Despite what we might think, most of us probably have relatively similar reasons for going abroad. Usually these are related to our desires to test whether we can adapt to new environments; to force ourselves to learn new things; to chase better opportunities; to push ourselves out of our comfort zones; to meet new and more diverse people; to reinvigorate our zest for life; to avoid the mundane; to educate our families; to understand other cultures, languages and perspectives. In short, we go in search for a better life. In doing all of these things in a foreign country, we hope to enrich our relationships, careers, and life experiences. Often we hope that if one day we move back to where we started, with all of these tough and exciting adventures under our belt, we will have a greater sense of acceptance and appreciation of our home country.
Because moving abroad is almost always ‘taking the road less traveled’, it is by definition the more emotionally challenging path, particularly if we are responsible for our families’ well-being at the same time. The rewards are potentially great and fulfilling (that’s the whole point of moving), but the risks and pitfalls can also occasionally make us feel like we have made a crazy decision to up sticks and leave our well-known commute, local city, and our comfy relationships with friends and family. And this feeling is totally normal.
Nobody wants to be the whinging ‘expat spouse’, and even admitting homesickness can be difficult, particularly because we ourselves probably have an image in our own head of how this exciting adventure should pan out. This image we have when we set off in search of an exciting new lifestyle inevitably does not include us struggling emotionally, or having a small cry on an exhausting Wednesday morning, or worrying that our child isn’t settling in as quickly as we expected them to. Nobody envisages themselves feeling overwhelmed, missing family and friends, or feeling disappointed in themselves. We want to be strong, optimistic, to make a success of the move, to be firing on all four cylinders, and for our family here with us to be happy, healthy, close-knit and thriving – always the most glaring evidence of whether our decision to move abroad was right.
What is more, nobody wants to be that person picking up the phone to friends and family back home and admitting they might be having a few difficulties, or feeling low, especially when we know that the ‘big picture’ of our life is fine, and we want to be feeling fortunate and excited. We hope to be filling our conversations with people about all of the novelties we are experiencing, the friends we are making, the successes in our home life and at school and work. Our desire not to be a drag, or a drip, or lame, can feel quite isolating in itself.
Some of the contrasts between our previous lifestyles and our new ones can make us feel nostalgic at times, justifiably or unjustifiably so. On a particularly frustrating day, the perspective that we should avoid looking at past lifestyles through rose-tinted spectacles can often elude us. In a previous set-up, a busy job may have meant rushing around, fulfilling multiple roles, trying to balance friends, kids’ schools and work. On the plus side, there was no time to think, ’who am I?’, or ‘what is my role?’. In a quiet moment in a new environment, you might long for this hustle and bustle, even though you know deep down that in reality you were stressed by it a lot of the time. This scenario is usually heightened when we have time on our hands, or too much time to ourselves, particularly if we are not used to it. Even more so if we are not working, or a partner is busy in a new role. Many spouses can find themselves more isolated than they have been used to, which can also change family dynamics.
Living abroad, we all recognise the temptation to blame the smallest difficulties on the country we are living in – a tough experience trying to file documents for work authorisation or a visa can quickly escalate in our minds to, ‘this country is so inefficient and irritating!’. Trying to get through enough language lessons in order to be able to actually use the language can make us feel like the culture is impenetrable and we might end up thinking, ‘there’s no point as I’ll never be fluent’. Going the wrong way on a new subway or train system can leave us irrationally annoyed.
The gap between what we want to be happening, and what we are actually feeling, is a huge aspect of homesickness. This tension between expectations and reality is one of the most important things to be aware of while acclimatising to living abroad. The frustrations caused when expectations are not in line with reality can quickly make us forget that part of the reason we came abroad in the first place was to challenge ourselves. On the contrary, when reality outdoes expectations, we are left feeling ecstatic. It’s a minefield of emotions! Part of the challenge is taking the rough with the smooth, and above all making sure that overall, your expectations have been met or exceeded, making it easier to deal with the instances where you may have felt short-changed.
Ideally, nobody really wants to be having to devote time to even thinking about homesickness or negative emotions, particularly when we want to be focusing on setting up our homes, children, schools, social life, spouses, and work schedules. However, it is actually often best just to admit that it is a natural part of the human experience. We are sociable, thinking animals, at times overly-conscious for our own good. Luckily, this means that however much we may feel a sense of isolation, we are not alone in feeling a certain way. So, the good news is there is no need to hide away letting it become debilitating, secretly counting the days until you can return home. There are plenty of easy things that can help counter even the sharpest homesickness blues, make sure you are not feeling too dependent on others and take maximum advantage of all the benefits of living in another country.
