The Flip Side of Expat Guilt

Eiffel Tower, Paris at dusk

Photo by Catherine Perkins

Guest Post by Barbara Diggs

Lucky is the expat that has no lingering guilt associated with his or her decision to live abroad. But, I think, rare is that expat also.

Maybe you feel a bit guilty about how living abroad will affect your children, or you worry about the feelings of loved ones left behind. You might even have conflicted feelings about preferring another country over your own.

For me, as excited as I was to move to Paris nine years ago, I felt terribly guilty about leaving my mother behind.

At the time of my decision to move, my father had died only sixteen months earlier and my mother was still adjusting to her new life. Even though my brother and sister lived in the same city as she – and I didn’t – I fretted that I was bailing out at a time that she needed me.

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Moreover, I knew that even without the complicating factor of my father’s death, she wouldn’t really understand or appreciate my desire to live in another country. This was a woman who lived (and still lives) five minutes away from where she was born, grew up, married, divorced and married again. Although she’d visited many U.S. states, she had never left the country and nor expressed any desire to, save a vague wish to visit the Caribbean.

I knew she would see my wish to live in Paris as evidence of my so-called “wildness” (she thought me “wild” because I did things like go skiing, parasailing, and make trips down the coast of California alone), and because she’d consider the move to be “wild” and strange, it would worry her.

There was no particular point at which I broke the news to her. I had decided to move to Paris after visiting a friend there on the back end of one of my “wild” ski trips in the French Alps. I was leaning out the windows of my friend’s apartment on rue du Bac, watching ordinary scenes of Parisian life below, when I became gripped with the notion that I had to live in Paris. I didn’t want to be another fly-by-night tourist exclaiming, “I feel like I’m in a movie!” when wandering down Parisian streets. I wanted to have a real relationship with the city.

Still looking out the window, I called my boyfriend (now husband) in New York and said,“Let’s move to Paris,” and he said, “Let’s do it.”

When I returned to the U.S., I was bursting with the news, like a girl in love. My mother heard the news of our decision along with the rest of my family and friends, but other than getting a queer deer-in-the-headlights look on her face when I talked about it, she didn’t say much. She probably didn’t take me seriously since there were few people less equipped to move to Paris than me: I couldn’t speak a word of French, nor was I qualified to practice law in France, and I was too saddled with student loans wait tables or teach English.

It was only when I got a lead on a law job in Paris it dawned on her that I was determined to make the move happen. When I told her about the potential job, a pained expression crossed her face and she wailed: “Can’t you wait until I’m dead?” I shot back: “I have to wait that long? You’re only sixty-five!” But even as I hugged her and told her not to be silly and to think of all the great trips she would take, guilt grabbed my heart and twisted it with both hands.

Fifteen months after I made that fateful call to my boyfriend, he and I moved to Paris. (How we both managed to get jobs is another story.)

A full year later, my mother made her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to see my homebody mother sitting in Parisian café (fanning her hands against the smoke, it’s true), savoring a chausson aux pommes, or gasping with delight upon seeing the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Coeur.

As she visited more and more over the years, I marveled that this woman who had only been on an airplane two or three times before I moved, had grown so comfortable with international travel that once when her plane was diverted to Lyon because of fog in Paris, she hardly turned a hair (while I was freaking out with worry). When she safely arrived in Paris she mused that next time she would like to actually see Lyon.

My husband and I have been living in Paris for over nine years now, and my mother comes over two or three times a year. She walks down Parisian streets and handles basic transactions with an ease that makes me swell with pride.

While I still have rushes of guilt about living abroad, a year or two ago, she said something that assured me that I made the right decision. She was at lunch with a friend and other people she didn’t know very well, when the conversation turned to Paris and London. “It made me feel so good that I’d actually visited these places and was able to join the conversation,” she told me later. “I probably knew Paris better than anyone there!”

