Living an expat life is extraordinary.
Extraordinarily exciting and also extraordinarily exhausting.
You get to meet new people, explore new cultures, you constantly learn new things, maybe even a new language. Depending on where you are living, you can start to be more aware and grateful of the opportunities you were given in life; you can also reinvent yourself, or simply learn to appreciate more your true self.
When people think about living abroad, they usually have this dreamy picture made of fantastic new possibilities and freedom and travels: true is, the expat life has also some unique drawbacks that usually don’t get much notoriety.
Moving to a new country can also be a shock to your system if you’re not prepared.
As for me, a little stubborn woman with sometimes slow learning mechanisms! it took me a long, long time to figure out what was the best way to face my issues abroad.
Let’s get this clear, I am still learning but I have started to assess my situation more transparently. About time!
What are the difficulties of an expat life and to what consequences they can bring?
First of all, forget family.
There are no Sunday lunches, no kids drop-off to grandma when necessary, no support when you are really sick (we had to call the Red Cross once: Bianca was the only one healthy and the three of us were absolutely miserable!).
If you are lucky, they visit you sometimes but in terms of emergency back-ups, you just need to count on you or find other ways.
You can have help from friends, as soon as you have some.
Not having a net of support may make you feel isolated and lonely.
That is why is absolutely vital for an expat to immediately start to go out and mingle: at the playground, coffee place, markets, neighbors, school’s events, go everywhere! I met what became my friends through meetup.com in the city, holding tiny P and bringing him everywhere. And I have such fond memories of that time.
Make new friends take time and luck, so do always invest your time in searching for good ones as it will be the best asset of your new life.
The ‘only’ flaw of counting on friends for support is that they are in the same position as yours and I never really wanted to ask for help when we were sick – our major problem during the years. You want to spread the love, not the germs, right?
The language can be tough too. German is not really famous for its smooth learning curve and the dialect they speak here in Zürich has not helped (although I must say, people from Zürich are one of the most kind I have ever met, plus they know all the languages, chapeau).
The career of an expat is not an easy path too, family wise.
If the reason of the move is your husband (quite the majority of the cases), it means the mother won’t see her man much and will have to deal with her, and children, new life by herself.
If you, mother, want to get back to work, or ‘just’ want some freedom (very much needed!!), you need to consider the childcare which can be very expensive (here in Zürich spans from 25 to 35 francs per hour).
Well, you got my picture, more or less.
It ain’t easy and lately, it has been particularly strenuous.
During all these years, there was one thing that gave me the strength to go on with my life, to push my limits and to look forward to my next adventures: my children.
Whenever I felt exhausted and with nothing more to give, I felt so grateful and yet powerful to be able to enjoy so much love.
They were my drugs, my biggest accomplishments: because of them, I felt a better person, a more grounded individual and a happier Chiara. I am sure you feel the same for your kids so you know what I mean.
I certainly had a hard time raising them because of the many illnesses and the longest nights awake (they were never good sleepers, like mommy eheh).
When I felt I needed to do more with my brain, and B started to go to school for a few days a week, I started this blog and some collaborations: that gave me a little sense of gratification as a worker.
In the last months, I found meditation and mindfulness to be helpful in focusing on how to be a better mother and wife and daughter, sister, friend. Mindfulness opened my eyes to a more aware perception of my reality and that, well…trigged a few questions.
I used to fill the family calendar with assorted errands, kids’ activities, playdates, various lessons, birthday parties and so on. There was time allotted for P, for B, even for my husband at times.
When the extreme fatigue, the migraine, a lot of repeated illnesses, the dizziness started to kick in, and all the medical tests came back negative (apart from a few issues I always had in my life), I had to listen to my friend K, who pointed out that in our family calendar, there was actually no time allotted for me.
She may be onto something, I thought!
Since then, I have begun wondering about the reason behind this status of mine and the circumstances that brought me to this place.
I have started to read more about the expat lives and their difficulties, I have ruminated on their stories and tried to make sense of why I still had to find excuses to put myself as a priority in my family’s journey.
When this thought hit me, I saw how many expat women like me manage to daily find good reasons to neglect themselves.
I realized I was unable to stop being guilty when in need of time for myself and I could not help but wonder why on earth I needed to deserve a break.
It took me ages to understand that the faulty logic behind not taking care of oneself means that eventually, someone else will have to take care of you. Focus on other people is great and possibly the true sense of life but before doing this, you need to fill the cup (hence the first line of my IG bio).
By perceiving self-care as selfish, and by continually comparing my position to third world problems or other miserable situations, I just created a whirl of emotional stuff that stopped me to process what was going on in my head.
In the end, I just felt a mental weight made of other people’s needs and I kept putting all of them on my shoulders.
Then the body talked and I had to listen.
Looking back at my life, there are some reasons why I feel not so guilty about not having taken any steps in order to fix the self-care denial before: when the day is packed with kids, chaos and kids, how do you make time for yourself?
First of all, if you are like me, you have to realize the importance of taking a break: the very initial step is to become aware of the situation and start digesting the concept of self-care.
Then you need to identify solutions to practice self-care that work for you and that can fit into your life: these can join a gym or a sports club, invite more people over, get involved in community events (Mariuccia, if you read this 🙂
Start a new hobby if you can, maybe your new country has interesting new ways of entertaining you, or go walk in Nature: here in Zürich is huge and I now understand why.
Holding yourself accountable takes much will.
This type of change is radical and could make you feel a bit uncomfortable at the beginning (like it was for me) because we want to keep loving our family! but taking good care of it means, above all, to take some amount of time away from it.
Start your journey towards self-care by being creative: not everybody can go to a Spa or travel or such and that is ok. Write down what would be your way to relax and unplug.
If you are lucky and can get help, just do it and do not play the hero.
I receive many messages every week from women who ask me about my expat life: the most important idea I want to pass is that they need the physical, emotional and mental care to do a leap of faith that a life in a foreign country requires. Because when abroad, one needs as many energies as possible and only if you look well after yourself, you will be able to be there for others.
I am always very glad to give some advice when needed so, if you are out there and would like to call, message or meet me, remember I will be very happy to do so!
Thank you again for reading this very long post which I hope it will be of some use for you: to prevent or to heal, to think about it or to ‘just’ share it.