There is no magic pill, no way to make it simple. Moving is difficult and the logistics involved are really the very least of it. Much more complicated and fundamentally much more important are the family’s emotional and psychological needs. While the ultimate nuclear family may have to sink or swim on its own, working together means no individual member is altogether alone. Understanding some key concepts can create an environment where everyone in the family flourishes.
“We’re being transferred.” We heard this so often when I was a child that it became a running joke in our family anytime the conversation turned serious. Parent to child: “There’s something I have to talk to you about.” Child: “What, are we moving again?”
The joke became real the time my father answered, “Well, that’s what I have to talk to you about.” And on we went to our ninth move in thirteen years. By the time we stopped, I had moved twelve times in twenty-two years and lived in ten countries on five continents.
“We’re being transferred.” Powerful, powerful words. Few interrupt the daily flow of family life as thoroughly. Do you remember where you were the last time you heard those words? For many people, it’s rather like when they heard of the landing on the moon or the death of a national hero: the moment becomes frozen in time and frozen in memory.
Whether you’re happy to go or sad to leave, whether it’s your first transfer or only the latest of many, everything you do now suddenly takes place within the context of the upcoming move. One moment you’re living with a sense of relative permanence as you plan for next week, next month, even—daringly—next year. The next moment, every thought and action is accompanied by the sharp realization that you’re only here a few more weeks—at best, a few more months. It’s time to finish projects, organize logistics, say goodbye. Your life as you know it has become temporary; your future vague.
Anybody who has experienced an international move, even one ardently sought and eagerly engaged, knows that it is an inherently stressful experience. It can also be a very isolating experience. The process of transition requires that those moving and those staying disengage from one another. Colleagues and friends can empathize with all that’s to be done, farewell parties can be thrown in your honor, but ultimately it’s you and your family alone who get on that airplane, who leave behind all that has become familiar and head off for the once-known or unknown. It’s you and your family alone.
The Ultimate Nuclear Family
It’s you and your family alone in a way that not even those who coined the term “nuclear family” could envision. Consider for a moment a typical nuclear family: wife, husband, child. Consider now the context within which that family system functions when it has lived in one place for an extended period of time (1). Ongoing relationships have been cultivated: friends, colleagues, neighbours, doctors, teachers, religious leaders, shopkeepers…. These extended relationships surround and enfold the nuclear family. In most societies, and often even in the United States, you can add relatives to that web of relationship: parents and grandparents, siblings, nephews and nieces, aunts, uncles and cousins live nearby. The geographically-stable nuclear family is part of a larger relationship system that nurtures and supports the family as a whole and is available to help its individual members.
Consider now a typical internationally-mobile family: wife, husband, child. No relatives nearby. No web of ongoing relationships—except those renewed on home-leave, those cultivated at a distance via annual holiday greetings, or, for the multi-mover, those expatriate friends from prior postings encountered again in the new location. The larger support system available to the internationally-mobile family consists of the wage-earner’s employing organization, the school(s) the children attend, and the expatriate community itself. This support system, however, has some fundamental limitations.
The employing organization provides support and a web of collegial relationships for the wage-earner him- or herself. It typically offers little day-to-day support for the family as a whole. The consistency provided by the organization to the wage-earner is why an international-transfer is typically easiest on that member of the family.
International schools also provide support, most obviously for the children. Some have begun to take an expanded view of their responsibilities. The most insightful now accept that they cannot educate internationally-mobile children without also addressing the impacts of that mobility on the families. At the very least, school-sponsored parent associations can provide a forum for the non wage-earning spouse to apply her or his professional expertise. This might seem a poor substitute, however, for a career frustrated by an international move! It is the kind of minimal support, moreover, which may be denied an accompanying spouse who has no children.
