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…