Tag Archives: Relationships

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.

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No Place to Land: The Expatriate Experience (Part 2)

Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life
Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver, 1990 

Life stressors like divorce, health concerns, child educational issues, and caring for aging or sick parents are very difficult no matter the geographical setting. However, when these issues arise for those who are living abroad, they can seem simply insurmountable. I have found that, in general, expatriates are a hardy bunch. They usually feel ready to take on the challenges that living in a non-native country entails. Often they have experience from their childhoods traveling and experiencing different cultures and changing environments. Or they bravely fall in love with someone from a different country and open themselves to the prospect of a multicultural relationship. Sometimes the expat experience beckons to those who are looking for a fresh start and a chance to cast a new die for their lives.

In any case, those who choose this kind of life are usually prepared for the emotional challenges that characterise it. They are not surprised by days that require dealing with language challenges, reaching outside of their comfort zones, and getting lost for hours. But, throw in one or more of the major life stressors mentioned above and these “expat virtues” can be sorely tested.

A client once described to me how living abroad and dealing with a major life stressor left her feeling like she had “no place to land,” that she felt too disconnected from support in her country of origin but also not intimately acquainted enough with support in her adopted country. As a result, she struggled to carry the weight of the stressor by herself, without knowing how to direct the emotional resources she had cultivated through the challenge of living abroad in order to more effectively manage her experience.

Deciding to take the plunge and live outside of your country of origin for an extended period of time is not unlike dealing with a major life stressor. As you consider what life might be like following a major change, it is easy to get caught up in anticipation of the worst-case scenarios or doubt your abilities to manage what might arise as part of this adjustment. However, if this was where the thought process ended, than no one would live abroad. There is a point at which the thinking flips to consideration of all possibilities in a more balanced way. Regardless of how you think about an event, however, there is no certainty about how these thoughts will correlate to the future. So, there is a self-confidence and awareness of an ability to be flexible in the face of the unknown that is necessary in deciding to live abroad.

Once my client could connect to these gained skills and her own quiet strength, she felt more empowered to manage the stressor and was able to develop a plan to deal with it in a way that reflected her values. She came to believe that she could do it, even when there were days when she encountered extreme challenges to this belief. Concurrently, she created a support system that she could turn to for information and empathy. She admitted feeling surprised that increased self-reliance actually helped her to feel better able to seek support, rather than confirming her initial fear that asking others for help would make her reliant upon them. In essence, with hard work and courage, she created a safe place to land for herself.

Although it can certainly be more challenging to deal with major life stressors as an expat, it is not impossible. Those characteristics that often draw people to living life abroad can also be utilized to cope with unexpected difficulties that challenge emotional well-being. The decision to live outside of your country of origin is one that cannot be made without a great deal of courage, hope and belief in your abilities to cope with difficulty. And though we do not get to decide when and how major stressors will arise in life, the same hard-won attributes that help us manage other difficult situations/decisions can be called upon to help us through.

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A Heart in Two Places: The Expatriate Experience (Part I)

The expat experience can be exciting but complicated
The expat experience can be exciting but complicated

As an American, living abroad conjures images of exotic locales and adventure- experiencing sights, sounds and tastes that expand any understanding of how the world works. The expatriate experience can be a marvelous one. The infusion of adventure into everyday life can inspire and challenge. And now, as our global economy expands, more and more people from around the world are taking on the joys and difficulties that comprise expatriate life.

As fabulous as this kind of life experience can be, it is also difficult. It requires adapting to a new culture, establishing a new way of navigating every day difficulties, and managing separation from loved ones at home. Often it entails learning a new language or finding a new job. Of course, these challenges may be part of the appeal of living abroad and the sense of mastery gained by overcoming these obstacles can be very empowering. However, adjustment is a stressful process that can impact health and well-being if there is not consistent and compassionate attention to self-care.

A client recently confided to me that her experience of expat life is complicated by the guilt she feels by being far away from her family of origin. She discussed feeling like her “heart is in two places” and that as much as she feels proud to have established a life for herself in Switzerland, she finds herself feeling paralyzed about future decisions for fear that she might disappoint them.

Another client recounted his deep longing to raise his children in an environment similar to the one in which he grew up, an environment he does not feel like he can access due to his current circumstances living abroad. He reflected on the grief he feels about having to make peace with this reality and his uncertainty about how he will be a parent in a foreign country.

As with most things, the expat experience is not easy to characterize. There are so many variables that influence the adjustment to living abroad and I have found that it is an ever-evolving (almost daily!) experience, one that can feel simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. It is not unusual to experience difficulties in managing the new challenges that arise when adjusting to living abroad but if you find that the way you are feeling interferes with your mood or with your ability to complete daily tasks (i.e., go to work, maintain hygiene, go out with friends), then it may be a good idea to consult a medical or mental health practitioner for support.  It can be frustrating to find that the life envisioned prior to moving is not the reality but that does not mean that the reality is impossible to manage or enjoy.

