Not just for today…keys to maintaining community
“The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water and food.” Dean Ornish, Founder, Preventive Medicine Research Institute
For many of us in the Family Network, our fondest memories are those shared with other transplants in a country and culture quite different from our own. Some have surmised we are drawn together by a shared incompetence in our new culture, and as such, we forge bonds to help each other. Others believe that in the absence of family and familiar community we share experiences, holidays and even mundane days with others longing for a sense of belonging. Likely it’s a bit of both.
In the case of most global families, however, change is inevitable and we grow accustomed to goodbyes.
So how do we, as global transplants, expats, or trailing spouses not just create but maintain bonds of community?
I recently had the good fortune of speaking with two veterans of global life on how they have created, maintained and benefited from community. I think their words say it best, so I will introduce you to Heather (who I met in Jakarta) and Ewelina (who I met in DC at WBGFN) and let their words tell the story. Our collective hope is you take away nuggets of wisdom to apply to your own experience, reminisce about fond experiences in the past, cherish the present and look for ways to remain connected through the years.
Heather Tomlinson, PhD, Developmental Psychology
The other day a message popped up on my screen from the "Playdates for Real" group and my daughter asked, "Mom, what's that?" I laughed and said that it was message from one of Jakarta friends on a WhatsApp group chat. She asked what was up with the group chat name, a reasonable question since my kids are ages 14, 14, and 15. I explained that it was my effort when they were little to get the adults to stop co-opting my play group organizational thread for their own socializing, a fruitless goal.
The first group I started for the parents, called "Beasties," was designed to set up playdates in Jakarta, the scrubby, fabulous metropolis where my kids grew up. We lived there for 8 years, from 2010 to 2018; my littlest ones were 1 when we arrived and my oldest was 3. In addition to practically crying with gratitude to have a housekeeper and a nanny, I was desperately in need of friends--for myself and my always-moving toddlers. I think the Beasties group started when they were a little older than that, when I realized the joy of WhatsApp, a free app for roving expats like myself that could keep us connected regardless of city traffic as well as the oceans between us when a family was traveling.
Originally on the group were only the "trailing spouses" like myself who waited patiently and perhaps impatiently for our World Bank spouses to stop working, traveling and attending work dinners to take the kids for a blissful hour or four. But soon, as the moms and dads in the group chat started having fun together in person and through the group chat, the office-bound spouses started asking to join the group. We gladly welcomed them in to share the birthday wishes, inside jokes, dinner party plans and occasional tough news about, say, an elderly parent back home. It become a much-needed source of laughs and supports for us adults.
Yet we still needed a group to literally make playdate plans: Can Finn come over after school today? Would you all like to meet at the club to swim on Saturday? Can I send a lemon cake? Does anyone have a costume I can borrow for U.N. Day at school? So I created a second group called Playdates for Real, to manage the logistics, in theory.
Lo and behold, it too got co-opted by the full set of parents. Now my family is Stateside and several years on from planning playdates, but the parents can't give up the group. We use it on a regular basis, to share photos of our now gangly kids, to send birthday wishes, and deliver family news of accomplishments, losses, moves and more. Logistics still come into the picture; the group allows us to set up dinner gatherings here in DC, make layover arrangements to see friends living in Doha, or know when a friend now based in Cairo is planning to be in DC for Spring Meetings...so we can have our own, adult-style playdates over a plate of antipasti and a glass of wine.
Through the group, our kids have stayed friends too, even though they now go to different schools in different states--Maryland, DC, and Virginia--yet we still get together for birthdays and dinner parties. Of course, now the kids have set up their own chat groups sans parents, those little beasties.
I’m so grateful for the group. Another reason it’s important is for the shared history from childhood. It’s nice to know you didn’t just imagine eating boiled eggs on a volcano or having a gibbon drop sticks on your back during a hike.
- Heather repatriated with her family to the US in 2019, and currently serves on the ECD Pakistan Team.
I lived in the US for seven years (2014-2021). Looking back, it was one of the best periods in my life. My son was born there, and despite challenging beginnings, we fell in love with the green DC area and the wonderful people we met there.
I was the lucky one who knew about the Family Network right from the beginning and joined a Welcoming Info Session only two weeks after arrival in DC! At first, I took time to settle in and take care of my newborn baby, but WBGFN was always in the back of my mind. When my son started preschool, I had more time to get involved and started volunteering with WBGFN’s Social media Team and MMEG, where I became the co-Chair of the Annual Arts & Crafts Fair.
Since 2019 I have been working as a WBGFN’s Communications Team lead. Together with a wonderful team of colleagues and volunteers, I define and implement WBGFN Communications strategy. My work involves everything seen and heard in the organization, from the website to posts about events and activities our members follow on the social media platforms.
How has the move to Vienna been?
Challenging! It happened in the midst of the pandemic and added an extra layer of uncertainty to this unprecedented situation. I truly realized the impact of that decision once my husband signed the new contract. We didn't realize to which extent DC became home, and it was heartbreaking for both of us to close this chapter of our lives and say goodbye to our US-based friends.
Due to the geographical distance, I have been working in full virtual mode since I had relocated to Vienna, whereas other team members transitioned to the hybrid with a few days of in-person work at the office. I miss a lot the atmosphere of the WBGFN’s DC office, our little beehive when there is always something going on. (Welcoming new members, volunteers working on a new project etc). At the same time, discovering the WW aspect of WBGFN gives me a better understanding of challenges faced by our community. It is very eye-opening and useful for my work.
WBGFN is an amazing network, where individuals often share similar stories, challenges, and joys. We instantly feel understood and supported when we join this community. For me, it’s a harbor of stability in a changing and uncertain world. Another great thing about the Family Network is that your next relocation may bring you closer to the people you already know! To my biggest surprise, some of the members I had previously met in DC were moving to Vienna at the same time as us. What a reassuring feeling to know that we can face this important change with friends at our side!
When it comes to distance relationships, technology is priceless. We are “only” a WhatsApp message or zoom meeting away from our friends. However, we also need to reconnect in person when possible and spend quality time with those we see now less often. That is why, last summer, we decided to make a small US Tour to see people and places we love. It was an unforgettable experience for all three of.
Forming and maintaining community is vital. Although, international moves add a layer of complication, there are many ways to keep the bonds of friendship close over the miles and years.
- Ewelina moved to Vienna in 2021, and remains the Communications Team lead for WBGFN
The WBFN offers many interest groups - Book groups, Creative Kitchen, Fiber Arts- some that have run for years and still welcome new members. These provide a forum for shared interests which is another important aspect of continuing and deepening friendship. Many of these are available in person and now online for those not located in DC.
How can you work to create and continue community where you are right now? It may be as simple as a What’s App group, volunteering for WBFN or getting a group of like minded friends to volunteer for another cause, joining or starting a book club ir other interest group.
I found these last two quotes fitting summaries-
“The key to a happy life, it seems, is the good life: a life with sustained relationships, challenging work and connections to community.” Paul Bloom, University of Toronto & Yale
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have found the answer is community.” Dorothy Day