Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Highs and Lows of Expat Life

Whenever I undertake a major organizational project (like cleaning out a closet), it always looks messier at first, but by the time I finish, the results are usually pretty great. I think moving abroad is like that, too, at least for us. The first few months were a little ugly, but the more we get adjusted, the better it looks.

As I shared a few months ago in my post about our 6 month anniversary as expats, we are really settling into life here in England. I can't decide whether it is normal to take several months for a place to feel like home, or if that's actually a pretty impressive length of time given the amount of changes our family made when we moved here.

Regardless, I can already tell that the whirlwind of emotions I've had over the past year has stabilized. I was recently asked to submit a tip for current or future expats for the HiFX Expat Tip Page, which got me thinking about some of the highs and lows of this experience. Before I forget what this first year has really felt like (hindsight is always 20/20, right?), I wanted to share a bit about the emotional realities, at least for our family.


One of the things that other expats had warned me about before we moved here was not to underestimate how hard it can be, especially at first. I'll share a few examples here.

-Lack of adult attention for your kids. I knew that we might be lonely at first. I was unprepared for (or hadn't thought about) how strange it would feel for my children to go without love or affection from anyone other than my husband and me. When we've had visitors, I often tear up seeing the boys loved on by them. Read to, held, cheeks kissed and squeezed, chased around the yard, thrown wildly into the air: all the ways I had grown accustomed to seeing friends and family back home spoiling my kids. It has fallen completely on our shoulders these past few months to show them all the physical attention they need and desire. I don't think the Arrows have really noticed it, but at times it has been exhausting for us as parents, and isolating for them not to have a support system of caring adults.

I'll never forget filling out forms for both boys to attend nursery the first few weeks we lived here. I got to the line "Emergency Contact" and realized there wasn't a single person I felt comfortable writing down (someone my kids would know and recognize, even). It's one of the few moments when I've questioned whether this move was truly beneficial for my kids. (Don't worry, I'm still convinced it was... read on.)

-Never truly belonging. I love this article about expat life and repatriation that perfectly explains how you never really fit in. "You are left -- almost hanging -- somewhere in the middle," the author writes. I don't mean I'm worried about being picked last for the kickball team (I got over that by my college years.) I mean glancing at magazines in the grocery store and realizing you don't know any of the celebrities they're gossiping about.  Or smiling and laughing along with the other moms at school drop-off, but not being entirely sure what the person next to you just said (or worse... saying something to them and getting nothing but blank stares. I must have said "pants" again!)

-Missing family and friends. This comes as no surprise to us. We knew it would be the hardest part, and it was the only factor we took into account when weighing the decision of whether or not to move here. We're extremely close to our families. Our parents are our biggest cheerleaders. Both my husband and I consider our siblings to be our very best friends (and now their wife and husband). My niece and nephew are everything to me, and we recently learned we're getting another one joining the family this summer. To miss moments of their childhood breaks our hearts. We're lucky that we've had lots of family visits, but it still means going 6 months or more without seeing each other. That's tough when we're used to living so close.

Snuggling my nephew on a 48-hour whirlwind trip back to the States.

-Asking for help. It does not come easy to my husband or I to ask anyone for help when we're in a bind. Or if we do, we've always relied on family or very close friends who we felt comfortable bumming a favor from. But whether it's been due to illness, childcare scheduling, or whatever we've needed, we've had to learn to swallow that discomfort and get on with it. For example, even though I've only ever had a flat tire once in my 20 years of driving, my husband and I have had THREE since moving here. Those are the times you swallow your pride and ask someone for a ride or to pick up your kids. Probably a good lesson for us, but I'll be relieved to return to living near family again someday when a flat tire or getting sick will no longer mean a total crisis.


Despite the challenges, this has been an incredible experience from the very beginning. I've learned more about myself in the past year than perhaps any other time in my life, from what I'm capable of to what I'm not. This is just a short list of highlights... I could blow up the blogosphere with more!

-Changes in our children. I knew this would affect Big Arrow (4 years old) in big ways. I honestly thought he might struggle his way through our three years here, but come out of the experience tougher and braver. Instead, he has thrived in so many ways. Primarily, starting school has matured him, made him more confident, and taught him that trying new things is good. He was so proud to show my sister his clean plate following a full Sunday roast dinner at a pub when she visited. And she had to pick her jaw up off the table... he wouldn't have touched any of that food before we moved!

And I'm continually amazed at how it has changed Little Arrow, too. One of the first times he ever strung a few words together was an attempt at saying, "double decker bus." He's also a much better traveler (to be clear, I said better... not perfect.) When I look at his behavior on our Scandinavia trip when we first moved abroad, to our trip to Portugal in December, it's astounding. He no longer melts down on public transportation, he has learned to wait in line (sometimes), and he sleeps in new places so much better. I'm sure some of this is the natural process of growing older for him, but I'm also convinced it's from being exposed to situations like this regularly instead of rarely.

-Tighter family unit. Sometimes when both boys are throwing fits or fighting, I've been known to say, "Guys, all we have is each other. We gotta get along." And I mean that now, more than ever. My boys do not adore each other. I break up more shouting matches and "he hit me" moments than I'd like to admit. And I also don't claim to have the perfect marriage... we squabble occasionally, too. But there's something really special about relying on one another completely. There are times when we just have no where else to turn, and yes, that can feel lonely. But it also solidifies our family as a cohesive unit that I think will stick with us forever. My own family moved from New England to the Midwest when I was a kid, and I know the four of us still hold dear to the lessons we learned from that experience. I'm hoping for the same for my family.

-Amazing experiences. Before we moved here we had a long list of travel dreams to fulfill while we had this chance to live in Europe. In just 9 months, we've already been lucky enough to do and see so many incredible things (including 6 European countries and nearly 20 English counties). I don't need to re-hash a list of favorite moments--that's what this blog is really all about, after all.

To be honest, I feared that while our aspirations were high, the reality might not be so picture-perfect. I knew some of the hassles of traveling with young kids even before we set foot on a transatlantic flight. I figured adding new languages, foreign road rules, tight spaces (and let's not forget public toilets you have to pay to use!) might make it hardly worth the effort. But I'm thankful that hasn't been the case. No, I wouldn't say that European travel is as family-friendly as it was when we were bopping around the Midwest. But I would say that my kids have rose to the challenge, and my husband and I have gotten better at handling most situations.

-Being a global citizen. Part of this experience is not just checking off countries and sites... it's about learning what it's like to live someplace new. Now that some of the less fun tasks of moving abroad are behind me (like getting my driver's license!), I'm trying to spend some time developing a few "British" interests and habits. For instance, I've started hiking regularly on the footpaths found near our house. (They would call it walking or rambling.) I'm really enjoying this for so many reasons--the exercise, the gorgeous countryside, and the access to trails and paths that we don't have in the U.S.

And I rarely cook food or recipes I made in the U.S. anymore. Not just because certain ingredients are hard to find, but also because we've realized that what tastes really good here are the foods that come from here. Now that we are more settled in England, we hope to add to the ways we acclimate to life here in the months and years ahead.

It's hard to put into just one blog post the rollercoaster of the past 9 months. (Far crazier than any of my pregnancies!) We feel so fortunate to have this experience and to live this life--it hasn't always been easy, but we wouldn't change it for anything.

Disclosure: I was compensated for sharing my thoughts on being an expat by HiFX, an international money transfer company.

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