Tag Archives: mental health

Life Abroad as a “Trailing Spouse”

Instead of
Instead of “trailing” how about “accompanying” spouse?

“Trailing spouse”: It’s a term that makes me grimace. The idea that there is one partner in the relationship that trails (by virtue of the word) behind the other. To me, the term “trailing spouse” brings with it a feeling of having less power, less say, less importance. That this person’s capacity is defined by their relationship to another person, that is, the non-trailing person.

How would you better describe this experience? Is there some catchy nomenclature we could apply that better accounts for the incredible courage and resilience that partners in this position display as they take on great challenges? What snappy term encompasses what it is like to approach the adventure of living abroad without the safety net of a job or post-doc to provide financial, social and professional security and consistency?

Beyond simple wordage, people in this situation encounter many challenges specific to being the partner who does not receive compensation and recognition for the difficulties inherent to living in their non-native country. We already know that people who live abroad are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression and substance use disorders than their domestic counterparts. But we know much less about the subset of individuals that fall within this “trailing spouse” category.

Here are some things we do know:

-Thanks to globalization, more people are living abroad than ever before

-Often, people are moving abroad at the same time when they are contemplating starting a family or are raising young children

-They may be giving up or compromising their own professional trajectories

-They are sometimes in bi-cultural partnerships

-There may be increased stress in the relationship with their partner as a result of moving or the partner’s new work responsibilities

-They have to set up new routines for themselves without a lot of information about what resources are available

-They may have to learn a new language

-There may be more financial stress

-There is less social support (at least initially)

-They may be exhausted from coordinating the move

-They may not know how long they will be living in their new country

-They may have to manage their family of origin’s reaction to their departure (i.e., guilt)

-They may have very little experience living abroad

-They may have felt pressured to move

-They may have a history of a mental health problem

There are many factors that could influence how well someone in this capacity copes with moving abroad. It is an almost infinitely complex experience that requires flexibility, courage and self-compassion along with a healthy sense of humor.

To those “trailing spouses” out there, you are not alone. You may be living in an incredibly beautiful country with more material or financial resources than you have ever had and still feel unhappy or lost. Your friends on Facebook may be in awe of the pictures that you post of your new domicile. In spite of this strange feeling of incongruence, it does not mean that you’re not adjusting or “doing it right.” Moving abroad with your family or spouse is a shock to the system and feels different for everyone. It is my hope that this post normalizes the experience of difficulty that so many experience when they move abroad.

When in doubt, talk to others in your position. Don’t be invisible. Or seek the support of a psychotherapist or other mental health practitioner. Other suggestions for making a smoother adjustment can be found here. It is certainly possible to survive and thrive as a “trailing spouse” but it takes time, self-compassion and courage to do and think about things differently.

(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Importance of Being Still

Aare_fishing
Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to practice being still if you don’t have the time for a contemplative fishing trip.

Although I talk a lot about how to integrate movement and activity with your mindfulness practice (hence the name of this blog), today I feel it is important to highlight the equal utility of cultivating stillness and quiet in your practice. In the midst of the busyness of daily life, physically being still and not moving our bodies generally only happens when it has to: stuck in traffic, waiting at the DMV, or logging hours at our desks. And opportunities to cultivate stillness in our minds happens far, far less often.

Of course, mindfulness does not mean emptying the mind of thought. Instead, when I talk about mental stillness, I refer to the practice of intentionally noticing and being aware of the mind’s activity. Resting in awareness of what is present, rather than all of the myriad other mental gymnastics. It means noticing the pull to make that mental shopping list or write that mental email to your boss or to take a mental inventory of your own failings during the week. When being still, it is possible that we notice the movements in our minds and bodies (like that rumbling stomach, your respiration, that ache in your back) even more than we do in other less mindful moments. This awareness may be unpleasant and there may exist a rather strong pull to slide back into the busyness to avoid these sensations. The practice of being still is quite dynamic and changeable- which seems contradictory!

Making time to be still has many benefits, including that it strengthens your brain’s ability to understand and identify complex experiences. Furthermore, being intentionally still is just plain uncomfortable at times (it’s true!) which is a useful state to explore given that discomfort is something that occurs often throughout any given day. If our bodies become better acquainted with it, we can potentially increase our effectiveness in responding to a discomfort-inducing situation.

