As an expat, there are certain things you take with you from post to post. The linens and the towels, the housewares and the bedding. Favorite books and photographs and items that remind you of home(s). Sometimes when you move across oceans or over latitude lines on the globe it can be a good opportunity to chuck out the ratty old stuff you’ve been hanging on to, to embrace the symbolism and start fresh. Sometimes though, the ratty, old things are the ties that bind and so into the packing boxes they go.
One of the heaviest things, one of the biggest space wasters, yet one of the hardest to let go of, is the guilt that follows you from map dart to map dart.
Expat families may take more trips than their more rooted contemporaries. But the guilt trip is never one we look forward to.
It’s possible I feel that heavy weight of guilt more keenly due to mitigating circumstances: Italian, raised Catholic, mother. The Holy Trinity of guilt. Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy enough to justify picking up your immediate family and moving thousands of miles away. After all, it’s your life to live, it’s your future to grab by the balls. Those opportunities out there, the ones ripe for the picking? They are yours to pluck.
Seen from the inside, through the filter of the guilt trifecta, it can be difficult to justify the very same thing: picking up your immediate family and moving thousands of miles away.
There are families who don’t have a real choice, those who knew the fine print when they signed on the dotted line. But for many of us moving abroad involves an active decision. There is a choice, an opt-out, a chance to say ‘no’. For my family, the reasons why were as wide and varied as the straphangers on a Downtown 6 train. But at the end of the day, it was a choice. And that choice, though ultimately and sometimes heartbreakingly the right one for us, meant our families would be deprived, by virtue of time zones and geographical space, of their children and let’s face it, more importantly, grandchildren.
Unlike the middle-aged spread which is harder to shift and gets in the way of your pants buttons, the moving away guilt is not there all the time. Most of the time you’re so caught up in the day-to-day business of life you probably don’t stop to thing about it too much.
And then something stops in your tracks. A funny story you want to share only the time difference is too great and someone is deep in a REM cycle. A sporting win or close loss. A girlfriend. An award, a violin concert, a story to share. An American penny where an American penny should not be lurking. Sometimes it’s nefarious and sneaky and catches you off guard. Sometimes it hits you in the gut like a sucker punch.
I am grateful for my life, but that doesn’t mean I feel guiltless when it comes to the way we’ve chosen to live it. I feel bad that my mother only sees her only grandkids in six month intervals. I feel bad that she doesn’t know what clothing size they wear just by looking at them or what their interests are. I feel bad she doesn’t get to watch them blow out birthday candles. I feel bad my in-laws don’t get to see them open presents or cheer them on from muddy sidelines or listen to their goofy jokes. I feel bad my sister and sister-in-law don’t get to have holidays all together without maximum planning and redeeming frequent flyer miles.
I feel guilt that this life we’ve chosen was the selfish choice. Not always. But sometimes.
A one-way guilt trip is bad enough. But expat guilt is roundtrip. Not only do I feel guilty about what the adults are missing, I feel guilty about what the kids may be missing too.
Is it fair to inflict this nomadic lifestyle upon children? Are we giving them a gift or setting them up for heartbreak? Are we teaching them skills they’ll need to compete in a global world or are we screwing with their ability to make lasting, lifelong connections? My children have gone from apartment to house to apartment again. They’ve never experienced the joy of a backyard swimming pool or a neighborhood to grow up in, of friends they’ve seen every day since kindergarten. They won’t have any of the same kind of memories of growing up that I have, or that my husband has.
Lifestyles have changed so much in the time between then and now, it’s likely they wouldn’t have anyway. But that doesn’t stop guilt from speeding down the road and picking me up for a little joyride every now and then.
They’re not meant to be more than voiced curiosity or a genuine desire to know. But sometimes in the wake of those questions comes a whole bag full of guilt. Bushels of it. Boxes and barrels of it. And let me tell you, when the movers come around to do a survey to see what’s going to fit in your next shipment and what isn’t?
That guilt takes up a helluva lot of room.