Joburg Expat: When is the Best Time to be an Expat, Revisited

June 25, 2015

When is the Best Time to be an Expat, Revisited

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled When is the Best Time to be an Expat?

I was prompted to revisit that topic by a recent reader comment. This reader was herself moving frequently for her job, and was glad to hear how adaptive most expat children typically are, as she didn't have any of her own yet. Her worry, I'm sure, was that once she did have children, her career might have to be put on hold, because by then surely she could no longer continue her nomadic lifestyle.

This is a good time for me to once again reflect on the topic of moving with children, because we've reached another milestone: In a few months, our oldest  - Zax, you will remember him from this blog and from my Kilimanjaro climb - will be starting university. Right here in the United States, only a few hours from where we live, although as perpetual movers we are not sure how long we will be this close to each other.


Making the decision about where to go to university wasn't as difficult for Zax as it might be for other 18-year olds. A friend once asked him why he didn't want to look at more campuses, and he said this: "We've moved so much already, and I always ended up pretty happy wherever it was, so I'm pretty sure I'll be happy at the next place too." Prompted by our urging, he applied to a good number of universities and got into almost all of them, but in the end chose the first one he was accepted into (and, we parents were happy to note, also the most affordable one).

Perhaps for him, the most thrilling part about going to university, any university, is knowing that he will get to stay there for four years in a row.

So, when is a good time to be an expat, and do we harm our children in some way by perpetually dragging them around the world?

In my first try, the blog post mentioned above, I came to the conclusion that the best time is now, whenever that is for you. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Go explore the world, and it will be good for your family. Our son's example, who seems to be comfortable in his skin now that he is leaving home, seems to confirm that a lifetime of moves has been good, or at least not harmful.

However, I don't want to belittle the heartbreak that comes with a life of moves. We've had plenty of it, and as the kids get older, the heartbreak seems to become deeper, and grudges about "making us move" linger longer. When your teenager tells you he/she is "tired of starting at the bottom once again," it is not easy to brush off. Having done it before and having gotten through it with a tougher skin and perhaps even happier doesn't inoculate you against future heartbreak. Inflicting this on my children, again and again, is the guilt I carry around with me as a parent.

The older your kids are, the harder it is to tell them what to do, and that includes moving. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Evading what seems hard is not a good recipe for life, and moving away from all that you know, perhaps even to an entirely new country, might be the greatest opportunity you can give your children (and yourself).

The truth is, there is no way to know what's best. In the end you can't "make" your kids happy anyway. They write their own life story from a much earlier age than we might think. We are just there to accompany them on the great journey of childhood and adolescence. We keep them from getting hurt when they don't know any better, we cheer them on along the way, and we nag them about way too many things because we can't help ourselves. But they are never a "product" that we "created," even if that is the most fervent wish of every helicopter mom out there.

In the words of J.K. Rowling, who has written many wise words, there is an expiration date on blaming your parents. Our kids might not get that memo, but there is! So, expat (and all) parents out there: stop berating yourself, stop racking your brain about what to do, and - in the words of another wise woman in one of my favorite songs - enjoy the ride!