Our Exceptional Life as Expat Family – Why Coming Back is Harder than Leaving
9. März 2020
Have you ever wondered, how living in a country far from your own would feel like – especially, if you don´t have to worry about money? How would you introduce yourself, how would you re-arrange your household and what would you miss most?
What does it mean – living as Expat family?
This article is not only about the experience we made, living in different countries, what it takes to be an Expat family, which challenges you face and which rewards you get, it is about Identity and different roles in this expat journey. The working partner, the accompanying partner, how the kids identify and the overall core values of your family. Above all, it`s about how you have to be able to adjust – fast and without hesitation. It is about the fun, you have along the way and the challenge of returning to your home country.
“Hello, my name is Melanie, I´m from Germany and my husband Markus is from Austria, our three kids are 6, 12, 15 and are in Grade x, y, z. Before we came here we lived in Berlin, Switzerland and Greece.” This was the introduction I would normally give at various school meetings, but is this who I really am?
“I’m from Germany”, was one part of my introduction. Yet, could I still identify with it having lived abroad for so long? In 2016, when Germany had to face the peak of the refugee crises, we lived in Switzerland. With two young kids, I barely watch the news. My main information channel was the internet. Most of the times, I couldn´t believe what I saw or read. Headlines and pictures of hostility towards strangers, demonstrations against refugees, “normal people” going on the streets to demonstrate against the immigration stream.
I was hard for me to identify with this. Not to forget: I was an immigrant myself. Living with my family in a country which wasn´t my home country, speaking a language, which wasn´t my mother tongue. But of course, life in Switzerland was different, immigration was highly restricted, we had a Company, who had bailed for us, organized everything. We were safe, sitting on top of a hill, overviewing the beautiful lake and the vineyards. It was easy not to identify with the crisis in your home country from this place of security.
How had everything started?
“I´m promoted to a manager position”, disclosed my husband Markus one fine day in Spring 2008, while we were living in Munich. It turns out, the position was in Berlin, my hometown. Familiar place in terms of growing up and exploring the party scene, during my studies. Suddenly, it was a different environment: being a double mom and only working part-time from home for a Munich-based company. We had to start all over again. Adjusting to the new kindergarten, making up new friends.
Three years later, in spring 2011, Markus got an offer for an Expat assignment – in Neuchatel, Switzerland. I wasn´t overly excited as I had expected a more exotic country. We already spend a lot of time in Austria, so Switzerland didn´t seem to be a huge difference.
The Company invited us to an Exploratory trip and I had to admit that Neuchatel was a beautiful nice town with a charming environment, which felt more like being in France than in Switzerland.
You have to tell your Family you are leaving.
The hardest was to tell the kids, especially our eldest, who started school after that summer. There was no German school in Neuchatel, so after many sleepless nights, discussing the options, we made the decision to apply to the International School in Neuchatel, a bilingual Montessori School, French-English.
In August 2011 we moved to Switzerland. We had a good time there: it´s a beautiful country with a lot to visit and to explore. I became an active member of the school community, helping organize school events and outings for parents. I made playdates for the kids, getting to know other mums and helping each other. The surrounding was French speaking, so the first two years, I had to keep up with my French and took intense language lessons.
Should I start working again?
During my second year, I was thinking about taking on new job opportunities, but I still didn´t felt confident enough with my French, so the only other option would have been the German speaking part, which was more than 30 minutes away.
It was not the language question, which stopped me searching for a job. The question was: Where do I want to work? How can we organize the day-to-day business and is it really worse the effort? My husband had a good salary and due to our Expat status, the Company took good care of us with paying for a lot of expenses.
We never knew, for how long this assignment in Switzerland would be. The contract was for 2 years, but change could happen at any time. As soon as one person changed his international position, the wheel started and people had to be replaced.
I felt, we never couldn´t make long-term plans. What do we do next summer? Hard to decide, we may have to move. Shall we buy new curtains (which are highly expensive in Switzerland)? It´s not worth it – we may move soon. We had to be able to live with uncertainty. We had to be able to deal with it. People are planning to visit you? Please, go ahead, but don´t delay your plans to much.
We realized, the trick is to change your perspective: you have to treat every assignment, every country as permanent. You plan for the next summer or the next school step for your kids as if you were living permanently there, otherwise you go crazy. Once I had decided to accept this, live became easier and we even decided to go for the next adventure: child no. 3.
More work to come.
If I looked closer at my day, I realized that actually I did work a lot during the day. I had language lessons with homework assignments, I had the housework to do, vacation plans to make and worked voluntarily for the parent teacher association. Having three kids also means a lot of laundry and driving back and force to playdates, sports activities and doctor appointments.
“Why can´t your husband help?”, people would ask. Entitled question. Clear enough a new job opportunity comes with new responsibilities, new team members a new role. Markus worked a lot during these years and I tried to keep his back free as best I could. Living in an “Expat-bubble”, where you meet a lot of other frequently moving families, you learn, that often time this is the way of division of labor. One partner works a lot for a good-paid job and the other partner takes care of all aspects of family life. It is a difficult game, as misbalances can worm their way into your relationship.
