At the end of the emotional parenthesis – living in Expat Limbo

What happens when there is no end in sight.
Where do you see yourself in five years?

My father-in-law always asks us the same question when we see him. It’s part of the ritual. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? It’s not the first question. Usually. And it doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning of a visit. It may even take a few days to come up. But then, unsuspecting, when you’re in a brief moment of reverie after the kids have left the table and you linger in the quiet space – BAM. There it is. Soooo, where do you guys see yourself in five years? Guh. I don’t know? I don’t even know where I see myself next year.

And while I know that this question comes from a loving place, it must stem from the fact that my dear Father-in-law’s path has been fairly straightforward. Easy to see the timeline laid out ahead. After quitting his job selling Cadillacs, he went back to medical school, became a physician and stayed with one practice his entire career. My dad’s path was similar, once he left the U.S. Army that is. A straight line. A gross oversimplification, but I offer as background.

Our path has been anything but a straight line. Pretty curvy actually. We’ve moved a bunch. Accumulated a myriad of addresses across state lines and now abroad. Those moves didn’t always make sense. As an Oregon Girl – I can confirm that living in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Dallas were never on my radar. I did not see them as places I would necessarily choose to live, work or raise children. But I did that in all four. And while I may not have chosen to live there, we lived well in those places. Adding three children and many friends along the way.

After our third child was born in the fourth state, we left the corporate track and made our way back to Oregon. Our choice. And we thought we were planted. Thought the curve would straighten out. And for 7 years, it did. Oregon was home. Call it an itch; call it a giant curve ball to the gut – but when the opportunity to move to Denmark came up, there wasn’t much to convince us not to take it.

By then, our children were established on sports teams, in good schools, with supportive friends and family nearby. We asked the kids. They said yes. Let’s try it. Then they said no. Then yes. Then no. Then when will we just move already? We were smack in the middle of expat limbo while still in our own country. We didn’t have a name for it. Then. And while we felt the limbo, we were still eager and hopeful about the experience ahead. When that “ahead” would start was our greatest unknown. But start it did. Here we are, nearly 2.5 years later.

DOES DOMESTIC MOVING PROWESS DIRECTLY TRANSLATE ABROAD?

From all of my domestic moves, I knew that there would be a settling in process and that it takes about a year to get your shit together in a new place. Finding a place to live, that you can afford, near the right schools, a home that has good resale value. Check. Finding the doctors, transferring records and setting up appointments. Check. Finding the grocery store that sells fresh produce AND a hoppy IPA for a reasonable price. Check. Transfering mailing addresses, setting up cable and internet and standing in line at yet another DMV to transfer your driver’s license. Yet again. Check.

Stalking moms on the playground, sidling up to them. Smiling. Nodding. Asking how old their kids are. Then pumping them for information and recommendations on everything you need to know regarding the best preschools, where to register for swim lessons or what she knows about the local soccer clubs. Anything you need to know that will make your family feel connected and engaged in their new from. Luckily, there are Facebook groups for this now. Online help groups to avoid that awkward cold opener – do you come to this park often? Done. Check. New network developing. Check.

But for all the prowess I had garnered setting myself and my family up with each move, I knew that moving abroad would take double the trouble. Navigating a new language and cultural differences worlds away would exacerbate the settling in process. From the beginning, as a family, we committed to trying this adventure for two years. At a bare minimum. Luckily, the job that brought us here was not a contract position – meaning that we haven’t been living with a looming date stamp for any pending exit. There are no black x’s on the calendar marking off days til we leave. We can stay. If we want to. For now. Danish immigration laws will have something to say about our continued residency at a certain point, but that end date feels far away.

Have you passed the emotional end date to your expatriation?

Fast forward. Our two-year emotional commitment has come and gone. It awkwardly happened smack in the middle of a school year. As our eldest is nearing completion and the testing phase of his British International School IGCSE’s, we thought it was best to let him finish. Although some days, I know he’d be happy to be yanked out and uprooted as to be relieved of the intensive study required to take so many tests at the end of this year. But once completed, he will graduate from this school. He will have two more years of what we call high school in America, gymnasium here in Denmark or A-levels in the U.K. Originally, it seemed like a natural time to segue. To move. Back.

