Expat life New Zealand: Have you ever been to New Zealand? I’ve heard its beautiful nature and peaceful lifestyle make it a wonderful place to raise children. In this next post in my living abroad series, we find out what it’s like for a young family from the U.S. to live the slow life in New Zealand. There are so many great details in this one, from the midwives and healthcare for kids to Katie’s honest words about loneliness and losing her pre-mom identity, plus so much more. Thanks, Katie!
I recently moved back to the States after almost 5 years in New Zealand. My husband, Adam, and I lived in a little town called Mairangi Bay, a beachy suburb on the north shore of Auckland. We moved to New Zealand in December 2011 for his job. We were living in Atlanta at the time and it wasn’t something we were looking for, but Adam got recruited by a home improvement retailer, basically the Kiwi version of Home Depot.
I’m a mental health therapist, and while I didn’t practice professionally while living abroad, I did some volunteer work with Refugee Services and Thrive, an organization that helps teen mothers. I had two little girls during my time there.
On first impressions of life in New Zealand:
Well first off it’s just so incredibly beautiful. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “Ooooh that’s so pretty” while living there, I’d be… well able to fly everyone over to see for themselves.
We were fortunate enough to find a house with an ocean view so that alone was a huge change coming from Atlanta. My drive around town often involves views of the water and a volcano. Kiwis couldn’t get over that in our previous life we had to drive almost 7 hours to get to a beach. It’s a foreign concept here. As far as sounds go, the birds! There are so many of them and they are really loud, something I noticed right away.
I also have to mention the weather because it’s a big part of life there. Honestly it’s 4 seasons in one day, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. And the rainbows. So many rainbows, the double rainbow guy would be very happy here.
On the cost of living in New Zealand:
The people are friendly and it feels super safe. It’s expensive though. As in, I’ve paid $2.50 for a single lime. Clothes, food, cosmetics, housing – it’s all pricey. The cost of a home for first time buyers has become prohibitive for the average Kiwi family.
Because New Zealand is a small island in a remote location, it’s quite hard to get materials to so everything from the transport to the taxes really add up to make for a hefty price tag. I didn’t do very much shopping there and we usually just brought back empty duffel bags when we went to the U.S. each year and loaded them up with stuff. Even with the bag fees, it’s still cheaper!
What was surprising:
I was absolutely shocked those first few months that shoes seemed to be optional everywhere – I saw barefoot people getting lunch, at the doctor, at the grocery, and kids walking home from school. Now it doesn’t even faze me and half the time my own girls aren’t wearing shoes. It’s just not a big deal here.
Upon arriving in NZ I was also surprised by the fact that the police don’t carry guns, how underpopulated the country is. The same number of people live in Atlanta that live in all of New Zealand! Auckland is known as “the big smoke” which is funny to me after living in cities like Atlanta and San Francisco, but once you get out of the city you see why. Rolling hills! Sheep! Everything else is so rural and small town feeling that Auckland to everyone else is the big city.
I was also shocked and humored by the lack of censorship. I remember flipping through the channels one night, before we even had cable, and one of the Borat movies was on and it showed him full frontal. Adam and I couldn’t get over that it was 9 o’clock and that was on the TV. And that no one was protesting. Same goes for radio and what they can say. It goes without saying that Kiwis as a whole are just more relaxed about things.
On how houses in New Zealand are different:
Central heating and air conditioning are practically non-existent in most homes. I couldn’t get over that we didn’t have heat or A/C. My couch look in the winter could best be described as Olsen twin meets homeless abominable snowman. Adam got me an electric blanket for Mother’s Day a couple years ago and that was life changing.
Apparently screens are non-existent too! As in people just keep doors wide open to get a breeze. Which brings the issue of flies, they get really bad in the summer. My husband bought this thing when we first got here that would fry them that we nick named ROD (“racquet of death”), but then we just go with a basic fly swatter. The battle is real!
