"Moving to France can be a wonderful adventure, and of course, as with any adventure there are challenges along the way. Many of these are challenges because we dont anticipate the reality, so dont plan for it. The reality is that there is another language to learn, another culture to appreciate, a different way of doing things in everyday life and when it comes to special projects (such as buying a house). People often underestimate the frustration these can cause once the honeymoon period is over. As adults, we often expect more of ourselves too - all of this is a learning process, and it takes time and continued effort - and more than a little confidence at times!" (KB, March 2011)
What does Alive to Change offer and why did you decide to set it up?
Alive to Change offers coaching services which help individuals, and especially Women and Mums, to make the most of their lives abroad. I decided to set up my coaching practice after doing research into the impact of relocation and living abroad - I noticed that there was a real impact and lasting impact in the areas of confidence, sense of identity, support systems, and more. I had had coaching before I moved abroad, and knew what a big difference it could make. I develop a lot of my programmes particularly for Mums because I feel we have the opportunity to change the experience for the whole family.
What are the main problems and pitfalls associated with expat families/Mums who have moved to France?
Moving to France can be a wonderful adventure, and of course, as with any adventure there are challenges along the way. Many of these are challenges because we dont anticipate the reality, so dont plan for it. The reality is that there is another language to learn, another culture to appreciate, a different way of doing things in everyday life and when it comes to special projects (such as buying a house). People often underestimate the frustration these can cause once the honeymoon period is over. As adults, we often expect more of ourselves too - all of this is a learning process, and it takes time and continued effort - and more than a little confidence at times!
The top things that come up for my clients are: language, rebuilding confidence in a new environment, making friends, asking for help, feeling part of something, doing something meaningful outside the home, and, most importantly for Mums, all aspects of parenting abroad.
Is it often the case that Mums feel more isolated than the rest of the family? And why is this?
Because of the nature of our roles where we really are learning on the job, Mums need great social, emotional and practical support, whether or not we work outside the home. Living without this support even for a short space of time can feel really isolating. We often feel a long way from our own Mums, families, best friends, next door neighbours, when we move away and building up new, supportive relationships can take time. Being able to express ourself fully (which is hard sometimes in our own language) can be tricky in French. If we make a lifestyle choice to move to a beautiful but remote area, we may find ourselves physically isolated, and also trying to connect with people who are not always used to getting to know new people.
What advice do you give to women who are in this situation?
If you feel isolated, remember not to take it personally - noone is doing this to you deliberately, in fact, people just wont realise how you feel and what it is like for you. It doesnt mean you cant and wont connect with people in a meaningful way at some point. Try to see it as a short term consequence of the move and of your role. Try to balance gaining support from your friends and family back home with taking small, manageable steps to reach out for local opportunities. Ask questions of local people - start with your neighbours. If you have an interest, what about sharing it with others, or finding a group which shares it. Use your children (in the nicest possible way) to connect with other mums. Try to be clear about what would make you feel less isolated - is it one person who you can rely on, a group of people for social contact, a network of helping hands, someone to go to if you have a problem? Then start exploring where that support could come from. Offering to help other people can lead to support coming back too.
It can also help to notice when you do have a contact with someone, even if that is just a quick "bonjour". Look for your progress towards what you want, rather than what you dont have right now. Do a little something each day that helps you move forward. Take up opportunities as they arise - accept invitations, attend local events, stop for a chat - even if it scares you a little right now. It gets easier and easier.
How much of a barrier is a lack of knowledge of French vis-à-vis feeling integrated into the community?
I dont believe you can feel fully integrated into a French community without making continued efforts to speak and understand the language, even if there are people around who speak English to you. But you dont need to wait until you are fluent before getting involved. The way to become confident in a language is to practice, practice, practice and then practice some more - and who better to do this with than local people who may well really appreciate your engagement and involvement - and will reward you with their support, knowledge, experience and friendship. Listening to people speaking the language is still a valuable first step, even if you cannot muster up an perfect response.
You mention the ‘hidden’ impact of relocation, what is this and how do you overcome it?
Relocating where you live is already one major project on a practical, physical and emotional level. It is one of lifes biggest possible stressful events, however positive the motivation behind it. The excitement and vision of the future carries people through this time when huge energy is required. However, relocating yourself is a project which often stays hidden and sometimes untouched. Months and sometimes later, people realise they lost confidence after the move, or they didnt unpack their sense of identity, or their feelings of being supported have never been the same. This isnt just an effect of language barriers, culture shock, leaving friends behind - but more usually a simple change of routine where nurturing habits helped sustain personal energy, or previously comfortable situations becoming a stretch, a lack of opportunity to express a key part of your identity, or not being recognised for your skills and abilities.
To overcome it, think about what you used to do, have and be known for in your previous life and what that gave you. What might you be missing right now? You dont have to try and replace everything you had, but certainly by understanding what is missing for you (as well as the special people and places we all miss from time to time) you can work on what you want to bring back into your life, and how. There may well be a whole new way of bringing it in - and a whole new you to go with it!
Many mums who have moved abroad inevitably suffer homesickness, what is the best way to deal with it?
If we are lucky enough to have built up close friendships, or to have close knit families, or even a strong connection with a special place, we will inevitably miss that hugely, as you do with anything that is important to you. It might be more unusual never to have these feelings. Whilst these feelings of homesickness can diminish in time, we also experience moments of extreme "homesickness" when something significant happens - for example, if we miss out on a special event, or difficult situation. Ive had all of the above, despite feeling really positive about my life here, and many people I know also feel homesick without wanting to go home. I also know and have worked with people who have felt incredibly homesick for a period, wanting and even planning to go back, who now are thoroughly enjoying their lives out here and who would not dream of going back now.
