Return to Canada: What It Was Really Like

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When we were living in Australia, I know many of you enjoyed reading our monthly expat updates where we shared the interesting things we were up to and cultural musings.  We have now been back in Canada for 2 months and I have not written nearly as much as I would like.  The obvious reason for that is that I have returned to full-time work and there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to work, chauffeur kids around and blog.  But, another reason why I have been so silent on the blog is that returning home has been hard.  No mildly hard, but soul-crushingly cry-all-the-time hard.  In fact, I would go so far as to say this has been the hardest time in my life.

I know that sounds crazy.  How can moving back to Canada be harder than surviving university, having babies, and getting through those challenging early parenting months?  I can’t explain it… you sometimes can’t predict what will be your life’s biggest challenges.

I finally feel ready to share what the transition as been like for me.  So be warned this is a very personal post.

I knew moving home would be hard.  I was super happy with our life in Melbourne – I loved the pace of our life, I loved the school the kids went to, I loved that I had time to work on this blog, I loved living in a vibrant city, I loved how relaxed life in Australia was and I loved that everything was always new and exciting.  Aside from sorting out all the physical aspects of moving continents, I anticipated that there would be emotional struggles.  But, I had NO IDEA how much it would rock me.

After two months of quick travel (which I still haven’t shared fully – lots of posts coming soon), we landed in Canada one week before school and work started.  We all went back to school and work, but it only took me a week to break down in misery.  While life for Paul and the kids wasn’t that much different than their pattern of life in Melbourne, my life had drastically changed.  I didn’t like the pace of life with both of us working, but more concerning, I began to feel like we had made a huge mistake moving home.

As I drove around,  I detested my hometown, I detested the house I lived in, the school where the kids went and I quickly grew to detest the cooler weather.  I constantly compared what I was seeing to our life in Australia with a negative filter and of course our life in Canada didn’t hold a candle to what we had left behind.  I constantly thought of ways to fix this: moving to a smaller house in a more walkable area of our city, moving cross country, moving back to Melbourne.  I also felt disconnected from the job I had returned to and questioned if I should work in education.

On top of all of those feelings, I also felt completely trapped.  I felt like since our family had experienced so much change over the last few years, we needed to stay put. We couldn’t put the kids through switching school again and besides they were really happy in our old house, old neighborhood and back at their old school. I rationalized that if the rest of the family was happy, I needed to not rock the boat.  But, I was absolutely miserable and sinking further and further into a dark space.

Part of our transition home was a plan to balance home and community, with some long-term travel.  We had both negotiated with our workplaces to take 3 months off each year to travel.  We thought this would be the perfect balance.  Our kids were craving some stability, but we still wanted to cram in some longer trips before Ella hit high school in 3 years.  These travel plans were the only thing that I was excited about and I saw the regular patterns of our life in Canada as a sacrifice that would allow those travels to happen.  The travel plans were my life line.

Now that we were home, the kids didn’t want to leave again in 5 months.  I started to question our plan and if we were doing right by our kids dragging them all over the world.  It hurt so much to hear that our kids just wanted to live a regular life, like their friends.  Previously I had felt so sure that the experiences we were giving our kids were awesome, but now I questioned it. Suddenly I was questioning my life line as well. It would be safe to say that everything made me anxious trying to sort out all of these thoughts that were running through my head.

I felt so confused and stuck.  I knew I didn’t want to live a stable traditional life in Canada, but what if other family members wanted that?  I also felt like a fraud for having my feet halfway in each world. Were we long-term travellers if we had a comfortable base and went to soccer practice and swimming lessons? I craved an alternative lifestyle – sailing around on a boat, minimalist living, etc. But yet all my kids seemed to want was the big house and picket fence.  I knew I was seeing things in black and white, I knew I was over-thinking everything and yet I couldn’t stop.

Naming It – Repatriation

I had a good self awareness of what I was doing, but I still couldn’t climb out of the sad hole I was in.  One day when I was googling self-help ideas, I came across the concept of “repatriation” and specifically Cate Brubaker’s website.  She talked about the feeling many expats have when they return home and the feelings of misery.  She was describing exactly how I felt: that home had changed, grief for leaving our global life behind, intense disappointment with my home, and boredom and restlessness.

It was so reassuring to know that these are common feelings expats experience during repatriation.  I wasn’t alone and these feelings were normal.  Best of all, Cate had a great workbook called The Re-Entry Roadmap to work through these complex feelings with the goal of making moving home a positive experience where you can still live a global life.

This blog post on Cate’s website written by Jenny Miner really spoke to me and I read it over and over again when I doubted if I would ever come out of the storm of re-entry.  Read it – it is so beautifully written and of course the nautical theme resonated with me.

I also related to the “I am a Triangle” theory by Naomi Hattaway.  I like the analogy that when you live overseas, you start out as a circle (like everyone in your home country).  You then go to a new country where everyone is a square and you slowly start to change.  You don’t turn into a square, but instead morph into a triangle: a mix of your home and adopted country.  The problem is when you return home to the country of circles, you are no longer a circle.  You are a triangle.