So, the next time you feel yourself hurtling along with the velocity of life, take a minute to consider being still. Here’s one exercise to try:

Adopt a posture that you can maintain for a few minutes and settle in to your body. Notice the feeling of contact that your body makes with the objects around it, the floor or the chair or your clothing. Open your awareness to the feeling of being still in your body. Notice that you may feel the desire to move, to scratch an itch, to adjust your weight, to fall asleep… Whatever is present, just take a moment to note the associated sensations. Investigate the sensations of the breath in the body and the movement in the body that occurs with each in-breath and each out-breath. Now, bring your attention to thinking and notice what may be present in your mind. Just as you did with noting sensations in the body, simply observe the habits of the mind that are occurring in this moment of stillness. Continue for a few minutes and notice the quality of ease or dis-ease that may ebb and flow over the duration of this practice. When you conclude the practice, intentionally return to movement with some of this expanded awareness and notice what that rejoining with busyness feels like in the body and the mind.

All practice is useful and as this lovely diagram points out, there is possibility for great variety in our “mindfulness diet.” I hope that you will consider a brief moment of intentional stillness even when life provides us with infinitely more opportunities to avoid sitting with ourselves. Or, perhaps you can take just yourself fishing.

An Ode To Expat Mamas

Friends

This post is one of a particularly personal nature and also one that I am very excited to write. I think it is relevant to the general theme of this blog given that it relates to what it is like to be a mother abroad and the importance of social support for mental health. But mostly it is about friendship and its power to transform the experience of living far from home.

When I first moved to Switzerland, my son was just two months old. I had very little experience parenting in the United States much less parenting in a country where I could not speak the language, did not have a job and was far from the support of my friends and immediate family. I made an effort to reach out and luckily, there were a number of ways to meet other English-speaking parents in Lausanne. I now know that, during this initial phase of acclimation, there can be a tendency to open up to anyone with friend potential and very quickly become socially overextended. But, with lack of sleep whittling away patience, I moved into the phase of being more selective with potential social activities.

I was fortunate to meet and connect with some of the most creative, courageous and smart women from all over the world. Our countries of origin spanned most of the world: Taiwan, Ukraine, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Dagestan, Malaysia and the U.S. And despite our differences, we now share a chapter of our lives with one another that we all consider to be one of the most special and unique. We all had our first children around the same time and weathered some of the greatest ups and downs of this new experience together.

As it often happens in the highly mobile expat communities, that chapter is now coming to a close as these women and their families follow opportunities in other countries. Although we always knew the intensity of these relationships would change as our life circumstances did, it is still sad to go our separate ways.

I often tell clients that expat moms get the short end of the stick. In moving to Switzerland, they are usually the ones that experience the most dramatic changes to their living situations and, typically, are tasked with organizing life for the kids. They are immersed in the minutiae of daily life in a foreign country and often juggle a lot of balls. Whether they stay at home or work outside of the home or something in between, expat mamas have to be tough. They enter this life without many certainties about what the future may hold and develop a thick skin that allows them to weather the daily difficulties. They learn how to advocate for their children even if it goes against the grain and how to manage the childcare shortage. Many of these mamas are tireless entrepreneurs who put themselves “into the arena” in a big way. Expat mamas take things in stride, whether it’s the inconvenient laundry room schedule, the train stations without elevators or ramps, the two-hour lunch break from school, or the Sundays where nothing- I mean NOTHING- is open. In short, to be an expat mama, you have to be comfortable with discomfort.

One of the best things an expat mama can do is develop a strong network of genuine social support. Ideally, a playgroup for mother and child-where both moms and kids can enjoy the company of those who understand their experience. I believe that while it is not necessary to have a village to raise a child, it sure is nice to have one. And expat parents are uniquely in a position to enjoy the immense diversity of cultural perspectives while connecting with other parents who share the same fundamental motivation: being the best possible parents they can be.

I do not think I would be the happy and relaxed parent I am today without the influence of my mama friends. Even though moving abroad meant starting over and forging my own way in many respects, I somehow feel like the friendships started here have been there all along. And I am confident that these relationships have left a mark that will last into the future.

(Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Navigating Postpartum Depression and Anxiety as an Expat

Baby_mom

As most parents know, nothing can truly prepare you for what it will be like to bring a child into the world and be charged with raising that tiny, vulnerable creature into adulthood. After reading a dozen books, endlessly questioning my friends with children and buying more baby supplies than anyone could ever need, I thought I was prepared. But, strangely enough, when the nurse put my son in my arms, I couldn’t have felt more unprepared. Somehow, we parents work it out. Our children survive our initially clumsy attempts at diaper changes, feeding and bathing. We navigate the challenges of early parenthood that we could never have anticipated. However, this learning curve is a rocky road, one that leaves many (if not most) feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and perpetually longing for a nap.