The expat assignment sounds amazing: you live in an exciting environment, get to know knew people, visit new places and even have enough money. But: there is a lot of work behind the scenes: I tried kept up with family business, planning the weekends, the vacation, taking care of the kid`s needs and if it comes to this: taking care of all aspects of the move.
The years passed by and in March 2017, Markus got the offer for a position in Athens., Greece. Athens? This had never been on our list of possibilities. We started informing us and were thrilled. We went on an Exploratory tip and 3 weeks later, he already started his new assignment.
Again, we had to make a lot of decisions.
These are the biggest challenges for the family: being able to make fast decisions: do we go yes/no, followed by where to live, which school to take, before it even comes to settling in at the new place and to let go of friends, previous routines and surroundings.
You can´t underestimate these points: letting go of friends and routines. Because after all, we are all humans with different needs and wants and especially small humans are drawn to routines. Yes, it is exciting to visit a new country. But giving up everything you had known before is not easy. We were very lucky, that our kids adjusted well, but that is not given. Having three kids, there is a high chance that one is not adjusting well, missing his previous friends, school or even bedroom. During this time of transition, you don´t only have to be the originator of the household, but even more a psychologist, trying to be the stable person in their lives. You have to find your own way of dealing with the fact, that you miss your friends too, but giving a positive example of starting the day with good vibes.
My view is the view of an accompanying partner. I realized, that sometimes I envied my husband. He was the one, taking over the new job responsibilities. To me that looked easy: you have a new job title and a job description, your new team is highly motivated and very eager to please you; so my thinking.
Who has the easy part?
Every time you change the position, you have to dive into the responsibilities, get to know the people and to learn how the team is functioning and which unspoken rules are working. On the other side, I had to re-arrange the whole household, make new connections, find new doctors and try to the changes as easy as possible for the kids.
In every new assignment, the family has to find a new routine, somehow define their roles new. In Greece, Markus was traveling a lot and besides the fact that we would explore the country during weekends, he was less present during weekdays. This is not uncommon. “Expat wives” normally have to be very hands-on and good organized. You start to make your own decisions. We were not allowed to bring our car to Greece? I had to sell it myself as Markus had already left Switzerland. I need a new one? I bought one, as I didn´t want to wait for weekends. He would take care of his team and I would take care of the school and family life. A clear separation of roles.
Is this how I wanted to live my life?
Had I planned and envisioned my life like this? What are my needs and wants? Is this life filling me up?
To be honest, Athens didn´t give me much chance to think about it. It was such a pulsating and vibrant surrounding, that I didn´t dive much into these questions.
I throwed myself completely into this new life and loved everything about it: I loved Kifissia, the place north of Athens, where we lived, I loved downtown, the new school, the house, my neighbors, my Greek teacher, the fact that I was able to learn Greece and especially the opportunity to reach the ocean within a 30-minute drive. Don´t forget about the weather.
Everything was good, everything was perfect!
Until: “We have to move again”, my husband offered me one evening end of April, exactly 8 months after we had moved into the house. Looking over to him, I could immediately see that he was not kidding. “We have to go back to Germany”, was all he could add.
I was shocked, I was upset, I was furious. I couldn´t believe what he was telling. I felt betrayed. Betrayed for my beautiful life in Greece and betrayed by the Company who has promised us to take good care of us and suddenly would let us down.
I didn´t wanted to move again, organize schools, house, re-arrange furniture and phone new doctors again. But what was bothering me most was: what will I do back in Germany?
With what do I identify, if “Expat wife” has defined me for years?
Living an Expat life is a good excuse for not working, for keeping yourself busy with family business and going with the flow. Not thinking further. What do I want to do after it is over? How do I want to live, where do I want to work?
Back in Germany, our kids adjusted well. It seemed to be their natural surroundings. We made good choices regarding the place to live and the school we took. It all fell into place without forcing anything.
I realized, that our kids don´t necessarily identify with their home country, a language or their passport. Especially in an international environment, they identify with their school, with their friends and their favorite football team. They are growing up with friends from all over the globe, speaking all kinds of languages.
For me, the coming back was difficult. Especially, when it came to “and where do you work?”, I always had the feeling (and I still have), that I need to explain, that we had lived abroad and I did take care of our moves, learning new languages and helping our family adjust. I always try to excuse myself for “not having a proper job”.
An important step was to acknowledge, that I had played an important role during this Expat years. The second, that this is not what defines me: where I´m working and what I´m doing all day long. Neither it is the fact, that I live abroad or in my home country. It is how I´m dealing with things: with grace and kindness. It doesn´t matter, that I´m not earning any money. But it is important, how I spend my time and which attitude I have in doing so.
International assignments can be a huge reward for families, but they can also be quite demanding. It all depends on your personal attitude. It broadens your view and connects you deeper to the world and to the people, who live in.
If there is THE ONE LEARNING it would be to take in every moment and be present in your life as best as you can. Don´t close your heart off – rest open for new challenges and give yourself time to adjust.