Expat parents & Relocation guilt - Part 1

Many of us expats know guilt - for some, it can be an on-going burden we live with. As most of our loved ones are often a long plane ride away, we are continuously feeling guilty for missing weddings, birthdays, funerals, and graduations.

There are big and small moments captured in photo albums from which our faces are missing, and even when we do try to stay connected by talking on Skype, for example, it can be hard to arrange a call when we are in a different time zone than whom we are calling. It is for these reasons that we expats might feel guilty: we are the ones - not the others - who have left home and are away.

From personal experience and from my professional work with expatriate families, I believe that one of the most difficult emotional aspects of being an expat is dealing with this guilt. While the expatriate lifestyle grants us invaluable opportunities to see and experience the world, there is often a price to pay - guilt about not being "home." 

Many of the expat-parents who contact me do so because they are concerned about the difficulties their children may be having adjusting to a new life in Holland. These parents are usually experiencing a nearly overwhelming sense of guilt from having put their children into this "foreign" environment.

I have interviewed a number of expat-parents on the topic of relocation-guilt to further understand why this issue keeps coming up. Below is a summary of why expat parents feel guilty, and some advice on how to overcome this guilt.

Hint to parents reading this: you do not have to feel as guilty as you think you do! 

Why do expat parents feel guilty?

› The distance

Expat parents can feel guilt from the fact that they have uprooted their family and taken them somewhere that is usually far away from family and loved ones. Not having as a close support network of family and friends to help raise children (e.g., Aunt Sarah cannot pick up Jody from school on Tuesday’s like she used to when you all lived in Santiago) can provoke parents’ guilt.

The distance also makes it hard to keep in contact (despite email, Skype, etc.), and of course expat children do not get to see their grandparents (for example) as often as kids who are living closer to their relatives. Expat parents might feel terribly guilty that their children do not have a close relationship with relatives, etc.

Brenda (American, expat mother of two) explains how the distance can be tough: "The level of difficulty certainly fluctuates from day to day, week to week, and sometimes even from moment to moment. In general, of course, things get easier with time, but one can be struck with longing for home at unexpected moments. As an expat, one is grieving for home even when enjoying all the delights of the new country."

 It’s different

Being an expat parent generally means that raising a child in the Netherlands will be a very different experience from how they themselves were raised, which can be another source of guilt for parents. For example, expat-dad Jeff has fond childhood memories of growing up in New York City and going to baseball games. 

Now that he lives in Rotterdam, he knows that his son Malcolm will not grow up eating hotdogs and Cracker Jack’s at Yankee Stadium - something that Jeff cherished most about his childhood. This makes Jeff feel guilty, as he feels that his son is missing out on a wonderful childhood experience.

 It’s challenging

Being thrust into any new community and culture can be challenging. Being a "foreigner" in the Netherlands is certainly no exception. Take Brenda’s word for it: "As a newcomer and "foreigner," you will feel stupid quite often.

So many things were mysterious and complicated to me in my early days in Holland. Being a foreigner is a bit like being reborn as a child. If you are a perfectionist - if your ego cannot tolerate making mistakes and asking for help and looking foolish now and again, you’d better stay in your native country!"

Expat-parents’ feelings of feeling challenged in a new setting can evolve into guilt. Things like parent-teacher conferences or even arranging doctor’s appointments for children can be tough. Most of us have learned how to handle the bureaucratic systematic approach to these sorts of matters here in Holland (it definitely took me some time to figured out the whole huisarts concept), but that does not mean it is an easy process!

For example, a parent’s guilt can be acute for not being able to handle the situation as quickly as if at "home" if his / her child is feeling sick.

 It can take some time to adjust

The language and cultural differences can also make parents feel guilty as they watch their children struggle to adapt, integrate, and assimilate (at least initially). One of the biggest concerns that I hear from parents is the issue of learning Dutch and raising children bilingually. Concerned parents are worried as they see - especially in young children- some delays in speech development and language acquisition.

Parents feel guilty that they have disadvantaged their child or crippled them in some way, but actually the good news is that all research on this matter points towards only positive long-term effects of bilingualism on cognitive abilities in children (so do not worry too much!).

Kids are resilient, but it can certainly be expected to take some time for them to adjust, adapt, and get their feet wet in their new environment (and new language).

Expat parents & relocation guilt - Part 2 can be found here.

Kate Berger


Kate Berger

Kate Berger, MSc Psychology, has a strong passion for helping expat children (and their families) make the most out of life in the Netherlands. Kate founded the Expat Kids Club...

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