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Married Plus Four. Navigating Expat Life with Children.

Married Plus Four, A Trail Between Four Countries. Navigating Expat Life with Children.

The following is a brief informative article written by Leigh Matthews, Australian Psychologist and Founder of Therapy in Barcelona,  in response to the story “Grief, Emotional Baggage & Belonging(s)” by Avivit Delgoshen in the wonderful and enlightening collection of expat women stories “#Living The Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare”

“Roots and wings” is the standout by-line in Avivit’s story about the Iranian Kurdish Jewish woman from Israel who marries the Brit and together, in the hurricane of a globally mobile life, they give birth to, and raise, four children. Ambiguous as ‘roots and wings’ seems, the tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility is a hallmark of expat life; how else does one find place when out of place,  how else does one tether intercultural spouses together or nurture children across cultures? Amongst so many others, several themes stand out from Avivit’s story: culture shock, mothering kids sans village, the expat mother’s two choice dilemma, the travails of the “accompanying spouse” and the journey of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). 

Hopping from London, to Belgium, to Israel, to Paris, then London: highly mobile expats perceive these moves as opportunities for renewal, but there is no escape from the inevitable culture shock and labour of learning the lay of the land in each destination. 

All expats ought to familiarise themselves with the 4 stages of culture shock outlined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. Phase one, the Honeymoon Period, the period of joy we signed up for, slips from bliss into the uncertainty and doubt, irritation, loneliness and alienation of Culture Shock. In this Crisis Phase it is essential to seek out support, in addition to practising Mindful Self-compassion. A capacity to sit with discomfort and foster a resilient focus on how “this too shall pass” is required. The third phase is an upswing to Adjustment- familiarity with the locality, customs, the language and, a not entirely disillusioned outlook on the host culture. Stage four, Mastery, entails a navigation of a “third space,” a hybrid of this culture and that culture, a creation of one’s own cultural milieu, and acceptance of difference sans judgment. There is a peaceful coexistence of whatever works for you amongst all other possibilities without the need to damn any cultural nuance as right or wrong, good or bad. 

The highly mobile family are a different creature altogether, on an expert level of resilience. As Avivit writes: the first year is for mapping the basics – schools, supermarkets, health care providers, services; the second year opens up space for friendships and, just as the third year promises a sort of settling, there is movement again. Linguistic ability, curiosity and openness, tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, patience and respect, a healthy ego, and a keen sense of humor – these are the qualities required to adjust. No pressure! These ‘cultural competencies’ that Schneider and Barsoux (2003) identified will also constitute the character of the TCK, both as a natural consequence of their diverse lived experience across cultural environments, and insofar as these qualities are cultivated by parents.

Avivit’s children are not only TCKs, the children of high mobility parents, they are also kids from bi/multicultural/multiethnic parents AND kids with mixed-racial heritage. Diversity of foods, languages, communities, landscapes and cultures is par for the course for TCKs. As Avivit writes of one of her four children: “everything we managed to pack into her eight years of life as part of an expat family – moving to four countries, speaking three languages, switching in and out six houses and still not having a place to call home – had not caused confusion or muddled her identity. She sounded like a confident international traveller (albeit a young one), with a supportive family alongside her.”

Preparation of children for moves, whether in high or low mobility contexts, requires a conscious connection with activities, family rituals, routines or things that provide predictability in the midst of transition. Embracing transitions, cultivating curiosity and a growth mindset, playing to enable kids to process their world; these are essential to help the TCK thrive. Family, community and place are “anchors and mirrors” – they give children the roots to ground them but also reflect to children a sense of who they are despite the upheavals of a winged life. Families allow children to feel they matter, hold space and give permission for a child to feel and cultivate autonomy by offering choices.

With high mobility come endless goodbyes, seasoning the rich lived experiences of TCKs and their expat parents with grief and, especially for the TCKs, and the accompanying spouse, questions of belonging. Expat spouses are often required to make a choice: career and child care for the children or choose to be the family anchor? Deborah chose her career and found ways to make this work as an enriching factor for her children; Avivit chose to anchor and take whatever work options were available in the numerous locations she found herself living in. This is the life of the expat – impossible two-choice dilemmas in which there will always be a trade-off, a sacrifice of this or that. Then there is that other aspect of expat life, the sustaining part, that is a this AND that scenario: roots AND wings. Or, another way of thinking: expat families are like trees, with branches reaching out for new experiences yet with moveable roots, a sense of belonging nourished by each other.

 “A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance.”  – Wangari Maathai

For resources to help your TCKs in their globally mobile life check out:

https://www.expatkidsclub.com/blog/

https://www.expatparentingabroad.com/blog/essential-resources-2021?fbclid=IwAR0Cp4kgcrnUI_bscK_KOraBw60anYYqyIS2FAWPTX-EDNI5uRZRXa4ekhI