Finally, expatriate communities themselves provide a measure of support to internationally-mobile families. Institutions, clubs and community centers provide a system for professional development, social contact and personal support. Many of these of course are created and maintained by the non wage-earning spouse in search of professional expression. Here again, however, the very nature of the expatriate community means that while the organizations themselves may continue, the individual faces will change and change again. Long-term relationships and the kind of day-to-day support they provide are difficult to come by.
Thus, given these realities, the internationally-mobile family is the ultimate of nuclear families. Members must rely foremost on one another: spouse on spouse, sibling on sibling, child on parent and even parent on child. In the final analysis, an internationally-mobile family must sink or swim on its own. To what degree it does either, depends on how well family members work together. This is never more true than when the announcement comes, “We’re being transferred.”
Working Together To Meet The Challenge
A person’s attention naturally turns inward when facing an impending move. Family members become appropriately self-centered as each considers the implications of the move to his or her own life. The wage earner is inevitably busier than ever at the office. Past areas of responsibility require some measure of completion and debriefing; the new posting requires preparation and, in all probability, a period of increased travel. The spouse is, similarly, inevitably busier than ever at home. Community commitments must be brought to a close and the immense logistical preparation of an international move begun. Adolescent children, too, will have projects to complete and preparations to make. It is at exactly this time, when family members may be inclined to withdraw into their individual concerns, that a family must give extra care and attention to maintaining strong family relationships.
For wage-earner, spouse and child, the emotional and psychological components of a move must be addressed. These, in fact, are primary. Family members must each let go of their positions and reputations in the office, the community, the school. They must let go of their sense of belonging, of knowing their way around and of being known—and of the security and comfort they have derived therefrom. They must begin the process of saying goodbye and of disengaging from their activities, of watching their colleagues and friends continue on without them. They must deal with all the attendant emotions, be they relief, resentment, grief, guilt, excitement. No wonder people so often feel overwhelmed in the midst of a transfer!
Five key principles provide a guiding framework for families who are about to be transferred: communication, continuity, collaboration, closure, and cultural confirmation (2). Important for all families at all times, these principles are especially important for internationally-mobile families facing a move. Each principle is briefly described below and is accompanied by some suggested strategies. These have evolved over the years, emerging from my work with the many internationally-mobile families of all nationalities who have shared their experiences with me.
Open and honest communication is the backbone of all relationships, especially so in a family. It becomes of paramount importance when preparing for a move. You can only call upon it then, however, if your family has been practicing it all along. Some of the following strategies may seem difficult or even impossible to implement if your family hasn’t been used to open dialogue. Try them out. Start with the ones that seem easiest. Find out which ones work for you and your family. As with the strategies suggested for all the other principles, you will need to account for such factors as your children’s ages and your family’s unique history.
Have regular family discussions in which everybody gets to talk about the move, what they’re looking forward to and what they’re anxious about. Get everybody’s burning issues out on the table. This is a good family practice even if you’re not about to move!
Remember that different family members may feel differently about the move at different times. The wage earner may be leaving work that felt dead-ended for something new and exciting and increasingly autonomous—or vice versa. The spouse may be leaving a well-loved posting with ample opportunity for personal and professional development for somewhere where options feel limited—or vice versa. The children may like where they are or hate it, be excited to leave or angry—all at the same time. Remember that how someone feels about the move one day may change and change again over time.
Honor feelings and encourage all family members to express them freely and without judgment. Don’t try to “fix” someone else’s grief. Deal with emotions by recognizing and acknowledging them. Work the energy out through physical exercise, art work, crying and laughing. A couple who liked to dance fast and hard found it to be a perfect pre-move stress-managing strategy. They found that even when one was happy with the move and the other not, they could still dance together and each get rid of pent-up feelings.
Be careful especially about what your children may be misunderstanding. One mother told me about her young son’s sudden panic when they gave away the family’s pet. In that child’s reasoning, the pet was part of the family. What family member were they going to give away next? Be explicit about what you’re doing and why.
Ease a time of logistical confusion. Put a calendar where everybody can see it and mark important dates: when the movers will come, when you will move into the hotel, when you will actually get on the plane, etc.
