Not long ago, a clip of an interview with Oprah came across my feed in which she was asked “What is the most important question to ask?” Her answer: “What do you want?” I am sure it was no coincidence that I saw this at the same time that I was having discussions with my 18-year-old daughter about what it that she wants to do, all while I was (and still am) in the middle of a professional transition.
This is a question that might be easy for some people to answer, but the fact is that for most of us, what we want changes based on our season in life. What constitutes as our biggest hopes and dreams in our teens shifted when we moved away from home the first time for school or work and often again as we move up in our careers, change jobs and watch our children grow up. Moving to a new city or country can also have an impact on our vision or dreams, as it might open up new ideas, awareness and possibilities.
As an expat woman (because I do believe this is different for men), one of the hardest aspects of the question “What do we want?” is in relation to being separated from our family. While this might not resonate with all expat women, our career aspirations, our volunteer commitments and the dreams for our family look very different in our 20s, 30s and the early 40s than the years that follow. It often does not matter how much we might enjoy our life overseas or the prospective career advancements that are ahead of us, possibly in other countries, as contemplating sending our children off into the world impacts all aspects of life as a mother, even her career.
What makes this even more complicated is that the life we live between countries and cultures may take our children on their own adventures to new corners of the world. Being a third culture kid or a multicultural kid means that our kids are more comfortable adapting and adjusting to the bigger world, and may in fact crave it, in a way that their cousins, who might have lived a more stationary life, will not understand. This can add multiple layers to our ever-shifting priorities.
As an empty nest expat woman with children on three different continents, the question of “What do you want?” has grown ever more complicated for me. I see many of my expat friends struggling with similar questions as they contemplate sending kids off to college (and similarly as they try to help an ailing parent from afar). Suddenly the dreams to travel the world, to lead a humanitarian effort or plant churches may no longer be what you want to do. What you want might be as simple, but yet as complicated, as to be close to your kids as they start college while taking care of your parents. For some, this is an option that means making the decision to relocate and finding new opportunities in your passport country. For others, such as myself, it means understanding that what you want might need to be evaluated in light of the reality of a life that has taken you on a different path. In this case, what you want to do requires a realistic look at how to maneuver between the various priorities in life so as to give the best you can offer to each of them, knowing that later in this season of life, all of this will change again. This is not an easy process, and the more changes that happen at once, the more difficult the question “What do you want?” can be to figure out.
For those expat women who are right now launching their children into the world, or who are looking ahead and are not sure how to prepare for that moment which will come soon enough, all while trying to stay true to yourself, here are some things that have helped me:
Remember that while caring for our children is one of the most important purposes we have in life, if we have done our job well, they will find their wings and soar. We ourselves took chances and made decisions that our parents may not have supported, and our children will do the same.
Our kids are more resilient than we think, because the life they have led has taught them that they can find their way in new places, adjust to different environments and communicate with people from around the world.
Continue to lay further foundations (if you haven’t already) by emphasizing the need to find a community for themselves wherever they go, through their classes or dorm life, a church or international students’ group, or a sports team.
Make sure your child has a home base where they are welcomed and loved. For some, that means with a relative in the same city, state or province. For others, it means a flight back overseas to enjoy the comforts of home, or it might mean both.
Finally, ask again, what do you want or what is your purpose, in relation to yourself? In no time your kids will have gained their independence and your life will go on without them needing you as they did when they were younger. It's both okay and necessary to evaluate and redefine your personal and professional priorities in preparation for all the emotions related to launching your children, especially when you are continents apart. Knowing what it is you want to do, separate from the desire to assist your children, will make the step into this next stage of life a bit easier.