Empty Nest Syndrome – Questions That Keep An Expat Mum Awake At Night


Maddy knew it since grade 8: when it comes to university, she’ll go ‘back home’. 

Empty Nest Syndrome

And ‘home’ is where she comes from, where her parents were born, where her extended family is, where – she thinks – her roots are.

Not the current country she lives in because of her father’s job.

Now the day has come. Her International Baccalaureate freshly obtained, she has just been accepted in her first choice university.

A dream come true. New doors are opening, a promising future awaits.

Maddy is excited to leave but her parents are more reserved. In fact, they’re torn.

Especially Lauren, Maddy’s mum, who gave up her career and became a stay-at-home parent 10 years ago when her husband got a job abroad.


Empty nest syndrome is nothing new and it affects each family with children. But when you’re an expat, you have more choices and decisions to make, all with far reaching implications for the whole family.

How do you deal with them?

The answer might surprise you…


Lauren is really proud of her daughter for her amazing achievement and the wonderful opportunities she’s carved out for herself.

But her decision to attend university “back home” means having her thousands of kilometres away.

A separation she knew would come, but a separation she anticipates with much anxiety.

Pressure builds up as the countdown is ticking. One week before Maddie’s plane leaves, Lauren lays awake at night, eyes wide open.

Her mind races.

‘How will Maddy cope? Did I do enough to prepare her for this new transition?

She’s adapted to many different environments in her young life. She should be fine. But the difference now is that she’ll be on her own. I won’t be around. I’m too far away. With the time zone difference, it’ll be more challenging to connect. Thank God, we have emails, instant messaging and Skype. I’d be frantic if we couldn’t stay in touch.

I’m scared Maddy feels totally out of place. How is she going to fit in with her weird childhood? All her current friends will be scattered around the world. Who is she going to hang out with? Who will be able to relate to her experience?

On the other hand, I’m so happy for her to chase her dreams. Seeing her go back home comforts me. She’ll get to represent our family at gatherings and fill in for me while I’m so far away.

What kind of support will the extended family be able to provide?

I feel somewhat reassured that my parents live a few hours’ drive from where Maddy is staying but they’re not so young any more. They probably won’t be able to just pop over to see her at a moment’s notice. 

I’m not sure they’ll be able to relate well with Maddy either. They’re totally behind with technology. Mum doesn’t even have an email address. Let alone a Facebook or Instagram account! My brother lives closer, but with a young family and a demanding job, he has no time.

I keep wondering: why does she want to go back ‘home’ to study?

In a country she hasn’t lived in for 10 years. It’s not ‘home’. She could have gone to the university here down the road. She’d get a good degree there and then work internationally if that’s what she wants to do.

With me touting the praises of our prestigious universities back home, I didn’t help things. I may have even instilled in her some kind of unconscious expectations. And now for what?!

In a week, my baby is going to leave, thousands of kilometres away.

How will I cope?

Since the family moved abroad, Lauren’s gone through ups and downs. She brutally transitioned from a buzzing career in an advertising company to a homemaker with three children in tow when her husband got promoted abroad. Maddy is the first to fly off the nest.

Lauren tosses and turns in her bed, waking Mick (her husband).

“Are you okay, hon? What time is it?”

“3 am. I can’t sleep. I’m so anxious about Maddy leaving. It’s hit me a lot harder than I thought.

Don’t you think we should move back home, too? What’s the point of remaining here, thousands of kilometres from each other?”

“But what about the other children? They’re in grade 9 and 11. We can’t uproot them now, can we? Besides, I’m not sure I can find a job back home.

I see you’re worried but this is a huge decision, deeply affecting all of us. We won’t solve it easily and certainly not now. Try to get some sleep…”


In this new family transition, lots of questions arise:

Is your child going to study ‘back home’?

Is your family going to repatriate to stay close to each other?

If so, what will happen to the expat employee?

How will this situation affect the other siblings if they get uprooted?

The decisions you’ll make will depend on the answers you give to those questions. Everyone’s situation is different. And the consequences are so far reaching that it seems daunting for most of us.

Often in such a case, we feel tempted to look for advice. But who can we turn to?

And should we really?

Who knows better what to do with your family, than yourself?

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

The expatriate experience is a journey, both literally and figuratively. We understand, as perhaps few others can, what it means to stand puzzled, impatient, frustrated, powerless in front of signs we can’t read and we can’t comprehend — ‘those books written in a very foreign tongue’. But we also know — because we’ve gone through it — that with time, effort and support, we can overcome the obstacles, learn that very foreign tongue and even come to like it!

What are YOUR questions? What are the questions you’re wrestling with? How do you live them?

We explore this topic and other crucial questions for expatriate families in an online peer support group. In a safe space, you have the opportunity to express yourself, to be heard and to listen to other fellow expatriates. There’s no judgement and no advice. And for that purpose, in this supportive environment, you’re given the opportunity to live your questions and eventually find your own answers. We’re launching a new group in a couple of weeks. Join the list and you’ll get an email when we start.


Credit picture Depositphotos Credit Music Piano Society



  1. This is a very timely article. I’m about to deal with this myself in a few weeks. The difference with me is that my son(s) have chosen not to go back ‘home’ but to study in yet another country – thousands of miles away and in completely the opposite direction of their home country which they left when they were 2 and 4 yrs. They feel disconnected from their home country and strangely enough more connected to their new adopted country they’ve chosen to study in. I dare say this is because of their international education experience even though they have never lived there. Questions I’m constantly struggling with are where they will end up and where should we choose to go to settle when the time comes…I feel we will be literally on the other side of the world from each other. It’s not their fault, it’s just the life they have lead for the majority of their lives because of decisions we’ve made as their parents. I guess we just never really thought we’d be away so long and what the consequences would be down the track. They will probably cope better than us as the parents because moving around is all they’ve known and to them, the world is a small place. I just hope upon hope that ‘home’ is where we are as their parents and they choose to return whenever they can wherever we may be. I also have friends whose children have returned to their home country for University, but the children didn’t stay – probably because of their expat childhood. I guess it depends on each individual as to what works for them and ultimately we can only hope that decisions are made with eyes open. We can also hope that expat children are adaptable within their environment because of their varied upbringing and cope with change. They are probably more resilient than we give them credit for but as parents we are the ones fighting with fragility. In my experience, when you’re an expat family, you tend to remain very close as sometimes all you have is each other when starting out in a new country. The bonds are very strong and for us I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed they remain so. Life is not always easy, but it is ever changing.

    • Thank you so much, Debra for sharing your thoughts and your story. Extended family remaining in the ‘home country’, parents in a second country and children in a third country: another of the many possibilities expat families can face. Your sentence ‘as parents we are the ones fighting with fragility’ sticks with me. More inspiration for another article 😉


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