Dealing with Ambiguity or ‘We Might be Moving…’

Moving? Junk in Hong Kong harbour

‘We might be moving…’

How many times have you said that, or heard it from a friend? If you’ve been an expat for any length of time, the answer will be a LOT. And the worst bit about this sentence? Managing the ‘might’. Living with uncertainty and doubt – whether it’s about moving or any kind of change – is really hard.

It seems like forever ago since I had a ‘proper’ job, but one of the things I remember from the early days of my career was being told that a good manager needed to be able to deal well with ambiguity. What I wasn’t told was what this really means. Because ambiguity, by its very nature is…erm…ambiguous.

And then I was faced with it in my personal life. You know how it goes – there’s talk that you might be relocating, but none of the specifics. You don’t know when and you don’t know where. But it’s probably going to happen soon. Or soon-ish. Or maybe next year. With our first move we thought it was going to be Europe, then the US, then the Middle East, and then the US again…and it turned out to be Thailand. That was not in our plan. I had mentally moved around the world several times. Every time my husband would mention a place we ‘might’ move to I would be imagining living there, researching schools, looking at online forums about life as an expat in city X or country Y. Because this is how I thought I could manage the ‘might’. I would break it down and come up with a plan. And an alternative plan. I would think my way to clarity.

Essentially, I needed to be in control. But I wasn’t in control. We weren’t moving with my job, we were moving for my husband’s career. And even he didn’t really have a say in it; we were at the behest of a large, multi-national organisation and our needs (especially my needs, my desire for answers, clarity, just a little bit of a plan, please…) were second to the needs of the company.

To compensate for the loss of control I felt at not knowing where or when we might move, I tried to be Super-Controlled-Woman. (If you don’t know her she is officially the worst superhero ever. She doesn’t even have a cape, just a clipboard…). I became a planner, a list compiler, an anticipator of all the ‘what ifs’. My mind was working constantly as if trying to solve a puzzle – because if I just knew what was going to happen, I’d feel better.

But guess what? It didn’t work. And if I have learned anything from being an expat these past four years it’s this: Super-Controlled-Woman a bit of a pain in the arse. Not only that, she actually makes things worse. Much more helpful in these situations is her nemesis, Flexible Woman (oh the irony that Flexible Woman is such a strained superhero name! Stick with me on this…that’s the last one, I promise…). Because the more flexible you are, the less painful it is to adapt to change. If your plans don’t work out the way you’d expect, channel Flexible Woman  (if you need help visualising – she’s wearing yoga pants, and if you suggest an impromptu night out she’s there like a flash….). Take a breath and remember that, although a spanner may have appeared in the works, you can handle it. Roll with the punches.  On the other hand, Super-Controlled-Woman would be more like: ‘‘Oh my god this was not the plan! Everything is going wrong! This is a DISASTER!’ See? Not only she is a pain, she’s also so dramatic. You don’t need her in your life.

OK, full disclosure: I may have yoga pants, but flexible I am not. I can barely touch my toes. Going with the flow does not come easily to me, but I am trying. We moved to Germany in August 2015. Four months later we found out that the division my husband worked for was going to be sold to a French company. We had moved to Germany on a local contract, with the hope we’d be here for at least three years. I had just started to feel settled and then, here it comes – we ‘might’ have to move again. Now I admit that we have chosen this expat life, but this just felt like TOO MUCH and way too soon. Cue a minor freak out on my part. Will we be moving to Paris? Will we be staying here? Will you even have a job to go to? Will we have to go back to England and live with my parents?!!

But none of the above happened. A year later, we are still in Germany. My husband STILL doesn’t have confirmation on his job. So it’s been a full 12 months of living under a shadow of ‘What ifs’. . And that doesn’t make me feel good, but I am handling it. It helps that I have friends here in a similar situation and we can talk about it. And it helps that we have moved before, to a place that wasn’t in our ‘plan’ – and we made the most of it. In fact, we loved it.

So I am focussing on the positives and really trying to make here feel like home rather than thinking about where we ‘might’ go next. Because that’s what I need and it’s what my family needs. My mental world tour is on hold, and there’s not a clip-board in sight.

Of course I still worry about what might happen. But instead of trying to control the outcome, I’m controlling the way I react. Like many of you, for me, moving meant stepping off the corporate ladder. But man, I’ve learned more about managing ambiguity in the past four years than I ever did at work…



Coming up…practical tips for dealing with ambiguity.

For more about moving with kids click here

11 Replies to “Dealing with Ambiguity or ‘We Might be Moving…’”

  1. My husband and I are International School Teachers and we have lived in ambiguity for the vast majority of our 13 years overseas. Add in 3 kids and 4 countries (Germany, Oman, Singapore & UAE) later and now every year is….It might be our last year here…Where will we go next…
    Can’t buy this… in case we move
    Can’t do that… in case we move
    Can’t afford to move here because of three kids…
    Can’t afford to move home because of three kids…
    Luckily we have a choice about whether to go or stay but it doesn’t make it any easier…. especially as kids get older (our eldest is now in middle school)!
    Understand how you feel! We just look at it like a big long adventure and try to enjoy the day to day life!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      That all sounds familiar, although you’ve been doing it a lot longer than me! You are so right though, it is a big adventure…and that’s a great way to view it. Thank you very much for your comment 🙂

  2. Great post and know these feelings all too well. It’s hard to get 100% settled anywhere knowing in the back of your head it will never be your “forever home”. I’ve always been ok about moving on but like you as a planner and a control freak my anxiety levels certainly rise. Another great insight into our nomadic lives

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you…it’s good to know that other people feel the same way! I agree that it’s hard to settle when you know you’re not going to be in a place forever but I also think I’ve been very lucky to get the chance to live in some great places. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment 🙂

  3. Loved it! Personally I don’t move 1 inch or think of anything before I see the new posting on paper! And I don’t let the company of my husband rush me. Once they made a remark about that my reply: it took you guys about 10 months to make a decision so I believe me taking 3 weeks to do some research before I say yes or no isn’t a problem. They were shocked but accepted it. My husband laughed his pants off. And the one thing I also do: I don’t make it my problem if something doesn’t go as planned especially when it’s the companies fault because of short notice! Think admission to schools. I just throw it back over the fence???

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      I like your style Sabine!! And I think you’re right about not making things ‘your’ problem – I’ll adopt a bit of that attitude I think! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, it is very much appreciated

  4. This is a great post. The ambiguity of staying or going and if going, where to next literally drove me crazy last year when our stint in the middle east wasn’t working out. Like you I was doing the mental world tour and even tried applying for jobs in the ‘maybe ‘ locations. As a teacher, job applications take forever. My new approach is to wear the yoga pants ;). You’re so right, flexibility is key but it can be really hard. Can’t wait to read how to manage ambiguity x

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks so much for the comment…the yoga pants are getting a lot of wear after the Christmas holiday – unfortunately, not for exercise 😉
      I will post my follow up blog soon…and it will be a case of trying to teach myself how to do it as well as write about managing ambiguity!
      Happy new year, hope 2017 is a good one for you x

  5. […] So I find myself uttering the 4 words most expats end up uttering at some point in their journey (albeit in our case it is of our own accord) … ‘We might be moving‘.  […]

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  7. […] up, but nothing is confirmed. I wrote about this in my post ‘We Might be Moving’ (see here). Judging by the comments and messages I received, it’s clear that I am not the only one who […]

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