Stirring the Waters – Five Things I’ve Learned about Change

Sailing on Sydney Harbour

My recent post, ‘A New Adventure’, stirred the waters of our life in Australia. As the movement of a yacht on Sydney Harbour affects not only those on board that vessel but also others close by, so our actions and choices affect not only ourselves but also other people.

Now that we’ve ‘gone public’ about our plans, our family and friends in Australia are responding; their responses and feelings affect our own, and the cycle of change is underway.

One Impact of Change – Friends and Family Reactions

Sulphur-crested cockatoo

Change is often difficult, and one of the hardest things for me is dealing with sad or disapproving reactions of people I’m close to.

As part of the process of stepping forward and publicly sharing our intentions, Clive and I knew that people near and far would react to our plans. And we anticipated that not everyone would be happy with our dream of moving to Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast of England.

For me, the situation feels much as it did when my late husband and I decided to remain in Australia after what was originally intended to be a two or three-year international assignment with my job. Our U.S. friends and family varied wildly in how they reacted upon learning we didn’t plan to return to the U.S. to live. I faced a similar round of questions after my husband’s death in 2003. The most intense challenges came from those who questioned our value systems and expectations related to how close one should physically live to family.

This time around, it’s harder for Clive, since he has more immediate family here in Australia than overseas in England. Although his mother and stepfather moved themselves and their children from England to Australia when Clive was a teenager, this will be the first time Clive has, by his own adult choice, decided to make an overseas move.

You Should’ – Live Near Your Loved Ones

I’ve written about packing a ‘You-Should’ deflector when travelling, to help deal with family opinions and reactions.

On one of my early home leave visits to the U.S., my mother said, ‘I wanted to live near my family when I was your age.’ It didn’t help when I told her the reason we were in Australia was not because we didn’t want to live near family; we missed our family a great deal; and I often felt – and still feel — torn apart by competing needs and the inability to be physically in more than one place at one time (as opposed to being present on a computer screen). For our U.S. families, the lack of physical contact was the issue, plain and simple.

How near is near enough? In the next town? Less than an hour away? A few hours? A full day’s drive? In the same country? One flight away? Two long flights away? With a global family, this question never goes away.

The answer varies by individual and by family unit. For my mother, at this stage of her life, I think the ideal for both of us would be for me to be less than thirty minutes away. I have thought many times of moving her closer to me, but for the moment she is happy where she is and does not want to move.

Whatever the ideal may be for any specific circumstances, the issue seems to me always to go to people’s core values of what it means to be part of a family, to be close as a family, and to be connected in one way or another as a family.

It’s not as simple as, ‘If you really loved me – if you really cared — you would live closer,’ but sometimes that question, or implication, is raised and for me, that’s the one that hurts the most. I’ve had to remind myself over the years that those harsh words are usually a form of helpless lashing-out, based on genuine love and distress; the people who make those kinds of statements are upset, angry, or hurting. They’re being impacted by a change that wasn’t their choice and one they didn’t ask for.

Stirring the Waters – When Our Changes Cause Change for Others

Rainbow lorikeets

One of my favourite books about change is The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. As she describes it, each of us is in a particular ‘dance’ with individuals who are close to us. When we change our own steps in the dance, we cause others to change their steps, too — whether they want to or not. As sure as the sun rises and sets every day, loved ones will react, often strongly, and we need to allow them their reactions. Yet it’s human nature that not only do we want them to accept our change, we’d like them to be pleased about it, too.

Of course, this expectation or hope on our side is unrealistic and unreasonable when the others were quite satisfied with the status quo, happy with established patterns and routines, and comfortable with how things were before we stirred the waters.

And it’s another irony, as I told a close friend who expressed sadness about our intent to move: while on one hand, we want people to be happy for us, on the other hand, it wouldn’t feel good if everyone said, ‘Oh, great! You’re moving! Go on, then; we really don’t care either way.’ It’s definitely a conundrum.

The Payoff for Not Changing: Maintaining the Status Quo

Peaceful afternoon on Sydney Harbour

So the reason we often don’t make a significant change is because it’s just too hard; the payoff for staying put is not having to deal with everyone else’s – and often most importantly, our own — doubts, fears, and uncertainty — not to mention the physical work and logistical tasks that may be involved.

I’ve never been good at handling negative reactions of loved ones. For much of my life, I would simply burst into tears the minute a family member challenged me or expressed disappointment or disapproval, then immediately back down and put my own desires on hold in order to keep the peace.

Gradually I learned that a surface peace is a false peace when it causes frustration or resentment to grow inside. I know from my own experience that’s what will happen if we constantly suppress our own ambitions and dreams in order to satisfy others’ ideas of what we should be doing. When I was a young adult, it took me four years, after I started living and working on my own, before I was able to assert myself within my family of origin and go on my first overseas trip to Paris.

