Adjusting to Home Again (Every Time)

Reposting a piece from 2011 because it is relevant for me and several new colleagues again this week. I hope you find it helpful too!

Yesterday was a "re-entry" day for me. Unpacking bags. Washing clothes. A little grocery shopping. Settling back in at home after 2 1/2 weeks away. Feeling jet-lagged, without even changing time zones.

I travel a lot, so should probably be used to this routine by now, but the challenges of re-adjusting to home still sometimes take me by surprise. The challenges can seem especially sharp when the travel experiences have been as intense and eventful as these past few weeks, which included:

  • a creativity retreat/workshop in North Carolina with 15 new friends and endless new insights,

  • an annual professional conference and board meeting in Colorado with hundreds of old and new friends and colleagues and notebooks full of new ideas, and

  • a relaxing family vacation in the California sun with some time to read, write, and begin to reflect and absorb what I had learned during the previous weeks.

Three very different experiences, in very different places, with very different people and opportunities to escape from my normal day-to-day reality in very different ways. No wonder it was a little tricky to adjust back to real life at home.

Luckily some helpful advice was waiting for me this morning, among the many e-mails that have been piling up in my in-box. The note was from IES Abroad, to the parents of students who, like our daughter, will be returning soon from studying overseas for a semester or two.  The e-mail, and the accompanying list of "10 Re-Entry Challenges", was intended to help us understand what our students might experience when they get home, so we can help them re-adjust to life in the U.S.

As I read through the descriptions of potential challenges (originally compiled by Professor Bruce La Brack, now retired from the University of the Pacific), I realized that they sounded very familiar and relevant. Not only did they remind me of our experience returning to the U.S. 15 years ago, after 3 1/2 years in Europe, but some of them also easily apply to my situation today:

  • a little bit of boredom, after weeks of newness and stimulating experiences,

  • difficulty explaining the experiences to people who "weren't there,"

  • some reverse "homesickness" for the people, places and things I grew accustomed to, even in a few short days in different places.

But it's the final two challenges in this list that stood out most glaringly to me:

#9. Inability to apply new knowledge and skills: "Many returnees are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to apply newly gained social, linguistic, and practical coping skills that appear unnecessary or irrelevant..."

#10. Loss/compartmentalization of experience: "Being home, coupled with the pressures of job, family, and friends, often combine to make returning students worry that somehow they will "lose" the experience, that it will become compartmentalized like souvenirs or photo albums..."

I realized that these two challenges are exactly the ones that concern me most as I adjust to being home, and settling back in to a more normal routine this week.

Whether it's a semester abroad, a 3 1/2 year international assignment, or a 2 1/2 week business/leisure trip, the potential to "lose" the experience, to let the new skills and relationships fade away, is always there. It's humbling to admit how many times I've let that happen to some degree, despite the best intentions.

So, I'll adapt some of Dr. La Brack's advice this week and actively work to maintain some of the contacts I've made with new people, to practice some new skills (especially writing more), and look for ways to remember and build on the hard work and experiences of these past few weeks.

Maybe I'll even be better prepared to offer some useful advice to our daughter when she gets home.

This article first appeared on Ann Marie’s Blog in April, 2011