Packing Up and Confronting Failure: The Emotional Toll of Moving Abroad and the Lessons I Learned
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
I am sitting in my apartment in Turin, a city in northwest Italy, with clear views to the Alps. In roughly two and a half months I will move back to Southern California. Nearly two years ago I moved here with my husband and two children, then ages twelve and seven. Older and wiser, we now prepare for the reverse journey. We are bound for the same town, even the same house, yet so changed; each one of us.
Few of our friends or family know of the toll that our departure from Los Angeles took on us. The mental and emotional impact on our family, as we prepared for these two years abroad, is one of the most interesting aspects of our journey. With a willingness to look back, I have benefitted from the lessons I learned.
Preparing for Departure
Over the course of a year we planned and prepared: tying-up loose ends at work, and in our personal lives, while simultaneously projecting ourselves into an unfamiliar, unknown future. We had to consider many large aspects of the move, such as: financial recovery, questions of immigration, how our children would adapt to Italian schools, engaging with Italian society and learning Italian, and figuring out the nuts and bolts of everyday life. But the move also required us to consider what we were leaving behind, and consequently, what would greet us upon our return. When I consider “the move”, I vividly remember the things.
When I consider “the move”, I vividly remember the things.
Packing in earnest started four months before our departure. I had envisioned what I wanted the move to look like, and thought I knew what we had to pack. Because of this, and because I would resign from my job a month before our departure, I willingly took charge of most of the process. As we moved closer to our departure date, I committed myself, nearly exclusively, to the endeavor. Sorting, tossing, donating, and packing the contents of our home, more often than not, felt like I was sorting the contents of our lives.
Sorting, tossing, donating, and packing the contents of our home, more often than not, felt like I was sorting the contents of our lives.
Life as a Fast-moving Train
The last months spent in California were packed full: 2 parents working full-time, soccer games, orchestra, a ballet recital, my son’s final year in elementary school. We texted friends, and called family to organize more stops on our “goodbye tour” so that we could sneak in just one more gathering before our departure, one more coffee.
In the years leading up to this move life felt like a fast-moving train that only made brief stops. University, marriage, our first child, work, our second child, buying a house, our parents, illness, our families. Familiar stops to many. Over a decade I alternated time as an at-home mother, with jobs in international education. Through these “becoming-an-adult years” I increasingly became aware of myself, and my innermost battles; battles I didn’t even realize I had been fighting.
Thanks to my friendship with a therapist, I found my own therapist. Suddenly it was like someone was holding up a torch in a dark cave. I was comforted by the realization that I didn’t have to face myself alone, and that someone could help me create the tools I needed to fully engage with life, and with my self. By the time our family began to even think about moving to Italy, I was fortunate to have some of those tools in place.
Sorting Things and Looking Back
Over the course of roughly six months, I handled thousands of objects. Books, toys, clothing, art, jewelry, CDs and DVDs, shoes, the kitchen, the entire garage and all of its mysterious contents, stuffed into cardboard boxes and black garbage bags. We had moved so many times before, and knew how difficult it could be. But this move was different. It was international. And we had to pay for it. More than all of that, was the fact that rather than separate things into the categories of toss, pack, and donate, we now had the additional category of “open in two years”. Since our move to Italy was temporary, and we would be living in a furnished apartment, the vast majority of our home would need to be placed into storage, and “opened in two years”.
My motto, over the year prior, had become simple, yet unforgiving: “Be honest with yourself.” No more dreams or aspirations. Deal with your things based on who you are and what you are, today. Not in the future. Not when you’re thinner. Not when you have more time.
My motto, over the year prior, had become simple, yet unforgiving: “Be honest with yourself.”
I clung to this statement because I knew that I would be leaving the country, and that whatever didn’t fit in our 12 pieces of luggage, would need to be placed into storage for the next two years. Either option forced us to cull our possessions to what was absolutely necessary. The more we carried or packed, the more we would pay.
But perhaps an equally painful thought, was that anything we took with us, or packed away, would eventually need to be dealt with. As I picked up and examined object after object, I grew increasingly tired, and agitated. The physical toll was enough to exhaust anyone, but what made this move especially challenging, was our need to project ourselves into the future. Project who my children would be, two years, and so many experiences, later.
The physical toll was enough to exhaust anyone, but what made this move especially challenging, was our need to project ourselves into the future.
What toys, and clothes, and books, would they want to see upon returning home? What would fit? What will my seven year-old want when she is nine and a half? What books will she want to read? Will she still want this dollhouse? What will my eleven year-old boy be like when he returns to the U.S. just in time to start high school? Are any of these toy cars keepsakes? How much of this purging and donation will I regret? What, of the same, would they like to see when we arrive in Italy? What will make Italy feel more like home? What is worth the ounces, or pounds, these objects will occupy in our luggage. Sometimes it felt like I was asking the children who they were going to be, or who I wanted them to be, in two years.
It was heavy.
Sometimes it felt like I was asking the children who they were going to be, or who I wanted them to be, in two years. It was heavy.
And who would I be? What books would pass the test of time? Did I really still need my French coursework from college? (Yes.) Would I keep the dresses I wore as a 35 year old, when I returned to the US just short of 40. (Some.) Did I need all of those plastic Sterilite containers that I used to organize my kids’ toys? (No.)
Questions. Judgments. Guesses. Decisions.
