The Return To Work

Now that we have returned to Australia as repats, I must face the daunting realisation that I soon return to full-time employment.  After being out of the education game for 3 years, the prospect conjures mixed thoughts feelings ..particularly ‘am i up to this?’

Researching for this post, I found that there is nothing to support expat spouses to make the transition from homemaker/part-time employee to full-time career gal/guy.  The only resources I could locate were about returning to work after maternity leave.  Not terribly applicable.

Returning to work while adjusting to our new normal will be challenging.  We will be grappling with a new lifestyle, routines, relationship pressures, culture shock in addition to  transitioning back into work.  Maintaining mental health and wellbeing will be key I predict.  Below are a few of my thoughts of how to best support myself to make the leap back into the demanding and rewarding world of educational leadership while still grappling with the repatriation process.

Be organised.  This includes establishing routines at home including sleep, exercise,  household chores and so on. Professionally, meet with your boss and/or immediate colleagues (if possible) to understand your role, their role, future directions for the organisation and glean other relevant information.

Nurture health & wellbeing.  Be mindful of your work hours.  Working long hours may feel like a sound strategy to get on top of work responsibilities and tasks but this may actually be detrimental to your physical and mental health.  Maintaining a balance between work and other priorities will promote productivity.  Making time to exercise, catch up with friends or simply read for enjoyment are all ways to relax and recharge.

Say no.  Allowing yourself time to settle into life at home as well as full-time work is important.  It is okay to say no when asked to accept additional responsibilities or social invitations.   This is about knowing your limitations and how best to make a successful repatriation.  Talk to friends, family members, colleagues and your boss about how you’re coping and how they can best support you.

Say yes to professional learning.  Develop your knowledge of new initiatives and approaches, as well as increasing your self-esteem.  Remember that your skill set is not as outdated as you believe and that many of those you have developed while on eave are transferable.

There must be a myriad of effective strategies that I have not yet discovered.  How did you manage and sustain your return to work?

@aubergine_jelly

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Game Faces On – We’re Nearly Home

Almost home now and trying to follow my advice from previous pre-emptive posts. What I am most anxious about now is how I will received by friends who have also been shaped by life, who may have forgotten about me or may not wish to reconnect.  This is followed by commencing work at a new workplace and the typical ‘have I got what it takes to do this?’ thinking and  thirdly managing the culture shock that has already started to jolt me as I move about doing ordinary tasks such as driving, grocery shopping and so on.

My coping strategies for transitioning to a new normal:

Expect and except change within yourself. You have had new experiences which have shaped your world view and transformed your beliefs and values.  These may be challenged upon your return ‘home’.

Be prepared for isolation or feelings of lonliness. Family and friends have become used to your absence and may not give a thought to calling around for a cuppa or inviting you to a social gathering. Nthing personal, they’ve just become used to you not being around.

Be prepared for apathy. You know the look of eyes glazing over when you have visited family and friends at home and you launch into sharing an anecdote from your new home? Well expect that upon your return; basically noone cares after 5 minutes.

Establish routine. Exercise and work will assist with this to an extent and can help with your transition in addition to supporting mental health.

Keep in touch with other repat friends still overseas or at home. Friends who have repatriated already can be a real support as they understand the process of grieving the life you have just left behind, culture shock and stressors of settling into life at home.  These guys have a shared history with you and will happily indulge in moments of nostalgia.

Seek professional help.  Many government employees have access to psychologists who can assist with preparing for repatriation, settling into life at home, relationship counselling and so on.  Use these services should you need them.

Prepare for reverse culture shock. Just like when you moved to post as an expat, you will experience the highs and lows as I discussed in my post ‘The Stages of Cultural Adjustment’.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.  Reverse culture shock can be pretty intense for repats as it’s impact is unexpected – you’re moving home after all, should be an easy transition.   This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride and may last more than 6 months, as you will remember!

Be kind to yourself. Be patient and at times administer a bit of tough love when required. You know you’re resilient as you’ve managed this process before.  Allow time to settle back into your new normal.

What other effective coping strategies do you use?

@aubergine_jelly

Home is only days away..

As this post goes live, we will be merely days away from returning ‘home’.  Prior to our move and shortly after we arrived, we were prepared by our organisation for the initial challenges of change and cultural adjustment.  Repatriating, we have found a gaping hole. There is very little support in preparing us for the transition ‘home’.

Repatriation is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it. Many people perceive returning expats (repats) as being overly nostalgic, affected, resentful and difficult to relate to at times.  I mean, repats are returning ‘home’, so what’s so hard about it?   Well, for us ‘home’ is where we have lived for the past few years.  We have carved out lives here, we work here, have friends here and here is where our normal and familiar is.

wpid-wp-1421211122475.jpegResearching repatriation, I have discovered that the process of returning is extremely challenging for most. Most repats experience depression, anxiety, grief, isolation and reverse culture shock that may last for up to 12 months.  Friends and family just wish you’d stop talking about your old life and get back to normal, back to reality. But what you really need will be their support, patience and understanding.