For many years, I also tended to take responsibility for everyone else’s feelings and reactions – thinking I could somehow control or manage them and keep everybody happy. Of course, this isn’t possible. But along the way I have learned a few things about change, through years of hard work and real experience.

Five Things I’ve Learned about Change

1. These days, maintaining a genuine emotional connection is not difficult.

Technology alone offers multiple possibilities to stay connected; quick e-mails, text messages, and blogs; Facebook, Twitter, and Skype – there’s something for almost everyone except possibly the very elderly.

My mother no longer sends e-mails but enjoys receiving one from me each day, printed by her assisted living facility, before our telephone chats, which became daily after she moved to assisted living.

As other ex-pats may have noticed, it’s sometimes surprising who does and does not stay in touch when one moves far away. Some people say, ‘We’ll miss you so much,’ but never respond to communications; others turn out to be wonderful long-distance friends. Some friendships only work within a certain physical location; others are for longer and some for a lifetime. The hardest thing about being far away is missing family get-togethers and, when a situation is difficult but not quite an emergency, going through the ‘should I get on a plane or not’ decision process.

2. There is often a level of self-interest at play when others object.


I know I’m not the only ex-pat who’s heard the question, ‘Are you sure you’ve really thought this through?’ as a mask for ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea’ or ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’

Others may feel dependent on us or may simply mourn the loss of the physical and practical benefits of our being nearby. Certainly in my mother’s situation, or any ageing parent’s case, there is a practical, very real loss for them when we change our location. Emotional connections can be maintained in many variations but physical presence is a yes/no proposition.

3. A corollary to moocher madness: when caring is genuine, people stay connected.

There’s a spectrum of connectedness, ranging from an ongoing, sometimes daily communication to a total absence of connection except when it’s combined with physical presence.

In my experience, I’ve found that – similar to moochers who go away when you say ‘we can’t provide accommodation’ – people who are motivated only by self-interest tend to drop away when you leave, while those who really care will do their part to maintain a two-way connection. One of my U.S. family members virtually stopped communicating with me when I moved to Australia; on the other hand, dear friends in the U.S. have remained friends for life.

Of course, some friends and family just aren’t good at ‘doing long-distance’ – I have several friends with whom I can pick up after a long absence and it’s like we were never apart. But in the main, especially with closest friends and family, staying connected happens naturally because there is genuine interest and caring about what’s going on in each other’s lives.

4. We have to stand by our past actions (and have faith in future ones).

I think it’s important when we set out on a path of great change that we give ourselves credit for who we are and what our actions have demonstrated until this point in our lives. When others’ responses cause me to question our plans, I try to remind myself I’ve done this before – people I care about know I love them based on my words and actions over a period of years.

When I first moved to Sydney, a U.S. family member extremely close to me said, ‘How can you turn your back on your family?’ This is the kind of accusation that often occurs; only the passing of time revealed, or ‘proved’, if you will, that I had not ‘turned my back’ on anyone. I reminded my relative that our New Jersey family of origin wasn’t the centre of the Universe: my husband and son were my closest immediate family, and my husband’s relatives, who lived in other states, were also my family.

Over time, my friends and family in the U.S. have become more or less used to my living overseas. We remain close and well-connected. Going forward, my friends and Clive’s family in Australia will, I hope, become similarly accepting of our decision.

5. Most of all, everyone’s feelings and reactions are valid, including our own.

I try to be gentle with others and myself.

When we initiate a big change, we can’t manage or control everything such that everyone we care about is happy or approving of our choices. And remember that someone who disapproves of your choice at one point in time might later make a similar decision of their own.

However other people react is up to them, and they are entitled to their feelings and opinions. Equally important – and something I often forget – our own feelings and opinions are equally valid. And heading out toward a big change causes many feelings and emotions to swirl around.

Weathering the Storms

Storm on Sydney Harbour

It may be easier not to change, not to stir the waters, not to face the practical and emotional work – and occasional storms — involved with an overseas move. It can be hard to stay the course in the face of other people’s reactions, when you step out in the direction of a dream.

At least with this move, I haven’t been subjected to – as I was when I left the U.S. – ‘How can you reject your own country?’ Thankfully, we have not had to defend our patriotism or the idea that you can love more than one country.

Keep Calm and Carry On

 I love the English expression, ‘Keep calm and carry on’. We’re trying to do just that, and I have this postcard, purchased when we took Clive’s father to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, propped up on my desk as a reminder.

And just to keep life interesting: as I mentioned in ‘A New Adventure’, new factors emerge all the time that influence our decision process. We’ve already modified our timing based on an important family event in Australia.