As a family, we had created an emotional parenthesis to our time here in Denmark. The two years up, a graduation complete, the end date slowly emerging on the horizon of our collective consciousness. At the start of this school year, I could feel a little of the winding down beginning. The internal checking off of places to be seen, experiences to be had. I protested. Refused to look at events as the “last time.” It felt caustic. Ruining experiences. Putting a strange tint on them. At Christmastime, as we chopped our traditional Danish tree and ate our æbleskivers and sipped our gløgg, I was not ready to be done. Not finished. I had so much left to do!

That was months ago. So what happens when the end of that self-imposed parenthesis does not actually make itself clear. No end is actually in sight? Nowhere nearby to be honest. In its place, a giant “dot, dot, dot…” seems to be pushing out the curve. I will admit. It can feel a little oppressive at times. But, wait. Didn’t you just say that you had so much left to do there? Yes. Yes, I did.

But now the questions creep in. Wake me up at night. Cause me to pause. Can we stay. Yes. Do we stay. I don’t know. Do we want to stay. Some of us do. Some days. Do we want to repatriate? Right now? I will admit that the current political climate in my passport country is well… not helping to answer this one. We don’t know. (My middle son knows. If you know him, you know.) So where does that leave us?

Have you entered the Twilight Zone?

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”¹

This space of not knowing? This place that lies between light and shadow? Maybe it’s not really the Twilight Zone, but sometimes my worries about what is best for our family outweigh my reason. You can only make so many lists for pros and cons. And what is a pro today, can jump to the cons list tomorrow. Or tonight. This place is expat limbo. A sort of sentimental purgatory of unknowns and daily – or hourly – vacillation. To quote the classic words of the Clash,

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
This indecision’s bugging me…”

The perfect soundtrack for this stage. This indecision’s bugging me. This not knowing. It’s a whole new can of worms. And I hate worms. Right now, making a determined choice to push back the parenthesis may be our best bet. Maybe. Or not. I’ll let you know when the limbo is lifted. Stay with me until then. I still have experiences to experience. Even this one.

Cheers from Denmark, Erin

19 thoughts on “At the end of the emotional parenthesis – living in Expat Limbo

  1. sueann

    We’re with you no matter where your “home” is or how far back those parenthesizes go. Love you and that fam of yours.

    ps. Q can come back and live with us anytime.

  2. I’ve been an expat since I was 23, in various countries. My husband too. It’s weird and we don’t know where we want to “settle”. I hate people asking me “So are you staying in Ireland forever or what?” because all I can say is “I don’t know”. The eternal “don’t know”. I just don’t know.

  3. Diane

    Wherever you are, whenever you do or do not move know that you are loved and cherished! ❤☘️❤☘️❤☘️

  4. Oi! The dreaded unknown time! I hate it too. We also come across it each year when my husband’s contract is up for renewal … and then the whole waiting game with job applications to determine if we will stay expats or move back. Good luck in this stressful time!

  5. Wow – that’s a tough one. I’ve been in limbo for the last year and a bit, and it’s straining my patience and my nerves. You have it much harder with kids still at home and being so far away. Best of luck navigating limbo land; I’ll be thinking about you and hoping for clarity and good decisions!

  6. Wow Erin – what a well-written piece…it captured the emotion I remember feeling so well. And for good and bad, with either direction you go, there will be a new sense of adventure and appreciation for the “new” place, but not without that sense of “loss” for what and those you leave behind. With this inevitable stress, try to appreciate just having the choice…what a blessing…and remember there are many good paths to a life well lived. There can never be one completely right or wrong. We have to be present and aware of the good for where we are NOW. Hope to reconnect again some day! Keep the blog posts coming! Love you guys!

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      Hi Erin! Thank you for commenting! Glad it resonated with you too. Great advice and I will definitely take it to heart. Hope all is well you and your boys. Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin

  7. What a great post. I’m feeling so many of the same things right now… we agreed on two years which slipped into three and now it’s time to decide on a fourth. The not knowing and not being able to plan is the worst. Good luck with your decision!

  8. Yes! This is my life right now. I moved to Switzerland 2.5 years ago thinking I’d stay here for 2 years. Now it’s looking more like 4. But who knows!? And where do I go from here? Not a clue!

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      And is that 4 a bad thing? Popping over to your blog now to see a little more! Cheers from Copenhagen and thanks for leaving a comment – Erin

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      Thank you Catherine! So sweet of you! Will keep you posted! (But probably tell my mom first!) 😉 Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin

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