Also, for the most part, Kiwis don’t wear shoes inside. Most everyone takes off their shoes when going into someone’s home and leaves them by the front door.
Everyone line dries their clothes here. A lot of people have dryers, but they are rarely used. Our house has two clothes lines and my motto when we moved was “when in Rome…” So I started doing it pretty much right away. I still use the dryer for sheets and towels because I think they get too crunchy in the sun, but everything else gets hung. I remember getting ready for Hazel’s arrival and seeing her little onesies on the clothes line for the first time and it just killed me it was so cute. Side Note- clothes pins are called “pegs” here and have provided hours of entertainment for my girls and are one of Hazel’s favorite “toys.”
Even mail delivery is different, too. Mailboxes are called letter boxes and the mailmen and women are called Posties. They don’t have a mail truck; they bike around delivering everything. Since it’s quite physical a lot of them are in great shape, not that I noticed my Postie’s ripped, tanned arms every time he delivered the mail, but if one did that’s something they might see.
On getting used to Kiwi English:
Even though it’s an English speaking country, I had a hard time catching onto the vernacular at first. It’s very British in a lot of ways with people people saying words like nappies, pram, and dummy, but there are tons of Kiwi words and slang too. Not to mention the language of the native Maori people. It was quite the learning curve.
Throw in the fact they drive on the opposite side of the road, temperature is in Celsius not Fahrenheit, they use the metric system, and even the dates are written differently. It was a lot to get use to, but also part of what made the experience fun and interesting.
On tipping in New Zealand:
Tipping is not a part of the culture and that took getting use to. Even though I have paid many a rent on money maid from waitressing, I have to say I love that it’s not a part of the lifestyle here. There’s just something nice about someone giving you a beer or ripping the hair off your body with hot wax and not wondering how much additional money you should give them.
On the importance of Maori culture:
I also noticed the importance of Maori culture in New Zealand. Maori are the native Polynesian people of New Zealand, which they call Aotearoa, “land of the long white cloud.” Half of the National Anthem is in Maori, it is taught in school, and Maori celebrations, history, and traditions show up throughout New Zealand culture. Hazel celebrated Matariki, the Maori New Year, at her school where they sang songs and we all brought food in to share.
I discovered that homesickness is a kind of dormant grief that can pop up at the most unexpected times. I remember running in to get something at the mall during the holidays and being struck by all the Christmas decorations and just ending up in a puddle of tears over my coffee in the food court at the realisation that I wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
Also, it’s been strange meeting people for the first time and just being known as someone’s mom. Everyone I meet here didn’t know me before having kids. With my friends back home I may be a stay at home mom now, but they still remember and identify with Katie the Therapist, Katie the friend I travelled cross country with, Katie the girl who didn’t eat a vegetable for the first 28 years of her life. I didn’t realise what an identity I had in those experiences until they were all removed. And that kind of disappearing act has been hard at times.
What it’s like to give birth in New Zealand:
I had both Hazel and Maggie in Auckland. New Zealand uses the midwife model of care, so you really only get an OBGYN if you have a high risk pregnancy or some other health issues or complications. Pregnancy is viewed as a normal thing and interventions are used only as a last resort. They let you go much longer past your due date here then in the U.S. Hazel was born 15 days past hers. I went “au naturale” with her and, well, natural child birth is no joke. Maggie was super late as well and I needed to be induced with her so I opted for an epidural, which was quite a different experience as you can imagine.
While different, both were good experiences and I was fortunate to have the same midwife deliver both of our girls. Just a few hours after giving birth to Hazel at the hospital, we drove to a birthing centre and aftercare facility half an hour north of the city where I stayed for 4 nights learning how to feed, bath, and care for my new born baby. I had my own private room and bathroom and there were midwives available 24 hours a day. All meals were provided as were nappies and all other new mamma needs. And it was all free!
