The moment that children leave home marks a huge change for all moms and dads. Whether they’re heading off to college, to start a new job, or to go traveling, they’re starting their own lives away from their parents. For expat parents, and in particular for the trailing spouse, the experience can be uniquely traumatic. When the nest empties while the parents are still living abroad, the kids aren’t just moving out of the house, often they’re moving to countries thousands of kilometers away and on a totally different time zone.
Some expat kids may go back to their “home” or passport country, others to a country they’ve only briefly visited during college application tours. I know of Dulwich, Harrow, and ISB parents, whose kids have now all graduated high school and left Beijing to continue their studies in other parts of the world. Their parents, however, will remain here because of work and contractual commitments. Then there are those parents who will relocate on another expat posting, but this time without the kids. Not only is your nest now empty, your nest is in a country that isn’t your home country, and is a long way from your kids.
As an expat trailing spouse, you spend most of your time and energy making sure your kids are settled and happy. That the house is organized and done out nice. That you know where the best places to shop and eat out are, and that as a family your weekends are packed full of activities and having fun. When the empty nest coincides with a new expat destination, you might think things will be easier to deal with. “We would be starting from scratch in a new country, so I thought there would be no time to dwell on how much I was missing the kids,” explained a friend of mine, who two years back moved from Beijing to Tokyo sans kids. “How wrong I was! Because I had always settled into a new country with my children, and we had helped each other to make our new lives happy, this time I felt completely lost. I didn’t have that desire to make new friends, find social networks, and I wasn’t even that fussed about the house.”
One expat empty nester, who has another year in Beijing, explained “I had fully anticipated the void that would invade my life, when my youngest headed off to college. So I spent the months leading up to the summer break making plans on how to quickly fill that void.” She planned to dive into new projects, do more volunteer work, and had even begun researching online study courses. “But that moment still came. When I realized that no matter how much stuff I had planned to fill my time, the void that’s left when your kids are gone is vast. I miss them terribly,” she said. The most common feeling seems to be the sense of emptiness and silence. No longer do they kids arrive home with their chatter and their mess, no one needs to be looked after, and the shopping trolley is half empty.
The empty nest gives the trailing spouse an enormous amount of free time, and learning to manage this new time is a real challenge. For some there’s a need to start something new, for others to get more deeply involved in activities and hobbies already underway. At the beginning you may feel almost ‘forced’ to fill the time, but over time these activities which started as a kind of therapy, will become a normal part of life. It’s important not to underestimate how you feel though. Talk to others that are going through it or have been through it. Talk to your husband or partner. They will have the distraction of work, colleagues, and the office, but it’s vital that they support you in those first months. Try and do stuff together as a couple, re-visit shared interests that had taken a back-burner while the kids were growing up.
The good news is that it can be a very positive experience. One mom I spoke to said there are huge benefits, which have positively affected their lives. Freedom from school runs and child-related commitments has got to be a good thing. Being a couple without children means being able to travel and socialize more, without any constraints. And of course seeing your kids cope in a life separate from yours gives such a sense of accomplishment. There’s no denying it’s tough when the kids leave home, and for an expat empty nester it can be even harder. But everyone in the family will eventually adjust, because you have to.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.