Repatriation. Are you ready?

There’s a new question. The new question is really getting up my nose because I’m pretty sure there’s no answer. And if there is an answer, I probably won’t know it, until it becomes irrelevant.

Years ago, when living in Canada, we had friends visit from Australia. The topic of children and travel made its way into the conversation, and then more pointedly, expat children. A very good friend of mine was telling me about his own experience at a Sydney private boys school, he was talking about the kids whose parents lived overseas.

“They were just a bit weird, they found it hard to fit in”

Another good friend of mine had cousins whose parents were expats. “They came back here to go to school and found it really hard to settle in.” 

I’m learning that “found it hard to settle in” is code for “socially awkward or a little bit different”.

Usually once a year, on our annual trip home, I will meet someone new who will share that they know someone like me. “Someone like me?” I always have to ask to qualify. Do they mean brown hair and freckles with a seemingly constant glass of wine in their hand? No, it’s not that. “They lived overseas as well”. 

And that’s when you know you’ve been lumped in a group. Whatever their friends experience or situation was, has now automatically become yours.

The first little traveler has just turned twelve. We have decisions about her future that need to be made in the next few years. She’s about to start grade seven, and at this point in time she’s a very happy, well adjusted, twelve year old girl. She has a lovely group of friends at school and ended the school year with a report card full of A’s and B’s. Yes, that was bragging heavily disguised as a blog post.

It’s not all smooth sailing though. At twelve she has well and truly mastered the eye roll and on Friday night, she became so overtired and emotional that bed seemed the only option. Anyone who has ridden the ‘Tower of Terror’ ride at Disneyland (that’s the one where the elevator takes a sudden drop), has experienced the emotion of parenting a tween. It’s exciting, it’s excruciating, it can be scary, it can be exhilarating. 

My mind has been working overtime over the past couple of years on what we will do for the little traveler’s senior years of high school. Do we all come home? Do we consider boarding school? Do we just stay where we are and have the children repatriate for University? Part of the reason we bought this beach house was to provide the base, to make the first step of having an Aussie “home”. I have read books, researched schools, spoken to other parents, and talked about it with the little travelers themselves. 

The jury is still out.

What I have realized in my research, is that conversations about what to do with expat kids should probably only be had with expat experts. For they are the only ones that truly understand. For many people our life is a little strange. I’m sure that I have many friends who feel my children are missing out by not living in a “stable” environment. An environment where the kids who lived around the corner and caught the bus with you in grade three, are on the same bus for first day of year twelve. I know what my children are missing because I’ve had it, and I see it when I come back to Australia. Sometimes I’m desperate for that life (usually for the first two weeks that I’m home), but for most of the time I’m perfectly okay with it. We have been blessed with the opportunities we’ve been given and I wouldn’t change a second of it. A quick scroll through our family shots is enough to remind me that this life has been everything G and I hoped for. 

So back to the question.

Are the little travelers going to have “have trouble settling in?” 

I’m quietly confident they’ll be fine. We’ll have the same hiccups we’ve had with any other moves and yes, they will be arriving from one world and entering another, but I reckon they know what they’re in for. Our summer holidays always provide an insight into what’s in store. “Doha? Where’s that?”

Like any parent, it’s my job to make them as comfortable in their own skin as possible. It’s my job to make them feel like they have a great support base behind them. It’s my job to make them adaptable and open to change. This is an achievement for any parent, expat or not. And anyone, can screw it up, wherever they happen to reside.

The world has become a very small place. Email, Facebook, Messaging and Skype mean that children can now talk daily to friends on the other side of the world. They share music, youtube clips and concert snippets to remain connected. Obviously none of this substitutes for hanging out in real time with a friend, but gone are the days of arriving back in the country and having no idea what’s going on. The little travelers addiction to Masterchef and Dance Academy proves that Aussie pop culture can now find its way to lounge rooms all over the world.

So, will the little travelers have trouble settling in? Maybe, possibly, hopefully not – we’ll do it together like we have everything else. Our situation will be unique because it is ours, and we’ll just do the best we can. In the meantime we’ll just stay on the ride, exciting, excruciating, scary and exhilarating. 

I love it.

