A couple of years ago, our family moved from Sheffield to Chicago for a year with my partner’s work. We loved our time in Chicago, fell in love with the city, the weather, the food, the people, everything. And we had some great US adventures – two weeks spent travelling down the California coast in a camper van (with 2 small boys!) being the most epic.
Along with amazing memories and lifelong friendships, I also brought back with me some life lessons, which continue to influence me today.
Friends can become your family – I come from a large family and have two brothers, two sisters, loads of nephews and nieces, speak to my Mum on the phone most days, and message my sisters throughout the day chatting about random stuff. Moving 4000 miles and a 6 hour time difference from this set up was a massive shock to the system. I could no longer pick up the phone and chat whenever I wanted, as people were at work or it was the middle of their night. There was no calling in for lunch on a Sunday, no birthday celebrations (in a family the size of mine, it’s somebody’s birthday almost every week!), and Skype became our main method of communication with ‘back home’. I don’t think that I was prepared for how unsettling I would find it being so physically far away from my UK family.
Step forwards my Chicago family; a collection of British ex-pats in the same boat as us, American school mum friends, workout buddies and fabulous neighbours. These guys (you know who you are!) became our surrogate family. They celebrated birthdays with us, looked after our kids, welcomed us into their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, leant us their car whilst we were trying to sort out our car lease, made plentiful cups of tea and provided a shoulder to cry on when things went wrong. They introduced us to the best the city had to offer, from rooftop bars to outdoor pools, relaxed family brunches to kid free swanky cocktails, afternoons in the park, and street festivals galore.
These friendships developed so quickly and so strongly because most of our friends were away from their families too. We relied on each other to fill those family shaped gaps in our lives, and in turn became each other’s families, only somehow closer because being away from everything you know means you hold on to each other that little bit tighter. I miss my Chicago friends every day, but those friendships remain and I know they’ll continue to flourish for many years to come.
Say ‘yes’ more – I’ve blogged before about how I am, naturally, a glass half empty person, rather than a glass half full person. I like to look for problems that may occur with anything I’m doing, rather than just getting stuck in and seeing how things turn out. Fancy a picnic in the park? Hhhmmm, looks like it might rain. Shall we go out for tea? Well, the kids might kick off, or the baby might fall asleep on the way and it’ll be a nightmare come bedtime. That kind of thing.
It turns out that if you move to the other side of the World and still whittle about what might go wrong, then you’ll end up doing nothing fun at all. I took some advice from an ex-pat friend soon after we met, that she’d made herself say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that came her way for the first 6 months, and that she had done some really fun things. A lot of everyday boring things too, but also lots of things that had she listened to her inner doubter she would never have experienced. So I said yes to dinners out with the kids, followed by long leisurely walks home, way past their bedtimes, taking in the sights and sounds of the city, yes to days at the outdoor pool even though the 2 year old would incessantly jump into the pool when nobody was there to catch him, yes to building tunnels in the mounds of snow that fell over the winter, even though we’d all be frozen to the core in half an hour, and yes to weekly date nights with my partner, relying on local college students to babysit the boys, even though their main concern was knowing our WiFi code.
It somehow feels easier to say ‘yes’ when you are away from home, as everybody is in holiday mode for much of the time. Since arriving back home I’ve tried to say ‘yes’ more often that I used to, and we’ve all benefitted as a family. Don’t get me wrong, we still pay the price for keeping the kids up late when they reward us with an even earlier get up than usual the next morning, but being more open to opportunities and experiences that come our way has made for lots of memory making in the meantime. Next up, climbing Snowdon later this summer with the three boys. Yes, we can do it!
When the chips are down, I can cope! – I thought that moving to an English speaking country would be an absolute breeze. I’d understand everything that was being said and would be able to navigate myself around all of the day-to-day activities with no problems. Wrong! The language in the US may be the same (kind of!) as here in the UK, but that’s about it. Everything else, and I mean everything, is completely alien. The first time I went food shopping I had a massive panic attack in the store, because I had no idea which brands to buy. Back home, we know the packaging on our food and household items, and pick them up on autopilot most of the time. I was staring blankly at huge rows of goods, with no idea where to start. So, I grabbed the only familiar thing, which happened to be red wine, and ran back to our house to calm down, psyche myself up and start again.
The same happened the first time that I had to navigate the underground and bus systems to do the school run. I was shaking with anxiety but knew that I had to stay calm for the kids, and figure things out, or we’d be late for school. And when it came to driving on the opposite side of the road? I was a total wreck.
But, I managed. Every day things got a little easier and more familiar. I started to recognise faces on the school run and in the neighbourhood, which made the city feel more like home. Soon we were casually travelling across the city, on and off the bus and the underground like we’d lived there our whole lives. It was great to see the kids grow in confidence as I became more confident too. We were partners in this game, rising above whatever the city threw at us. 3 feet of snow? P’ah, we’ve got our snow boots on, we’re ready to go!
Since arriving back in the UK, and discovering we had baby number 3 on the way, these newly developed coping skills have been tested to the absolute max. My days are an endless succession of tasks with 3 kids in tow – school and nursery runs, mealtimes, activities, bathtime, bedtime. Whenever I’m struggling to cope, I recall some of our Chicago experiences, give myself a strong talking to, and battle on through! I mean, I drove in the snow, on the wrong side of the road, with kids in the car, and we are still all here to tell the tale. How hard can getting 3 kids to eat their dinner really be?
Birds of a feather – There was an active expat community in Chicago, and our family quickly got involved, making strong friendships based on our shared experiences, British humour and cultural reference points of needing a good cup of tea, decent chocolate and proper fish and chips! As we started to settle into our US life, we began to make friendships with Americans in our neighbourhood, at school and in social activities and these improved and enriched our time away even more. I learnt so much from these friendships, about life, parenting, values and dreams.
I recall being slightly intimidated by these confident American moms, who seemed to have everything together, well behaved kids, stylishly turned out, even at Stroller Strides, and great teeth! But as we chatted and got to know each other, it turns out they were exactly the same as me, close to losing their shit on a daily basis, and generally making stuff up as they went along in terms of parenting.
My experiences of being away from friends and having to put myself out there to make new ones has made me more open to initiating friendships with people I’d never normally speak to, now that I am back in the UK. Previously I would never have started a conversation with another Mum at a toddler group, in the park, or school playground even, but aping my American friends and channelling their air of confidence, I now regularly chat to people in a way which still feels a little strange and unlike me. After all, if we only ever chat to the same old people, we’ll only talk about the same old things, and that’s pretty dull for everyone. So, I’m being brave and flying away from the flock every now and again, bringing back new friendships and drawing on their experiences to better my life.
Maybe that’s why moving away is such a positive thing for people to do; because you are forced to grow up and confront lots of fears and worries head on, and in turn that makes you a more confident, more fulfilled and happier person. Since arriving back home my outlook on life and opportunities that come my way has been much more positive. I now say ‘yes’ all the time, albeit it after asking a few qualifying questions, just to make sure! I’ve broadened my horizons by making new friendships, investing more in those friendships which bring joy into my life, sharing new experiences and having faith in myself to be able to tackle things head on. I hope we have the opportunity to travel and live abroad again in the future – if you get the chance to do it, I’d implore you to grab it with both hands, and hang on for the ride of your life!