Over the years, Amy became an expert at moving around with her growing family (now a family of 5) whether that was across states in the US or across the world.
She was happy to support her husband as a so-called ‘trailing spouse’. That is until she reached her “midlife Renaissance” and wanted to live the rest of her life in better alignment with her true needs.
The result of this period of deep self-reflection is a woman who was brave enough to uproot her family from an idyllic life in a small German village and move back to her native San Diego.
There’s a lot that resonated with me in Amy’s story – that nagging feeling of not feeling happy despite having everything, having a constant pros and cons list running at the back of my head, trying to discover my true needs and, finally, plucking up all of my courage to move to my passport country, a decision that seemed rational but felt (and proved to be) oh-so-right.
Find out how Amy came to the realization that she needed to move back to the US, despite conflicting feelings, and how the first few months have been for her and her family.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you and where has your expat journey taken you so far?
I grew up in San Diego, California and lived there until five months after I got married in 2005.
We moved to Portland, Oregon, and had our first son. However, the job market was tough so we moved to LA, which I was not excited about. The cost of living there was even tougher as a one income family, so my husband found a job with the government.
A few weeks before we moved to the Washington, D.C. area we had our second son. Life was easier financially and we found a really nice group of friends. But then my husband found a government job that looked interesting for him in South Korea. I agreed to go.
“At first I hated it in Korea because the job was on an ugly Army base. It was a freezing cold and in a totally random little town in the middle of nowhere.”
But as time went on, I made lots of good friends and we grew to love Korea. The people and the food are just amazing.
But Europe was always the dream for both of us. It was something we both had in common: to somehow live in Europe. We had both idealized it as a better, more beautiful place to live.
We had both separately done a lot of traveling to Europe in our late teens and early 20s before we met. So when another government job came up in Germany, it was actually a hard choice to make. We had it so good in Korea but I knew I wouldn’t want to be there forever.
“Plus, this was GERMANY. We HAD to go. There was no way we would pass that opportunity even though it was so hard to leave our Korean life.”
We were in Korea for 2.5 years and moved to Germany in 2015, just as our third and last son turned 1 year old. The older boys were a little bit sad but they were only 3 and 6 years old so it wasn’t much of an issue for them.
We felt free to move them without doing any “damage”. They didn’t protest or have big feelings about it.
As for me, I never really had a career. Rather, I’ve been several things like a concierge, esthetician, and childbirth educator. So it didn’t really matter that I was a “trailing spouse”.
I was able to support my husband in his career. I stayed home with the kids and found stuff for us to do. I made it a priority to find friends and create a community wherever we went.
I have been so lucky to make wonderful friends. Every time we move it’s very hard to leave them.
I’ve been able to find amazing friends here in Germany and even started my own business as a professional organizer for the American community.
It’s been a wonderful life here for our boys who all go to German school. Our village is small and safe and they have lots of friends. Life is very good here.
We built a house and we imagined we could be here forever.
So when did the “should I stay or go?” question come up for you?
I have always struggled with feeling “settled”. Growing up in San Diego, I longed to be in Europe. I had this “inner knowing” that it was better, more beautiful, and the life I should be living.
It was always this feeling that somehow there was a mistake and I was supposed to have been born in Europe. I didn’t feel (or want to be) American.
After we got married we moved around a lot for my husband’s work, but we finally made it to Germany (the main goal of our lives) in 2015 and it felt so good to have achieved that goal.
We knew we would put our kids in German school and did so immediately. I started, as I always do, trying to make friends, get involved in things, and continue learning more German.
In the first years we did as much traveling around as possible with three young kids. I discovered so much about our little village and found many wonderful friends. Life was very good.
“But underneath it all I still had a nagging feeling about “Is this it for me? Is this where we are forever? Are my kids going to grow up and find jobs here?”
Some people would tell me not to worry so much about the future. Anything can happen.
Don’t worry about what the boys will do 15 years from now.
I know I pre-worry too much but my thought process was this: if we stay here and our boys finish school here, they will be prepared for jobs and a life in Germany. What if I need to move on by then? What will the boys do? I think I would feel obligated to stay at that point.
It isn’t fair to them if we raise them here and then suddenly we tell them we’re leaving. I also don’t want to move around the world just as my kids are entering adulthood.
The thought of that really concerned me because I didn’t know if I could live in this little village for the rest of my life.
We could move somewhere else in Germany but where? And now the boys already have friends and feel settled. Even a move within Germany would mean another change.
After two years in Germany we bought a small property and built a house right across from the Kindergarten. It was perfect. We had the perfect house, perfect yard, perfect village life.
The boys could walk themselves to their schools, everything felt so safe, and I had some great friends.
“What a wonderful life! And yet…I still had this underlying discontent. I felt like something is definitely wrong with me that I can’t just be HAPPY and feel good about everything.”
We had everything we needed and we were living the dream.
After thinking about it almost constantly I realized some things: I am a very social person and it really bothered me that I couldn’t communicate on the level I wanted to.
I could function very well in German but I couldn’t have a normal adult conversation. All of my German friends could speak really good English.
I’m a mom who is home most of the time so I didn’t have much opportunity to really learn German with locals. I took classes and did try but of course I could have tried harder.
But it got to the point where I felt so defeated continuing to try. Plus so many locals were speaking a dialect I couldn’t understand at all. It felt hopeless.
After so many parent nights at school, doctor visits, dentist visits, I felt completely inept and clueless. I understood most things but could not communicate my specific needs. I usually had to revert to English and hope they could understand me.
“I want to be involved. I want to participate. I want to be active in my childrens’ schools and in the community. I don’t like just taking a back seat and feeling like a wallflower.”
