Moving... with children

Last week, I blogged about the emotional aspects of the moving transition and how to contextualize what is triggered when we move. I mentioned that I would talk more about how to help children transition through a move using context and rituals in a way that is meaningful for them.

We’ve moved twice with our son, Everest. The first move occurred when at two years old when we relocated from Los Angeles to Denver. Given that moving is almost always emotionally challenging for adults and given that Everest is a highly sensitive child, I knew that we had to prepare him as best we could in every way possible. I wanted to impart to him the three-stage context of transitions in a way that would penetrate his little two year old self. I knew that I needed to allow him to grieve and let go of the current life so that we had the best possible chance of him embracing the new life.

As Everest has always been highly verbal and visual, I decided to make him a book that would depict our move. Through one of the online photo resources, I created a book called “Everest on the Move”, which included photos and text that walked him through his current life, showed the house packed up and the movers coming, and then showed photos of his new life in Denver (which we had taken on one of our house-hunting trips). We read the book about a hundred times before we moved and two hundred times once we arrived in Denver.

We also role-modeled for him the appropriate emotions attached to each stage of the move. While packing up, if something triggered my own sadness, I would cry and explain to him that it’s hard to say goodbye to a home and a city. I cried when I said goodbye to dear friends. I cried on the final day when we stood in our empty house, the house that had sheltered us for many years, that held the memory of my husband proposing to me, of getting pregnant, of losing my cat of eighteen years, of birthing our first son.

Cradled inside the grief lived the excitement about the possibilities of our new life, so I talked about that as well. We were thrilled to own a home for the first time, delighted to be leaving the aspects of Los Angeles that instigated the move, and excited to explore a new city. As we packed up together – and included Everest in as much of the packing as possible – my husband and I talked about everything we were looking forward to exploring in our new life. Who knows how much penetrates the psyche of a two year old, but we felt it was important to bring everything into the open to help Everest start to name his internal experience.

Now, I would like to report that all of this preparation paid off and our son glided through the transition smoothly and gracefully, but that wasn’t the case. As often happens with us sensitive types, transitions are the times when we’re most prone to anxiety, confusion, grief, and helplessness. We can’t always work it out in the nice neat linear stages that I present on this blog: i.e. process all of the grief and letting go and anger during stage one so that when we cross over the in-between stage of the liminal we can embrace the new life with excitement and joy. Life is more of a spiral process than a linear one, and transitions don’t always follow these three stages in order.

Everest regressed quite intensely after arriving in Denver. (And so did our highly sensitive cat, by the way, who wouldn’t come out of my bedroom closet for two months except to eat and use her litter box.) Where Everest had been reticent of other children in Los Angeles, now he downright avoided them. He refused to go the park because he was overwhelmed by the kids screaming and running on the play structures. I had to bribe him to go to supermarket with me. Furthermore, he started reacting to my husband in negative ways, often screaming, “NO, DADDY! NO, DADDY!” every time he walked into the room. It was painful for all of us.

The truth is that we were all reeling from this life-altering transition and none of us were handling it very well. And it’s only been in hindsight that I’ve realized that Denver wasn’t, in fact, our new beginning at all, but was an extended liminal zone. About a week after arriving in our new house, I remember sitting on the front steps and realizing that we would be moving to Boulder within two years. (We had initially wanted to be in Boulder but my husband found work in Denver, so we decided to give it a try.) Denver was a vitally important stage in our lives and our transitions, but it wasn’t an easy one. My husband was in a career transition, my son struggled to find his place in our new life, and our marriage endured its darkest time as I confronted some negative areas of myself that needed attention and transformation.

We lived in Denver for a year and nine months. In May 2006, we moved effortlessly to our home in Boulder and from the moment we arrived, everyone blossomed: Everest came out of his social shell, Daev and I re-connected more deeply than ever (and shortly after conceived our second child), and even our kitty was thrilled to run around our land.

Sometimes the liminal, in-between zone lasts a long time. It’s often where we do our deepest and most painful work, and it’s often difficult to see what’s happening when in the midst of it. Based on my life’s work, I was expecting Denver to be the logical third, rebirth stage of our transition. I thought we had adequately grieved the old life and were ready to embrace all that Colorado had to offer us. But we weren’t ready; Denver was an extended second stage of our transition, a sort of holding pattern or purgatory of our marriage, our adjustment into a new career for my husband, and our son’s struggle with the outside world. We had to sit in those difficult places for a long time, painfully watching the jagged rocks of our old life and ways tumble around inside ourselves until finally, when we arrived in Boulder, the new resources and ways of being emerged, as smooth and alive as the stones in the creek that runs through our land.

4 comments to Moving… with children

  • Natalie

    Very interesting post, Sheryl. I’m finding myself drawn to this right now. I learned the vocabulary of the stages of transition when I found your book 3 years ago, so those terms aren’t new to me. What I’m realizing right now is it’s the liminal stage that I may still be in.

    My husband and I moved a year ago back to where we wanted to settle and start our family. Everything felt more “right” than it had in a long time to me. Then, his job situation changed. Dreams died… buying a house, being ready to “throw caution to the wind” and start a family, and putting down some roots. He’s going through his own change as he’s deciding what he’d like to do with his life. It’s been 2 months and progress is slow. Although the death of these dreams stings much less, I’m realizing that I’m still feeling very much in limbo with what lies ahead and what my life is going to shape out to be… just when I was starting to be able to envision it in a clearer manner.

    Thank you for acknowledging that the liminal stage can last for quite some time. I also wonder if for me, it comes and goes in many short bursts. I’ll start to feel comfortable, then off, then comfortable, etc.

  • Thank you, Natalie. The truth is that we’re almost always in the liminal zone, and the great spiritual masters would say that life on earth is one great in-between zone beginning (or ending) with birth and ending (or beginning) with death. I think that these earlier years – 20s, 30s, 40s – are fraught with so many transitions that it can feel challenging to settle into the eddies of life’s currents. In other words, it can feel like we’re always in the middle of the river.

    I think that many people are experiencing an extended liminal right now with the current economic challenges that so many are facing. I’m conceptualizing a blog on this topic in terms of seeing the value in a lay-off or even unemployment, but I think at the core it’s really about making friends with the state of impermanence, which is hard for everyone.

  • Thank you for this Sheryl. Wise words and also interesting similarities in your story and what we are experiencing, too- our daughter is almost 2 and this is an inbetween move before intended destination… We have just now found the place to move into after over a month of searching and I am now collecting photos to use in a little book for our daughter about our upcoming move. That is a great idea! She loves books.
    Wish us luck!
    Warm regards, *Shannon*
    P.S. Thanks for taking the time to view my artwork and your kind words. I was touched.