On top of that, I haven’t yet shared our plans with several key members of my family (who don’t read this blog) in the U.S. I imagine they will be happy – England is closer to them than Australia is – but I don’t want to get their hopes up, in case our move doesn’t materialise. Their reaction could also be a renewed sense of sadness or anger — ‘If you’re leaving Sydney, why aren’t you moving back to the U.S.?’ I can’t predict how different individuals will react, only that they will react.

In the meantime, we try to find a measure of peace when we can, take a deep breath as we talk about next steps, and enjoy the time we have with family and friends, wherever we all may be.

Evening, Sydney Harbour

Cheers and stay tuned.

12 Responses

  1. When I moved to the US from France, I was young and in love. Now, if I had to move back to another country or to another state, I would put my place for lease for a year, I would rent where I think I would like to settle, then make my choice. It is good to listen to your friends’ opinion but at the end, the decision will be yours.

  2. I too am considering a big move to another country, far away from my home and my daughter, who is 13. Your 5 points about change really resonated with me, as leaving her (even though I would come back often) is the biggest challenge and fear I have. I’ve enjoyed your writing.

  3. Gosh, I obviously haven’t been here recently. Ah, changes. I’d happily move to England if I had the chance, and many other places for that matter. I think you two have carefully thought it all out and should do what feels right to you. I got some negative comments from family when I moved to France and had guilt on not seeing grandchildren often but still know I have to live my life for me, not others. I was surprised, too, by who kept in touch-depressed me really. I found friends I made at work that I thought would keep in contact, didn’t. Anyway, I have no regrets-just wish I had more money to visit the States more. Good luck!

  4. What wonderful comments – thank you!

    Nadege, I think you are very wise 🙂 We are keeping all options open and have indeed discussed the possibility of renting options both here and abroad — much depends on what happens on our upcoming trip!

    seasweetie, welcome! and thanks for your lovely comment. It sounds like you are facing a tough, tough decision re your daughter (I wonder if she could go with you?) and I wish you all the best on your journey forward.

    Linda, so true about different friends and family members. I think we’re both in the ‘sandwich’ generation, or make that three generations (not counting ourselves) to consider — elderly parents plus young adult children plus grandchildren (my stepson has three little boys and Clive’s son has two …) — all with different needs and expectations.

    I appreciate the great thoughts and input – cheers all.

  5. I think most expats can relate to your problems with others wanting you to stay put. I know I can. I know it’s hard for my family that I am so far away but over time they have come to accept it and make the best of it. In the end they just want me to be happy. I think there are always those ‘friends’ who drift off when the long-distance relationship requires effort on their part to maintain, but if nothing else a big move often demonstrates who your real friends are. In the end you have to do what is right for you and hope your family and friends will encourage you to be happy.

  6. Having access to the entire world has made such a difference to our socirty and the way we live. Call me old fashioned but sometimes i think it would be nice to go back to a more simpiler time. A time when it was encouraged to put others first above our own interests. A time when families stuck together and were there (in the flesh) for each other through good times and bad. It is easy to stay in touch with loved ones from across the other side of the world these days – but does it create better relationships within families? I get sad with how broken some families are these days and how the emphasis is on satisfying self interests and not building up familiy units. I guess its just the type of world we live in.

  7. Another thoughtful post from you. For the most part, I’ve not had to deal with people being hurt or angry that I’ve moved away, although my mother does exhibit those sentiments from time to time. She is a lovely, generous woman, but she seems to have a little sore spot.

    A bit of background, she grew up in New Mexico, my dad in Oklahoma. They met and married when both were living in Texas, and a few years later, moved back to near his home in Oklahoma, eventually moving back to the same town where his parents and sister and her family lived. So growing up our two sets of grandparents were on the one hand, a five-minute walk from my elementary school (paternal side), and on the other, a twelve-hour drive across almost the whole of Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and down into southeastern New Mexico (maternal side).

    But I can honestly say that we felt every bit as close to our maternal grandparents as to those who we saw a few times a week. We spent every Christmas in NM with my cousins, and went several times a year, always staying a week or so. There simply was no differentiation in how much we loved all our grandparents.

    Fastforward a generation, and my brother and his wife, living in Los Angeles, announced to my parents a few years ago that they were pregnant and going to give my parents their first grandchild. My mother’s immediate (and voiced) reaction? “Well I guess we won’t get to see her/him very much.”

    Not — congratulations, nor — we’re so excited — nor, oh what great news. Just a statement — not well considered — of how it might affect her. And, I thought upon hearing the news, of all people, my mother, who raised her children away from her parents, should have realized that a long-distance grandparent-to-grandchild relationship will likely be just as rich as a physically close one.

    Of course that was disappointing to my brother and his wife, and in fact, my parents go visit often, and they come to Oklahoma with the girls as well. No my parents don’t see their granddaughters as often as they would like, but who in this world does?? They have a rich and wonderful relationship.