Holding My Aspirations in My Hands
When people asked me how the packing was going I would take the question seriously. Hearing myself declare, over and over again, how taxing it was, I had to take a moment to reflect on why. What made this move different?
What I realized was that this move was decisive in a way that our past moves hadn’t been. In the closing of a chapter I was confronted with the objects that filled its pages. Those objects had to be reckoned with. Some objects were simple and easily dealt with, but others contained big ideas, hopes and dreams, as well as the inverse: ideas that never materialized, and hopes and dreams, that had been set aside. These objects represented countless aspirations, some still pending, and some lying completely dormant.
Countless other items symbolized the kind of woman, wife, and mother that I wanted to be. Moment after moment, I felt like I was eye-to-eye with failure. I was haunted by all of the loose ends. I judged myself harshly for never having brought this aspiration, or that, to fruition. I blamed my lack of organization, my inability to follow-through, and my lack of energy. I was plagued with self-criticism, regret, and sadness. Why hadn’t I done more? Why hadn’t I spent more time on this, and less time on that?
I was haunted by all of the loose ends. I judged myself harshly for never having brought this aspiration, or that, to fruition.
The negativity bias is powerful, and even more so for a perfectionist. Not someone who actually is “perfect”, but someone who endlessly views life as a zero-sum game. They are a winner (perfect), or they are a loser (imperfect). One. Or zero. This applies only to the perfectionist (or so the perfectionist believes), they would not (knowingly) subject their loved ones to such scrutiny. And they cling to the possibility of perfection, for dear life. This negativity bias overemphasized what I had not accomplished, and was nearly blind to all that I had done.
This emotional encounter magnified the physical exhaustion that I felt over the entire moving process. I saw it as an evaluation of my first 13 years of being a wife and mother; and of being an adult.
I saw it as an evaluation of my first 13 years of being a wife and mother; and of being an adult.
“…she’s a memory”
When I return to these memories today, it stops me in my tracks. I know that Jessica well…but in many ways, she’s a memory. For the past seven years I’ve done the work — and I continue to do the work — to change how I see myself in relation to other people. To see my value as something completely independent of what I can do for others, or what praise or accolades I might receive.
I don’t instinctively hustle for approval, as I once did. When I grow too excited over praise, I catch myself; wary of returning to a place where the opinions of others informed my opinion of myself.
I don’t need to elide my own preferences and comfort, for what I think will make things easier for my husband and children. I can identify my needs, and have those needs met, even if it causes friction for the people I care about most. I can prioritize myself, and be loved all the more for it. Giving to myself does not take away from what I can give to them.
Giving to myself does not take away from what I can give to them.
In fact, in being free enough to honestly claim space, time, or even financial resources for myself, I can see how new life is injected into our family. I learned that my former “hustle for worthiness”, as Brené Brown describes it, was stifling not only to me, but to those closest to me. I remember the wise words of a dear friend and former colleague: “When you’re hard on yourself, you don’t realize it, but you are hard on all of us too.” Before that moment I didn’t realize it, but it was true, at work, and at home.
Today I know that I can be loved without being a martyr. I don’t need to be remarkable in any way. I can just be. It took time to believe this; and to make sense of it. But in making sense of it, I have redefined my sense of self, and my sense of worthiness, and consequently, the worthiness of us all.
I don’t need to be remarkable in any way. I can just be. It took time to believe this; and to make sense of it.
Now, I look for the good, and celebrate the done, rather than lament the undone. I see evidence of myself in every photograph where my children and husband are smiling. I see the role that I play in my family; it is dynamic. I am always happening. I am not one completed project, or ten completed projects. One meal cooked, or a year’s worth. My family is what it is because I am there. And he is there, and they are there. I don’t measure any of our value by our accomplishments. It is because we are. And it is the greatest treasure of my life. I make the choice to face the world with this mindset, as often as I can.
The Silver Lining
In the summer of 2018 the sense of failure visited me regularly; and although unpleasant, It was transformative. That sense of inadequacy was one defining aspect of who I was at that point. I found myself in an emotional space where I was not content to remain. Refusing to cause myself further suffering became a turning point. This has helped me keep things in perspective, now that I no longer treat myself with such severity. It has also made me more compassionate to others who are struggling in their own way.
I found myself in an emotional space where I was not content to remain. Refusing to cause myself further suffering became a turning point.
On the other side of the globe, just as I had in California, I meet people — I meet women — who can identify and speak about these same emotions. I recognize that these emotions and reactions are not uncommon. Despite how natural it has become for me to recognize this, I am still a little surprised when I see that I’m not the only one. Recognizing one another in each shared story and in each reflection, allows us to let our guard down. And together, we move forward.
Our move to Italy sometimes gets overshadowed by the long physical journey, or the challenges of navigating life in a foreign country. For me the move to Italy will always represent the confrontation with myself on both sides of the Atlantic, the reckoning of the moment, and the reading, and writing and thinking that have gotten me here.
I may have eventually been able to take these steps without moving to Italy, but it is difficult for me to see the “confrontation” of the move, as separate from the emotional changes. The closing of one chapter in California, the land of my birth, and the opening of a new chapter in this city, with clear views to the Alps, has helped these lessons coalesce; to fall into place, and to help me prepare for the journey home, and for the next stage of my life. In bringing these lessons together, I realized that I finally felt grown up.