Wednesday, 18 April 2012

On the move. Or: how to tame the dragon.

We have moved. Again. Yes, I know. And no, I don't want to talk about it. I am beginning to have a reaction to cardboard boxes. When I notice a book missing on the shelf, I begin to panic - is this it again? Are we packing, again?

Antek will be two in May. On his birthday he will have lived in seven flats/houses, in three different countries, on two continents (and two hemispheres). On one hand if I had it my way, we would have our own fridge a long time ago. But on the other - this is my way, no matter what I say, and if I want to be very honest about it, I would not have it any other way. So here, I'm not one to give advice, but I can share what I know about moving around with children of different ages. I can tell you what worked and what didn't for us. And I can tell you that so far it looks like Antek has taken it extremely well - from moving houses, through unpacking boxes to 48 hour flights. 

Moving is stressful. Going away with a small child is not stress-free either, even if you are going for a long-awaited holiday in Sardinia.  Packing is not pleasant, flights even less so, the return home (or setting up a new home) is not the easiest thing we have ever done. But it is part of the journey, like every change, and if we need to do it, we might as well make it a meaningful part of the journey rather than the dreaded bit that will be over soon.

Here are a couple of thoughts. I am putting them all here, some work for some ages, others for other... ;) So this really is a messy write-up of everything I know about dealing with changes, moves, planes and such. The way to tame that dragon.

Talk, explain, and then talk some more

We did this with every trip we took, every new thing that came our way, every change that we expected. From the beginning. We tried to explain what was going to happen, what was happening, and later went over what had happened. It might seem like a lot, but isn't it what we naturally do anyway? Think about it this way: when you are planning to move home (go away, change something) you talk it over with your partner, your friend or whoever is involved. You then continue talking your way through it (do you think this is the right exit? which bus should we take now? do you have the address?). And once all is done, it all needs to be said, it appears, so we pour ourselves a glass of wine and ... well, talk about it. We love to talk :)

Babies and small children tend to be left out of this experience, and maybe they are actually ones who need it most. Talking and explaining what will happen prepares the baby for the unknown. It is a way of taming the experience beforehand - things are not as scary when we can give them a name. We know that about feelings, but I think we also know that about events and things that surround us - once they have a name, they are not strange and unknown anymore. When Antek was smaller, we showed him pictures of trains before we got on a train. We played with airplanes when we were about to leave for New Zealand. We gave names to things and events that were about to happen. And then, once it was actually happening, we repeated what we had said before - and these were no longer unfamiliar strange things it was 'the train we told you about? This is what it really looks like'. And in addition to making it familiar, it was also an adventure - this train we talked about is finally real.

After our big move to NZ on the first evening Antek couldn't sleep (time difference, season difference - any change possible, you name it, we had it :). We talked about the trip, that we just took. We talked about what we did. We remembered funny things that happened on the plane, we laughed and Antek seemed again to calm down a bit more. Now that he is finding his own words, the house we have just moved into is 'our new house'. A lot of rooms got names before we moved - 'You will have your own room for the first time. It will be called "Antek's room"'. When we moved, we showed Antek his room and he looked at us and said: 'Antek's room', and went down for a nap on his new mattress like a charm. Words matter - they give a different meaning to our experience. Something we cannot describe seems much more scary than it may really be.

Add pictures to your words

I don't paint or draw for Antek. This is the only time I make an exception. 

'One picture is worth...', well, you know. Sometimes it is easier to explain when we have an image alongside it. This is what I learned from my wiser friends -  telling a story is one thing, but illustrating it gives a rise to completely new feelings. So in preparing for the trip - take a piece of paper and draw and airplane. Then after you come back, take it out again - do you recognize this one? Remember how we were on one? Some happy or unhappy feelings can emerge in the process, so be prepared. But if they don't emerge, it doesn't mean they are not there, so...

When we came to live in Holland we stayed with a wonderful couple for the first month. When we were about to leave, the lady we were staying with took a piece of paper and made a simple picture of herself, her husband, and their house. 'This is our house. This is where you have been staying. But now you are going to move'. Antek kept this picture, and after a few weeks he still kept taking it out and showing it to us: 'Aunt Aafke' he would say 'she is home'. To tame the dragon you have to know what the dragon looks like.


This one I find really hard to remember about, but also really important. We know the drill - we have done it so mane times, the airports, the buses, passport control, boarding passes. Kids don't. The ones who are doing it for the first time, have no idea what is about to hit them. And rather than pretending like it doesn't matter, and look there is a man with a funny hat, and it will be over soon, we prefer to prepare.

It can be a game - you can go through the steps together, pretend you are at the airport, or getting on the bus. Pretend that a piece of paper is the ticket, explain what happens. Don't underestimate your little one's memory, we found Antek remembered really well what we do on the bus once he played with a 'bus card'. Also - once it is fun at home, it might actually be fun once you get there!

Don't pretend it's not going to happen.

It is. It is going to happen if you tell yourself it won't. But don't sweat about it either. If you have to move - you will move. If you pretend it's not going to happen it might hit you. If you worry too much and are anxious about it - your child will be anxious too. We had to take 6 flights to get from NZ to Poland (the airline cancelled some flights, the changes were awful, there were also delays). The minute I found out what it was going to be I panicked (thank God I didn't know there were also going to be delays...). But then we thought: we have to do it, no matter what. There are no options. So worrying about it is not going to change anything. We will still have to do it. It will be tiring, but we will get there in the end.

That's it.

And we got there. After 48 hours and 6 flights. To a place Antek has not seen before (again...)

If you worry - your child will panic. If it is worrying or scary for you, imagine how scary it is to see your Mum or Dad scared. If it scares them surely it must be something I should be scared of? But if you are scared, you won't fool your little one that you're not. So, as always, take care of your own feelings first. Have a glass of wine. Talk to your husband, or wife. If it has to happen, it has to happen. And it will. And it will be like that dreaded visit to the dentist - in 48 hours it will be over.

So yes, we will move home, get on that plane, have that change in our lives again. But since we have decided, it is what it is, all we can do is do it with grace, patience... and just that last bit of energy :)

Get everyone involved

Let your child see the new home (the plane) at their own pace. If you can - let them touch what they want, and allow as much time as you can. Walk around the plane, tell them what is where. remind them what you talked about before. But also - let them have fun. To the extent that you can allow it - let them chose things, let them have things their own way.

In our new flat in Amsterdam, we were unpacking really slowly for the first time. And we found this was much better, even thought it may have been tiring at times. Rather than getting it over with as something terrible, we played with the moment (until we got sick and tired of dust and went away for two days not worrying about the remaining boxes which I also highly recommend!). We let Antek help put his things together. We let him chose what he wanted where (which was admittedly not what I would have done with his toys, but these were the choices we let him make - again, only to the extent we could live with). He found a pot he liked and decided he wants it in his room, on the shelf. So be it. There is enough stuff we have decided on, if the pot is what it takes - sure it can live in Antek's room :)

It was fun for him, more relaxing for us, but above all - it was a process of becoming familiar with everything. Of taming the dragon.


I don't know if this helps. But if you are going to move with a small child, remember that all they need is you. The house will change, the country will change, the plane will be shaky. But you, the most wonderful Mom and Dad in the world, are still there. And you rock. You have tamed the dragon.