Should I Stay or Should I Go? Life in Expat Limbo

Should_I_stay_or_Should_I_goLast week I had lunch with some friends. We moaned about Copenhagen prices, discussed the pros and cons of a liquid lunch and made plans to do drinks soon so that we could get more in the er…spirit of things without having to worry about picking up the kids from school. Inevitably the conversation turned, as it almost always does among a group of expats, to that old chestnut of a question:

“So… much longer are you going to be here?”

Sometimes when you’re an expat, especially one who has been stationary for a few years, life starts to resemble a Clash song. And while London Calling surely fits someone’s future plans, in many cases, it’s more Should I Stay or Should I Go?

There are certain expat postings which have an expiration date built in. Before you put your tray tables away and your seat in an upright position you know when you’ll be leaving. In a way, I think they’re lucky.

There are other expats who are beholden to the whims of the economy, to tax issues or visas limitations. Some get pushed out by nothing more exciting than good old-fashioned cost of living. Some worry about aging family members back home or the right time to move the kids. Whatever the reasons, many of us find ourselves caught in what I call Expat Limbo.

Expat Limbo is that special place just above hell when you’re forced to start seriously contemplating the next few years. Expat Limbo is when you could stay, but then again… you could go. You could move on, move home. You could take another posting. Or you could just stay put. The result is often a never-ending loop of what ifs.


What if we left now, took the first job that came up that gets us home…or what if we stay?

What if we stay another year and then move home…or what if we stay another year and go somewhere else?

What if we take another assignment for two years and then go home…or what if we take another assignment and the kids are the wrong age to move schools?

What if we take another assignment for two years, squeeze one more two-year jaunt in there after that, and then go home…or what if we just stay here?

What if we just bury our heads in the sand because it’s too complicated to figure out?

It’s enough to make your head spin. You get all Excel about the whole thing, making lists, creating spread sheets that factor in the considerations: job security, pensions, leaving behind what has become familiar, saying goodbye to friends, the thought of leaving behind a life you’ve invested in to start somewhere fresh, even if that somewhere is home.


School is a huge factor for many of us. For some there are exams to sit to insure places even if you don’t know where you’re going to be or when. There is the agonizing ‘is it going to be easier to move your kid at the beginning of a ‘big’ year, say the start of middle school or high school, or does it not make a whit of difference’ question. There are private vs. public, IB vs. Non-IB, international vs. local issues to contend with. There’s the time of year, school years and cut offs dates that change depending on what hemisphere you’re going to. And that’s taking one child into consideration and assuming there are no special considerations to consider.

The truth is, there’s no easy way to do it unless your kids are young enough not to have started school, old enough to have finished, or you are on the list for Hogwarts.

8ball_070212When you’re in Expat Limbo you can’t make any concrete plans until the contract is signed. What seems like a sure thing often has more holes than a sieve. At the same time, you need to be prepared, so you do your due diligence, rate your research, start making enquiries. You get excited…then a deal falls through. You have a prospect you know would be a brilliant career but well….Bulgaria? You never really fancied Bulgaria, though you’ve heard it’s lovely in the spring. Maybe you’re not so secretly happy when it doesn’t happen even if it would have meant a promotion and the acquisition of a household staff.

Adding a little salt to the by-now festering wound of indecision? Most of the time you can’t even talk openly about it. The one time you really need to spit it all out and see if it makes more sense than it does in the jumble sale of your head and it’s all hush hush/keep a secret. Current employers don’t know, you’re locked into a confidentiality agreement, your spouse has threatened you with divorce sans alimony if you breathe a word to anyone. And yet it someone is always asking:

“So….how much longer are you going to be here?”

You play your hand close to your chest. I’ve met some people who were so good at holding an ace up their sleeve that I didn’t even know they were leaving until they didn’t show up for school the following term. Ninja expats, stealthily slipping from one post to the next.

Expat life has heavenly perks and hellish downsides. Yet it’s that middle ground, the Expat Limbo, that purgatory of what ifs, which can be the hardest time you spend abroad. What you really want more than anything, even more than your favorite food products from home, is for someone to come along and answer the question for you.