    Similarly, when I was first living in Paris as a diplomat and dating Marco and considering not returning to the U.S., ,my mother was quite upset. After the year and a half that I spent back in the United States, miserable in my job and for his absence, she finally understood (and even stated out loud!) that she knew I needed to be back here with him. When I moved back here, I really felt she didn’t begrudge me the move.

    But since then, since the possibility of giving it a go in the U.S. hasn’t materialized, I can feel her becoming more and more frustrated. In fact, when we got our kitty and shared the news, her immediate words were: “Well, I guess you’re not planning on coming back HERE anytime soon.” As if a cat can’t be taken with one on a plane!!!! Moreover, seing the cat as a representation of our commitment to stay in France, she refused even to discuss him or to say anything nice about him. She just saw him as symbolizing our life in France away from them.

    So your post has clearly struck a nerve with me and I can identify — and I don’t have my own children or grandchildren (although one of the hardest parts of being away, for me, is missing the growth of my nieces). It is true that you just never know. We have some dear friends, a couple, whom I can hardly stand to talk to the husband any more, because he always presses us on coming back to the U.S., and it is just tiresome.

    I like your point about you have to be sensitive to one’s OWN feelings too. And just do the best that you can. I don’t know who Jen is above, but she seems judgmental to me — for me it’s off base to suggest that expression of love in a family is limited to physical proximity.

    Anyway thinking of you and Clive as you negotiate these choices and conversations in your relations with those near and dear to you.


  8. WOW!

    Carolyn, this was by far my favorite post of yours. It was revealing and insightful and resonated with me on more levels than I wish to admit. I for one hope that you and Clive to move to Felixstowe although as I said before it would be for selfish reasons. 🙂

    Just as your other posts have been a resource to me in a variety of ways related to travel and living an expat life, this one is most helpful in dealing with some of the emotional issues and expectations of others when it comes to living my life in the way that I want, not as others want for me.

    For the record, I can’t picture you as ever having been someone who backed down in order to keep the peace. Way to go you for growing and changing and having a life that you choose.

    I can’t wait to meet you in person … Paris or the UK, wherever you settle unless we get to Sydney before you make your move.

    Thanks again for such a well written thoughtful and honest post.

  9. Carolyn titled this post “Stiring The Waters”.
    After reading the comments following the last couple of posts I realised many of the followers of this blog are very similar and hence sharing very similar points of view. I thought it would be refreshing to “Stir the Water” and present a completely different point of view! Not everyone is the same and all people look at things through different coloured glasses.
    Clive and Carolyn know I wish them all the best no matter what they do. I also know that being worldly intelligent people they appreciate all different points of view, as only after considering all angles of a situation can you gain a wholistic understanding.

  10. These are wonderful comments – thanks, everyone!

    Alison, it’s great your family is accepting and making the best of your ex-pat life — I know that’s a tremendous help and a blessing indeed.

    Jen, I do appreciate your honesty and ‘stirring the waters’ 🙂 — I have several dear friends who agree with you about wishing we lived in a simpler time when families just stayed physically close throughout everyone’s life. It’s a new and learning experience for me to be on the ‘parental’ side of things now — often it’s parents and peers (same generation) who have issues and raise concerns but as others have commented here — as our children become adults and have children of their own, we realise they too have desires and expectations. I appreciate your good wishes and do indeed value different points of view.

    Kim B – thanks so much for your sharing your own experience! Your love for both sets of grandparents shines through despite one being far away — and your situation and your brother’s are great examples of the different scenarios that exist in today’s world. I especially love your point (because I agree with it!) that love in a family is not limited to physical proximity.

    Elizabeth, thank you too — there are definitely a lot of emotional issues involved with this kind of change as you well know! My late husband taught me a lot by his example about how to be loving and devoted to family while also being true to one’s self. As far as meeting in person, we’ll just have to find a way — whichever continent is most convenient!

    Cheers all and thanks again for the great comments.

  11. Carolyn-your friend Anne Arnott directed me to your site and this particular post after describing my experiences to her of leaving New Orleans. You are so astute in your observations-I nodded my head all the way through your post. But as I’m sure you know, understanding doesn’t necessarily take the hurt away. In my case, not only was I “abandoning” my friends but in their eyes I was also “abandoning” New Orleans-and my home of almost 30 years. I wish you and Clive all the best as you move forward-Laury

  12. Laury, welcome and thanks so much for your comment (and thanks to Anne, too!). You’ve nailed it completely re understanding not equalling lack of hurt.

    I’m not sure if you’re in England or France but I give you credit for your own journey, which has obviously had its share of challenges from friends and loved ones. It’s hard to be accused or labelled with words like ‘abandoning’ and ‘self-interest’ and ‘leaving one’s home’ — I hope you’ve found a measure of peace and happiness with your decisions despite the inevitable pain we have to deal with in these situations.

    Cheers, best wishes, and thanks again for your comment.

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