Home is where the head is

They say home is where the heart is but what exactly makes a home? And what is the psychology of what happens to those of us who leave our home in the name of love, career or adventure?

I moved back to my native Australia in December begrudgedly but without fuss. I am living in a city I have always loved and which I have always considered suited me better than any other. Yet, my fiance is across the world in a flat we made a home together while I languish in immigration no man’s land.

So I feel like I’ve come home; but I also feel homesick. How does that possibly make sense? I decided to find out.

The adage goes: home is where the heart is, which we all know to be true – but what does that actually mean? What is the psychology of home and how does moving affect it?

Brisbane-based musician Christine Grodd said having moved around a lot as a child, she cherished finding a home and a community that suited her as an adult.

“(Home) is so much more than just a practical thing – a place to put my stuff, a place to sleep, and place to base myself so that I can get to and from work. It means community – a sense of belonging and a sanctuary.

She said living in a creative and dynamic community was paramount.

“I think my sanity or mental health wouldn’t be as dependent on these things for my sense of home and belonging and community, were it not for the fact that I moved from town to town so frequently throughout my childhood. I reckon relocation has had a significant psychological impact on me.”

Environmental psychologist Susan Clayton told The Atlantic that home was part of how we define ourselves – a “public face” – which is why we decorate our houses and take care of our lawns.

So what happens when that extension of ourselves has to move?


Moving stress

New Zealand expat Siobhann McCafferty says home takes time to make, even when you decide to settle in a new place.

“Relocation for me means leaving a piece of your heart in each place you call home. It also makes clear the difference between the places you go to and the places you end up,” she said.

“Ending up somewhere leads to a weird liminal time where there only seems to be inbetweens and bad coffee.”

Sharon Carter says she can move around a lot but home will always be the family farm.

“I’ve moved around a lot but always fall straight into a really good, refreshing sleep as soon as I get to my parents’ (house). I guess it’s the place where I feel most relaxed and least likely to be stressed.”

Relocation researchers Sharman Esarey and Arno Haslberger reckon we travel to a new culture with a set of beliefs and expectations, many of which have to be shattered in order to completely adapt to a new place.

In their transition guide for the Ashridge Business school in the UK, they say the so-called “culture shock” many people experience relocating abroad is, while stressful, also useful for learning.

“We may at first feel confident in approaching the new culture, buoyant about the new prospects and our ability to handle matters but these views will swiftly crash land into local reality,” they wrote.

“Some of these experiences will force upon us the realization that we cannot fully meet the demands of the new environment: Our cultural blueprint isn’t working. We may become stressed or anxious, angry or even depressed.

“This is not all bad. Many experts now say adjustment does not produce solely negative emotions; it is also a catalyst for learning.”

“Adjustment drives enhanced self-understanding and personal growth,” the guide says.

People moving for work find it especially stressful.

Craig Storti in his book The Art of Crossing Cultures outlines some of the skills expats need to work and live overseas.

First, they have to get used the the country itself: its geography, climate and population. Then the people, their behavior, culture, courtesy and language. And then you have to learn how to do your job in a completely different realm. Talk about a tough gig!

“The biggest (challenge) may be getting used to the change from being at the top of your form one moment, during your final months in your previous position, to being all thumbs the next,” Storti wrote.


Taking your home with you

Application developer Barry Saunders says home is not a place but a state of mind.

“Having grown up in the country, then lived in Brisbane, Melbourne, Osaka, Newcastle, and now Sydney, I would say home is wherever my bed and internet connection live. I’d live in a hotel if I could.”

It was opportunity that inspired marketing specialist Kenneally Harder to move from Cairns in Far North Queensland to the capital, Brisbane, then Melbourne and finally to Silicon Valley in California.

He said having friends already spaced out around Australia made it easier for him to move abroad (because they were not concentrated in one town) but that even though he has now spent more time in California than anywhere else, Cairns still speaks of home.

“(Home) in part is ‘where your stuff is’ and part where you’re comfortable,” he said.

“It its truest sense, home will always be the family home in Cairns, where we all get together every Christmas/New Year period. But I call my SF Bay Area life home, because of what it represents today – my life, my stuff.”

Mr Harder says he tries hard to retain links to home such as listening to Australian TV and radio, and maintaining traditions like the Australia Day roast.

“Since I travel back to Australia at least once a year, I’m able to see and feel what I’m missing from both ends.”

“When I saw on one of my trips down under that I was missing things from the US, then I knew I was settled. I think getting a girlfriend was a big proponent.”

ABC iView, check. Partner, check. The next trick, it would seem, is time.

An untreatable disease

In the process of writing this, I have come to a few conclusions: While I’d like to be comfortable, I don’t actually want a home in Melbourne.

I have a home, a man who loves me and a garden of fresh herbs that overlooks the San Francisco Bay. Now I just have to find a way to get there.

Further reading: Carry-on emptor

The rate of repatriation is astonishingly high and the prospects dire for most people who head overseas for work.

Psychology peer review blogger Peter M Forster said research indicated family pressures were one of the main reasons one in four overseas postings fail within a year.

International management researchers J Stewart Black and Hal B Gregersen told BYU webzine that unless they were managed carefully, overseas assignments could damage career and family.

Employees expecting an overseas posting to boost their career chances will probably be disappointed, with many discovering the hard way that being out of sight means being out of mind for promotions.

“About 75 percent of expatriates were told before they left that the assignment was a positive career move and might lead to a promotion. Yet the data for Americans coming home is that around 10 percent get a promotion. Between 60 and 70 percent get a relative demotion, and about 25 percent leave the companies that sent them,” Gregersen was quoted as saying.

Yep, 70 per cent are worse off than when they started and a full quarter quit their jobs. The tough life of the international jetsetter, indeed.

The situation is even worse for women, who tend to weigh more long-term goals like family in their decision.

A study of success factors for women expats found juggling an international posting and a relationship was especially difficult for women. Either their spouse struggled with a support role, or their partnership suffered in a commuter marriage.

“The interviewees with children added that while on foreign assignments childcare was a major concern for them, and one interviewee stressed that unless she was completely satisfied with childcare arrangements she would not take an international management position,” the study says.

“The managers believed that when their male counterparts move internationally they do not have to take the responsibilities for housework and childcare. The interviewees with children also believed that they missed out on family support for childcare, which would have been available to them in their home countries.”

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