Decorating the house for Halloween stirred up a lot of emotions this year

Last night I broke down. I spilled many tears and sobbed uncontrollably like a young child. The culprit? Homesickness.

It’s been barely 10 months since we moved from Toronto to San Jose, California and I’m exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of homesickness. I didn’t know what that felt like until it happened. I have felt an overwhelming sadness or malaise that can strike at any moment. Yesterday it hit me when I was unpacking our Halloween decorations. I remembered where each spider, skeleton, ghost and ghoul was placed on the porch and in the garden of our home. Now I find myself trying to find a new perch for the scary rat, or a new post to hang the drooping ghost. Are there hooks and nails for the other decorations? Am I allowed to put new nails into the house I am renting? Those questions seem trivial, but they triggered feelings of anxiety and loneliness beyond words.

I looked up articles online (something everyone knows they shouldn’t do but do it anyway) about homesickness and the first results I got were aimed at students who had left home for college or university; kids who didn’t know how to buy groceries, cook a square meal or find their way to a doctor’s office. Those are things I have mastered, not only for myself but also for my kids and husband. The practical aspects of living somewhere new have come easily to me. Finding doctors and dentists, sussing out the grocery stores for all the different foods we like, getting a driver’s licence, navigating the highways and roads, and opening a bank account. Even though I ran into some bureaucratic red tape along the way, everything went smoothly for the most part (Department of Motor Vehicles excluded, but that’s another story!).

What is much more difficult to master are social circles for adults–the very things that aren’t readily available to you, like they are for my kids with school and their sports teams. Breaking into a new community is far from easy. There are neighbours, school parents and hockey parents, but other than sharing a zip code and the same drop off at school or drive to the rink, nobody feels compelled to befriend me. And why should they? The effort must come entirely from me to reach out, make connections and take risks. This can be incredibly intimidating and uncomfortable depending on your personality.

I consider myself an extrovert so I don’t have trouble approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. I credit my time as a radio and television producer for giving me the confidence to ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. But that doesn’t mean the effort I’ve put in has reaped overnight friendships, or people I can call upon to help out when I find myself needing someone to watch the kids when I’m in a pinch.

Most days are spent in solitude doing chores around the house or running errands. I talk to the dog a lot, but he’s not much of a conversationalist.

That makes it easy to fall into bad habits like comparing everything to back home–the food, the public transit (or lack thereof), the weather, the healthcare system, the schools, the homes, the neighbourhoods, the stores. It is very easy to critique and criticize what is different and somehow inadequate or disappointing in comparison. What is more challenging is finding the good in a new home and capitalizing on it.

For me that is hiking in the hills nearby and spotting deer and wild turkeys, or weekend trips to the coast for a day at the beach with a picnic lunch. It’s about having the time–and the luxury–to ride my bike to school every day with my son for drop off and pick up; or the time to try new recipes and cook with fresh produce that’s grown within an hour of where I live. Every place has something different to offer and it’s up to me to explore, discover and enjoy those amazing things.

Not being allowed to work has contributed, in some part, to my homesickness. This is the first time in my adult life that I have not earned a pay cheque, which is very disconcerting. I’m used to being self sufficient. But it’s not only the money that matters. Going into an office every day, feeling that you have a skill that adds value, and interacting with like-minded people are very powerful motivators that make you feel part of a community. In the absence of that, it is easy to feel alone and isolated when you aren’t part of “the hive.”

So I am volunteering at my youngest son’s school with the garden club and at my middle son’s school snack bar twice a month. Both keep me close to my kids, but I can’t say I have formed lifelong friends through these activities. I do go hiking with a fellow Canadian who has become my closest friend since moving here. She and I are kindred spirits, and I am so grateful for her friendship. I’m not sure how I would be making it through this year emotionally without her support. Unfortunately I already know that she is moving back to Canada after this school year, which means our time together is fleeting and as my husband says, I should really try and make more friends.

Back to that article I found online about homesickness–it appears everything that I am feeling is normal for someone feeling homesick and while there is no formal psychological diagnosis for the condition, there are plenty of things the article suggests you can do to combat the feelings of loneliness and longing, many of which I am attempting to do.

I think the biggest challenge for me to overcome is my attitude, which can be a huge barrier to happiness. If I believe I’m going to be unhappy and uncomfortable here, then I probably will be. If I decide I’m going to meet people, make new friends and try new things, then moving here could be a positive experience I can look back on with fond memories.

Yes, there will be moments when I can’t help but feel sad and miss the people I love who are back home, but I also know home can be in more than one place–that’s something I’ve told my kids. So it’s time to ditch the hypocrisy and embrace the new.

 

 

 

2 comments on “What It’s Like to Feel Homesick in your 40’s”

  1. I am so grateful for this post today. Been feeling exactly the same way this weekend. It’s been 7 months since we moved from Toronto and this is my kids’ first halloween away from our home. I already know Christmas is going to be a lot harder. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Very comforting to know that someone else is feeling the exact same thing.

  2. After 3 years I can honestly say it does get easier. I struggled a lot when we moved here as well, with loneliness and depression and homesickness. And even some of the things you mention new college students struggle with, like finding a doctor (I still don’t have a family doctor here) or a favourite grocery store. And of course making friends is never easy, especially as a stay at home mom. Plus everyone has their own lives and I’ve found even when I make friends with someone who genuinely seems to like me, they don’t necessarily have the time for me.

    I definitely found the best relationships have been with other expats.

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