“Mummy, I don’t have any friends”.
My 8-year-old daughter sat on the bottom step of the staircase in our big, empty, new house and cried. She had just spent her first day in a new school in Belgium, starting in the middle of the school year when we moved from Jakarta to Brussels. Most of the kids in her class had been together since they started school at age 3.
I knew exactly how she felt. I’d had my own little wobbly moment earlier that day when filling out the paperwork for the school.
Names, address, dates of birth? Easy.
Emergency contact? Not so easy. I had no one to write in that space. And that hit me incredibly hard. My parents-in-law lived 900 kilometers away, other friends lived in Paris or Amsterdam. But in Belgium? I had no-one. Rather than write the contact details for my husband’s new boss, who he had met for the first time 3 days earlier, I left that space blank. In case of emergencies… we were on our own.
Moving is exciting. The prospect of a new city, new friends, new experiences. The opportunity to reinvent yourself, to add another chapter to your story.
It’s also incredibly hard and can feel deeply isolating. Especially for the person who is the (cringey term alert!) ‘trailing spouse’. When partners head off to work and kids go to new schools, it’s often left to one person to figure out exactly how this new life the family is now living looks.
Of course, that varies from country to country, move to move. But I found moving to Belgium harder than Singapore or Jakarta, for example. Don’t get me wrong – the people here are lovely. The friends I have since made are wonderful, warm women who support me as a fellow woman and fellow mother at every turn. But it’s different when you move to a place where most people are not expats, where they have their own extended families and childhood friends to count on.
Sitting on that step, that night, I hugged my daughter and had a little cry too.
“This is the hardest part of any move”, I told her. “We’ve said goodbye to our old life and the people we loved, and we don’t know anything about this life yet, we haven’t met the people who are going to shape this next chapter with us.”
That night on the stairs, in a dark empty house, was over 5 years ago now. Since we found our feet, and our people, our time here has been pretty wonderful. I know I’m incredibly grateful to the people who have become part of my life here, who guided me along the way with advice and tips, thanks to that deep sense of being very alone at the beginning.
Now, we both have plenty of friends. And that has made all the difference.