How do you tell your children you’re moving (possibly far, far away)?
I’m not sure I have the right answer, but I definitely have the wrong answer.
Don’t let a stranger tell them at a party. I know it’s very exciting news and you are just bursting to tell someone – anyone. You settle on that cute little old man at the fundraiser you’re attending. What’s the harm, you think. You probably won’t see him again any time soon; after all, you worked together a really, really long time ago and it’s been years since you’ve seen him. Pat yourself on the back, he was so excited for you! An international work assignment and the whole family is going! Such a nice old man to wish you well….
Until you see him across the room speaking to your son on his way out. Your son looks at you, looks at the man, and then back at you. And you know. Goodbye, Little Old Man, who just spilled the secret of the decade.
Your son makes a beeline straight for you and says, “Mom, that man said to have a great time in Sweden and I am going to learn to speak Swedish! Mom, WHY DID HE SAY THAT?”
Accuracy first, transparency second. First things first, let’s correct the country. It’s Switzerland and a disturbing amount of Americans think Switzerland and Sweden are interchangeable. And no, you assure him, he will not be learning Swedish, settle down. He will learn GERMAN. Oh, and this is going to be our secret for two more weeks until we tell your sisters (complete transparency still noticeably lacking).
It was not our family’s finest moment. Other families probably discuss things as adults and plan a date to unroll the news to the children and pets first – not to sweet little old men who can’t keep a secret.
But the reality is, once you accept an overseas (or for that matter a domestic) assignment, things happen very, very quickly. Many people are suddenly calling and decisions need to be made pronto. And that sweet moment where you are all at the dinner table with the grandparents on speaker phone spreading the good news just never seems to happen.
Once I told the girls (my husband was off somewhere else – Sweden, I think), they stormed off in a puddle of tears. I’m sure the youngest had no idea why she was crying, but her sister was, therefore, she must. Sister solidarity.
We were lucky and my husband’s company generously offered us cross-cultural training: one day for me and two days for the kids. My husband was already living in Switzerland at this point, and he forfeited his training, but the kids and I enjoyed three full days of learning about the culture, looking at maps, and having a conference call with a really lovely family who had kids similarly aged and living where we were going to live.
The trainer offered me useful tips like “invest in a good purse,” as she looked at mine. I ignored that tip. You, also, can reserve the right to ignore advice (I bought hiking boots instead).
But if your company doesn’t provide these benefits and you’re forced to wing it, here is a do-it-yourself plan.
- Go to the library and find some age-appropriate books about your new home country. My kids were fascinated with a little book I found full of Swiss trivia (a Swiss engineer invented Velcro – who knew?).
- Reach out and use social media for all the powers of good it possesses. Find someone who knows someone who is living in your future country. Think of the Six Degrees of Separation rule (or the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game). It works. Trust me.
- “Leaving parties” are important. Have one for your kids. Consider buying a notebook for kids to write their farewells to your children in. Use the same notebook, if there is room, when you leave to return to your permanent home (if your move is temporary).
- Pack “comfort foods” that will last for a few weeks, if possible, until you find acceptable substitutions in your new country.
- Discourage well-meaning family and friends from indulging children in a “pity party.” It won’t help. Been there, done that. Be firm, and if someone isn’t supportive, consider limiting contact – at least temporarily.
- Reach out to other expats. They are there, and loads of them are so very friendly. It might feel like on-line dating but it works. You and your kids are most likely not the only lonely ones out there. You will need to step out of your comfort zone and pay attention: the kids are watching you. Your bravery will be contagious.
- Google Earth! Find your new address and zoom way in. Go for a virtual walk in your new town. The level of detail is stunning.
- Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat are all free ways to stay in touch, but be aware of what is age appropriate for your children.
- Pack your sense of humor, You are going to need it.
- Pack the tissues. I guarantee you’ll cry when it’s time to leave. Tell the kids it okay to cry. It’s normal. Really messy but normal. Mop up all the tears and then lock the door.
- If you won’t be returning to the same house, let the kids write the house a goodbye letter and, if they can muster up the good will, a welcome letter to the new family.
- Take pictures of all of their favorite places: the hospital they were born in, the park, their school, the ice cream parlor – whatever places tell the story of them having lived there.
Remember, it’s an adventure. Adventures have their ups and downs. Each child will react differently and in his or her own time frame. And someday, sooner or later, the move will become part of your children’s history – the story of them and their lives.
Text and photo by Jennifer Dziekan
Jennifer lived in Switzerland for three years with her husband and three children. In July, 2015 she found herself making the transition back to the U.S. Nothing was easy except for possibly the grocery shopping. Back “home,” back to work, and back to feeling like a fish out of water.
Illustration by Lara Friedrich
Lara has been a freelance illustrator for Mothering Matters since early 2013. She is in her third year of University (majoring in Psychology) where she’s currently working as an assistant in a research project in pedagogy. Lara is also an assistant translator from German to English for various fiction books, and also works as a demo singer for the songwriter Kate Northrop.