Should I stay or should I go?






21 thoughts on “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Life in Expat Limbo

Add yours

  1. It IS hard, and not knowing, not deciding was awful for us. We stayed in Switzerland for 5 years. The schooling for our son was not good for him — he has ADHD and they didn’t believe in it. So we really had no choice but to come back home. For us it was the right decision.

    Good luck with yours. (The Hogwarts line was brilliant!)


  2. We spent years doing more or less what my husband’s company asked us to do (bar one assignment that we turned down) and limbo was always a factor – seemed that each time when it was time to move on, pretty much everyone knew it, except, of course, the people at the company who had some insight on what should be next. Two moves ago we decided we’d had enough and took things into our own hands – which turned out to be surprisingly terrifying. However, we’ve now had two moves where we’ve been in the driver’s seat and it has been (once we got over the initial paralysis) empowering. BTW – have never worked out why organisations can’t seem to work out that if you have school age kids, especially older ones, your going to want to make a decision in time to get them into their next school. And that school places are typically awarded more than 3 days in advance of the start of the school year…..


    1. We are very lucky in the sense that my husband’s job is his until he decides to move on, something that doesn’t happen much in this day and age. So for us the questions are more where do we want the kids to finish their schooling, where do we want to return to (we are from different countries ourselves, just to make it that much more complicated!), how much longer we can afford to stay here once our benefits start to decrease (Western Europe is great for expat postings, but it is super expensive), etc. So, like many, we start to talk about what’s going to happen, get overwhelmed with decisions, and do nothing! But you are right, they don’t care about the families that are trying to piece it all together behind the scenes–no, I really can’t up and leave and start work in a new country in 2 weeks! Hmmm…I see a whole new post there!


  3. I’m hoping to get the kids out of the house before we start trying to do the overseas thing. It sounds so ideal to me, but I’m sure there are a billion downsides. One of the things I noticed when traveling is that when I can’t speak the native language I seem to idealize the nation, it probably is because I can’t watch the news and find out all the bad stuff.


    1. The problem is, there are far more upsides, but the downsides are big ones. You are spot on about the language though. It’s part of what makes the bubble so cushy–you don’t hear about all the local crime, about kids falling out of windows or women getting beaten. You don’t watch the news. So you are able to go through life in your nice, cushy little way.


  4. It’s liked you’ve read my mind and then copied down everything in there 🙂

    The one thing no one tells you is that the asking starts almost as soon as you’ve left. I thought we’d at least get a pass for a year or so, but at the first mention of anything negative about our new life it was all ‘oh, so you’ll be coming home soon, then?’

    The point I just couldn’t get across to some people was that where we’d left (in our case, the UK) wasn’t so perfect, either, which is why we’d decided to move in the first place. Exhausting…


    1. Then there is the fact that one sounds like a complete ass when you start complaining about living a life that other people would give an arm or a leg for ;-). We breathed a nice sigh of relief the first 18 months we were here because we thought, “Oh, we don’t have to think about it for a while!” But man, those 18 months went fast and we’ve been avoiding any real discussion about it for a while now…


  5. Sometimes I just want to scream at the top of my lungs every time someone says “Soooooo, when are you leaving???” Ugh! It makes me crazy! Do you want me to leave? Do you not want to be friends anymore? Can’t we just enjoy this little bit of chit-chat without making my anxiety level go up?


  6. Definitely have been there! We’re at that point now where I’m ignoring the situation until my husband gets an offer for the next post. But I wouldn’t mind aspiring to be like the ninja expat! 😉 Thanks for sharing!


Talk to me, Goose.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑

D.E. Haggerty

Writer, Blogger, Book Addict

PRS Consulting

What you need to know about roofing


a performative documentary project based on letters to the editor of Ms., 1972-1980

The Happy Traveler

Seeking to read the pages of Earth's Book.

only the jodi

scribbler. shutterbug. succulent cactus.


Being proud to be a vintage housewife

%d bloggers like this: