The Expat Move – aka ‘The Third Most Stressful Thing’

Image of the wing of a plane and a country seen from the air.

When planning our first expat move, I read an article which  said that in terms of stressful life events, moving house ranks third – behind the death of a loved one and divorce.

Our first expat move was a big one – from England to Bangkok. And I was definitely super-stressed. My daughters were young, I was still working and I had no family living nearby. None of my friends had done anything like this, and I know that some of them thought we were crazy. My family were supportive but it broke my heart that we were wilfully making a change that was going to make them all so sad.

Our move happened quickly and my husband left three months before we did. I stayed behind with the girls to manage everything else – paperwork, packing up, selling our cars, renting out the house, and dealing with all the other things that kept cropping up. And I thought I’d manage just fine, because I was organised and efficient and on top of everything…

It was over Christmas that I completely lost the plot. My husband came back for the holidays and what should have been a happy time was actually fraught and difficult. Despite my best efforts I felt completely and utterly out of control.

But in true Brit style I kept a stiff upper lip while my stress, anxiety and fear bubbled away under the surface. These feelings built up…and, of course, erupted. Over a gift, of all things. Now, I’m a foodie and have always wanted a Kitchen Aid mixer (basically because I’m in love with Nigella Lawson and she has one). And that Christmas, as a surprise, my husband bought me one.

My reaction? I’m not proud to admit it, but I cried. And not because I didn’t like it. Because I loved to bake, baking was part of my life at home. But, and I quote, ‘I’m not going to be baking in Bangkok! It’ll be too hot to bake in Bangkok! In Bangkok it’s literally – baking hot!!!’ This was accompanied by hysterical sobbing – snot, convulsed breathing, the lot – plus the completely mystified faces of my husband and kids.

Because this wasn’t just moving house. We were about to change everything – country, culture, language, work, school. We were leaving behind the people we loved most and moving to a place where we knew no-one. It’s no exaggeration to say that moving country can affect us in similar ways to the ‘big two’ stressful life events. There is a period of grief for the life we are ‘losing’ by moving away, and a fear of the unknown – what is our future going to look like after this huge change?

It had been our choice to accept this move, but I worried constantly about whether it was the right thing to do. I would cry just at the thought of leaving our house – we had moved there as newlyweds, every room was filled with memories. So I didn’t think about how I was feeling and I put all my focus on doing a great job of moving – because I could handle all this, I really could, I could still do a great job at work and be a brilliant Mum and supportive wife and do all the Christmas shopping while packing up our home and – hang on a minute, did I remember to feed the kids? – and I could manage it all, honestly, and I didn’t need to ask for help because everything was fine, I was fine. I was IN CONTROL.

This wasn’t living; this was surviving. Every night I measured out my stress in glasses of red wine and colour coded spreadsheets. I threw myself into the minutiae of the move (lists about lists… organising the sock drawers…decluttering everything that could possibly be decluttered) because it stopped me from really thinking about things too much. About how much I was going to miss my Mum. About how being on a different time zone would make it so much harder to speak to my sisters all the time. About how I was worried that I just might not be fine, after all.

And although I can’t say that that Christmas was the happiest of times for us, I needed that meltdown. I needed to open up to my husband and tell him how I was really feeling. Instead of feeling bad about what I was doing to my family by moving away, I needed to tell them how much I was going to miss them. Instead of pretending I was fine I needed to ask for help.

Because I was in danger of (literally) looking a gift horse in the mouth – and I don’t just mean the Kitchen Aid. That period before a big move is always going to be difficult. But it is also precious. This is the time to max out on spending time with your family, being with your friends, doing all the things you love to do when you’re at home. Worrying about whether moving was the right choice was wasting my energy – we had made a choice, and it would be the right choice…because really, in the worst case scenario, we could always come home. I could no more control the outcome of the move than I could predict the future, so I had to try and let it go and focus on the present. I’m not going to pretend that was easy for me, but it definitely helped.

Recognizing that an expat move is going to be a potentially very stressful period allows you to work out ways to help yourself. Ultimately the important things that need to get moved are YOU and your family. So you need to look after yourself. Even better than that, you need to love yourself. Ask for help. Treat yourself well. Spreadsheets and sorting out the sock drawer come a definite second.

Those few months before we left the UK were intense and exhausting, but they marked the start of an incredible adventure – one that wasn’t easy to embark upon as it meant leaving so much behind. But we gained so much, and the things that really mattered to us at home – our family, our friends – they weren’t lost. The way we communicate may have changed, but the memories, the connection, the love…that hasn’t gone anywhere.

And the mixer? Turned out to be one of the best presents ever. I have learned that cake tastes good whatever the temperature – and when you have cake, you’ll always find friends…

 

 

 

27 Comment

  1. Lucy says: Reply

    And cakes make money for poorer communities in your neighbourhood. I still remember the amazing cake morning/playgroup you hosted to raise money for those affected by the fire in Khlong Toey. Thank goodness you moved to BK so we could meet x. Lovely piece

  2. Connie says: Reply

    Heartbreaking to read, and we can all empathise with that ‘out of control’ feeling, it’s a bit like the first time you hold your new-born in your arms and realise you haven’t a clue about what to do, that you are now wholly responsible for the welfare of a child for the next ……..well, for ever, really because they are always your babies however old (and grey) they are!
    Thank goodness this story has a happy ending! As for the cake – I think that mixer was your life-saver in the end, it’s never too hot when you have air con!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Connie! Yes, I think the newborn analogy is a good one – most definitely had that feeling…
      Looking forward to seeing you soon xx