Yet, today I write about those parents who feel all of those things but to a degree that is difficult to articulate. Those parents who may, on one hand, feel like what they are experiencing is “normal” adjustment but on the other, suspect their struggle is different from those of their peers, and as such, may be reluctant to voice what they are feeling. It is my hope that this post serves to do a few things:

  • Elucidate differences between the more typical (I want avoid saying “normal” as there really is no such thing) early parenthood experience and symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety (PPD/A) that might warrant extra attention and treatment
  • Discuss how being an expatratriate might exacerbate early parenthood difficulties
  • Assure any suffering parents that they are not alone- that help exists in the form of effective treatment by a professional or by accessing resources available in our community

Symptoms of PPD/A

Listed below are symptoms that characterize the general experience of postpartum depression/anxiety. Keep in mind that not all of the symptoms might apply or that the symptoms may be somewhat different for you. I provide the list simply to increase general awareness.

For at least two weeks at a time following the birth (or adoption) of a baby, you experience some of the following:

  • Depressed mood (most of the day, almost every day)
  • Inability to find pleasure in the things you normally enjoy
  • Not wanting to eat or overeating
  • Not being able to sleep, not wanting to sleep, or wanting to sleep all the time
  • Feeling physically tired or aching to the point that your level of activity is markedly different from normal
  • Feeling physically wound up so that you feel as if you can’t sit still
  • Lack of energy or fatigue nearly every day
  • Intense feelings of inappropriate or excessive guilt and worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or someone else
  • Racing thoughts
  • Constant worry
  • Frequent or constant resentment of your partner or child

And most importantly

  • The way you feel consistently interferes with your normal functioning (e.g., decreased socialization, inability to manage responsibilities, decline in hygiene).

The Expat Experience: Feeling Alone in the World

Living in a foreign country far from family and friends can serve to exacerbate feelings of being isolated and alone. There may be fewer sources of support to help you remain balanced and able to care well for yourself in conjunction to you caring well for your baby. There is less access to people who might remind you of your personal resources and help you combat thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness, people who know how to encourage and praise you when the going gets tough. Not to mention the difficulty involved in simply accessing community resources when you do not speak the native language. Feeling tongue-tied is just one more obstacle to picking up the phone and getting help. Furthermore, expat parents often come to a new country for a work opportunity and having a baby can change or eradicate the existing support network that was provided by simply being at work. Depending on your parental leave situation, all of the sudden, you are out of the office and plunged into life as a mom or dad, which is likely quite different from the work environment.

Just to put things in context, clinical psychologists and other health professionals commonly use a scale called the “Social Readjustment Rating Scale” to measure the degree of stress in a person’s life. To give you a taste, “pregnancy (#12)”, “addition of a new family member (#14)”, “change to a different line of work”, “change in sleeping habits” and “change in working conditions” are among the top 30 most stressful events in life. And this list does not even include “Adapting to a new culture in a different country – far from friends, family, and all that you know”! When a person experiences a certain amount of stressful life events in a year, they are more vulnerable to illnesses. And make no mistake: PPD/A is an illness. It is a condition involving daily suffering from which it can seem like there is no reprieve.

You are not Alone: How to Get Support and Support Yourself

As with any health condition, the best chance you have of it improving is if you take steps aimed at healing. For instance, if you have a cold, you rest, drink fluids and avoid going for a jog in the rain. And just like taking care of a cold, there are treatment options for PPD/A that show excellent efficacy. And the things that work range from intensive psychotherapy paired with medication to the simple implementation of self-care activities that your pre-baby self might have done without thinking. Those self-care activities might include things like exercising regularly, meeting weekly with a friend for coffee and a chat, or ordering take-away food rather than cooking. Doing these things does not make you less of a parent. In fact, taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do for your child.

When talking to clients, I often refer to the airline safety guidelines requirement that, in the event of an emergency, the adult should put on their own oxygen mask before helping their child put on his. Our children need us to take care of ourselves first because otherwise, we cannot tend to their needs.

It can be unbelievably hard to reach out for help when you have no energy to pick up the phone or feel overwhelmed by cultural differences or believe that you should just grit your teeth and “get through it, it’s normal.” If increasing self-care activities does not diminish the symptoms or if it is just too daunting to embark on these changes alone, it is important to enlist the help of a professional.

To get started, here are some links to online support resources:

To those parents living abroad who are struggling with early parenthood, please know that you are not alone and you are not without hope. There are many parents and professionals who share your experience and who can help you feel more empowered. Enlisting the support of your partner, a compassionate friend, a group of other parents, a medical doctor, a health practitioner or a psychotherapist can transform your experience of parenthood while enriching the relationship you have with yourself and your child.

(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)