‘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