The most useful thing to do with these feelings is to acknowledge them and explore them without dwelling on them and letting them get you down. Talk about how you feel to someone who will listen properly. Notice what sparked them off (perhaps something happening over there, or over here). What could you do that would make you feel better - is it a sign that youre not getting back often enough? is it a sign that you havent got the life you had before here yet? or do you just want to take it as a reminder to contact your friends and make sure youre keeping in touch.
Do many of the mums you come across have difficulty dealing with the French school hours?
The French school hours, especially in small village schools with no lunch cover, are wonderful for children - a lovely long break in the middle of the day, a day off on Wednesday, long school holidays, particularly in the summer. Where there is lunch cover, or a "periscolaire" (out of school care), it is of course easier to handle. Our village doesnt have any of these things, and it took a little getting used to. Most of the local mums have family in the village so backup childcare on hand. I come across many expat mums who find it hugely frustrating to have to cram their activities into short bursts of 3 hours at a time, and also working mums who find it a challenge to get lunchtime and holiday cover at first. However, these practical problems can be solved. I have had arrangements with other mums where we swapped lunches or after schools so we could go further afield. There are often people who will take children in for lunch for a relatively small fee. I have learnt to enjoy my lunchtimes and Wednesdays with the children, and now organise my time around their schedule rather than feeling annoyed that it doesnt fit, but I am very lucky to have work that I can organise myself.
How important do you think it is for a Mum to become involved in their children’s school?
I think it is important to be involved in the school where your children are. Not all schools are as open to parental involvement as others. The main benefit is in getting to know the teacher better, which can really help when there are problems to solve, or when you need extra help. However, it can be the fast track to getting to know other parents and children too, which can inevitably lead to opportunities to make friends or at least regular friendly contacts. It is important too in a different education system to find out how it works and how you can support your children in it. Of course it is great for your french too. You can be involved in lots of different ways - on the school council, helping with social activities, fundraising, in the classroom. Why not offer your time and see what you can do?
Do you think that if Mums choose to work, they often feel more integrated?
It can work both ways. Mums who work in an organisation can feel integrated into something (generally the organisation and any aspects of local life they can connect to through this route). However, they have less time during the day to connect with other mums locally, and have to make more effort to make use of their evenings - or take time out of work to get involved locally. Mums who have their own businesses may have more flexibility but also have a lot of work to put in to develop their businesses - and it can be a balancing act to decide whether to spend time building the business and making it successful, or putting in the time to get to know people locally. Much depends on the business too - if it is something that engages with local people, then it could really help to integrate.
In your opinion, how long do you think it takes before a family feels ‘settled’ abroad?
My research has shown that it can take well over a year for most families to start feeling settled. Some families feel settled very quickly, but for others, it can take much longer than a year. I have worked with people even after 3-4 years who dont feel "at home" yet. Settled means different things to different people, but it hangs around whether a family feels comfortable where they are - this could include regular routines, a sense of stability, a homely environment, a recognised "place" in the community. You can also feel settled before you feel you have everything you want in place.
It is also quite normal to feel unsettled again for a little while after a long trip home - especially after the Christmas and summer holidays. Friends and clients find January and September to be more unsettled than others. Getting back into a routine can help, but also planning a relaxing return from holiday.
Is much of the advice you offer based on personal experience?
I have had personal experience of relocation and it has been very positive, largely because I had coaching before I came out, and had a pretty solid plan for how I was going to approach our relocation and recreate our lives out here. I was also lucky enough to meet a couple of fantastic people in my very early days who helped me find my feet quickly. I have encountered the same challenges as other people, and have had to reach out for support to overcome them. So I do offer advice from what has worked for me, but most of it is from experience working with mums who have had more difficulty in this transition, and the research Ive done over the past five years.
Overall, do you see relocation abroad as an enriching experience?
Yes, I do see relocation abroad as an enriching experience for the whole family, if we are open to the possibilities of change. As parents, we have the opportunity to make it so for our children, and in doing so, also for ourselves.
Tell us a bit about the different workshops you offer?
When a topic keeps coming up with the work I am doing with clients, I tend to develop a workshop around it, researching the topic and pulling together interesting exercises into a helpful structure. Initially I did the workshops face to face with groups, then more individuals wanted them, now I offer them over the phone too.
The three main areas are:
Impacts of Relocation - Getting to grips with a new language / Confidence & Comfort Zone / Sense of Identity / Rebuilding your support Network / Creating a new vision for your life / Kickstart your productivity
Being Mum: I can be Mum and I can be Me / Parenting Abroad - Challenges and Choices / Listening so your children will talk / Leadership for Mums / Roadmapping for Mums / Confidence for Mums / Balance for Mums
General Personal Development: Dream - Believe - Act / Planning and prioritisation / Sustainable job seeking / Whats stopping you?
If people would like to speak to you, what is the best way to get in touch?
If anyone would like to get in touch, they can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 0389 07 37 02. My website is www.alivetochange.com and it has some articles on there which may be of interest relating to some of the above topics. I also offer a monthly free newsletter, Roots and Wings - you can read the archive and sign up for this on the first page of my website.