Friends and family have changed since we moved away due to life experiences, as have we. I am acutely aware that some friendships won’t last the test of reconnecting and that has to be ok.  That’s life.  Another stressor however, is how this next phase will affect and test our relationship as we move from being a single income family with pressures of life abroad to a double income family with the additional pressures of the everyday plus transitioning back to a Western culture.  Relationship breakdowns are common within repat communities.

Having worked for only a short while during our posting, additional anxiety is emerging for me about returning to work. Have I lost my knowledge and skills and have I still ‘got it’?  Will I cope with the long hours and a job that is mentally and emotionally demanding? How will I establish a work/life balance and not burn out? Will colleagues understand if I have a mini meltdown due to stress or anxiety about settling back into Australia (reverse culture shock)?

So.  with all of this in mind, we cross our fingers and hope for a relatively smooth transition into our previous lives.  I’ll keep you posted..

@aubergine_jelly

 

Expat Wives Club: Keepers of the Wonder Woman Facade?

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Trailing spouses, supporting spouses, expat wives, expat spouses.  These terms provoke similar responses from women on the treadmill of regular life back home.  Conversations about expat spouses needing a ‘reality check’ or the prediction of these folk not coping when they return home as living ‘the high life’. I mean, these folk won the lottery and have escaped the rat race to live out a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?

While the expat life has many advantages and benefits to both the posted officer and their families, it does come at some expense; it’s not all smooth sailing.  Most spouses have placed their career on hold to support their partner to further their career and many also experience difficulty securing work themselves due to visa requirements.  This means financial dependence and feelings of mooching, not contributing to the household.

Further, dealing with the loss of routine, personal and professional identity, one’s support network of friends and family, and all things familiar from home become magnified. In my experience dealing with everyday situations can be a struggle due to cultural expectations (like requiring a husband’s approval to open a bank account), language barriers, loneliness and boredom.  The facade of being Wonder Women naturally begins to crumble.

What I have also found is a peculiar culture of ‘everything is awesome’ permeating through the expat wives club.  An expectation to sing the praises of the lifestyle and not let cracks appear is evident – don’t let the team down.  Even when meeting other expat spouses we all ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you settling in?’ and we have learned to cheerily answer ‘I love it here’, ‘coping well’ when working the crowd.  Those not coping or needing to debrief do so in whispers in one on one conversations with trusted confidants. Lest they be the subject of gossip and labelled as someone not coping, not maintaining the party line. Publicly, remember, ‘everything is awesome’ and noone likes a Debbie Downer.

Blogs and social media pages are popping up everywhere as a tool for spouses to cope and reach out anonymously for support and an outlet for reflection.  Posts have similar themes if you read carefully – isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression and of course the Facebook highlight reel that reinforces the Wonder Woman facade.  But don’t feel too much sympathy for these spouses, after all these folk won the lottery and escaped the rat race to enjoy a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?

@aubergine_jelly

 

The Posted Expat Officer

Mental health is something I care about deeply.  Depression and/or anxiety touch most families these days and is of significance for expats and their families.

Sometimes I believe that expat spouses have it easier than the posted officers.  We’re invited to attend formal and informal spouse functions, coffee mornings, general language classes, community group events (e.g., ANZA, AWA, BWA) gym classes.. whatever comes our way.  These social events provide opportunities to network and meet new people but also to make new friends. These friends eventually become our support network who give us a boost when we need it and a kick in the pants when needed too!

The officers not so much.

Often due to visa requirements the posted officer is the bread winner for the household. We rely on that one salary to support our lifestyle here and fulfil financial commitments back home.  Talk about pressure!  Many work extended hours and are on call 24/7.  There is no downtime.  They travel for weeks or months at a time which adds the stress of leaving family behind in the adopted country and leaving family responsibilities to the spouse.

Between the work day and evening work commitments, officers find limited opportunities to socialise outside of work.  These functions can be an additional stressor as the officer must remain “on” throughout the work day and again during the function leaving little time to recharge before backing it all up for tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

Self-care is a key ingredient for mental health and wellbeing.  For my spouse there is limited opportunity to blow off steam.  The capacity to exercise outside is thwarted by traffic, poorly maintained roads and footpaths, insane traffic and pollution. If you’re not a gym junkie what do you do?

For me, I try to find activities and experiences that fill our buckets.  Netflix has been a godsend, hosting dinners for friends within our home, weekend trips away, open and honest communication with each other, cooking interesting meals, cultural experiences within the city and monthly dinners with trusted friends to debrief with have all been of some support.

