Founder of I Am A Triangle (IAAT) and 8th & Home Relocation
The stresses and strains of a move abroad can have a lasting effect on families, without the proper support. Yet with the pangs of moving away from family and friends, it’s often easy to overlook the huge network of potential allies, friends and supporters that you’re moving into.
The potential safety net of the international community is something that Naomi Hattaway, founder of I Am A Triangle (IAAT), has tapped into with her international social network of thousands of global members who share the experience of a life away from home. With a passion for community building and helping international families ease the emotional burden of a move – based on a lifetime of personal experience – Naomi has developed the IAAT network from a Facebook page to an online resource and community with in-person gatherings in more than 70 cities across the globe.
We speak to her about what inspired her to set up the network and how she sees it developing in the future.
What can you tell us about your own upbringing?
I had a very unconventional upbringing. I was born in the mid-70s in Nebraska, USA, out in the middle of cornfields in a very rural area. My father is black and my mother is white and, at the time, it wasn’t widely accepted to be of mixed race. Added to that was the fact that we were home-schooled by my mother before it was legal to do so, and this meant that we grew up feeling like we didn’t really belong anywhere. As a result, my mother created our own community and opportunities.
I loved being home-schooled. My mother had the freedom to be completely flexible with our schooling; we experienced a lot of real-life scenarios and were taught to understand from experience, not just textbooks. We would go to a construction site, for example, and talk to the manager who would explain how the boom worked or the wrecking ball functioned. As we got older, my mother would develop our work for the week and she let us do it at our own pace, which allowed me to learn about self-reliance and time management.
I had several different jobs after graduating, including as a paralegal for a long time, but began my international life when I met my husband 15 years ago. In our overseas homes, I mainly occupied myself with volunteer work, and I found a huge amount of meaning and value in giving back to the community. This led me to start my real estate referral network four years ago, which connects people on the move with agents who actually have some empathy and awareness around what it takes for family to relocate, and also to set up the I Am A Triangle network.
What has your experience been of moving overseas?
I have moved 16 times, eight of which have been as a family. From the United States, we moved to India, then a year in Singapore. Following this, we moved back to the US, from Florida to Virginia to Ohio. So we have experienced both moving overseas and inside the US, which has been an interesting contrast.
As many international families experience, you get into a routine of moving and develop a set of coping mechanisms to make it easier. We got really close as a family during our time overseas, but we also know that we cope better when we have good people around us, so we try and slot into a new situation fairly quickly. We’ve noticed since having children that the school environment makes it much easier as it provides a natural opportunity to meet people.
There’s also a difficult emotional dynamic which comes with every move. I realised during our last relocation that I had often taken on the role of ‘the barometer’ for our family. I would be extra attentive to who needed what, but in the process neglected how I was feeling about the move myself. I was afraid, in the past, that if I expressed my sadness to my children, they would be influenced by that and see the negative side of the situation. However, as they get older and more used to moving, they’re able to process these emotions better, so I’ve been able to have moments when I’m crying and not have to hide it away from them. We’ve been able to talk about it, which has been a really good thing for our family. We’ve achieved that level of awareness as a result of these upheavals, so we now know what emotional processing needs to happen.
Let’s talk a little more about the differences moving back home to moving overseas; what are the challenges you faced?
It’s easy to assume that the move abroad is more difficult than a move within our home country, and it’s true that there is a much more instant culture shock when you arrive in a foreign country. However, there are advantages to this, as it provides a ready-made community of outsiders, all hoping to find common ground with those around them.
In our experience overseas, there is a heightened level of awareness and expectation among the international community that someone who has just arrived might need something. Those that have gone through the same experiences as you are ready to ask if you’re ok, or to understand and empathise with the issues that come with moving, like the stress of a lost container or an unsettled child.
Then there’s the infrastructure which comes with being part of that community. When we moved to New Delhi, for example, dropping the children off at school provided the perfect opportunity to build relationships with the other parents as the international school catered to this need with a café on site, so you could sit and chat to other parents right there and then.
The difference, in our experience of moving back to the States, is that there is an assumption made that we will know how things are done in that culture, and therefore slot in much easier. People around us are much less attentive than they would be if it was obvious that we were out of our comfort zone. The school set-up is different, as most parents either drive their children or send them on the bus, so there’s less parent interaction. It’s difficult because you feel like you should be comfortable and at home in your own culture, yet you lead a completely different life to those around you and lack the support of family and friends.
How did you come up with the idea of setting up I Am A Triangle and what was the purpose of the community?
The move back to the US was quite sudden, and because of this, I felt more out of control than I had during previous moves. I was enjoying our time overseas, and moving home I was naïve in thinking I didn’t need to prepare, plan or research as I usually would have, so my repatriation back to the States was very difficult.
My mother, who is a missionary in Kenya, saw that I was struggling and shared this piece of wisdom with me. The I Am A Triangle concept centres around a transition the individual goes through represented in shape form; when you are in your home country, it’s as if you are a circle and all of the things around you, like politics, food, religion, celebrations, seasons, make sense to you. When you move overseas, those same things are there but they are represented differently, as if in a square. To fit in and adapt, you can’t stay a circle, but neither can you ever fully become a square and, so the concept goes, you become a triangle. Once you return home to the land of circles as a triangle, you no longer fit in there either.
This idea resonated strongly with me: it made sense and provided a reason for why I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I wrote a blog post about it initially and was amazed by the strength of the reaction I got from hundreds of people. I realised that there was a real need there that wasn’t being filled. I decided to start a Facebook group as a platform for those who were going through these experiences to talk to each other and collectively support each other.