Educate your family about the process of transition: the typical phases and the common experiences associated with each (3).
Continuity is also of paramount importance for a family in transition. This is especially true of the multi-mover family who relocates to a new posting every two or three years. It is also true of the first-time mover. Constants are psychological necessities for those living a discontinuous lifestyle.
Look on a map to see where you are now and where you are going next. Put the move into geographical context. I still remember when my fifth grade teacher took me over to the class globe and showed me Rabat, where we were then living, and Kuala Lumpur, to which we were being transferred. A simple but important act that helped me build a sense of continuity between homes.
Use your maximum household shipping allowance. Move as much as you can from one country to the next despite the nuisance and the risk of breakage or loss. Over and over again families report that the familiar furniture makes for the feeling of home. For children, it’s often the only continuity in their mobile lives.
Encourage all family members to identify their “sacred objects,” those few items which remind them of home, family and friendship wherever they are. Take those with you on the plane instead of shipping them with the rest of the household goods. Having the family’s “portable roots” with you when you first arrive in your new posting can ease the chaos of transition.
Do “the work of worry” about the new posting prior to your departure from the old. Gather information about the kinds of activities you will find there that match your family’s areas of interest. Get involved in them as quickly as possible. Participate in any organized mentoring program conducted through the school or expatriate community. One family, ardent hikers, researched possibilities in India before moving there. They had something concrete to look forward to on arrival, and an activity that also helped them get to know their new host country.
Keep consistent your family routines of meals, household responsibilities, bed-times, celebrations. Move school-age children into the new school setting as soon as possible. Don’t relax household rules just because you moved. Do relax them if doing so can ease a particular aspect of your family’s adjustment.
Create “welcome rituals” that you can enact whenever your family finds itself someplace new. For example: develop a special family “homecoming” meal for the first night in your new home; tape a big piece of paper to the wall and create a family map of your new environment, with every family member adding to it as he or she discovers something new; take pictures and send them to friends and family left behind. Whatever your rituals, try to ensure that they are ones in which all family members enjoy participating.
Establish family re-entry rituals for any traveling family member (typically the wage-earner). My family evolved a traditional “jet-lag supper” of soup and potatoes and cheese. Other families have used welcome home notes and while-you-were-gone events lists.
Provide at least a few people outside of the immediate family who are, major catastrophe aside, assured as constants in your family’s life. Such individuals, whether long-time colleagues, relatives or good family friends, become opportunities for building intimate and trustworthy long-term relationships.
Ensure that you have one place on the planet to which your family regularly returns. This is especially important if you are a multi-mover family. Perhaps a grandparent’s or aunt’s home, your own cabin in the mountains, a favorite oceanside resort, such a place serves as a “touchstone” against which the family and individual members can measure their growth and development. While your touchstone may or may not be in your passport country, it should be someplace the family enjoys.
Collaboration is an art that some families may find as difficult to practice as open and honest communication. It means making decisions and problem-solving together. It means sharing power. An international transfer can be disempowering, especially for the non wage-earning spouse and the adolescent child. Collaboration can help return a measure of control to family members feeling out of control in their own lives.
Encourage all family members to get involved in making family decisions to whatever extent is possible. Be sure you are realistic. Don’t tell a fifteen-year old that she doesn’t have to move unless you’re really prepared to consider other options. Specific departure and arrival dates may be flexible to account for individual or family plans. House hunting and selection can involve the whole family and address individual member’s needs. Adolescents can give input on which school they would like to attend and why.
Give your children whatever control and planning responsibility you can. Older children can take an active role in packing their own toys and books and then in unpacking them at the other end. My sisters and I used to serve as ground staff when the movers were packing, helped to label boxes appropriately, and then directed boxes to the right locations upon delivery at the other end.