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  1. I really needed to read this on the last day in my Australian home, surrounded by boxes and removalists. Life is an adventure, the main security children need is the sense of self being properly loved provides, regardless of location. Thanks. X

  2. I came to live in Australia 25 years ago, after spending over 6 years in PNG (between 9 and 15) and having spent the first 9 years of my life in NZ. I loved living in PNG, although the differences between living in PNG and living in Melbourne became very stark when we moved, and I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. My parents moved because I was about to go into Year 10 and they wanted senior high school to be outside PNG – and because my father had terrible experiences at boarding school as a child, they wouldn’t send us to boarding school. We all struggled with ‘settling in’ to Australia – Dad didn’t like the job the company gave him, Mum’s teaching qualifications weren’t recognised here, my sister and I both had difficulty settling in. But we managed, we got through it, and we all love Melbourne now. I am very glad I got to go to school where I did because I made some wonderful friends. Of course – the technological differences between the mid 1980’s and now are huge, and must make an enormous difference to the expatriate experience anyway. I guess I’m saying – whatever you decide, there will be good and bad – it is likely that nothing will be the ‘wrong’ decision entirely.

  3. Anonymous says

    Very timely post. We live in Doha with our two travellers and are back in Perth for a visit/escape. Same issues. Just this morning I was once again considering where we should buy a house, which school we should send the kids to. You should know I was an expat kid myself and I coped. Although I did always feel different and couldn’t wait to work and travel overseas. I love it!

  4. Travel is the best education. I have a feeling your children’s experiences abroad, coupled with your support, will make them more resilient and adaptablen than most. Xo

  5. I was one of those children at boarding school in Sydney when I was 10 years old. My parents lived on a remote Indonesian island and this was well and truly back in the day before email….my mother was a slack letter writer and there was no such thing as the phone in our excessively strict boarding house. I think that my parent’s made a conscious decision to pass the responsibility of looking after us onto somebody else. It was hard yet I would argue that I turned out OK?! I just learned the difficult lessons of independence and self reliance a tad early. It affected my brother and sister in a different way….they were even younger than me. The fact that you think about all of this shows that you are in tune with your children and this is the best thing that you can be as a parent. So many parents switch off, even if they are living in the Australian suburbs with their children in the same house. I’m sure that whatever you decide will be the best for your own children. Good luck! Rx

  6. Anonymous says

    As ever a very insightful post that resonates with many of us expats! Thank you x

  7. Anonymous says

    I really enjoyed reading this Kirsty! These are thoughts that have been on my mind over the last couple of years. I agree with you about discussing these things with other expats – while I love my home town friends they really don’t understand what its like to be an expat especially with children.

    Repatriation is looming for us and it is a scary thought but just as you remind us – we will do our best and we will do it as our little family together.

    I just love reading your bloggs.

  8. Wonderful post, Kirsty (and I love your new layout too, btw!) Your little travellers will be fine because of the way you and G have brought them up. They are secure in their lives, no matter WHERE they live, and that’s a credit to the both of you.

    I have always told my kids to grab any chance they get to travel with both hands. It is the best teacher, experiences gained are simply not able to be taught in a classroom.


  9. What a great post! We are in a similar situation, trying to work out when it’s best to head back to the UK from Australia. If we make it in a years time, we will be spot on for no1 son starting exam courses, after that could get messy!

    As for never quite fitting, I always felt it as a child even though my parents only moved from Scotland to England. Mine will be the same, but we coped and found like minded people who realized that the world is a bigger place and wanted to ask questions and explore.

    Thanks for such an interesting blog, I’m a regular reader if not commenter!,

    Sandra x

  10. Great post and something I constantly worry about having a 12 & 9 year old. I like to think my kids would be fine but perhaps hubby and I would struggle with staying in one place 😉 S x

  11. ‘The jury is still out’ is the best way to describe things and, let’s face it, the jury will ALWAYS be out irrespective of what decisions we make as parents.

    We moved here to Geneva just as Sapph started high school. In an ideal world, we’d like her to complete the secondary schooling here (IB) but if it’s not possible, we move somewhere else or back home and ‘settle in’ again. She’s had some tough times, but as a thirteen year old who has perfected the eye rolls, bored sighs and PMS explosions, she’s also developing into a kind, hilarious, insightful and friendly girl who now knows kids from all over the world.

    Whether she’ll thank us for this experience or not is unknown. Then again, I’m still remembering to thank my seventy two year old mother for decisions, experiences and events that she arranged for me four decades earlier.