How do you support your spouse?

 

Sh*t’s Getting Real!

A sudden pang hit me in the very pit of my stomach just now as a few boxes were delivered to our apartment in the anticipation that we may wish to pack a few belongings ourselves.  Reality is sinking in.. we are leaving.  And soon.  Well, we are leaving in ear14917034_10154617429418433_9134804190214221941_oly January after a little holiday but our uplift (i.e., when all of our belongings are removed) is in 3 weeks!

The first pang arose during the property survey conducted by Allied Pickford a few weeks back.  The rep walked in created an inventory and provided dates for the uplift.

The second pang hit when we gave our domestic staff notice, provided references and advertised their services widely within the expat and Embassy communities.  That was difficult because we know that if they do not secure employment there is no Government assistance in this country and that has implications as both are the breadwinners for their families.

The third happened just now and was accompanied by mixed emotions – sadness, excitement, anxiety, happiness all delivered with these boxes!

The next pang will surely emerge during uplift.. and again when we head off on our holiday.. and for the last time when we return to Indonesia, our current home, before we board our final flight to return to… Now what do I call it when it’s not “home”?

Generally speaking, no one likes change.  Change is challenging.  It’s a process of upheaval of all that is known and familiar and hurls us into the unknown with lashings of anxiety and trepidation.  Some worries that I have include no longer connecting with old friends; experiencing difficulty settling back into my old life easily, or not at all; concerns about work and changes to relationship dynamics with my spouse.

The repatriation process is thought to be more stressful and difficult to navigate than the initial move interestingly.  Many people believe that returning to your country of origin from your new home will be a smooth transition as you are returning to your old life.  But I have changed and evolved as a result of this experience and these new found beliefs are returning with me.  My world view is now different – not better just different.  The stages of adjustment are claimed to bite harder with repatriation and repats require a lot of support, patience and understanding from loved ones and work colleagues for up to a year after their return.

 

So, as the title suggests, reality is setting in and fast!

@aubergine_jelly

The Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg concluded there are four stages experienced by expats when adjusting to life in a new country and culture.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride, so let’s explore each stop from my own perspective..

Honeymoon phase

During this phase everything is new and exciting and this feeling may last up to a two months; for me this euphoria lasted 2 weeks to the day. Expats possess a positive mindset and feel enthusiastic about creating a life and career in the host country.

Negotiation phase

Culture shock emerges and can last up to 6 months or so into the move.  This phase finds the expat attempting to reconcile what is known or normal from ‘home'(i.e., the social and cultural norms and expectations) and those of the new country.  New knowledge needs to be created regarding social sublties (e..g., subtle gestures, greetings, social interactions, facial expressions etc), making purchases at stores, ordering food at restaurants,  dealing with domestic staff, expectations for conduct of men and women – everything yon take for granted at home.

This time can mess with your mindset and may be a period of confusion, depression, grieving, stress, disorientation, anxiety, depression or frustration.  Talk to others able their experiences as well as their coping strategies, it helps. The negotiation phase lasted from 2 weeks – around 9 months into our posting for me and I found that at times I moved between the negotiation phase and adjustment phase around the 9 month mark.

Adjustment phase

Towards the end of my first year at post, I had developed and implemented coping strategies and this is when I began to feel comfortable and confident within my new country.  Venturing out to malls and supermarkets and catching taxis became ok – I knew some basic language and possessed a limited mental map of the city.  Things start to look promising once more.  The people, language, food and culture start to become the new normal and familiar and I found that when I visited home, I started to feel like a misfit.

Mastery phase

Within 12-18 months I had found that my host country was now ‘home’ and home became ‘Australia’.  The mastery phase was a time of high functioning  and feeling comfortable in my host country.  From this point I found that I had become a triangle (see my post I Am Now a Triangle).  I had moved from a circle country to a square country and had morphed into a shape that did not truly fit either.

Repatriation phase

I have added this phase as this is a dangerous phase.  The thought of returning home home lulls expats into a false sense of security – friends, family and colleagues ask how hard can it be? You’re returning to the familiar, to normalcy. wpid-wp-1401709243607.jpeg Hati, hati (danger)! We often reminisce about how beautiful our home town is, happy family and friends, returning to our previous workplace and colleagues and somehow we have forgotten the day to day frustrations.

The stages of cultural adjustment will kick in all over again.  Reverse culture shock emerges and can be more debilitating than when moving to the host country and familiarising with the new culture.  Changes to work culture and expectations, socio-cultural changes and unrealistic expat expectations may all be contributing factors.

My world view has been altered and returning to Australia is both exciting and anxiety inducing.  I realise that once more I will need to extend patience, understanding and tough love to myself and partner as we make another transition and support each other to thrive through the process.