  3. Jane Brown says: Reply

    Refreshingly honest. Funny, heartwarming and tear jerking in places. Great blog Becci

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Jane…I need to make sure there’s a bit less crying in my next post!
      x

  4. Great post about the reality of an expat move. I’m with you on the mixer I would have cried too, totally normal reaction! I think even when you are ready to leave a country, for your next adventure, there is still the obligatory melt down and freak out that has to be had. Love discovering a new expat blogger who “gets it”

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks so much for this, it’s really nice of you to take the time to comment & I it’s a relief to hear that other people have experienced similar or would also have had a mixer meltdown! Look forward to checking out your blog, thanks for the insta support too 🙂

  5. Allison Pinkham says: Reply

    This was a wonderfully written article and so helpful to myself and others on this journey. Thank you for sharing it!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks so much for reading & taking the time to comment Allison, it makes me happy that you found it helpful 🙂

  6. Prina says: Reply

    Love your articulate way of putting it!! I have to agree about cake and loved your bakes!! I cherish our time together in Bkk!!!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Ah me too Prina! It cracks me up that some of my best BKK memories involve cake! I’ll never forget your offer of English tea and cakes when you heard my English accent at the school. So kind. I hope you are enjoying life in the US xx

  7. Alicia says: Reply

    I remember eating some of your scrumptious cakes, so glad you brought the kitchen aid with you to Bangkok 😛 And thanks for being such a great friend and listener when I was having a meltdown. Keep up the wonderful writing xo

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Alicia! These Bangkapi days seem like a long time ago now…and we all need someone to listen to us now and then 🙂 Loving seeing the updates on your amazing Australian road trip, love to you and all the little Doogues x

  8. Winnie says: Reply

    Lovely post!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Winnie!

  9. Jessica Irwin says: Reply

    Beautiful writing as ever Becci. I’ve missed your posts (and it’s reminded me how much I miss you) xx

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Oh Jess, thank you so much! I miss you too. What I wouldn’t give for one of our Wednesday nights at Carluccio’s xx

  10. Brenda and Kayley says: Reply

    Can’t wait to hear more… and so wonderful to be. A small part in the story to come!!!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks so much Brenda! And you played a big part in our lives in Bangkok…I hope you are both happy in your new home x

  11. Melissa Woodward says: Reply

    Oh Becci, all too true! I also experienced all of those feelings at one point or another, packing up whilst hubby is on another continent, with 2 small children to also look after and entertain! Brings back so many memories! I am sure it has only made us a lot stronger and better off for the experience, here I am just going into my 8th year and still loving it!
    Love and hugs to you all, hope the silver fox is doing ok? It’s a great blog honey, so well written – maybe you have a calling for writing I can see your name on a best seller list one day! Xx

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      You are such a sweetheart Melly! I think it does make you stronger – you know the saying, what doesn’t kill you… 😉
      The silver fox will be very pleased to hear you refer to him as that! He’s fine, greyer by the day – not sure what that says about living with me! Sending you lots of love and thanks for your kind words xx

  12. Andrea Godfrey says: Reply

    My MIL who was once a trailing spouse pointed out to me that the husband has his new job to focus on, the children their new school environment and new friends to make. For us wives, our immediate focus is to help and support our children and husband. And we become lost or buried underneath other loved ones’ needs. Yet our emotions and thought processes are far more complexed than that our husbands and children. And so it gets lonely. At that time, her words hit me and sort of liberated me to ‘feel sorry for myself’ and after my sorry-fest, I was able to carry on more productively. And friends made in the process of settling in, make all the difference. To know that you are not alone, is comfort and assurance. Thank you for sharing .. great blog and look forward to reading more! Xx

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Andrea, I completely agree with your MIL! And I’m glad you had a sorry-fest (I love that!) because otherwise you kind of end up carrying that around with you and it can drag you down. When we moved I thought everyone else seemed so…sorted. And the realisation that they had gone through the same emotional rollercoaster as me well, as you put it, there is great comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. Thank you so much for your kind words and your encouragement xx

  13. Laurie says: Reply

    This is a stunning piece, funny, relatable, concise-perfect really. Thank you for sharing your struggle in such a wonderful way. The realization of the difficulty of becoming an expat didn’t strike me until a few months after I did it! I was pregnant with our first child and suddenly I was very homesick. I am located in Germany too and I’m happy to tell you that the kitchen will come In handy all the time for making new friends. Kaffee und Küchen is a 3pm tradition here. Can’t wait to read about how your assimilation is going. Sending lots of love your way.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Hi Laurie, I was so touched to read your comment, thank you! And so nice to connect with someone else living in Germany. So basically you rolled two mega stressful events into one – changing country and having your first baby! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to get in touch. More posts coming soon… 🙂

  14. […] think back to boarding the plane to Bangkok back in February 2013, what really strikes me is that my youngest daughter was in a pushchair, and […]

  15. E. Richer says: Reply

    Thank you for writing this blog makingherehome. I thought i was the only one going through the same kind of things as you described. Everyone said how ‘lucky’ we were to move but i didn’t feel that way at all. So your words touched a part of me that needed some ‘backup’. Thank you again. Very inspiring.

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