Over the last month, I have been completely enthralled by the conversations going on as part of the Moving With Kids Summit, where we heard from some of the most inspiring, engaging and expert voices in the world of cross cultural parenting. Throughout the three weeks, a number of themes popped up in multiple presentations – the need for family to provide a sense of stability, the importance of nurturing a sense of belonging that can withstand geographical and cultural moves, and the critical role of emotional language in both of those.
It highlighted how lucky I am to have an extended family who love, support and sustain my own family transitions. As I write this, I am back in Wales, sitting on a sofa in a converted barn owned by my brother, with he and his family in their own home only yards away. My mother lives just across the road, and my sister is currently traveling down to meet us all. In about 5 hours, we will have three generations in one room, sharing meals, stories and no doubt strong opinions on Brexit. You can imagine how that’s going to go.
There is a sense of coming full circle. My brother was the one who drove us to the airport for our first big move, when we were all a tense, tightly wound ball of emotions, with no understanding of what we were facing and no words to describe how we felt.
Judging by the Summit sessions, discussions and community, the difficulty in finding the words to express how we are feeling is something that every expat family struggle with, with every move. The words to express that tentative excitement, the sparkle of curiosity, the profound sense of loss, the quiet clench of dread. And how you – our family, by birth, by bond, or by choice – play such a pivotal role in our happiness, despite the separation.
It’s the communication no-win situation. When we try to put a brave face on it and focus on the positive, it sounds like we are having a wonderful time and not missing you one bit. When we moan about how miserable we are, we can almost hear the phrase “sure, living a life of leisure in the sun with no work and plenty of help – it must be awful” sarcastically running through your mind. And if you have enough patience and understanding to let us vent for hours without telling us to shut up, at some point we start to hear how whiney and unpleasant we sound and really wish you had.
We do get though it, and the support of the people we leave behind is something that we value above all else. We may not speak to you on a daily basis, but I can promise we think about you often and talk about you to our new friends, wishing you were there in person to join in.
So for those of you who are leaving people you love, or are finding it difficult to explain how conflicted life is as an expat, I’ve put together some pointers that you can share..
We are a confused mix of emotions right now, so please bear with us.
Some of us are excited to be going on this adventure, but we are also quietly terrified of what lies ahead, and can’t show it for fear we won’t get on the plane. We feel guilty about leaving you, but it’s like going into school for the first time – we are trying to put a brave face on. It doesn’t mean that we love you any less – the opposite in fact. If we didn’t have you as a safety net, we’d never step out into the unknown.
We need you more than ever, but it may not seem like it.
Remember when you started school, and it took all of your energy just to keep track of where you should be going, what the rules were and who and where to avoid? That’s what relocation is like. We hardly know what time of the day it is, let alone our own phone number.We are just barely holding it together, and a text or email make a world of difference, especially if it makes us laugh.
If you love us, forgive us if we don’t answer immediately.
We are overwhelmed, we don’t know anybody here, the paperwork is bewildering and every waking moment is spent trying to keep our heads above water. When we finally get through this transition phase (and we will), we will remember for ever the fact that you stuck with us.
Birthdays and celebrations are always the hardest for expats, especially for the first year.
Remember how I moaned about having to cook the Christmas turkey, or that every birthday card reminded me that I was getting older? I was wrong. All those things reminded me that I have friends and family to share my time, my home and my life with, and without them, it can be very lonely. We do find new people to share them with, but if we could have one wish, it would be to have everyone we have ever shared those times with all together in one room..
I may say ‘it’s fine’, but I’m being brave.
Please don’t be fooled. But I also don’t want to waste precious time talking to you by sniveling about the woman at the school, and I want to hear what is happening in your life. Just talking to you makes everything seem a whole lot better, and hearing about your day helps to put mine back in perspective. It reminds me that we all have our good and bad moments, and the trick is to have friends to laugh, cry and share them with.
You don’t have to write an essay – three words will do.
Or a photo, if that is easier. What we miss most is the day to day interactions with you all – the smiles, the snatched conversations in grocery stores and school yards – the sense of connection and belonging. So don’t think you have to send a three page letter for it to be worthwhile (although we love those too) even the smallest contact lets us know that someone, somewhere is thinking about us, and is missing us too.