Living overseas changes you and I have found that each time we return “home”, it is harder and harder to adjust.  We think it should be easy to slot back into our old lives, but we have these pointy edges now that make it hard to live in circle world.

What Has Helped?

The good news is that I am feeling so much better.  Am I settled?  Am I suddenly happy in my hometown?  Not completely, but I feel back to being me which feels wonderful.  During my darkest weeks, I felt like a complete shell of myself and struggled with basic functions.  I cried, I was anxious, I couldn’t sleep or eat and it took everything I had to just to keep myself together at work, at swimming practice and at the dinner table.

Now that I have arrived in calmer waters and the sun has started to come out (unfortunately not literally here in Ontario), I want to give thanks for all of the amazing people that helped me pull up my sails and paddle through the storm.  I am so thankful for the amazing support network that made me know that I was never really alone.

This is what helped me:

  • Mindfulness – yes, it is a buzz word but it is an incredibly powerful positive mental health strategy. I paid for a full year’s subscription to Head Space (app on my phone) and I found it super helpful to try to calm all the thoughts in my head and all the problems I was trying to solve.  It isn’t instant, it takes work, but it is so incredibly helpful.  I still start every morning with 10 minutes of meditation through Head Space.  I know lots of people love the Calm app too.
  • Yoga & Exercise – research shows that exercise is the best thing you can do to beat the blues. I tried running, but since I wasn’t eating much and had so little energy, it was only okay for me through this time.  I started doing yoga again and it was amazing how after a hour’s practice, I left that room feeling so completely better.  The breathing exercises, meditation, and focus on gratitude were incredibly soothing and I loved the power of a good flow class.
  • Journaling & Gratitude – in the early days of my struggles, my old friend gave me a Gratitude Journal. In the beginning, it was hard to find things to write about.  While I appreciated my family, it was difficult to think of 3 “amazing things that happened today” with my negative lenses on.  But, I knew that finding the positive in each day would become contagious and train my brain to look for the positives.
  • Designing the Life We Want – one of the things I tried to do right away was try to bring the things I loved about our life in Melbourne, into our life in Canada. This isn’t easy for me because I thrive on newness of experiences, but we are trying to explore locally more.  We wanted to explore Ontario more and so we would do some hikes on the weekends. I honestly didn’t find them as interesting as Australia – no gum trees, koalas or kangaroos.  But I am already noticing a better appreciation for the things we are doing here as my negative lens fades away.
  • Reaching Out – I was really candid with my friends and family about how I was feeling. So many people keep feelings inside them, but I needed to talk about them.  I am so thankful to every one that reached out to me, followed up and listened.  I needed to hear those words of encouragement and know that so many people cared.
  • Time – time heals everything and I realize what a shock the re-entry was for me. Time gave me a better perspective and allowed me to slowly crawl out of my misery and find me again.
  • Therapy – I can’t believe I have waited until my late thirties before trying therapy.  I find it so therapeutic to talk out my feelings.  I still have so many things swirling in my head, but I am learning to not let them affect the day-to-day.

Creating Our Way

I started to realize that it didn’t have to be all or nothing.  I also started to realize that we don’t have to have it all sorted out right now.  Maybe we will move to a different house, maybe we will travel longer, maybe we will buy a boat.  But, I don’t need to have all the answers right now.

We may live in a big suburban house, but we can still live in a way that aligns with our values.  We can make an effort to walk in our neighborhood, not get caught up in our materialistic world, work on decreasing our impact on the environment and creating a culture of play and risk.  Sure, I would love to move to a tiny home off the grid, but that isn’t going to happen right now.  Some days I am more open to this line of thinking.  Other times I want to pull the kids out of school, retreat to my imaginary tiny house or become nomads.

We don’t need to design the perfect life.  Because there is no perfect life.  Sure, there are parts of my life that I would like to change, but it is a give and take to balance what everyone in the family wants.  The kids are happy living the way we are right now and it allows us to travel for 3 months of the year.  Most importantly, I am back to feeling like me and back to not having to work every second on being happy.

It probably helps that I am busy planning our 3 months of travel which is shaping up to include Mexico, India and Nepal.  While we are so excited for each of these countries, Nepal will be extra special because we are meeting our dear friends and neighbours from Australia there.  More on that trip coming soon!

Thank You

Thank you for reading and sharing in our journey.  Expat life is incredible and I feel so blessed to have experienced life overseas, but it doesn’t come without its challenges.  Social media shows you the best of those experiences – the exotic locations, the frequent trips and interesting cultural learning.

The challenging part of living abroad is that home never quite feels totally the same afterwards.   My restless spirit has trouble settling down and home isn’t quite as concrete anymore.  For me, sharing my experience is part of my coping through this transition, but I hope it might be helpful for those going through a similar transition in their lives as well.

Thank you again for all the love and support you have given me over the past two months.  Your words of encouragement and hugs or virtual hugs touched me and I have been moved to tears many times in the past few weeks that I have such amazing friends and family.

Some Things I Am Thankful For…

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