Being an Expat-Mom
written by Jeanne
Back in 1991, moving to Basel for a limited stay seemed like a wonderful opportunity for both me and my family, even if it meant putting my professional life on hold. When my husband told me about the possibility of a 3-year overseas assignment I fully agreed - even after I realized I would be left with most of the logistics of packing up one house and life in the US and organizing a second, temporary one in Basel. I discovered that “choosing to move” to another country was a little like conceiving a child – much more fun than actually giving birth! But the nature of that initial choice would make all the difference in the years to come.
When we arrived I did not work for the three years that I thought we were staying. When our Basel stay was renewed indefinitely, my children were well settled in the public schools, my husband was happy with his job and I had made a few Swiss friends in the neighborhood, despite the fact that I was still struggling to learn German. We decided to stay on. But with everyone out of the house every day, I started to grow both restless and resentful. There were days when I felt “stuck” in a country that my family seemed to be enjoying a lot more than I was.
Part of solving that problem was to find something that would help me to broaden my self-image. I knew it was time for me to expand my horizons a bit if I were to keep my enthusiasm up about living in a different country. I began with volunteer work which turned into part-time work and eventually led to full-time employment.
Because I was working in an educational program specifically for expats, I came into contact with many other women (and some men) who were also in Switzerland on a temporary basis. Some of these expats had settled quite comfortably into their new homes and, despite occasional bouts of homesickness or frustration with their host country, seemed generally content with their lives.
Others were not as content. In general, they complained about a variety of things that I had simply taken for granted – everything from the different cuts of meat; the reserved character of store clerks; the lack of products from their home countries; the seasonal nature of available fresh produce; to the differences in the school system; the difficulties of the language; the emphasis on quiet times during the day as well as on Sundays; the closing of the stores early in the evening and on Sundays (twenty years ago there were no open shops at the train station!) I soon saw that these complaints were just symptoms of a deeper problem. People were feeling trapped, which led to resentment, depression and, in some cases, withdrawal.
The more I listened, the more I realized that one of the basic elements which seemed to distinguish those who were able to enjoy the cultural differences from those who felt trapped was the quality of personal choice.
Those of us, who had actively chosen to move and later to stay, seemed far more content in general than those who had “followed” the person with the job offer feeling as though there really were no choice in the matter.
Our family has now been in Basel for almost 30 years. Those years have not all been carefree for me. I have had to change my “horizons” several times when restlessness or resentment started to settle in – to find a way to choose once again to stay and to reestablish a contented equilibrium between who I am and where I live. As our lives have changed – my spouse and I are now retired and empty-nesters – I have had to make regular and conscious decisions about whether to stay in Switzerland or return home. Until now, I have always chosen to remain, fully conscious that someday I may come to a different decision.
Perhaps the greatest gift I have given myself is the freedom to choose – then the work of redefining my personal stay in this country seems well worth the effort.
The increased attention in the last few years to expats in Basel, and in particular to the plight of the accompanying spouse, has provided enormous opportunities to integrate, socialize and take advantage of the riches that a stay overseas can provide. Several organizations actively support expats. Regular workshops on understanding the emotional upheavals expats face living in a different country are readily available from a number of organizations and professionals. Volunteer opportunities in a variety of languages exist.
For example, ASA – A Step Ahead – to which I belong, is a wonderful way to socialize with like-minded volunteers, do some good and, perhaps most importantly, provide a perspective on how privileged we are to be in a stable, safe country offering our children opportunities only dreamed about in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
Living in a different country is not always easy but those who make an active choice to participate can better reap the benefits and lead more contented lives, however long they decide to stay.