If You’re Worried You’ve Messed Up Your Children, You Probably Have

The conversation took place while we were ‘home’ over the holidays in Australia.  Our local (non expat) life.  A neighbour I hadn’t met before was about to embark on a solo parenting stint. Her husband was heading overseas to work, he’d be away for about six months. They’d considered moving the entire family (again) but it just felt too disruptive for their school age kids. They both felt that as the children had got older it somehow felt harder to switch from one life to another.  They’d decided as a family that this time she’d stay put with the kids while he took up another contract in New Zealand.

I smiled, nodded, talked about my stints of solo parenting when my children were tiny.  I empathized, it was a familiar chat. A topic that comes up regularly in the expat world. The invitation of career opportunity and job security slotted somewhere in between the guilt and the conflict with family life.

“I know there are people who think we’re crazy, that the kids being away from their Dad is the worst thing we could be doing” she said.  She was savouring her last few days with her husband before he went away but also dealing with the conflict, the thoughts of friends, the self-doubt, the school changes. What was this doing to her children? How would it change them?

I couldn’t help myself, it was none of my business, but out it came.  “I’m an expat, expats talk about this stuff all the time. I promise you – your kids will be fine, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re great parents, your kids are lucky. There are far worse things you could be doing.”

She smiled, and then her child joined us and smooshed a handful of half eaten strawberries into her palm “what do I do with these Mum?” It was going to be a long six months.

I’m often told how screwed up my children will be because of our expat life. Sure, it’s rarely presented as a straight up statement, but there’s the questions, comments, and written articles to provide a kink in my parenting armour.

Whether it’s the “Oh, I could never do that” from a well-meaning friend. Or the “Aren’t you worried about…” from a stranger. Or maybe it’s the latest psychological study/article that appears in my Facebook feed. Something like yesterday’s post which popped up in an expat forum discussing how messed up children who attend boarding school are. My favourite comment in the thread “every person I know who went to boarding school has emotional issues”. I giggled thinking about myself and many of  my boarding school friends who have somehow, almost outrageously, gone on to live functional lives against the odds. I mean, c’mon, if you scratch the surface don’t we all have our issues?

Today an email from the school arrived, an invitation to attend a coffee morning to discuss the latest book written by a therapist who specializes in TCK’s or Third Culture Kids (expat kids). I clicked on the link “Every expat parent should buy this book” Amazon urged. Between getting the left at home science experiment to school, making my way to softball trials, baseball, rugby and running a business, I wasn’t sure I needed the additional angst. Does this make me a terrible parent?

Recently after a podcast interview with the fabulous Dr Sarah Whyte who specializes in Third Culture Kids I asked my two eldest children, my girls, about their “unresolved grief”.  Ms 14 gave me the side eye” What’s unresolved grief” she asked, “You know, from moving around and not getting to say a proper goodbye – no closure”.  She raised an eyebrow and suggested that with Donald Trump as President I perhaps had bigger things to be worried about.

Ms 16 decided to turn it into an opportunity. When we recently moved her back into the boarding house after a long summer break I complained about the amount of crap she seemed to have acquired. It was after our third trip back to the car  “You need to do a serious cull” I said in my best motherly tone while carrying two suitcases and a beanbag up the stairs. “Mum?!” she mocked, astounded by my callous nature under the circumstances. “You know what it is don’t you? It’s my unresolved grief, I carry it all with me” her grin was both cheeky and enormous.

Here’s the thing. I’m sure I’ve screwed my children up. We all screw our children up. We also give our children all that we can. All the love, all the support, all the recorder practice. We work our butts off, from the moment we wake, until the moment we hit the pillow at the end of the day. We do our best. And our best is just fine, it’s enough. You are enough.

My children have been handed incredible opportunities to travel and have experienced immeasurable cultural awareness with friendships all over the world, but at the same time they’ve had to struggle with the same geographical schizophrenia my husband and I do. We’re all in this together. That’s what makes us so lucky. No matter where we are, we’re loved. You can’t ask for any more than that. Even if we are a little messed up.

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  1. Once you scratch the surface, everyone has their issues. I actually feel sorry for the kids that never move around, never get to experience different cultures. It now seems a bit bland and boring to stay put in suburban Australia and go to a school where everyone else is just like you. For all the drawbacks, this expat life is a glorious thing, and I truly believe my kids are better people because of it.

    • Monique Grzelska says

      Spot on. I just moved back with a 15yo. After 1 week in Aussie high school he told me how he now realised what a fabulous life he has had so far and that most of the kids in his class have never left Australia, h*ll, they have never even moved house! Wouldn’t that be boring, he asked me!

  2. I firmly believe that the life experiences that my children have enjoyed, the social skills that they have learned and the different academic systems they have experienced outweigh the negatives. Your child could experience similar grieve if you had never moved them and a best friend of years moved away but in that instance, they would be less equipped to handle it. We have had our challenges, but they have been worth it!

  3. Love. Thanks for being vulnerable.

  4. My children have been handed incredible opportunities to travel and have experienced immeasurable cultural awareness with friendships all over the world.

  5. TCK Goes Home says

    I can’t relate to this 100%, only because I don’t have kids yet, but I’m sure my parents would! I can’t imagine how much thought went into decisions that had us move around the world, especially when they had 2 little girls (me and my sister). But I can say this – I am so thankful for the opportunities and experiences I had and I won’t have them any other way!

  6. Pia Grossmann says

    I recently talked to my 27year old, who admitted that he would not have been the same person if we had never moved away from our home country. He said: “I don’t think I would be as open minded and tolerant towards other people, no matter what race or sex”.
    Before we moved to a new country, the most important part for me was if there is a proper school for my kids. Everything else can be taken care of, no matter where you live.
    Before we left for our first posting, one of my colleagues asked me, why I would move to such a shitty country and not just have my husband go by himself? The contract was only for 2 years. I told her, because we are a family, and we do it together. That’s how simple it is for me.
    Thank you Kirsty for all your Blogs I love to read!

  7. After raising my children overseas, moving from country every few years, I now see that while this upbringing had many positives, there are some real negatives. And it is important not to be cavalier about them. My kids had a very difficult transition to adulthood. After years of being cultural chameleons in order to fit in and make friends, they had difficulty developing their own unique identities. After saying goodbye so many times, they learned that moves are easier if the friendships aren’t that deep. This is self-protective but when its time to form the deep relationships that while sustain you through adult life, you are at a disadvantage if you haven’t learned to maintain a friendship through turbulent times. Last, while so many expat parents gush how wonderful it is that their kids are at home everywhere in the world, I find it to be the opposite: they are at home nowhere in the world. When my kids went back to the US for university, they had culture shock and even now say it still feels like a foreign country.

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