As a “Foreign Service spouse” for more than 30 years, Debbi Miller has moved many times with her husband and children and lived all over the world. “The moving part is psychologically stressful,” says Miller, who now works with other Foreign Service families as an office manager for Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, based in Arlington, Va. “It’s exciting to go discover a new place. It’s also hard to say goodbye to friends and leave extended family.”
Planning, talking and flexibility play key roles in helping families adjust to international assignments—whether the family stays behind or moves with the employee assigned abroad.
When the family stays behind
If an employee has to leave family behind to complete an overseas assignment, no doubt the spouse and children will miss the absent parent. Depending on the location of the post, concerns about personal safety also may become an issue.
But even beyond that, “the family dynamic changes,” says Miller. “A person’s missing.” And, upon returning home, the absent parent can feel like an “outsider” and have to readjust to life within the family.
Becoming a “single parent” at home can add other challenges as well, explains Ann Greenberg, director of the U.S. Department of State Family Liaison Office (FLO). Often the parent who stays behind shoulders the tasks of her spouse abroad, in addition to her own.
Greenberg and Miller both point out ways to make big changes go better. The change can feel more stable if many routines at home remain the same after the family member has left for the overseas assignment.
And, as with any change, good communication is key. “It can be handled if you talk about it beforehand,” Miller says. The FLO also suggests that couples create a plan for communicating regularly, including when and how they will keep in touch.
Financial, legal and practical considerations should be discussed. This includes setting up bank accounts, updating wills, reviewing tax considerations and going over household duties that may be unfamiliar to the other spouse.
When the family moves
Everyone will have to say goodbye to family and friends at home and adjust to the idea of the unfamiliar. But, the changes can affect different family members in different ways.
The change may be easiest for the employee, who can benefit from familiar corporate culture and company support in the workplace, Greenberg says. But the experience may be poles apart for spouses and children.
“For the spouse, there’s the issue of interrupted employment,” says Miller. Within the U.S. Department of State, for example, 37 percent of employees’ spouses work. A higher percentage of couples in the general public are dual-income, notes Greenberg.
For children, the move may mean adjusting to a different school system and a new peer group.
Preparing for relocation
Preparing mentally and physically for an international assignment will help make the change less overwhelming.
- “Talk among yourselves a lot about what your hopes are, what your fears are, what you’re happy about, what you’re angry about,” suggests Miller, stressing that family discussions are important. Reassure extended family and friends as well.
- Learn as much as possible about the host country before making the move. Web sites, books, commercial language services, and locals and experienced expatriates can be invaluable sources for learning about language, culture, schools, transportation and employment. Find someone in the know who can help answer questions, Greenberg suggests. Companies also may provide relocation assistance that can help smooth the transition.
- Organize. Legal, financial and medical matters should be addressed before moving abroad. Make sure changes in health insurance and tax status are researched, any necessary immunizations accounted for, and passports and visas secured, for example.
- Think positively. Prepare mentally for the move and culture shock it may cause. Emphasize a positive attitude about the move, which can help keep the entire family in good spirits.
People tend to have difficulties in another country when expectations don’t meet reality, Greenberg says. While a family abroad may miss and still celebrate their home country’s traditions, they’ll have the privilege of experiencing new things unique to their host county.
Once in the host county, keep that positive attitude, but also recognize normal feelings connected with culture shock and gradual adjustment to new surroundings. Take advantage of resources that can help ease the change.
Be proactive, Miller and Greenberg advise. Try to communicate with locals in their own language. Most people appreciate even the most basic attempts. Established friends also can provide introductions to other locals and expatriates.
Joining groups such as exercise classes, volunteer programs or sports organizations provides contact with people who have similar interests.
ResourcesAssociates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide www.aafsw.org Family Liaison Office U.S. Department of State www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/