Empty Nesters

Transition to life with no children at home is one of the most challenging changes for most parents. Learning how to be an ‘empty nester’ is not an automatic process. You need to learn how to shop and cook for two people, not five or six; you need to find ways to fill the time you spent driving and picking up your kids; you need to learn to focus more on yourself and less on others. It is a process and it takes time and practice.

In a recent discussion with a psychologist who specializes in family counseling, I was advised – for the first few weeks – to set aside a period of time everyday to ‘mourn’ my children moving out of the house. At first I thought this was ridiculous. I did not think this made any sense and decided it was lousy advice… now, however, I feel very differently. When your children leave home you do feel a sense of loss, an enormous sense of loss. Having made breakfast, prepared lunches, cooked dinners, driven to and from school, worn the many hats of nurse, teacher, psychologist, coach, driver, cook, etc. for 18 years, it takes time to learn to take off those hats and discover new ones.

The most challenging part is the emotion. You have days you miss your kids so much you cry your eyes out and feel like the pain, the raw hurt inside, will never go away. This is when/ how/ why the process of actively dealing with this loss, this change in life and family, is so important. I do find myself taking a few minutes each day to mindfully think of my children. I find this time allows me to focus on them no longer being at home, but recognizing they are still very much a part of my life. During these moments of active reflection, I allow myself to laugh, cry, or reflect on specific memories and experiences we went through together.

Expat-Teens-Talk-72Adapting to being an empty nester is a process; take ownership of the process and support yourself by dealing with it. This prevents those unexpected moments of overwhelming emotion that catch you off guard – and make you feel as if you cannot deal with the fact your babies have grown up and flown the nest. Taking care of yourself, and identifying and meeting your needs, is just as important as how you continue to support your kids through this process, and the challenges they encounter as a result.

Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents and Professionals offer support, advice and solutions in response to Expat Life Challenges as shared by Expat Teens

Dr. Lisa Pitman and Diana Smit

Let’s Talk About the Weather

We see each other in the distance, but we act like we don’t. We just keep walking, gradually approaching one another. After all, we don’t know each other. But it’s also true that we don’t not know each other entirely. We’ve done this before, every day for nearly the last week.

Twenty meters to go.

I betcha he’ll stop this time.

Ten meters to go.

I betcha he’s thinking the same thing.

Two meters.

Eye contact.

“Good evening.”

“Good evening!”

“Gorgeous isn’t it?” he smiles, palms turned skyward.

“Perfect!” I reply, joining him in smiling at the heavens.

We’re at a campground outside Cavalaire Sur Mer on France’s Cotes d’ Azur. We’re talking about the weather. Ostensibly, at least.

In actuality we’re talking about a lot more than the weather. A seemingly trivial interaction like this might seem like small talk – and I wouldn’t deny that either – but peer beneath the surface, and it’s really about connection. Human connection.

Can I meet you? Can I connect with you?

Humans desire it. It’s written into our DNA. Evolutionarily speaking, being alone was dangerous, for the simple reason it increased our chances of dying and our DNA dying with us. Though modern comforts and technologies may have lulled us into believing we’ve shed our prehistoric pasts, the fact that computing these days proceeds in gigahertz has done nothing – and never will do anything – to alter the fact our genetic code evolved at a geologic pace, something we might dub geohertz. Our genetic code screams: seek connection.

Fortunately this scream gets filtered through personality (some people, like me believe it or not, are inherently more shy and reserved) and social etiquette, particularly at a campground (you probably wouldn’t want people constantly waving at you from across the valley, yelling “Hi! You want to connect?”).

But we do want to find common ground with our fellow man. And to do so, we must move up the ladder of abstraction until we find it.

When I see my wife, I can start at the lowest, most detailed level of abstraction: our children. I can ask her what she’s heard from our eighteen year-old son, who’s traveling through Vietnam by motorcycle right now. (Talk about ‘letting go.’ That will certainly be the theme of another blog.) Is he safe?

When I see my good friend Nic, I move up a notch on the abstraction ladder. I ask him about his preparations for his next bike trip, or how his work is going. To ask him if he’s heard from my son in Asia would be to start too low on the abstraction ladder. Nic and I don’t share my son; it’s not our common ground. What’s something one layer up that we share? Our passion for our work.

When I see my neighbor, I move up another notch. I can inquire about their vacation, what things were like in Switzerland, how the plants in the backyard held up during the hot weather. To ask him how his work is going would be to start too low; unless we gradually got into a deeper conversation, it would feel intrusive to him and invasive to me. We need a notch higher, something we share, like a similar backyard.

When I go to train at my running club, we talk about our training. I congratulate Quinn on his new PR, I ask Maarten what he’s training for next, and I ask JP how his calf muscle is recovering. To ask any of these guys how their plants in the backyard are doing would be weird. We don’t share that level of abstraction. Aim higher, at something we do.

So back at the campground, when the man I’ve passed for a week stops to chat, we’re not going to talk about our calf muscles, our backyards, how things are going at work, or our children in Asia. We need a level of abstraction we share, a platform we, as two human beings, can use as common ground.

