Driving had been a fear of mine since moving to Europe with my family. I had carefully watched my husband the first few weeks of relocating our family across the world to a new country, perceiving the difficult maneuvers in roundabouts and narrow streets. However, that day he was busy at work, and we needed fresh groceries, so it was just me and the kids in the car.
My first attempt was so much harder than I anticipated. I became queasy and anxious. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” I pulled over and took a few breaths. I had been living in a bubble of stress for weeks: waiting for our visas, receiving our visas, flying to Europe, living through jet lag with toddlers and babies, and trying to acclimate to a completely new country and culture. Everything was harder than I anticipated.
Often what is depicted on social media and blogs are solely the thrilling adventures of living abroad: parents with children splashing in the Mediterranean Sea or posing next to the Eiffel Tower. But what about the initial adaptation period? What about the culture shock, homesickness, and loneliness? And what about the long-term trials and cultural disparities of living abroad?
If you are an expatriate mother you probably feel (or have felt) these emotions. I want you to know you are not alone: the expat life is adventurous, but it can also be difficult and lonely and it is completely okay to feel that way.
Back in the car, I exhaled my stress and less-hesitantly drove back onto the narrow road. “I can do this. I can do this.” We arrived at the grocery store and there were literally no other children, but my own. Suddenly my son grabbed my daughter’s hair and they both started hitting each other and crying. Every single person in the store turned to look at us. We stood out: loud, English-speaking foreigners.
After I calmed them down, I searched the aisles for ingredients on my list: Tortillas? No. Peanut butter? No. Finally after Google-translating many labels, I stood in line to pay. As I approached the cashier I realized that everyone had brought their own bags to bag their groceries and I didn’t have any. I tried to ask the cashier where I could get them, but she didn’t speak English. I ended up piling my groceries in my shopping cart without bags.
As I left the grocery store, I exhaled a sigh of relief. My first attempt at grocery shopping was not smooth, but I did it! I could get used to this.
In addition to culture shock, there was homesickness. A few weeks after the initial honeymoon period was over, I started to realize that I didn’t love everything.
“This summer heat is killing me. Can’t they turn on the air conditioning?” Nope, they don’t have air conditioning.
“May I please have some still water? What? It is 4 EUR for a bottle of water? Don’t you have tap-water?” Sorry, there is no free tap-water here.
“All I want is a delicious taco. Where can I find one?” Well, they don’t have authentic ones here.
Sometimes when I felt lonely, I wanted to call my mom, but I would look at the clock and realize that my mom was still asleep and wouldn’t wake up for another three hours. Then I thought about how I would miss my family reunion this year. Tears started rolling down my face and I had to set aside the laundry and just cry for a while.
Later in the day, I took my kids to the park and looking around sadly, realized that I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t even sure if they spoke English. After a few minutes, I noticed another mom in the park. I was nervous, but I hoped to make friends, so I bravely walked over and said, “Hello! Do you speak English?” She did! I smiled and started talking with her.
We talked about our children and realized that we have much in common. Despite our cultural differences, our friendship blossomed. The distance and time difference from family and friends can be very difficult, but won’t last forever, and having a new international friendship was worth all of the sacrifice.
The comfort and ease of home is often hard to find. And it is normal to feel homesick. It is completely within our rights to miss air conditioning and free tap-water. When I am pining for home, I write down all of the things I miss. I reminisce about them with other Americans and I request visitors to bring me my favorite foods from home—taco mix and canned pumpkin anyone?
But once I’ve gotten my homesickness out, I refocus on what I do have in my country of residence: access to authentic croissants, pretzels, and Belgian waffles; a less than thirty minute to drive to France, Belgium, or Germany; the opportunity to experience a foreign culture firsthand. Intentionally seeking out and enjoying the positives of my country of residence helps me create a homey lifestyle for me and my family.
Living abroad has ups and downs, highs and lows. It is all part of the journey. Now I drive and grocery shop with ease. I even blend in with locals. I feel less homesick and lonely because I have made deep friendships that will last a lifetime. So my advice to any first time expat mamas out there is: feel the emotion, then let it go and brave the journey. You can do this, you can do this. Adventure awaits!
QUESTION: What has helped you when you have felt culture shock, homesickness, and/or loneliness?
CHALLENGE: If you are currently living abroad and feeling homesick, make a list of things that you like about your new home, or things you want to experience, and choose one to experience. If you are in your home country, or a longtime expat, think of someone who might be feeling culture shock, homesickness, or loneliness and find a way to help them feel comforted.
Edited by Sharon Brown and Nollie Haws
Image provided by the author.