  12. I’m an expat, albeit without children, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about family support. If you have a strong base in your family, then where you live is secondary. You are their home and their stability. That isn’t to say that moving around isn’t hard – it is! But if you’ve grown up with it and carry that support around with you then its challenging, exciting and rewarding. A lifetime of experiences way outside the bounds of ‘every day life’.

  13. As many people have expressed, a loving supportive family mean most things will be handled. Whatever you choose, will be the best choice & you’ll work with those parameters. I was an expat child & like Lisa, I believe travel is the best education.

    I attended a very posh expensive all girls school in England for 3 years. Leaving there to go to a local Australian co-ed high school for 3 years (starting half way through year 7) was obviously a huge culture shock. But my Dad wanyed me to experience a good education & believed (rightfully back then) that public school was a good call. That was challenging, but I believe I would have had challenges regardless, just different ones if i hadnt gone overseas.

    Then being told we were moving to America half way through year ten was at the time and at that age a huge change. Leaving friends behind, not going to Aussie college (yr 11&12). But given the choice of a new school (boarding school) in Aus or a strange school in a strange country but with my family, I chose the latter. Being the new kid can have its benefits. I’ve met so many beautiful friends the world over, that we still keep in touch with, I wouldn’t change a thing. Sorry for the long comment, I just believe that you know your children well. You guys have made moving an incredible adventure & a gift to your children. Not a year goes by (& I’m 44) where I don’t thank my lucky stars for the fantastic experiences I had growing up. It’s in their blood now, they’ll crave the excitement and the point of difference. No matter what you choose, your kids will be ok, because you all have each other.

  14. Melissah says

    After 9 years in Singapore and 20 years as an expat, I decided to move back to Australia this year with my 2 girls. My husband has stayed in Singapore for this year just in case moving back didn’t work-I guess we were hedging our bets!
    We sent 2 older boys to boarding school in Australia as they had already been to 5 different schools in 3 countries and at 14 both had decided they didn’t want to move again. Having said that they both say they feel more global than Australian and the older one has had two Uni scholarships to Spain and Africa during his 3 years at Uni and speaks 3 languages.

    My 3rd global citizen is 12 and the fourth is 5 years old. The 12 year old has found it quite difficult to settle after 9 years in an International School.She found she dresses in a much more European fashion and does’t know any Aussie vernacular. Luckily, the school we chose (where her brothers went) for her (as a day student) has a large population of international students and students who travel widely. After 6 months, she feels a lot more comfortable She certainly feels that it is very important not to stand out too much and begs me to just buy her clothes at Target so she looks the same as the other girls on casual days. Unfortunately, I think our time here is short as there is talk of another move to the other side of the world.

    I have asked my kids( now aged 20,18,12 and 5) numerous times if they would have preferred living in the one house all their lives and to have never changed schools but they say that all the moves and experiences good and bad have shaped them to be the people they are today and they would not have changed a thing. They are all thrilled that they have had the opportunity to learn languages other than English (Mandarin,French,Spanish and Japanese) and to see so much of the world.
    The boys now want to give back something to the world that has been their home-the oldest is studying to be a human rights lawyer and the 2nd global citizen wants to be war photo journalist.
    I think as long as you treat the move back to Australia with the same sensitivity as the other moves the kids adapt over time. This move though has definitely been the most difficult.

    • Your boys sound incredible. I agree, the repatriation move appears to be the hardest and I have friends that have tried to repatriate on more than one occasion. Maybe its the expectation we place on Australia, I know I begin so many sentences with “In Australia” painting it as a magical place…..hmmm, you’ve got me thinking. Thank you for your beautiful comment, I remember you commenting previously about moving back to Oz from Sing – I can’t believe there’s talk of another move already. Actually, yes I can :-). xx

  15. Kids who never ever even move house have trouble fitting in, those with the fortune of being global travelling kids probably have many more skills at adapting to new environments.

    The expat life is intriguing to me, it seems so glamorous and offers such exciting times, I am always surprised to read these posts that show the whole picture, warts and all. But I am sure your children will be fine whatever choices you make together.

