I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again… moving away from family is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. It doesn’t get easier each time you move, or each time you say goodbye. It sucks every.damn.time.
If someone tells you it gets easier with each goodbye, don’t believe them.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. But I kept putting it off. I knew it would be an emotional one, and I’m much better at hiding my head in the sand than blabbing on about my emotions. Maybe my blog should be called Head in the Sand, not Sand in My Curls.
I’d sit down to write it, but I’d find something else to do instead, like brush my teeth and clean the toilets – anything but pouring my heart out. Writing this post meant confronting my feelings out loud, in black and white, and honestly, I just didn’t want to do it. I don’t like sad movies or books that make me cry. I spend a lot of my life trying to avoid crying. So why put myself through the sadness, why bring up all the emotions, why sit at my keyboard crying?
The resounding answer that kept creeping back in is that I can’t be the only one who feels this way. And maybe I could help another person who feels like moving far away from family is sometimes a mistake.
So here goes, (*tears rolling, sniffffffle).
I moved away from my family for college. After I graduated, I took off on a few archeological digs in France and Greece. I thought I’d only be away for a few months. But after the digs, I traveled a bit and ended up in London for almost a year. Then 4 months in Brazil. Followed up by two years in South Africa.
Living abroad was never a difficult choice for me. The excitement of moving to a new place would override any sense of remorse. I had a new life and a new adventure ahead of me, even when it was hard on my family members. I was never afraid of moving away from family because that is not how I perceived it.
It always felt like what I should be doing. That’s not to say I didn’t miss my loved ones, I did. Horribly. But I thought I was where I was supposed to be at that moment, just like I feel now.
But after returning from Cape Town, I settled back into Chicago. I did the things I was supposed to do in my mid-late twenties. I found a good job and started a career path. Life was comfortable and meeting Mark just solidified that for me.
But from day one in our relationship, we talked about our desire to live overseas. It had nothing to do with moving away from family. But obviously, they are not mutually exclusive. We knew it would happen one day – in the future.
For a decade, we talked about starting a new life abroad in Costa Rica, which would have been easier. A lot easier. But that’s a different story.
The Why of Our Story
Moving away from family and friends was very different this time. In fact, it was much harder. It was a complete emotional roller coaster.
I come from a small and tight-knit family, so making the decision to move again was especially hard at 39 years old.
We were happy in Chicago and very engrained. There was nothing wrong with our lives. We were successful in business, had many great friends, a beautiful skyline view condo, and loving family. But we wanted adventure. We wanted more out of life.
We were working so hard, and we both loved our careers, but life felt stale, and we knew there had to be a better way to live.
The mind-numbing routine of wake, work, sleep, repeat was sucking the life out of us.
And it was time to stop thinking about it and start doing it. We were both ready, and I felt like it was now or never. Mark felt ready to move a few years before me but waited patiently until it felt right for me.
So, after a decade of planning, we were finally pulling the trigger.
In the summer of 2012, we put our plan to move into motion. On Thanksgiving of 2012, my stepfather died, forcing my mom to move out of the home she lived in for 25 years.
So there we were, in the throes of planning, and she was suddenly all alone. She was going through a significant life change and had to move into a new place, all by herself.
But things were already in motion, and my mom, who is stellar, strong, and incredible, encouraged us to go. A completely selfless act, because I am pretty sure she didn’t want me to leave (hi mom).
Thankfully, my mom moved within a few blocks of my gramma and brother, so I felt some solace knowing they had each other. No matter how far away I was.
As you can imagine, I was extremely torn. Should I follow my dream? Should I stop the move and stay in Chicago for my mom? I felt guilty about moving away from mom even before we left America.
Still, after seven years, I have severe moving away from family guilt. It’s the kind that keeps me up at night. And it’s no one’s fault but my own. No one makes me feel bad about living here, well my gramma did, but we’ll get to her in a minute. It’s all on me.
Most of my days, I feel like I’ve made the best decision, but sometimes the guilt overwhelms me.
How could I move away from family? And why didn’t I just stick with Costa Rica? At least then, we’d be (almost) in the same time zone. We’d be six hours flying time away, instead of 26. But life doesn’t work that way. And here we are on the other side of the globe, literally.
We are the ones who decided to leave. I wish we were moving away from family for work, that would have been easier.
I don’t feel guilty or selfish for making the decision to move because it was our dream. My guilt stems from not being there for my family when they need me the most. Or when I need them the most. And just from being so damn far away.
A lot has happened to my family in the last couple of years. My brother moved to Arizona. At 100-years-old, my gramma had her leg amputated, and moved into a nursing home, which meant my mom was alone again in the city. Sure, she had a few friends, but no family nearby. So, my family’s proximity, the one aspect which gave me solace, was now defunct. Major mom guilt, again.
