Expat Guilt

I recently returned from a trip to South Africa after not visiting my family for almost three years. While the reasons for not going include the Covid-19 pandemic and changes in our responsibilities here at home, it was still tough to be away from them for so long. The main purpose of this past trip was to go spend time with my family, especially my parents. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and even though my family suspected it, it is still a tough diagnosis to swallow. Mom and Dad still live at home and this was also where I stayed while visiting.

Moving Away from South Africa

I moved to the USA with my husband and kids in June 2011. We were full of excitement for this new adventure and the future looked bright and shiny, with so many possibilities. We felt we had an opportunity in our hands that many others would love to have and we wanted to make a success of our lives in our new home country. Before long, we were immersed in our new lives. We were slowly making new friends and getting used to the new traditions and in many ways, a much quieter lifestyle for the four of us.

But the guilt for leaving must have snuck onto the plane with me…

Expat Guilt - Garies Girl

Growing Guilt

All ex-pats leave their birth country with a certain amount of guilt, it is just human. Guilt for leaving. Guilt for abandoning our friends. Guilt for letting our siblings deal with family issues without us. And guilt for taking our kids away from family. What I didn’t expect was for the feelings of guilt to slowly build up and get bigger and heavier. The more things changed back “home”, the more guilt I was feeling. Now, I want to be clear. Nobody back home has ever made me feel guilty about our decision to leave and start over in a new country. Never. This guilt I was carrying around was coming from within. Purely self-manufactured.

I was not feeling anything remotely like it when we first arrived in the USA. The excitement and anticipation of starting a new life were consuming all our time and thoughts, and we thrived on it. Our time was spent with the 1001 tasks that needed to be done when starting over in a new country. However, the more we settled in, the more I started feeling this guilt.

The Most Recent Trip Back Home

On this recent trip back to South Africa, I was able to help my mom and dad with some small tasks that needed to be done at home. They have been in their current home for 28 years and that is a long time in which they accumulated a lot of “stuff”. The dynamics at home have also changed now with my mom’s condition and my dad has more house-related responsibilities than before. Cooking, cleaning and laundry have always been my mom’s responsibility and now, even though she can still help, it has become part of my dad’s to-do lists. Throw in the normal upkeep of a house and it becomes a lot.

My mom and I were able to clean out her closet and donate all the clothing she doesn’t need or that doesn’t fit anymore. This is my favorite type of project and one I do here at my own house and in my own closets very often. My dad was preparing the house for a flooring renovation, and it involved moving some furniture around. So I was able to help with that too. I didn’t cook for them as much as I planned though. We went out or visited my brother and his family for dinner. What I did make was so appreciated and well received. We did a little bit of shopping and my dad was able to go in one direction while my mom and I went in another. For them, shopping is mostly done together now.

While it felt great to help out, even with these little things, I realized how much more I would have been able to do if I was nearby. I understand that as my mom’s disease progresses, things will change even more for the two of them. And I’m aware that I am not qualified to look after her either. But I would have been able to do more. Being in their house and seeing their day-to-day lives has opened my eyes even more.

The Future

What does the future hold? I have no idea at this point. Our kids started their college lives this year – Sidney as a Freshman (1st Year) and Simon as a Sophomore (2nd Year). We have responsibilities towards them. And their lives will be here in the USA. But don’t I have a responsibility towards my parents as well? Isn’t passing that responsibility to my brother and sister-in-law too much to ask? They are doing it gladly and have been for the past 11 years, but they too have kids and responsibilities of their own.

I don’t have any answers – only more questions.

SA May 2022 - Garies Girl

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