This is me, at the Johannesburg airport, saying goodbye to my family and life in South Africa. I was mostly excited about the new adventure. I knew my parents made this decision with my best interest at heart. Just blocks from my boarding school in a quiet tree lined neighborhood of Johannesburg there were taxi shootouts. It wasn’t safe to be on the streets. Oh, and my dad told me cars were cheap in America. What teenager doesn’t love that prospect? While we lived in different countries before that, the move at seventeen was where my expat journey began. See that smile, that exuberance? It was a while before that girl came back, and like anyone who has moved will tell you, she was never the same girl again.
We all carry with us pieces of every place we have lived and every culture we faked our way into until we understood enough to make it day to day. And every time we leave, those pieces we carry make us foreign, different, and less able to fully be one of our peers in the next place.
It is impossible not to search for connection, for belonging. So in every place we make friends. We develop shared jokes and inside stories. We attend the same events and learn the same language. We shop together; maybe we vacation together. When you become a mom those friends become your support network, you sounding board, your advice when you don’t understand the pediatrician, your source of referrals when your elderly dog gets sick.
Next, predictably, one of you moves on. You throw the best send-off you can. You try not to make teary goodbyes. You tell each other you will see each other again – maybe together at another post, maybe a vacation, maybe home leave. You know, even if you do, it will never be the same again – the morning walks, a glass of wine after dinner, seeing each other at the school drop-off line.
For our kids, it is similar. Maybe the conversations are different, the shared jokes generally about poop. (Forgive me; I have a four and almost six year old. The jokes are all about poop… Unless they are about gas.)
As they get older they ask me about other places they have lived as they spin the globe. Did I have a best friend in Egypt? Did you love me when I was a baby in America? Can we have bunk beds in our next house? Will my teacher move too? Who will move first, my friend or me? Will they speak my language at school?
This is why I learn everything I can about resilience. If moving is the one of the most stressful life events (lists I’ve seen rank all the way from eighth to third), we need to be prepared. Every kid needs resilience to negotiate growing up but our expat kids need it even more. We share rituals, we tell stories, we talk about emotion, and we try to be consistent parents. We learn more geography than ABCs. My son may not be reading yet, but he can find the obscure countries where his friends live easily on a map.
I work hard to build in the rituals and discussions experts tell us will make my family more resilient. I also do it for that girl in the picture, so that she can keep seeing joy, opportunity, and beauty.
PS: I’m teaching a webinar on resilience on March 10th at noon EST. Would you like to join? It’s Free! Sign up here