I realized then that my expat journey has been a journey for her as well — an enlightening, confidence-building journey in which she has discovered the fun of being “wild,” and the pleasure of having an intimate relationship with a city that most people only dream of.

Isn’t it lucky, then, that I didn’t “wait until she was dead” to move to Paris? Sure, she misses me … but if I hadn’t moved, there are other things she would have missed as well.

Barbara Diggs is a lawyer-turned-freelance writer living in Paris. She blogs about her expat life at International Mama.



How has your family influenced your choices? Click the Comment link below.


  1. A fascinating story, and lovely to hear about your mother’s change-of-heart with regard to the move.

  2. Beautiful Barbara! I wish my family would visit more, and there are definitely waves of the expat blues, but in the end, living abroad adds so much to our lives and subsequently to the lives of our families!

  3. Nice post.

    I think family always has a bit of mixed feelings about our moves here – sadness of course that we are far away, but a bit of pride also that we are willing to take risks and come out successful. Plus, I always have to remind my parents that I live 5.5 hours from them by plane in the US – so whether here or there, I’d probably only see them once a year anyway. But, at least here I get more vacation so I can spend longer with them when I visit that one week. Still, parents will always worry, of course! 🙂

    • Hi Forest, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I like your point about being X hours away by plane anyway — my husband and I are in Central FL right now, about an 8-hour drive from his folks and a 4-hour-plus plane ride to my Mom. I keep trying to tell them if we’re a plane ride away it doesn’t really matter where the plane takes off from. . .

    • Thanks for commenting Forest. That’s a good point about the vacation: when I come home I stay for 2-3 weeks. When I lived in the US, I never stayed for more than 2-3 days. True, I saw her more often, but now we get more quality time…or at least we did before I had kids!

  4. Wonderful post. Europe has a special place in my heart and I truly feel I was meant to live there one day. (I have for a few years at a time in the past) But yes, family guilt is a big factor.

  5. Delphine says:

    Thank you Barbara, you can’t imagine how you’ve been helpful to me. Reading your story I feel more confident now with my decision ; I ve been living in Nice,France for 20 years and I will move to Vancouver , Canada in september with my 3 yrs old daughter, divorced, unemployed, I want to change my life over there where I already have a job waiting for me ! BUT : the guilt is there inside of me , the sadness to think of my mum (and dad) missing both of us , she’s very homebody too and I will translate your story to her , hope she will see things differently and I already imagine her flying over the Ocean and can’t wait to hug us an discover beautiful Canada. Departure the dday will be harsch but it s gonna be ok , it s my life, my decision…
    Merci beaucoup Barbara !

  6. Such a nice article, I think it could be helpful for everyone leaving to live abroad. It just helps you come in terms with your mix of feelings at the moment when you live. I wish I’ve read something like this when I was leaving for France three years ago!

  7. I’m moving to Ireland from the States in a bit less than a year to be with my boyfriend, and going to spend 3 months there in the spring. We decided to live in Ireland because his mother is elderly and his father recently passed away. My mom and I are the closest, dearest friends, and it kills me to think of leaving her behind. my brother lives 45 minutes away, but he and his lovely wife are always so busy, and their relationship just isn’t as close as me and mom. She has never been anything but supportive of me, but I still can’t shake this guilt at leaving her. I was always going to be the one who went on adventures, but it’s still painful. I do get excited at the opportunities for travel that we’ll have together, and she is SO supportive, though also honest that it makes her sad. I think I’m just overwhelmed by these two opposing but equally strong feelings of excitement to be with my honey, and guilt/fear about leaving my mom.

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Katie. I feel your pain, but ultimately you have to live the life that’s best for you. It sounds like your mother understands that — and that’s a good thing.

  8. Very nice post 🙂
    Being 5 days away from leaving my dear, loved parents behind and moving abroad, it definitely makes me think if this is the right move. Your post helped a lot with seeing the whole experience with different eyes. I’m sure my experience will also become something else to my parents, like it gracefully did to your mom. Wish you the best, to you and your family.

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