„Want to move to South Africa?”
In 2005 I had just returned to Switzerland from a 10month expat assignment in Atlanta, USA. I was settling back into my 60 hour work week, loving every minute of my new project, when my financeé sent me this text message.
My answer changed the trajectory of my life.
Up until that moment I had already lived a pretty international life. The daughter of a US-military school teacher I had grown up in Germany, doing well to integrate but never quite fitting in. Time in the USA for High School and college showed me just how little I fit in there as well. After graduating from a German university with an MSc in Surveying Engineering I had moved to Switzerland to work as an engineer.
By February 2006 we had married, packed up two apartments, honeymooned and moved into our first home in South Africa. My husband was loving his job and the new colleagues. I stayed home. Alone. No friends. No family. No work. Just long days to fill. Each one as empty and lonely as the one before.
Any hope of runs on the beach were dashed due to safety concerns. I spent a lot of time at the gym, started my MBA studies, and sat through of school performances, watching colleagues’ children on stage – testament to my level despair to get out of the house.
First Repatriation to Germany
When we left in December two years later things were a little different since my days were filled with infant care. Our daughter had been born in October. Our return to Germany was slightly delayed due to passport requirements (what a rigamarole!). We eventually boarded the plane in the middle of summer and landed in a grey, wet winter. I will forever be grateful to my mother-in-law for cleaning and preparing our apartment before our arrival so that at least was welcoming. Nothing else was.
I had left Germany 7 years previously as a young professional and was returning as an overwhelmed mom to a new town, new region, new life in an old village. No support. No friends. Again. I stumbled through the winter, pushing the pram up and down slippery hills just to get myself out of the house. Having an infant is simultaneously thrilling, incredibly time consuming and mind-numbingly boring.
The years in Germany passed in a bit of a blur of baby classes where I hoped but failed to connect with other moms and the arrival of our son (a highlight in a dark time). Struggling to care for two children, still not well integrated or connected, still lonely, bored, isolated and frazzled I jumped at the chance to move back to South Africa.
Pictures of these years do show many happy moments but the feelings I associate with these years most are overwhelm and isolation. My doctor also diagnosed thyroid issues shortly before we left Germany which most certainly contributed to my feeling “blue” and serve as an important reminder to go for regular check-ups to identify medical issues that may be contributing to feelings of sadness, isolation or just-not-myself.
Back to South Africa
This time things were different. I was settling in to my role as mom, I was doing freelance translation work and I had friends. I had stayed in touch with the group of moms I had met at ante-natal classes just before we left and they welcomed us back with big smiles, weekend braais (BBQs) and introductions to more friends. Having small children opened up a whole new world of connections both at school and privately and we dove right in. I took on the role of liaison for new international families arriving in our town, organized regular expat-partner coffees and found my feet. These were happy years of sunshine and connection.
Of course there were also many, many doctors’ visits with children that were picking up every virus south of the Sahara, including a 2 hour drive through the bush to emergency care with a feverish infant with pneumonia, but the feeling of these years is none-the-less joyful. That infant, born two years into the assignment, was our third (and final!) child.
NEVER will I EVER...
When she was two, after four years in South Africa, we did the hitherto unthinkable (“NEVER will I EVER move to China”) and moved to Beijing. Once again we moved in December, leaving in summer and arriving in the cold, polluted, overcast, grey dead of winter. The first few months rolled over me like a tidal wave. Settling the older two was the easy part (after kitting them out with uniforms, impossible to find school shoes, and all the other bits and pieces, figuring out school, bus and cafeteria schedules, etc).
But I also had a two-year-old. And no winter coat. And no idea where to buy one that would fit me. I eventually called a taxi to get myself to the outlets, packed the stroller into the back of the car, climbed in with my daughter on my lap (no car seat! Gasp!), somehow explained to the driver where I wanted to go – and got out again 3min later. The mall was less than 2km from our house. Oh.
I walked home in my new coat and with fresh appreciation of the relevance of the maps app on my phone to my daily life.
That sorted I needed people for me and friends for the 2-year-old. But playgrounds were empty (it was winter) and no one was around anywhere.
We soon realized that most children were either at home with an Ayi (Chinese for Aunt and the general term for household & childcare helpers) or at school.