For many, life abroad is thrilling from the very first moment. For others, it can take time to settle in and adjust to the many changes. In any case, the courage and hard work required to take this leap into the unknown should be celebrated.

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Mindful Weekend: Practice with your Partner

 

This weekend, do your practice with your partner
This weekend, try practicing mindfulness with your partner

How does your partner feel about your mindfulness practice? Whether they are enthusiastic participants themselves or reluctant skeptics, why not invite them to practice with you this weekend? To start, just take 15 minutes to do a body scan together. I recommend this video as a guide. A body scan is typically an excellent exercise for those new to the concept of formal mindfulness practice.  Once you’re comfortable with meditating together, you may want to try a seated practice back-to-back with one another.  Or, even holding hands during practice and using the sensations of touch as anchors to the present moment.

Doing a formal mindfulness practice together could result in a feeling of closeness and intimacy, or perhaps a moment of shared shyness resulting from doing something novel together. When you’re finished, you can ask your partner what their experience was like, what they noticed in their body. And make sure to share your own experience- including all the difficulties (e.g., boredom, judgment, feeling self-conscious) inherent to practice.

And why? Among many reasons, research indicates that regular practice of mindfulness increases activity in the anterior insula of the brain. This is the region of the brain that helps our bodies make sense of all of the sensory information present in a given moment. So, what that amounts to is that more activity in this region is linked to intensified pleasure, sensation and physical attunement during sex! What other reason do you and your partner need? Now go get busy… meditating!

Wishing you a happy and mindful weekend.

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Mindful Relationships: Rewiring for Compassion and Effective Communication

Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship
Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship

I don’t know about you, but my partner really can push my buttons. Sometimes he does so intentionally but oftentimes it happens without him knowing it.  In either case, when my buttons get pushed, I typically react in anger. Or, my fallback: passive aggression. As you can imagine, this can lead to the formation of some pretty unhelpful patterns in our relationship.  Usually it results in him getting defensive and me feeling hurt.

When we choose our partner, we usually do so with the assumption that our partner will help to support us in all avenues of life. I think most relationships start with both people oriented toward this ideal: that the relationship is good and that they want to do what is reasonable to keep the relationship on this positive track. But almost always, wires get crossed along the way. And we develop patterns of reacting in our relationships that result in undesirable and distressing experiences.

Bringing more mindfulness to relationships can provide a jumpstart to a relationship, whether it is decades or days old. Mindfulness can help each partner check in with their internal experience and communicate that experience more effectively to the other.  Being a mindful partner can potentially rewire long-standing unhelpful patterns of communication while enhancing compassion and promoting authenticity in that relationship.

For instance, let’s meet our mindful couple, Archie and Veronica. Archie’s hot button is tone of voice. When he feels that Veronica’s tone is critical or harsh, he shuts down. When he does so, Veronica feels like Archie is ignoring her and she feels hurt and angry. She wants him to respond to her and thus, ramps up her efforts to communicate what she is saying. This cycle of communication is self-defeating. With time and practice, Archie and Veronica learn to check in with themselves in that moment that their buttons are pushed. They become familiar with the patterns of emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors that are triggered. And then, if they wish, they can communicate what is happening for each of them and discuss ways to more effectively manage the conflict.

Veronica learns that sometimes, when it’s too late and Archie has withdrawn, she can manage her distress on her own and revisit the topic with Archie when he is not overloaded. And Archie learns to assert his need to take a brief timeout when he is emotionally flooded so that he can better attend to what Veronica is saying. They both can now take responsibility for their part in a conflict because they feel safe being vulnerable.

Mindfulness is not rocket science. It simply involves consistent effort to attend to the full experience of the present moment. In a conflict with a loved one, it is tempting to get overwhelmed by one particular aspect of the experience, for instance, thinking. So, with Veronica, when Archie was shut down, she was swept away by the distressing (and incorrect) thought that “He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t listen to me. How could I be so stupid to choose someone who doesn’t want to listen to my needs?” Rather than checking in with other aspects of the experience (for instance her body sensations) and attempting to soothe herself until that distress could pass and more logical thinking could return.

It takes time, practice and patience to rewire old patterns of thinking and reacting. Luckily, our fantastically plastic brains have the indelible capacity to form new connections which result in new beliefs and behaviors. As this excellent blogpost describes, better connecting with yourself via mindfulness can have a transformative effect on the relationships in your life. The relationship we have with our partner is one of the relationships that most impacts our daily lives and thus, I believe that it’s one that deserves consistent care and attention.

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