The other parents in my community probably thought I was super shy and quiet when it’s actually the opposite. Every time there was a vote for who would be the classroom parent representative, I always wanted to do it but knew it would be completely ridiculous because I was the least qualified person in the room. It would have been frustrating for everyone.
About three years ago I started my own business which was really helpful for feeling needed and a bit more autonomous.
I finally had something to do other than be available for my kids. But that was also a slow process and never got as busy as I hoped. It was a nice thing to have but not enough.
So the back and forth struggle in my mind was almost constant.
“I felt like Germany is definitely a better place for the family with cost of living, school, insurance, etc. but I needed something more for myself.”
We considered living in a larger German town or city with more opportunities and expats, but deep inside I knew it would be more of the same issue for me.
I’m 43 and the last few years I have done so much self-reflection.
“I call it my midlife Renaissance. I’ve been able to recognize and name my needs.”
It sounds negative, but I realize that my life is half over. I want to do the most I can with the second half of my life.
The first half was my parent’s rules and ways, then getting married and making compromises, then kids and being 100% devoted to them.
I knew I needed to focus more on myself. There are so many things I want to do for myself that I cannot accomplish in Germany.
When did you realize that it was the right time for change?
In May 2021, I traveled back to San Diego with my boys to visit my parents. Something about the peaceful familiar feeling I had there made an instant switch for me. I knew I was capable of doing anything I wanted.
Somehow I just knew I needed to be home. My real home. Even if I didn’t want it to be my home, the fact is, it is my home.
“I have always had this equal but different list of both sides in my head and somehow this visit tipped the scales just enough. Not 80-20 or 70-30, but more like 55-45.”
I want to focus on my own life now but because I have a family I have to think of them and their needs too. That’s the hardest part.
What I need to do for myself is not necessarily what I would choose or think is best for my family. But that trip to San Diego sealed the deal for me.
I called my husband and told him how I was feeling and thankfully he was supportive, not exactly excited or happy about it, but supportive.
“We started the beginning of a very long list of tasks to complete. And somehow everything fell into place. That doesn’t mean it was easy though.”
We had to do and pay for everything ourselves. There is no company or government helping to ship our stuff.
I told the boys and my oldest was VERY upset and stayed that way. According to him, I was ruining his life. The middle boy was excited about it and then later realized what it really meant and also became very sad and upset.
The youngest had his moments of sadness, but I think mostly because of what he saw in his brothers.
We started telling local friends which was really hard. German locals couldn’t understand. We built a house. It was beautiful. The boys were happy and we had a good life. I knew and agreed with all of that.
But my American friends and other expats could understand the feeling of being split in two and wanting to return to familiarity.
“The truth is that my heart is broken but I’m also excited for the future.”
I’m happy for myself but worried for my boys.
I am devastated to live outside of Europe. I am not a fan of America. Life is so much more expensive and complicated here. In my opinion, life in Germany really is better and a more beautiful life.
I feel selfish for removing my whole family from such a wonderful, idyllic place.
On the other hand it’s SO nice to feel like a functioning adult. I can express anything I need to say without even thinking and people actually understand me.
I can go into a bank or a doctor’s office and not feel like a fool.
“I can work and make money, get involved in things that make me happy, and feel like I really belong because I DO belong.”
I explained to my boys that they have the rest of their lives to make decisions for themselves. They can go back to Germany later if they want.
Maybe I will too. Who knows? But for now, returning home is something I had to do.
This plan started at the beginning of June and as of August 26, 2021 we are all in San Diego.
It was so fast and stressful but we did it that way because waiting too long would have left more time for second guessing and regret. We “ripped off the Band-Aid”.
It does feel good to be here and I look forward to getting really settled in our new lives. I hope it proves to be a good, or at least good enough, decision.
“I have always been a person who constantly wavers, can’t make a decision, regrets everything. But SOMEHOW through all the sadness, anger, craziness, and everything else, I have not wavered in this decision. That’s how I know it’s going to be ok.”
Now that you’re back in San Diego, I can’t miss the opportunity to ask – how has it been?
We are staying in a hotel for quite a while until the house we bought is available to move in. It’s tight for us but it’s working ok and the boys can go in the pool.
When we drive around it’s amazing for my husband and myself to see all of our old places and what has changed or stayed the same. It really feels like home!
The area we live in is so vibrant and active and you can find anything you want.
It’s completely different from the village we lived in where the only businesses that thrive are bakeries and pharmacies. New business ideas don’t make it because it’s too “different”.
But here there is something for everyone and no limit to the creative ideas.
I feel like I can wear whatever I want. It’s California so everyone is very casual and laid back.
The boys started school and no one questioned me when I said my 7-year-old needs to repeat first grade.
In Germany I tried very hard to keep him in Kita one more year because I knew he needed it. The answer was no. He must go because of his age. The parents’ ideas don’t really matter there.
When we moved I figured this was the opportunity to give him that extra year he needs and no one questioned me at all. I’m his mom so I should know. And now he’s loving first grade and I know it’s the best place for him.
“The biggest piece of this is that I can communicate! It feels amazing, like a super power.”
I can get mine and my children’s needs met without struggling, feeling frustrated, and wanting to cry!
I finally feel like a capable mom who can get things done properly.
My oldest son is still struggling and never misses an opportunity to tell me this was a bad idea. But I think he will come around. We’re showing him the best of the area and taking him to skate parks which he loves.
As for me, I feel so good. I’m sure there will be ups and downs because of my issues with America(ns) and the cost of everything and the busy life.
But there are also so many benefits to living here. San Diego is an incredibly gorgeous place and I feel lucky to be from here.
I was able to find a job quickly and I even became the Communications Parent for one of the boy’s classes.
The things I wanted to do in Germany, but couldn’t, are finally coming true in San Diego.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.