I also went there after Maggie was born for a couple nights which was great too. After returning home, your midwife does house visits for 6 weeks. I’ll always remember my midwife coming over and weighing Hazel in a flour sack. It does really feel like a luxury though to not to have to go to the doctor.
On breastfeeding in New Zealand:
Breastfeeding is a really big deal here. There is a huge initiative to encourage mothers to nurse their babies and it is pushed pretty hard. Adam couldn’t help but chuckle at the posters plastered all over the walls stating “Breast is Best.” If you want to give your newborn formula in the hospital, you literally have to sign something acknowledging what you’re doing.
I already knew breastfeeding was something I wanted to do and was fortunate that my body cooperated, but if you had different plans I think it would be a tough road and I always felt for those women too. I was secretly glad to have a midwife wake me every few hours to poke and prod me since I wouldn’t have known what to do on my own and needed the help to establish feeding.
From my experience, breastfeeding in public is just not a big deal. In fact I saw someone nursing their baby at church (very discreetly) a few weeks ago which I found really beautiful, but no one else seemed phased by it. Some people use covers, some don’t. It’s a non issue. There are often mothers rooms in airports and malls that have comfortable chairs for nursing. I breastfed both Hazel and Maggie for over a year and I never felt weird or different for doing so.
On being a truly kid-friendly country:
There is also an organisation called Plunket, a non profit committed to helping families and children be their best. They are all over New Zealand and do a lot for the community. They have toy libraries where you can check out toys, family centres where you can get parenting advice and support (even take a nap in those early days! ), and they’ll install your car seat for free.
A ton of places have toy boxes to entertain the kids, it’s absolutely brilliant. Banks, cafes, the pharmacy, stores, even wineries often have a box of toys and books for children to play with. It makes running errands and going out with small children manageable, dare I say fun. I sometimes walk through town pretending to need something just so the girls can play with a toy box at certain shops.
There are amazing playgrounds everywhere, with lots of cool climbing structures. And they are often in the most incredible locations. I have countless options to choose from. Kids play outside year round. A lot of families have trampolines. It was actually one of the first things I noticed when I got here.
On having a community of moms:
After giving birth, most everyone gets set up with a “coffee group,” which is a group of women all having babies the same time as you and live in your area. It’s a wonderful resource. Because of the maternity policy here, women get a year off so I met with my coffee group almost every week for the first year of Hazel’s life.
Last year I started doing Crossfit with a group called FitMum and they have childcare on site. It’s been so good. You bring the kids and they hangout in the kids room with the babysitter and afterwards they all run around the Box playing on the equipment together and doing their own version of a workout. My girls love going. It’s such a great group of women too, because everyone is a Mom they totally get if you have to stop and feed your child or tend to a tantruming toddler. Everyone is at different fitness levels and stages of motherhood, but there is a great sense of community. And the workout is totally addicting!
What healthcare in New Zealand is like:
Healthcare for children up to the age of 13 is free. I often call my doctor and get an an appointment the same day or at least same week. All prescriptions for adults are $5, it’s like flat rate shipping, but for scrips. It’s a subsidised system and it’s pretty awesome. Adam tells everyone he paid $20 to have a baby in New Zealand since that’s how much parking was at the hospital!
Maggie had a cold when she was really little, which normally isn’t a big deal but since she was only a few weeks old the doctor suggested we take her to her to the hospital to make sure it was nothing more serious. Thankfully it wasn’t, but the follow up was amazing. They sent a nurse to the house because, “you don’t want to bring a sick baby around other sick people if you don’t have to.” Of course you don’t. New Zealand continues to amaze me on how truly family friendly they are.
It is truly a work to live vs. a live to work mentality here. Everyone is given 4 weeks off a year plus 11 National Holidays and people actually take it! Because New Zealand is so far away from everything people also tend to take longer holidays because it’s such an effort to get somewhere that when they arrive they want to stay awhile. Corporate work hours are definitely less intense then in the U.S. Adam use to get tons of emails at night and on the weekend when he was working in the U.S., and that changed dramatically.