I know that moving far away means missing a lot of essential things in my loved one’s lives. I fully accepted that when we moved. However, that doesn’t make it any easier when things happen, and we aren’t able to be there.
It’s hard to miss the good stuff: weddings, births, birthdays. It’s much worse to miss the bad stuff.
On April 23rd, my gramma died. We don’t really know if it was Covid because she never got tested. But none of that matters. We were supposed to be home on April 1st, which meant we would have been there for her passing. And to help my mom and uncle with the aftermath and her affairs. We would have been there.
Growing up, my gramma was one of two women in my life, and she had a significant impact on me.
She was a brilliant and strong-willed woman, right up until the day she died. Gma traveled to Israel, Spain, and Japan in the 1950s when they had to stop every few hours to refuel the plane. She took a train by herself to Memphis after having two kids, because she needed the adventure.
She was brave, hard-headed, and not afraid to tell us exactly what she thought – the good, the bad, and often, the ugly. I never said she was an angel.
That old goat was as feisty as they come, and the only one who would have the nerve to say, “Can’t you wait until I die to move to Malaysia?” She said that when we told her we were moving in 2013, and often when we went back for a visit. She was persistent and consistent in her grief-giving, especially to Mark, who she openly would blame for me moving, even at her 100th birthday party.
Look, I get that she was almost 103 years old and death was inevitable. But it was still a shock since, thankfully, she hadn’t been sick. However, she was in a nursing home and in quarantine. No one had seen her for weeks, and that haunts me.
I know that if I were there, nothing would have changed for anyone but me. Even so, I am the self-proclaimed fixer, cheerleader, and sunshine for my family. I always have been.
So in my mind, if I were able to be with gramma, she wouldn’t have been alone. I would have been outside her window, holding signs up, and giving her my sunshine. But I wasn’t, and I couldn’t be there for my family.
So yeah, there is some guilt mashed up with grief – a delicious misery cocktail.
Guilt and grief are certainly not my overwhelming feelings. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
I have no intention of repatriating to the US. But at times, especially at times like these, I wish we were closer to America. Not gonna lie, I don’t want to be living in the US (especially not in Chicago right now) just closer.
Through all of those roller coasters of emotions, the one common underlying thread is that I am really a very happy expat.
I’m very grateful that Malaysia has kicked Covid’s ass, and Penang has been virus-free for over a month. I’m thankful for the sun that greets me nearly every morning and the ocean breezes that come with it. I am fortunate to have such great new friends here who have become my extended family.
Apps like Facetime, Zoom, and WhatsApp help me to stay connected, which is essential. Mom and I text every day, which makes us feel like we aren’t so far apart.
I’m grateful that Penang has turned out to be a fantastic adopted home for us.
I’m also thankful that I wasn’t too scared of moving away from family to follow my dreams. And that I didn’t listen to the naysayers.
I have plenty to be grateful for, but no matter how right it feels, sometimes it doesn’t feel right at all. Sometimes it feels pretty wrong.
Usually, those times are fleeting. I’m not packing my bags for a move.
Tips for Moving Away from Family
Honestly, I don’t know how to make moving away from family easier. In the end, you just need to accept it the best you can and ride the waves of guilt when they come.
Just because it was our decision to move doesn’t make it easier or less guilt-ridden.
Will I regret moving away from family? I suspect that at times I will. But those times will be fewer than the times I’m grateful for following my dreams.
Final Words About Moving Away From Family
So how do I handle moving away from family? Some days are better than others. Sometimes I find myself crying for no reason at all, and blaming it on being tired. But truthfully, I think it’s because this feels like a time when we should be with family. But we can’t.
Maybe I’m feeling all this because, oh ya know, there is a pandemic and people are dying. Or because the very real racism struggle has boiled over into riots and looting. Or because my city is on fire, my old neighborhood is destroyed, the small businesses that I used to frequent have been looted. And my friends and family are in danger. Or because my gramma died. Or because all of that is happening at once.
It’s a lot. I’m pretty raw.
But here’s the thing, I know in my heart of hearts, moving was good for me. It’s been challenging, adventurous, and all the things I was hoping it would be. It’s pushed me, stretched me, and pushed me some more. It still pushes me, which is why I’m writing this after almost seven years of being here.
Thankfully, when the guilt appears; it’s not constant, it comes in waves.
And on the other side of those guilt waves is the pure joy that I have from my life in Penang.
Update: Since writing this post, I’ve gotten so many emails from conflicted people. They are all trying to figure out if moving away will break them. And I get it. After taking a step back from this post, I decided to write a follow-up about coping with the decision to move. Check out How to Move Away from Family and NOT Let the Guilt Kill You.
I also wrote a Going Away Gift Guide for Gifts that Don’t Suck. You’re already crying, why not give your favorite peeps something that will send them off with a laugh?