Settling in to China – When the Magic Happened
By spring – just a few months, really – we were much more settled. All three kids were in schools, I had my drivers license (another “NEVER will I EVER …” busted) and we started to establish routines. The children were happy and cared for for many hours every day. Once again I found myself with long days ahead of me – a little translation work, some shopping for our family, shuttling kids around, and lots of free time. The anxiety of the first months subsided and the question of what to do with all of this time surfaced.
I found my calling by August – more accurately: while in a haze of antibiotics I was roped in by a strong-willed friend to share the job of head of the Parents’ Association at our international school. Boredom and loneliness became a thing of the past. In this position all the pieces came together as we poured our combined decades of experience as expat partners and mothers into making our PA a welcoming place of connection and community. The years in Beijing flew by in a magical blur of parties, excursions, travel, book clubs, balls and friendship.
Second Repatriation to Germany
As we planned our move (back) to Germany with three children (no babies!) in 2019 we were much better prepared than previously. I did my research and knew where I was going to start connecting with other people. Repatriation is never easy (read this collection of essays) but this one went comparably well. And then Covid hit and instead of going out, meeting people, and integrating into our community we were locked inside. Isolated. I lay awake at night wondering who would buy us groceries if we got sick and couldn’t leave the house. Anxiety and worry tied my stomach in knots.
Lucky for me I had joined the Global Coach Coalition (previously Expat Coach Coalition) just after we arrived. Learning how to facilitate Adapt & Succeed and connecting with others in the program gave me much needed purpose during this time. It laid the foundation for the work I do now and put structures in place, allowing me to bring all of my experience – as a child, lead assignee, and as an accompanying partner with and without children to my work. Focusing on my learning and building a business kept my mind busy and me centered during the difficult pandemic years.
My Life Today
If appearing in the community paper is a sign of arriving, we have arrived – in a recent edition nearly all of our family members were pictured or mentioned – some multiple times. We are bringing our hearts, minds and voices to the community, becoming part of it and starting to feel we belong.
In my business today I support global women and their families as a coach, mentor and trainer, depending on their needs and situation. I have arrived here, too.
Advice to My Younger Self
Contrast for a moment what was different when I was feeling low and when I was feeling good and happy. The first years in South Africa and Germany – despite happy moments – felt isolated and lonely while our second assignment to South Africa – despite children’s medical issues – are remembered as joyful and fun. A completely normal but bumpy start in China turned around within a few months.
What made a difference each time? Four things that I wish I could whisper in the ear of my younger self:
- Connection & community. Hands down the number one mood booster anywhere. Work on this, always (get the free “How to Find a New Friend” workbook in the Resource Vault)
- Confidence in myself as a parent and person that brings value. Trust yourself, trust the process. Reflect on how far you’ve come then look forward.
- Purpose – something fulfilling to do every day (as a mentor, go-to person for other arriving spouses, chair person, as a learner, coach, mother, partner). Try things out for a while. If they don’t work out, try something else.
- Physical & mental health – keeping my thyroid levels in balance, getting exercise and choosing to spend time alone are key for me.
How can you start to feel better about your life as an accompanying partner?
- Start with how you are right now. Name what you are feeling. Identify the uncomfortable emotions and allow yourself to feel them. They are trying to tell you something. If you listen, what is it that you need right now? This can be hard and uncomfortable. It might take a few days, as your mind shies away from this and eventually circles around. Try to complete the process by being firm but self-compassionate.
- Next, reflect on times in your life when you felt really good. When your needs were met. What was going on? Who were you spending time with? How were you spending your time?
- Finally, acknowledge you cannot go back to that time. Be grateful for the happy moments (maybe write them down) and then look forward. Identify one thing you can do or work towards to fulfill the need you have now that is not being met. What is the first step in that direction?
Moving, living and thriving abroad is hard but it is easier with someone by your side. Someone that has lived experience, theoretical knowledge and practical tools. I would be delighted to be that someone for you.
Contact me now to work with me on this or any other aspect of future you. NOW is the perfect time.
Knowing where to start making friends can be hard so I’ve put together a spark list of inspirations for you: lots of ideas and a little bit of advice.
It’s in the Resource Vault along with all the other workbooks, parenting tips and self-care resources I’ve collected and created for you.