How emigration changes parenthood
The notification on my phone pings and instinctively I know it is from you:
“I miss you!
I long for our conversations over a cup of coffee
I miss my animals
I miss the sunny South African days
I go to the shops for a simple item but the labels are in a language I do not understand
Some days it feels as if a part of me has gone missing…
The list is so long…”
As parents of adult emigrant children, we are all too familiar with the bittersweet feeling that accompanies our emigrant child’s messages from afar, especially in the early stages of emigration. Sometimes it is an update on how well they are adapting to their new lives with smiling faces against the backdrop of an unfamiliar setting. However, after the initial excitement of the big move, emigrants often long for the familiar comforts and loved ones back home.
As sentient beings we are wired to seek familiarity and comfort, especially when we are in an unfamiliar and challenging environment. Such a yearning was showcased in a touching scene from the iconic movie ET. In the scene, ET is desperately reaching out for his family back home:“ET phone home…” as he gets hold of an old telephone. The emigration family often faces a similar situation; searching for a lifeline that will connect them with loved ones. These heart-wrenching messages of homesickness and despair can evoke a range of emotions in parents. How should a wise parent react?
Parent’s experience a sense of loss after the emigration of the adult child
Emigration is an experience that touches on deep emotional ties between parents, their adult children and grandchildren. This complex process can evoke a range of emotions, including anxiety, uncertainty and a sense of loss. These feelings are similar to the experience of empty nest syndrome, when parents have to ‘let go’ of their children. However, during emigration children do not simply move out of their family home but also away from their country of birth. During this ‘letting go’ process, parents may struggle to reconcile their own feelings with the child’s desire to create a new life for themselves. This can lead to discussions, arguments, and doubts as both parties try to deal with these emotions. Paolo Coelho explains that parents rarely let go of their children. Instead, their children let go of their parents by moving on, and moving away. The moments that used to define the children become layered with moments of their own accomplishments. This metaphor suggests that although parents’ influence may not always be visible, it continues to shape their lives.
The sense of loss is, however, not limited to the parent alone. Emigration causes numerous losses for the emigrant child as well. They leave behind their home, relationships with loved ones as it was, their career and work environment, their support structure, familiar surroundings, understood social customs, and even their identity. These losses are further complicated by practicalities associated with the move, which may cause them to experience feelings of isolation and homesickness similar to grief.
Emigration may coincide with a stage in the parents’ lives where they start to feel vulnerable due to their age, especially when they envisioned their future with the support of their children and grandchildren. They miss the seemingly insignificant everyday moments they once shared. In addition, parents miss the meaningful conversations they had in the physical presence of their children: discussions about their lives, plans, and vision of the future.
The parent also has to deal with the fact that the child has physically left and that the relationship as it was known would irrevocably change. This is an example of what
Pauline Boss calls ‘ambiguous loss’. ‘Ambiguous loss’ refers to the cognitive dissonance that one experiences when a significant other can be reached emotionally, but cannot be reached physically. It is a distinctive kind of loss that is immobilising and that defies closure.
However, people can learn to live with uncertainty. Ambiguous loss is therefore not always problematic. As a matter of fact, emigration can act as a catalyst for growth and transformation for both the child and the parent. By being subjected to new cultures and perspectives it provides the adult child with ample opportunities for personal and professional growth. For parents it can be an opportunity to learn to let go and trust in their child’s ability to navigate the world on their own terms.
How can I still be ‘parent’?
The bond between parents and their children is the most fundamental of all human relationships. This bond spans the life of both generations and has the ability to endure challenges like emigration. For parents of emigrant children, the biggest challenge remains to preserve the bond through transnational communication. Mature and open relationships will foster discussions about important issues. By using creative ways, parents can still fulfil the role of an understanding parent and create a psychological bridge that will overcome the geographical distance.
The inevitable change in the relationship does not mean that the role of parent ceases to exist. It simply changes. This change requires that parents understand both their own emotions and the desire of their emigrant children to forge their own path in life. Parents’ ability to adapt largely depends on their willingness to engage with the process and to recognise the complex emotions involved. By embracing these challenges, parents’ relationship with their emigrant children can become more resilient.
Homesickness is an expected emotion when one is away from home in an unfamiliar environment. It can manifest as sadness, loneliness, anxiety, a feeling of disconnectedness, a longing for familiar people or even a pet, places and routines. The emotional distress can furthermore lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia and decreased appetite. It is not a sign of weakness or a need to return home. More importantly: it is only temporary. It signals a healthy attachment to loved ones.
Seeing emigration from the child’s perspective
Support from a parent is impossible without empathy. Empathy does not only validate a homesick child’s feelings by making them feel heard. It also offers a safe space for emigrant children to vent their emotions and speak freely, without the fear of being
judged. Henry Thoreau aptly asks: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” In this regard, it would be wise for parents to step into their children’s shoes and ask themselves: “What would I have wanted if I were in their shoes? Maybe practical support? Care packages? A visit, if possible?”
Practical support and care packages
Practical support can range from connecting loved ones with the local expat community, to seeking information about housing and employment. Such practical support can help a child feel heard even from a distance. One should also not hesitate to seek help from a professional. Finding a therapist or counselor specialising in emigration can provide additional support to help an emigrant child cope. One can also show love and support by sending care packages filled with items like familiar food and special treats that will remind them of home. For the parent it is a practical way of caring for their child. For the child these tangible items are invaluable sources of comfort, grounding them during these initial stages.
If finances allow it, there are few things better than paying a visit. Visiting a child in their new home is beneficial in many ways. It helps the parent to construct a mental image of the child’s new world and provide an even better understanding of the challenges they may be facing. It can greatly improve one’s level of communication over a distance. One should, however, be aware of the challenges of ambiguous loss that awaits both parties on return.
Possibly the best way of providing emotional support is simply by listening to a child reaching out. To be a supportive parent does not necessarily equate to providing solutions for every problem. Rather, attentive listening should take place without interference; without criticising or pressurising. It should therefore serve to encourage and motivate the child to speak up and share their experience. Sometimes the most valuable support comes from those who offer their unwavering presence, a safe space to vent your emotions.
Building a psychological bridge
When faced with the challenges of comforting homesick emigrant children, parents may instinctively want to provide comfort by urging them to return home. However true wisdom lies in taking a moment te reflect on one’s own emotions, prioritising your child’s needs, before responding. By embracing the demands of emigration and encouraging their children to do the same, parents build a psychological bridge that spans the geographical distance between them.
Through their adaptability and love, parents can provide a lifeline for their children to guide them in building a sense of home in their new environment. In doing so they will instil in their children the resilience and strength necessary to navigate life’s challenges with grace and courage.
“I miss your smile
I miss being with you
I am so proud of the woman you have become
With all my love from South Africa ❤️”
Paulo Coelho>Quotes>Quotable Quote [Online]. [n.d.]. Available from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/236747-parents-rarely-let-go-of-their-children-so-children-let [Accessed 19 April 2023].
Boss P 1999. Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
WebMD Editorial Contributors 2021. What to Know About Homesickness and Mental Health [Online]. Available from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-to-know-about-homesickness-and-mental-health [Accessed 18 April 2023].
Henry David Thoreau>Quotes>Quotable Quote. [Online]. [n.d.]. Available from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8499683-could-a-greater-miracle-take-place-than-for-us-to [Accessed 18 April 2023].