Every year, thousands of expatriate parents “launch” their child off to university and like most moms I didn’t think much about it, until it happened to me.
Watching my daughter fighting back the tears from the car park outside her university halls, the memories flooded back of her first day at kindergarten. Where had the time gone? The tears streamed down my face as I glanced over to my
mother who was also crying, whilst the muffled noises from the back of the car informed me that my mother in law had also succumbed. Shocked I glanced from one to the other “I don’t know why you’re crying” I said angrily. “It’s me that’s going to be thousands of miles away”.
The weeks that followed were a whirlwind of emotions; sadness at her empty space at mealtimes, happiness at her first friendship, anxiety over her first night out and constant frustration at our poor internet connection. Her ups and downs were my ups and downs, which together with the midnight phone calls and the growing voice in my head that kept shouting “what do I do now”, left me physically and mentally exhausted. Why did no-one tell me it would be like this?
Whilst domestic research often portrays the “launch” of a child to university as a positive transition for parents, there is virtually no research on the experiences of expatriate families and the specific challenges that arise when your child is thousands of miles away. Fast forward three years and the completion of my Masters in Psychology dissertation research. This is what I discovered about the experiences of a group of expatriate mothers living in Thailand:
Before you “launch” your child to university mothering is all about “caring for” them. You cook their meals, wash their clothes and check their homework but once they leave that role transitions to “caring about” your child. Your role
becomes that of supporting your child; listening, guiding and advising when necessary (even if they choose to ignore it). The transition experience is unique to you and can influence your feelings in unexpected ways. Photos, songs, empty spaces and family shared activities can initiate strong emotional reactions, which may begin well before your child leaves and continue (hopefully with less frequency and intensity), for up to two years afterwards.
The most common emotional response you may experience is sadness and loss followed by feelings of isolation. Mothers who are not working, may find the transition to a supporting role more difficult because of the lack of alternative roles (eg. work) to take the place of mothering. How fathers respond to their child leaving home has not been researched, but evidence suggests that your partner may find it difficult to cope if they see you struggling. Fathers who are older and have a close relationship with their child are particularly vulnerable during this transition.
Before your child leaves:
The impact of reverse culture shock (moving back to the child’s country of birth) is under researched but evidence suggests that academic problems, isolation, depression, anxiety and difficulty making friends can be experiences faced at university. Discussing these challenges with your child before they leave can help prepare them and you in advance. Do research with your child regarding the availability of local support services and how to access them. University services are often under resourced and waiting lists can be long. Knowing what is available can help you to support your child and give you peace of mind.
Start thinking about how to fill the time. Research new hobbies, online courses or other activities where you can meet new friends and develop a new purpose for your life. Discuss as a family how you will manage the transition. Daily contact and more holidays together are important coping strategies for mothers and remaining siblings. Having extended family in the country where your child is going to university can provide reassurance and is important during times of crisis and holidays.
Once your child has left:
Expanding your friendships and having a network of parents whose children are also leaving, helps to “normalise” your feelings and provide support. Your cultural expectations and the distance involved will influence how you adjust to your child leaving. In cultures where parents usually live close to their child’s university, being unable to “pop over” to see them can result in higher levels of anxiety and grief for mothers. Significant events such as relocation, divorce, the death of a parent or the loss of a pet, if close to or during the “launch” of your child to university, may increase your feelings of guilt, anger and loss and can result in a delayed grieving process. Remember to access psychological support for yourself as well as helping your child adjust.
If your feelings of anger or loss continue for a long period after your child has left, reach out to trusted friends or seek out a professional therapist. Accessing online psychological services through sites such as Talkspace and Better Help can help you make sense of your experiences. Be aware that whilst having an “empty nest” is traditionally viewed as a positive experience for parents, research suggests that this is not always the case when living an expatriate lifestyle. The mother’s lack of purpose, feelings of isolation and reduced support network can continue to strain marital relationships long after all the children have left home.
This research highlights the unique challenges faced by expatriate mothers and illustrates the importance of education and psychological support services in helping expatriate families make this challenging transition.
Carolyn Whitehouse is a Coaching Psychologist based in Pattaya, Thailand. Any
further questions or comments regarding this research can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org