That is why it’s sometimes important to talk about the weather. At the highest possible level of abstraction, meaning the sun and the wind and the rain and the elements, you know you’re talking about something shared. You know you can’t possibly be beginning too low on the abstraction scale. You have the common ground on which connection rests.

“Does a soul good, these blue skies,” says my campground acquaintance.

“This is what we came for!” I concur.

We smile and bid each other good evening, feeling just a bit more connected.

Douglas W. Ota

Safe-Passage-Doug-Ota-expat-books-tck

Doug Ota grew up between cultures. A Japanese father, an English mother, and their divisive divorce started Ota on a career wondering where he – and others – belong.

He studied philosophy at Princeton University, USA, and psychology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. For many years, he was a counselor in international education. He now works in private practice with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.

Doug consults with international organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility (www.safepassage.nl). He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.

University Transition

It is that time of year, again – the time when many of us are settling our kids into university and adapting to life with them living away from home. It is a challenging time, full of change and transition. It is an emotional time, both for us as parents, as well as for our kids adjusting to life on their own.

I just supported our youngest child into settling into his university dorm room, and it was an experience I did not know how to really prepare for. While we spoke a lot during his last year at home about the upcoming change, neither of us really knew what to expect. It is a different experience with every child. Having now gone through this three times, I have learnt a few things I feel are important to share.

Preparing your children for university:

  • Before they leave home, teach your children the basics of cooking. Knowing how to fry an egg, make an omelette, cook pasta and prepare a basic sauce, how to make soup, roast vegetables, etc. is important. This empowers students in knowing how to take care of themselves and develop their independence with confidence.
  • Teach your children how to do laundry – remind them the importance of separating colors. A 20-year-old will not be happy with pink bed sheets or ruining his favorite shirt.
  • Encourage your kids to pack important personal things from their bedrooms at home to decorate in their dorm rooms at university. Personalizing their space, making it feel familiar, cozy, warm, and inviting, will make a huge difference, especially if the rest of the family lives a continent away.
  • Before leaving your child at university on their own, make sure they have an emergency contact list. Knowing who to contact makes an important difference when they need help or support. Being proactive in regards to having the university health clinic, doctors office, dentist, hospital, and helpline, in addition to having all necessary family member telephone numbers (home, work, mobile), will save a lot of unnecessary stress when they need to access these services or people.
  • Don’t assume… while a lot of information is accessible on the university website and through their dorm, floor fellow, etc., don’t assume your child will know how to access it. Take the time to investigate services available and learn more about what your child ‘needs to know’ in their new environment. Sharing and discussing this together will support your child in taking the initiative to access further information and maximize opportunities.
  • Remind your kids you are only a phone call, email, snapchat, Whatsapp, Facetime, Facebook, Instagram away. Get familiar with social media, know what your child uses, and develop a more tech-savvy connection with them. This allows for more daily, quick, immediate contact, making you both feel closer.
  • Explore the surroundings of the university. As Expats, it is unlikely your child will be close to family or friends when they go off to university. Explore the university surroundings and discover shopping malls, supermarkets, cinemas, concert halls, sports centres, etc. We often forget, or do not even realize, that ‘local’ kids often go home on the weekends, making the dorms a very quiet and lonely place. Knowing alternative places to go and things to do can fill those otherwise quiet and very long days.
  • Be proactive in preparing your child for climate changes. If your child grew up in the tropics and goes off to university in a seasonal climate, make sure they have a sweater, coat, and boots before they need them. There is nothing worse than waking up to the season’s first snow and having only a T-shirt to wear.
  • Write a letter to your child and give it to them to take to university. Sharing how you feel about them, expressing your pride in their accomplishments, their commitment to education, the person they have grown and developed into, is very important. Tell your kids you love them and will always be there for them, regardless of how far apart you will be living, with them in university and you back at home.
  • Give your child family photos. Being surrounded by familiar faces in their dorm room often eases the initial homesickness, as it provides constant reminders that you are there in your own way.
  • Make sure that, if you tell your child they can call you day or night for whatever reason, you stick to this and pick up your phone and be there for them. This is a huge time of change for your child and they will need you. They will call – make sure you are there for them, because they may be lonely, homesick, ill, upset, frustrated or want to share a funny story, experience, etc.
  • Be mindful of time and space. Make sure when you bring your children to university that you give them the space they need to meet their roommates, floor fellows, etc., and they have the space they need to set up their rooms. This is often a delicate balance and we, as parents, can easily become overwhelmed with our own emotions and cling to our children during this period.
  • Make it a positive, fun and exciting time. It is a special time for both you and your child. Remind yourselves that you both are ready – you have discussed, planned and prepared all the things you could think of. You are not saying goodbye forever… our kids do come back for holidays, and often for the long summer breaks to work, do internships or just have the time with the family they need.

Expat-Teens-Talk-300Lastly, make sure both you and your child have access to the resources you need to support you through the tough days. Expat Teens Talk is full of relatable stories and experiences of change, and it is a wonderful resource to dip in and out of when you feel like you are the only one transitioning through expat changes.

Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents and Professionals offer support, advice and solutions in response to Expat Life Challenges as shared by Expat Teens

Dr. Lisa Pitman and Diana Smit