I’ve recently had the ‘Holy ****’ moment. That moment when the full force of being homesick slaps you in the face. Most, if not all expats will be familiar with this charming aspect of expat life: You’ve moved, you’ve been on a high, you’ve had butterflies just going to the grocery store, you’ve reveled in the thrill of your new home. You’ve felt lucky and privileged, unique and special.
And then one morning a few months in, you wake up and go: Holy ****, I’m here. This is IT.
Wait, this is it?
And with those four little words, the honeymoon phase takes its last breath and wilts before your eyes, evaporating in a second and revealing the ironic and smirking face of Reality.
My boys feel it too. The novelty of the move is wearing off. They are in school, have made friends, are doing after school activities, and life has struck up it’s merry pace once more.
But they are homesick.
They are pining for the African sun, for swimming in winter, for endless blue skies, for bare feet. They won’t wear shoes. They feel smothered by the warm clothes they are wrestled into each morning.
They are also resilient. They are amazing. They are kids. They’re excited about making new friends, about exploring our new neighbourhood. They’re thrilled to be travelling so much. They’re looking forward to when it snows (it had better snow this year!). They love to cycle everywhere. They are thrilled with Life 90% of the time. But they have definitely also had the HOLY **** moment…or as three year old Noah says: Holy Crab!
I’m no expert.
I’m winging it in a big way. I don’t know exactly what to do when their little hearts are heavy and hot tears roll down their cheeks because they just want to go home. Some days I also just want to go home. Wherever that is.
And so as I muddle through, hoping that my boys are not being scarred for life by our choice to be nomadic, I have stumbled upon some ways to ease their homesickness, and to see them through the crescendos of emotion that sometimes hold them hostage.
1. Listen to them when they tell you they are homesick.
Really listen. Stop what you are doing, bend down to their level, look them in the eyes and let them know you hear them. My kids usually have their deepest revelations when I’m in the shower, but I turn the water off, and give them that moment. Often, they feel better just to know they’ve been heard.
2. Validate what they are feeling.
I always say, “I know you miss Durban my love, I do too.” I kind of feel like they might get comfort from knowing that their mama and papa also feel the same as they do.
I also find it helps to ask what specifically they are thinking of, what exactly about their old home they are missing in that moment.
3. Show them they are not alone.
It’s one thing to let them know you feel homesick too, but inevitably we as parents become super lame, and totally don’t count anymore.
My three year old still thinks I’m cool, but my almost-six-year-old is starting to suspect that he’s got life sussed, and who the hell am I anyway? It’s much more effective for me to point out that actually, his friends at school also come from different countries, and they also feel homesick sometimes. He likes it that they are all in the same boat, and that what he is feeling is not unique or different. It makes it normal, and normal is not scary.
4. Reminisce in an upbeat way.
We look at photos of South Africa, of our old house. We watch videos of the boys as babies, but it’s always upbeat and positive. Less: ‘Oh, we miss SA so much!’ And more: ‘Wow, wasn’t SA a great place to live! We had such fun there.’
5. Connect with their environment and nature: create little rituals.
A child’s world is small. It’s made up of connections, of little familiarities. Little things make all the difference. Take a walk around your new neighbourhood, find little things to point out to your kids. A big knobbly tree, ducks in a pond, a pretty flower, a street food cart, something that stands out, and that will be there the next time. Then make an effort to ‘visit’ these things, or acknowledge them when you drive past with your kids. Create a familiar environment.
In Durban we used to make an almost daily pilgrimage to the black and white stones just down the road from our house. Totally nothing exciting, just some big river pebbles a guy had painted and placed along the grass verge in front of his house. But my kids loved it. It anchored them in their surroundings, gave them something that was theirs so to speak. In Istanbul it was the ritual of buying a simit (sesame bagel) on the way to the park, and then walking past the suitcase shop and looking in the window.
I am a big believer in communing with nature. I feel better if I’m outside, walking in a forest, or feeling the wet grass. In Asia and Turkey we made do with parks, but the idea is the same. Kids respond to nature, their natural curiosity takes over, and they make their environment their own. I feel like they need to absorb their surroundings, so that their world around them becomes an extension of their identity. That’s when they’ll start to feel comfortable.
Last weekend on a particularly clear day, we went for a cycle and Sawyer exclaimed, “Oh look Mama, the sky is as beautiful and blue as Durban!”, and in that moment I knew he was going to be just fine.
6. Go on a short break
I didn’t know this until we went to Italy a few weeks ago. While we were there, both boys said, ‘I miss Holland’ and I felt like we had a break through! Other expat mums have since validated this. Going away on a short break and then ‘coming home’ makes it real for the kids, and reinforces where home is now.
7. Be supremely honest.
Answer questions directly and honestly. Noah asks daily “Mama, when can we visit Durban?”
I always try to be realistic with my answers. I say, ‘we’ll visit Durban next year for Christmas.’ Or sometimes, ‘I’m not sure when we’ll visit Durban, we need to take some time to get to know Holland first because this is where we live now’. Keep the conversation about your old home open, but always make sure you are firm and clear about where their new home is.
It’s hard to make the world small for your kids when you feel like you’re being swallowed up by the enormity of reality, but actually I’ve found that taking baby steps with my boys has been a comfort to me in my efforts to feel settled. I also like to wave to the black ducks as I zoom past on my bike on my way to the shops, and sometimes I find myself calling out, “hello black duckies!” and it feels good.