Expat guilt. That feeling when, because of the choices that we have made for ourselves and our families, something important happens “at home” and we are not there. Graduations, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays. We try to schedule in the big ones, as much as work and money will allow. Expat life is not always easy.
Our parents sometimes complain they don’t get to see their grandchildren enough. We see pictures of the big family celebrations and know that our children (and us) are missing out on an event that was previously something we wouldn’t miss. Our children are connected to the world, but often not as much to their cousins, or aunts and uncles, or any of the things we grew up believing were important.
Earlier this year I had a colleague whose father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She quit her job and left to go home to spend time with him. She was young, new to being an expat, with no children or partner. But still, in a little piece of my heart, I was envious of the choice she was able to make the decision to repatriate. A choice that my job responsibilities, my career and my financial obligations would never allow me to make.
Expat Guilt often begins to kick in for those of us with ageing parents. They get weaker, slower, more forgetful. They start to lose their mobility, their ability to drive, their ability (or desire) to cook, their capacity for self-care. We worry if they are eating, how they will get to the next doctor’s appointment, are they taking their medication correctly, what happens if they fall. We wonder how quickly they will deteriorate, or what happens next and how quickly will it come. And, looming over all of this is the fact that we are not there. We are somewhere else, a world away, living the expat life.


Expat guilt affects all expats differently.
Often, Expat Guilt comes from the fact that someone else at home, usually a sibling, is doing all the work. They are the ones who are visiting, who are checking the medications, who are driving to doctor’s appointments. For me, it is my brother.
He was the one who arranged autopay for my mother’s bills when she could no longer balance her chequebook. He was the one who was grizzled at when he drove her an hour and a half to see a specialist so that she could be screened for Alzheimer’s. He was the one who drove three hours to be with her when she fell and broke a rib. He was the one who interviewed possible women to come and sit with her. He was the one who researched possible assisted living places to move my mother into when living on her own was no longer viable. All while I was somewhere else, a world away, living the expat life.
I have just returned from a trip to the US to help move my mother into an assisted living centre, a three-hour drive from her home so that she can be closer to my brother. I planned it with my brother so that I could do as much a possible. I spent a week with her visiting doctors and pharmacies to get screening information and to prepare things for the move. I loaded up a truck and moved furniture to get her room ready.
I spent the first days in her room with her, making sure that her confusion was limited and she was as comfortable as possible. I spent hours every day with her, trying to make the transition smooth, while also trying to allow her to build trust in the staff, and comfort with the new routine. I went back to her house and worked as hard as I could to clean and organize things for a woman who has never thrown anything away. I did everything I could but now summer break is over and I am back at work, a world away, living my expat life. And my brother is there, every day, to do what needs to be done.
It’s hard, fighting that feeling that you need to be two places at once. Trying to explain it to family members who will never understand why you live abroad. Trying to justify why you decided to live abroad. Orientation and onboarding programs don’t prepare you for this. However, we have to make adult expat decisions.
We have chosen to live away from our home countries for many reasons that affect us and our families. With any decisions, there are positives and challenges. In these situations we have to work harder, we have to work differently, we have to strive hard to have an impact both from a distance and face to face. We have to accept that we decided to live someplace else, a world away, as an expat, and all the things, both good and bad, are part and parcel of that life.

Derek Nelson is a US expat who has worked in international education for 25 years. He has lived and worked in the Philippines, China, Indonesia, NZ, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.