Especially if you are not working (and even if you are), taking a class may sound like a cliché, or ‘not your thing’, but it is actually a great idea for staving off homesickness. Think of something you really enjoyed in the past, even as far back as at school, and go and try it again. That could be music, pottery, creative writing, yoga, tennis, life drawing, languages, gardening, a story-telling collective, cookery, archery, honestly it doesn’t really matter what it is as long as you enjoy it. Ideally choose something creative or at least that uses your brain. Even if you have only one hour a week to devote to the activity, that is an hour a week your brain is engaged and distracted. The more time you have the more you can devote to gaining new skills, and start attributing that positive development with the new place. It can be your ‘thing’ in that country. Creative adult activities are completely underrated, given how relaxing and fulfilling they can be. There is no pressure to make lifelong friends at your class, but it is good to spend a morning, afternoon, or hour around a diverse group of people, if nothing else, for the stories.
A social life is an obvious component to having a nice time abroad, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself, or compare it to the one you had at home. It’s OK if you have fewer friends in an international setting. At the same time it is a relief and can be amazing when you make new friends who you actually relate to. Be kind to yourself when you are ‘friend dating’ – if you don’t want to, don’t put yourself through endless dinners and drinks to see whether you are interested in the same things. See an exhibition together, go to an exercise class, walk round the botanical gardens, do some outdoor activities, go to the theatre, take your kids out together. If you then get on well and want to sit and eat together afterwards, fantastic.
A sense of identity
Naturally, with couples moving abroad to work, there may be a time when schedules are a bit out of joint, with one partner working and other one not. Some people moving to another country will have also left behind a good career, or the timing of starting their jobs may be different, which can create a bit of a vacuum. Initially it is fun to have so much free time, but if you are someone who likes to be challenged, it can seem a bit quiet once you have got over the initial task of moving and setting up. In anticipation of this, thinking in advance of how you want to fill your time can help avoid feeling like you’ve fallen off the edge of a cliff. If you know you are someone whose identity is tied up in your work, why not start a business, volunteer with someone else’s company for one day a week, do charity work, work at a gallery or museum, write for a blog or magazine? Engaging your brain, creating something, and feeling like you are contributing something extra can only be a good thing.
Embrace new dynamics
The transition from ‘power couple’ to ‘stay at home dad’ or ‘stay at home mum’, or switching roles can be a big adjustment. Making sure everyone is comfortable with the contributions everyone is making to the joint enterprise of bringing a family up abroad. These won’t always be financial although money tends to talk the loudest. Making sure everybody feels appreciated and acknowledged for making compromises and mucking in helps to combat potential resentments from simmering up under the surface.
Keep on talking
Obviously you will want and need to keep up with family and friends back home on Facebook, Skype, FaceTime and so on. Practical things can help with this, like getting a good package allowing you to call international numbers from your phone. Set up Whatsapp groups and share pictures. Just keep on talking and communicating with everyone as normal – there’s no need to keep up appearances or bottle it all up, especially if you are really homesick. The most scary thing about homesickness is the sense of isolation, but you really aren’t alone in this and admitting it doesn’t make you weak. If your negative emotions continue for a prolonged period of time, and are applied not just to your new environment, but to everything, it could be worth talking to a professional.
Especially in the early stages, establishing a sense of routine can work wonders. If you’re not feeling tip top, you can switch into auto-pilot and completely rely on the routine to carry you through. Having a favourite local coffee place, bakery, swimming pool, also helps make your new place feel more familiar. An exercise routine helps because it sharpens our logical thought processes, releases endorphins, and helps us feel good about our appearances. There is, however, need to be strict – better to be flexible and nice to yourself, particularly if you are tired. If sacking off those chores and going to get a massage will help, treat yourself, you don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to!
When you start getting those feelings of homesickness, it’s really easy to start blaming others, and to develop a sense of ‘I’m here because of [person]/[job]. Make sure you are honest with yourself from the start that you are abroad because you chose to go, and why. Have a clear set of reasons why you made the decision to come, even if it wasn’t you initiating it. For example, you have made a decision is to support someone else in their career goals, or because the money or experience will enable you to do something else later, or because your children will be better off, or just out of curiosity, or to get away from something else. Feeling like you chose to do it helps you take ownership of the situation, even if you’re feeling out of control.
Overall, we can’t eliminate homesickness altogether, and loneliness is the price we pay for being sociable animals. If you are finding things difficult, don’t worry, embrace it as part of the adventure and make sure you are doing everything you can to distract yourself from these very natural emotions!