On the “family bach”:
Many kiwis spend their holiday time at a family bach, it’s basically a vacation home, but very simple and basic. Many are often passed down generation to generation. There is a site called book a bach that is similar to VRBO in the States that we used numerous times over the past few years. We found some really great spots. On a most recent trip with some girl friends we stayed in bush hut in matakana where the owner gave us gumboots upon check in and we got to hike through the forest to get to to a cedar hot tub in the woods, it was completely magical.
On traveling around New Zealand and beyond:
With so much vacation time given, we’ve gotten to travel a lot. Hazel and Maggie both had their first flights at 3 months and have been travelling with us ever since. We have been all over New Zealand, exploring both the North and South Island. It’s funny because a lot of Kiwis are well travelled, but haven’t been around New Zealand. They might have backpacked around Europe, but never been to the South Island. Because we knew we weren’t going to live in New Zealand forever we really wanted to see as much of it as possible. It has not disappointed!
Outside the country, we’ve gotten to go to Australia including Sydney, Melbourne, and the Great Barrier Reef. And Fiji! We first went to Fiji when I was pregnant with Hazel and just loved it. We’ve gone back every year since being here. Fiji felt so exotic coming from America, I never thought I’d go unless I was on the Bachelor or won a sweepstakes, but it’s one of the closest places you can go from here, a short 3 hour flight. It’s so kid friendly that it’s an absolute joy to bring your children there. I have a lot of happy memories from our trips there.
There are a lot of people from all over the world living here though with huge populations from South Africa, the UK, Asia, and the surrounding islands like Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. So it’s not strange to meet others that don’t have family around, but usually one of the people in the relationship is a Kiwi. Many folks are often surprised to find out my partner isn’t a Kiwi. Gay or straight, married or not, if you’re in a long term relationship people refer to them as your partner. It was very confusing at first and Adam and I did initially think they were a disproportionate number of gay people there when everyone we met would refer to their “partner.”
The most popular sports are rugby, cricket, football (soccer) and netball. Rugby is huge here. The New Zealand team is called the All Blacks and they are the best in the world. If you’ve never seen a Haka before, the war dance they do before the game, Google it now. It is really amazing.
Surf life saving is also a sport here. Lots of little towns have their own Surf Clubs, including Mairangi Bay where we Iive. Water safety is a big issue as many kiwis lose their life to drowning each year.
My tip on making friends is just put yourself out there. Every person you meet isn’t going to be a match made in friendship heaven, but you never know unless you try.
I remember being at the grocery store one week shortly after moving and striking up a conversation with the girl handing out cheese samples, she seemed nice enough so I got her number. Now this encounter never amounted to any kind of real friendship, but it was still good to just put myself out there. A couple of my closest friends ended up being people I just met in the neighborhood, on similar schedules that I was on.
Katie’s tips for visiting Auckland & Waiheke Island:
An absolute must is getting fish and chips from a local shop and heading to the beach to enjoy. As far as going out to dinner we loved – Blue Breeze Inn and Moochowchow – both in a fun, busy neighborhood called Ponsonby. Other great spots across the city – Cafe Hanoi, Ebisu, St. Heliers Bay Cafe, Ortolana, Woodpecker Hill, Depot, and Sugar Club.
Waiheke Island, a 30 minute ferry ride from Auckland, is filled with amazing wineries, restaurants, beaches, and nature trails. The Oyster Inn, Poderi Crisci, and Cable Bay are some of our favs.
On leaving New Zealand:
We loved Nz so much, but ultimately we decided we wanted to be closer to friends and family. My husband took a job with a company in DETROIT that a friend of ours started and we live in a lovely little town outside the city called Birmingham. I’d never been to Detroit until we moved, but we really like it so far.
Thank you, Katie, for sharing so much about what it’s like to live in New Zealand! I especially loved reading about the importance placed on family time and children.
Do you know someone who lived abroad and would like to share their story? Please get in touch!