It was a huge success. It was a platform where people that felt adrift could come and have those hard conversations with others who really understood what they were feeling. We outgrew Facebook at around 16,000 members because we became too big to be of service to one other. I Am A Triangle exists to provide support and have the answers that can’t be Googled, but those snippets of useful information were being lost in the stream of content, so we needed to find a better way of organising it for our followers.
We also matured away from it as we developed the culture and personality of I Am A Triangle. I always intended for it to be a platform which champions kindness and is entirely supportive, without being a crutch or interfering in family life, and I felt like there was potential for it to get away from this on Facebook.
How has the platform developed now that it has its own dedicated website?
We have been able to branch out and develop our content to include support, resources, advice and entertainment for our members, in an easily accessible format. The community has grown and expanded around the globe, with gatherings that help people network and get support from other ‘triangles’ in more than 70 cities worldwide. Members that sign up can access a community of people ready to provide them with invaluable advice and practical help in their area, as well as benefit from the expert content we share.
It’s also now a space that people feel safe in. We noticed that members quickly began to personalise their anonymous profiles and identify themselves because they felt it was a place they could really open up without fear of judgement.
From my point of view, the transition allowed me some breathing space to take a step back and look at the essence of what we were trying to do. I was spending upwards of eight hours a day monitoring the Facebook group and it was taking away time from my family and my business, which was detrimental all-round. Since moving to the new site, I’ve been able to manage it more easily and ensure it remains true to the I Am A Triangle standards.
And what does the future hold for IAAT in the coming years?
This year our aim is to turn our focus more towards community impact. We have built up a fantastic network of international people who already add a lot of value to others in terms of support and practical help, but we want to develop this further. Many of our members want to do something to help their local communities while abroad, and volunteering while you’re overseas can sometimes be very challenging.
So we’re looking at partnering with some volunteer organizations to help bridge that gap. We’re also looking at what monetary impact we could collectively have on charity projects or to aid members in difficulty or distress. With a large community like ours, I think that would be something beautiful to see.
As well as focusing on growing I Am A Triangle, I personally am continuing to grow my real estate matchmaking service around the world, as I know from personal experience how much of an impact on a family’s wellbeing a smooth move can have. I’m also collaborating with Emmy McCarthy, who runs Amsterdam Mamas, to explore leadership at a micro-level and how it correlates to community building. We’re hoping to write a book about this aimed at the international community later this year, to bring a microphone to these important issues.
What advice can you give to someone who’s about to go through a move, either back home or abroad?
For those moving home, I think the first thing is doing that practical research that I overlooked on my return. When you’re moving abroad, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of researching a new environment and preparing for a new culture. Going home, we feel like we know what we’re doing and what we’re heading to, yet it’s the same process of emotion and upheaval – so it’s important to be aware of that from the start.
Secondly, I would recommend a mechanism for talking about how you feel. From my family’s experience, this has been so crucial to coping with a move. We use a deck of cards called A New Adventure by Dr Sarah Whyte, which are very simple cards for helping to express emotion and coach yourself on how to deal with it. The act of a third-party, in whatever form, coming into your family’s discussions can be helpful, as it takes the pressure off the adults to try and draw feelings and emotions out of children, or vice versa. We pull out a card when we’re together at the dinner table and talk about the emotion that comes up. It’s a simple way of making sure everyone is processing their emotions in a healthy and open way.
I also think it’s hugely important – wherever you are moving – to leave on a positive note. This is again a very basic concept of making sure that you leave the last location well so that you can land in the new one without residual negativity. It has been something we practised as a family on each move and has had a huge impact. That concept is inspired by Jerry Jones’ articles on Leaving Well, as well as by a book called This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick, where she talks about how to place-make and how the act of intentionally saying goodbye to a place means that you can say hello to the next one with a little more space.
We do this by doing simple, meaningful things which will give us closure on the place we are leaving. This might be revisiting our favourite places and walks one last time and taking photos so that we have something to look back on as a family, or saying thank you to the people that have mattered to us. For our last move, for example, we made a special trip to one of our favourite restaurants to thank the waitress there. She had made us feel welcome when we first arrived, so we made an effort to tell her that we appreciated it.
And lastly, it’s about reaching a place of acceptance and awareness of everything that a place has given you. Whether you had growth or whether you had loss, I think I think it’s about embracing it for all it has been to your family and making sure that the baggage you move with is physical, not emotional.
Melody Warnick / This is Where You Belong: http://melodywarnick.com/
New Adventure cards from Dr. Sarah Whyte: http://www.sarahwhyte.com.sg/shop/
Jerry Jones / Leaving Well: http://www.thecultureblend.com/leaving-well-10-tips-for-repatriating-with-dignity/
Submitted by Naomi Hattaway.
Naomi is the founder of I Am A Triangle, an international social network with thousands of global members who share in common a life lived away from their passport countries. IAAT offers in-person gatherings in 70+ international cities and is a one-stop-shop for resources, expert advice and more. She also owns 8th & Home Relocation, a nation-wide network matching families on the move with relocation professionals.
After living in several locations in the United States, her family moved to India where she learned to thrive in the midst of chaos. Following one year in Singapore, they moved back to the United States, and traipsed from Florida to Virginia and now, Ohio. Naomi is passionate about community building and empowering others to thrive, not just survive, in the places they call home.