Even when you are marooned in paradise homesickness is an unavoidable part of being away from home for an extended period of time. It seems to creep up without warning at around the three-month mark. Everyone appears to be adjusting fine and getting acclimated to the food, altitude, language, new friends, new schedule and then suddenly WHAM! You find yourself constantly thinking about home and feeling an overwhelming desire to go back. Homesickness can be an intense and haunting sadness or just random thoughts that flit in and out of your consciousness throughout the day. It can be as simple as your three-year-old missing his favorite fish crackers, or checking email obsessively and writing lengthy missives to friends begging for information about gardens, pets and the weather.
Whether it's mild or severe, homesickness is certainly no fun. I Miss Everything! Homesickness is about missing friends and family and the ease of the familiar. It's not necessarily about wanting to move back home, but more about wanting to think about the things you have left behind. It often comes on when you have finally shaken off all the old baggage and you feel a void that will eventually, but isn't yet, filled with new friends and new connections to the place you've plopped down in. That's about the time you have begun to feel forgotten by your friends and associates back home.
The easy connection you had with everyone has started to evaporate as they attend to busy lives that you are simply not a part of. When we returned to Minnesota after 18 months in Mexico, people kept saying, "You are back already? It didn't seem like you were gone that long." For them, the days of our adventure slipped by unnoticed as they pounded the same old paths oblivious to the passage of time. But living abroad and free from the mundane tasks that gobble up time, our days often felt seventy two hours long. At the beginning, we spent so much time exploring and figuring out all the new rules of our new home that we fell into bed wondering when we would ever stop feeling tired and excited by all this newness. Right around the three-month mark your life will start to feel somewhat familiar again. You will have carved out some new routines, but there is plenty of time and space to start longing for some of the things you have left behind.
So what can you do about homesickness? What if your kids are really bummed out about being away from their friends and their school? What if you become obsessed with life back home and being away from everything that is familiar? Truthfully, nothing but time will make homesickness go away completely. Eventually, your life will fill up with friends and activities in your new home and you will make peace with the minutes and hours that click by.
In the meantime, there are a number of concrete things you and your family can do to keep homesickness manageable:
Keep in touch with the folks back home through email and digital pictures. This really helps a lot as it's so instantaneous you can feel like you are not THAT far away.
Every once in awhile, watch American movies and search out a pizza or make spaghetti. Familiar things from back home will cheer everyone up; at least for awhile.
Talk about being homesick with your kids and your spouse rather than bottling it up and hoping it will go away. This helps enormously and goes a long way to creating that 'we are in this together feeling.'
Download some favorite songs from the Internet and dance around the living room together.
Play a familiar card game or board game.
Pick up the phone and call someone Or even better, use the computer or a callback service to chat with a friend or family member from back home. Be careful with this one. It can be expensive and can also backfire and just create more of a longing to be back home.
Try playing the 'what do you miss the most"? game. "Which foods are you missing the most?" Which toys are you missing?" "Friends?" "Teachers?"
You can also flip it around and ask, "What is the best thing about being in a new place?" "What is your favorite food?" "What can you do here that you can't back home?" Homesickness can actually highlight some of the big positives about being away on your adventure.
Write a letter. Send an email. These are opportunities for your kids to feel how lucky they are to have so many wonderful things waiting for them at the end of their trip.
Holidays in the Key of Blue Homesickness can feel especially profound during holidays and birthdays. Celebrating without friends and family can make things seem a bit sad and empty. To combat homesickness during these times bring along familiar objects and adapt your family's familiar rituals to the new traditions of your temporary home. Use a cactus for a Christmas tree (but be careful stringing those ornaments!). Learn how to make turkey tamales for Thanksgiving. Use extended school holidays as an excuse to go on a special family adventure. Arrange parties with your expat friends and encourage visitors from back home to spend their holidays abroad with your family. Indulge the kids with a few more presents than normal during these times and bug the grandparents, aunts and uncles to send gifts from the States so the kids will know they have not been forgotten by people back home. Ultimately, there isn't any cure for homesickness and everybody is bound to suffer from it at one time or another. All you can do is accept it as part of the adventure and help your kids understand that it is OK to feel sad and to miss things from back home. Encourage the people you love to keep in touch, and remind them well in advance of special moments in your family's life abroad so they can acknowledge it with a call, card or gift.
Homesickness is not fun, but it can be an opportunity to count your blessings and remind each other how lucky you are to be able to go on such a wonderful adventure and still have so many equally wonderful things waiting for you back home.