  16. NZ to Perth says

    We have relocated, albeit on a permanent basis (how permanent is permanent?!!) but I worry at regular intervals about good friends and family we have left behind and what ‘damage’ it may do to the kids. I just hope that one days the kids will make their own life changing decisions and realise the reasons behind ours! In the meantime I will save up for their therapy sessions :}

  17. Amen amen amen!!! Still, very comforting to read this from another “expat expert” as we are facing some decisions on where to go next. Thank you!

  18. Erika Robertson says

    I have just returned to Doha after a month at home in South Africa with the kids . I was quite taken aback when my 7 year old daughter asked me why we didn’t live in south Africa when it was so much nicer than Qatar …? I struggled to answer her question because I had been asking myself the same question recently . After growing up as an expat kid from age 5 and having lived in 5 countries since as an adult , could it actually be that I was “tiring ” of this wonderful , exciting life full of travel and experiences ??? Was I craving something stable now for my own kids ???
    Well , I thought long and hard and the answer has to be : Hell No ! !! We will keep going …. It’s the only life I know and I love it .

  19. Steph Doust says

    In Kabul, 5 mths pregnant and on Skype with my mum late last year, Mum asked me, ‘Why do you feel you have to live in all these dangerous places? Where does this need to be somewhere else come from? Why don’t you just come home (Australia)?’ I couldn’t believe my ears and told her so: ‘Are you kidding, mum? This ‘need’ comes from you and Dad. Remember when I was 9 and you decided moving to the Highlands of PNG for a few years to teach would be a good idea? You sowed the seed.’ And it’s true. Mum and Dad gave me the greatest gift anyone can give a child: the gift of discovery, of a different culture, landscape, language. They opened my eyes to the wildness of the world. To the hugeness of it. 30 years later, having worked in development in more than 18 countries and currently calling Albania home, I’m so pleased they had the guts to make the move. I wouldn’t swap my life for anything, and that includes awkward moments of having to return to Australia for high school, never having heard of ‘Neighbours’ or SAFM. I only hope I can do the same for my daughter now: help her to feel secure in choosing a road less travelled, knowing she can land on her feet anywhere in the world.

  20. Really interesting post, Kirsty. And interesting responses too. My giggle was at this: Do they mean brown hair and freckles with a seemingly constant glass of wine in their hand? Haha. You’ve actually just described me!


  21. Anonymous says

    Four kids and a beagle twenty years later,my youngest after moving school eight times has made it clear that he’s staying put his final year! It has split the family, I came to stay with him this year with hubby still in Vietnam but it’s a sacrifice that we feel he needs for some stability in a difficult time. The two oldest girls changed readily in high school but the third always had difficulties with change and was the only one who went to the same high school for all four years. Try to look at each child individually and do what’s best for each!

  22. When people who’ve stayed in one place their entire life (or most of their life) face adversity, they do so with the soothing familiarity of people, places, things. When people who’ve moved around a fair bit (especially overseas) face adversity, they do so with the knowledge and experience that they’ve handled challenges before and eventually come through them. Each may long for a bit of the other, but in the end we all live generally live the life we’d choose.

    Your emphasis on helping your children be comfortable in their own skin will serve them well, as will having observed their parents handle international moves to new places with aplomb, or at least with honesty and a commitment to helping each other weather the transitions. Might repatriation be challenging? I’d say so. But so will be getting on with their lives wherever they choose to do so. Go with your gut, help them understand and enhance their stores of resilience, be their safe harbor and they’ll work their way through whatever comes their way.

  23. “Will the little travellers have trouble settling in?”
    Probably not, they’re used to adjusting. But once you’re all in a permanent home, you may find them (and yourself) becoming restless around the time you would normally be moving on. I found this with my own kids when we settled here in Adelaide after following my soldier husband up and down the eastern states for 13 years.
    I read your next post before this one,it’s sad to read your parents are thinking of downsizing, selling the family home that you have all loved for so long. Any chance you could buy it? Make it your home base? Make it a multi-generational family home?

  24. carojacko says

    I have just left Australia last week after our summer catch-up with family and friends and your post was so relevant. It is even more complicated for us as my husband is not Australian, so when the conversation turns to “when are you coming home” and “don’t you think the kids need stability in high school”, I agree but Australia is not my husband’s home. I think that makes the decision easier in a way as, for us, home is where we are. Having said that, I know when I voice that to many people who are not expats, you can almost see them thinking, “thank god that’s not my children”!!

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