If either you or your spouse travels a lot, decide in advance how you’re going to deal with it. Discuss whether and how joint decisions can be made in absentia. Establish ways to make up for missed anniversaries, birthdays and other special events. If you have children, collaborate in developing a consistent parenting style and disciplinary approaches.
Assess your relationships with other family members, especially spouse to spouse. An international move does not heal a relationship in stress, it only adds more stress. Address concerns and issues while you have a familiar support system around you. More and more expatriate communities have skilled mental health professionals and marriage counselors available. Use these resources to help you work together effectively.
The research literature on transitions is clear: successful adjustment to a new location depends upon bringing appropriate closure in the old. Some families may be uncomfortable saying goodbye and attending to other such closure activities. It’s too “touchy-feely,” they don’t know what to do with the emotion that inevitably gets stimulated; they’re too busy and can’t afford the time it takes. In reality, families can’t afford not to take the time. Inadequate closure can lead to anger, unresolved grief, later depression and other delayed reactions.
Be aware that people often create conflict with their friends in an attempt to lessen the pain of loss when one of them is about to move. Develop more healthful leavetaking skills. Build a RAFT: Reconciling conflicts with others; Affirming the relationships you have had; saying Farewell to people, places, pets and possessions; and Thinking ahead by gathering information about your new host countries (4).
Create “goodbye rituals.” Go to favorite places and do favorite things for the last time. Help everybody say goodbye to everyone they care about. Make a memory book, invite friends to paint and sign t-shirts, compile a photograph album, tape a video memoir, plant a tree… A young Japanese boy leaving Paris gave each of his friends a letter in which he thanked them for their friendship and invited them to visit him in Japan. This not only helped him deal with his own leaving but also helped the friends being left behind.
Recognize the emotional connection between members of your family and host nationals working in your home. When you’re thinking “my amah, my employee,” your children especially may be thinking “my amah, my heart.”
People who are leaving have to disengage from their various activities and loosen their emotional ties with friends. Those staying behind similarly have to disengage from those leaving. Talk about this with your family and help individual members prepare appropriately. Timing is important here; be sure you don’t disengage too far in advance of your departure.
Internationally-mobile families, and especially multi-mover children, become bi- or multi-cultural through their exposure to different sights, sounds, smells and ways of being. Fundamental changes, however, may become noticeable only once family members have settled again in their passport country.
Recognize that your family has changed because of its international exposure. You are not, and never again can be, the kind of monocultural people you would have been had your family never left its passport country.
Don’t mistake nationalistic fervor—your own or others’—for unchanged cultural attitudes. As an American once put it, she never so supports the United States as when she is living abroad. Adolescents may also romanticize their passport country, particularly if their recent experiences there are limited to summer vacations.
Knowledge of other cultures and an expanded world view are the benefits most often reported by those who have lived abroad. Help family members make the most of their international opportunities. Provide your family with regular opportunities to experience the host country culture through, for example, sporting and other recreational activities. Encourage family members to learn the local language and to build relationships with host country nationals.
Encourage family members to serve as “cultural informants” for those moving to or from countries in which your family had a positive experience. Find opportunities to apply your knowledge of other countries and thereby to confirm your expanded sense of cultural identity. Most consulting firms now providing international orientation services were begun by women and men seeking to do exactly this.
Understand that international exposure has a particularly deep impact on children, on those whose sense of core identity is still in development. If you are a parent who was raised in a single country, your global nomad children may develop cultural identities significantly different from your own. As they become adults and integrate their life experiences, you may well find differences between you in such areas of cultural identity as: sense of nationality, sense of belonging, sense of values, and sense of self (5).
Prepare for the challenge of “re-entry” to your passport country, especially if your family is returning after several years abroad and/or many moves. Prepare family members for the experience of being a “hidden immigrant” in their own country. Once you’re “back,” find other internationally-oriented families with whom yours can talk openly about your experiences and adventures.
Families On The Move
From now on, and especially the next time you hear the words, “we’re being transferred,” consider: communication, continuity, collaboration, closure, and cultural confirmation.