People move. The average length of any one job, according to Labor Department statistics, was 3.2 years in 1981. This is unquestionably an age of mobility.
What happens to those of us caught up in this enormous intercontinental transfer of places? Specifically, what happens to the families of executives or Foreign Service officers required to move throughout their careers?
"We were so busy with coming and going," remarks an old friend, "we seemed to lose contact with any sense of central purpose."
"After years of coming and going I went to a grief counselor," writes another. "I felt I had left pieces of myself all over the globe."
A good part of life is an attempt to deal with stress. On psychologist Thomas H. Holmes' Social Readjustment Rating Scale, changes in residence ranks 32nd. If all the categories pertaining to a move by an executive family were checked off, it would total a whopping 383 points. Life Event/Mean Value Business readjustment 39 Change in financial state 38 Change in number of arguments with spouse 35 Change in responsibilities at work 29 Wife begins or stops work 26 Begin or end school 26 Change in living conditions 25 Revision of personal habits 24 Change in work hours or conditions 20 Change in residence 20 Change in schools 20 Change in church activities 19 Change in social activities 18 Change in sleeping habits 16 Change in eating habits 15 Vacation 13 Total Life Change Units 383
Life changes whose year's values add up to 150 or more are termed "life crisis." A basic psychology text will tell you that 79 percent of those with a mean score of 300 or more suffer a change in health or physical illness within the year.
Each of us is familiar with the new arrival to post who stays fearfully home all day and smiles gallantly at cocktails in the evening. As Foreign Service families, we tend to accept change of assignment as normal, a part of ordinary life. We arrive at our destination with the harbored comfort of knowing that whatever we find in this new world, it will not last forever.
We begin planning to leave post some six months before our assignment is finished, and we seem rather good at pushing away vague feelings of loss, which are always present when one parts with a friend, a country and, in fact, a segment of life.
It is regular, we tell each other, to come and go. It is part of the job; it is expected; everyone does it. For lack of ability to explain our apprehensions, we ignore them.
For the mobile officer, change has its compensations: job titles, merit increases, promotions and a sense of being on the inside. It is not the officer who suffers the change so much as it is the spouse and the family. Before a move, the spouse was part of a community, of a job, perhaps, and a circle of friends. After a move, the employe is still part of a community and the spouse is often left alone, linked to nothing.
Constant moving erodes a traditional way of life. Further, the recent liberation of the family from the role of official host leaves the spouse not only emancipated but also isolated. The new spouse, as well as the experienced, well-established one, can feel abandoned.
Robert Seidenberg in his book, Corporate Wives--Corporate Casualties, writes that loneliness for the wife means being left behind in knowledge, participation and influence. It is a separation not only from the husband but also from power, influence and society.
To gain a new perspective on moving as a crisis in one's life, it is appropriate to note that the Chinese word for crisis is the merger of two words, "danger" and "opportunity."
Psychiatrist Dr. John Adams, author of Transitions: Understanding and Managing Personal Change, suggested at a Foreign Service forum that when one becomes submerged in an environment, he adapts to it and emerges with a new response pattern. Being rooted brings a sense of comfort. Where once roots meant familiarity, in today's mobile society we must learn to take our sense of rootedness with us.
This inner direction allows us to maintain our character and judgment as we remain flexible to outward things such as governments, religions, food, politics. Without this firmly grounded inner sense, we are never able to let go of old outward ways and accept new ones. We cannot change.
Facing a new culture is a challenge. The key is in reaching out for the discovery rather than accepting a position as passive receiver. We must make a mental shift from perceiving the newness as an imposition, to perceiving newness as an opportunity for personal growth.
In dealing with relocated families, one notes a sense of anomie and a consequent rigidity and a clinging to the past. Families are typically reluctant to reach out and ask for support. It is humbling to ask for help.
"When I see the very nicely managed lives of my colleagues," whispers a neighbor, "how can I admit that I am having a hard time?"
But to cling to our old patterns is to be deaf and mute to the world around us and to be traumatized by every move.