parenting duties more equally now, I’ve had time to do illustrations and collaborations with other brands for Pearlyn and Paper.
By the time we had Jude, we knew what to expect with a new baby, so things were much easier. We made it a point to hire a babysitter at least once a month, so Eugene and I could go on dinner and movie dates, like old times. We made sure we had time for each other, even when we were busy with work and our kids.
These days, Rey and Jude are as close to Eugene as they are to me. He’s become the father I always wished he would be to our kids.
He’s not one of those ‘fun dads’ who play with their children a lot, but he’s hands-on in the practical sense. I trust him with cleaning, feeding, and changing the kids: I’ve comfortably left him alone with Rey and Jude when I went back to Singapore for two weeks when my grandmother was living her last days. He also looks after our family expenses, and makes sure we always have diapers and clean bottles.
Right now I’m thinking about going back to school so I can refresh my professional skills. I sometimes worry about whether I can manage, but I know Eugene will support me and the kids so I can pursue my dreams. He’s told me he’s willing to bear the brunt of parenthood for a year if I’m studying, picking up the kids from school and taking care of our meals. At times I feel lost and unsure of what to do next, but I feel blessed to have such a supportive husband.
Marriage was always the most difficult part of moving overseas, because whenever Eugene and I argue, I can feel very lonely, with no one else to talk to. But it’s helped us lay a stronger foundation for our marriage, and made us allies who feel like we can take on any challenge together.
Sometimes, I still feel homesick for Singapore. I miss my parents during festive seasons like Christmas, and with COVID-19, we don’t know when we can freely travel and see our families again. Still, it’s been amazing discovering life together as a close family of four. I know Eugene and I have each other’s backs, and I’m excited to see us grow together in our new adventure.
Pictures provided by Pearlyn.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about what it was like moving to London with my husband J for his MBA, and how we sometimes struggle to keep the spark going after ten years of marriage.
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