esther calling

‘We Moved Away From Family During the Pandemic. Now I Miss That Support.’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voicemail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

We moved about two years ago. My family and his both live in Mexico, so we don’t really have any family here. They’re all back home. After two years of living here, it feels to me like I don’t belong anywhere. When I go back home, I kind of feel like I don’t belong anymore. But when I’m here, it feels the same. I don’t really have close friends. I don’t have any family. I’m a stay at home mom, so it’s really hard to meet new people. It just feels like I’m stuck in this no man’s land and I can’t seem to make a home here. And then when I go back to Mexico, it also just doesn’t fit anymore. 

The Phone Call

Esther Perel: All I know is that you are here for the past two years, that you have arrived from Mexico and that it’s been a very challenging transition.

Caller: Very, yes.

Esther: Tell me more.

Caller: I have two very young children. One is 4 years old, the other one is one. One was born back home and the other was born here a year ago. We moved mid-pandemic, which was strange, so it was hard leaving all our family behind, but we really wanted a chance to grow as a family and not have the rest of the extended family in our lives so much.

Esther: That was a mutual wish?

Caller: Yes, because we both have really big families back home. We’re both from Jewish families, so those can be really overbearing. There’s a lot of love there, but there’s also a lot of control, a lot of over-involvement, and we wanted to let ourselves as a family grow with our own values and our own mentality. We wanted to just be by ourselves for a while.

Esther: Are you the first children in your families to do so? 

Caller: We’re both the youngest from our families, we’re both the first to do this, and our families were not happy with the decision. Each year that we decide to stay, the angrier both our families get because they’re like, “Why are you there?” It’s a choice. If my husband had to work here, it would be one thing, but he has freedom to work back home. So each year it gets more challenging to explain that to them and say, “Look, I know what we’re doing is maybe harder, but our kids are getting opportunities they wouldn’t get back home. Things I didn’t get back home.” I had a lot of love, a lot of family, a lot of friends, but I didn’t have a lot of freedom. I couldn’t walk to school. I couldn’t go to the playground. I didn’t know any kids that weren’t Jewish. And the same thing happened with my husband. We decided that we wanted our kids to, at least from the early years, be able to look at the world from a broader place.

Esther: So, is it accurate for me to understand that you chose to transition from an extended-family model to a nuclear-family model just as you were having two very little children? At the time when you need the extended family the most is when you decided that you wanted to try a little bit more independence?

Caller: Yes, exactly. That’s what we did.

Esther: Do we see the paradox?

Caller: Yes, we do.

Esther: So, you both appreciated the presence and the love and the support of a very tight-knit community and extended family, but you also both felt slightly choking and you aspired to have greater freedom and independence as a couple together. Did you find that? I understood for the children, but for the two of you, have you found the freedom, the choices, the personal expressions that you felt were not part of your life in Mexico?

Caller: For sure, because we had to be a team here. Back home, I took care of the kids. He went to work. I had help back home — a lot of help. I had help in my house, with my family. And then, at the end of the day, we would like, okay, we would meet halfway. But here I think it’s been really good for us because we are each other’s friends, we’re each other’s company, especially at the beginning when we had really, really had no one here. We ended up being each other’s best friends, let’s say. We always had a really good relationship and communication, but this has taken it to a very intimate level that I wouldn’t have gotten back home because there are too many distractions. But it’s also been really hard, at least for me, having to only lean on one person for everything. Whereas back home you have different people to lean on for different things. I think that’s been a big challenge.

Esther: Tell me — I’m gonna go back first: How have you changed as a woman? As a mother who is experiencing the first years of motherhood away from all the role models of mothers? 

Caller: Being a mother really didn’t change much coming here. I’m pretty much the same person I was back there. I think, as a woman, I really lost my way. I don’t know if it’s because I’m so far from home or because I became a mother — I kind of lost track of my own path, and it’s really hard to regain one when you’re so far away from what you know. But while I’ve been here, because I have so little help, I’ve been really into my maternal role, so all the rest I kind of sacrificed for now, like I said. It’s a couple of years when they really need you and then, after that, I’ll see what I wanna do with my life.

Esther: Did you used to work in Mexico?

Caller: No, I used to study metal-smithing back in Mexico and here too. I tried to start my own jewelry company back in Mexico before I moved, where I did everything myself. I can’t even say company, it was literally something I did from start to finish. A couple of months in, we moved to the city and it was mid-pandemic. Obviously it’s really hard, especially if you don’t know anyone. This was when I only had one child, and he was starting school, so I had a little more time. So I reached out to a couple of boutiques — you know, I really tried to start this, but it was really, really difficult to even get an answer in the city. They didn’t answer your calls, they didn’t answer your emails. To sell online was very hard for me because I make everything by hand. It was not an option. And with all the overwhelmingness of being a mother I was — in Spanish you say “tire la toalla.” I don’t know if there’s something like that in English, but I was like, No, that’s it. This is not worth it. It’s taking too much of my time. It’s stressing me and I’m not even getting anything out of it. So I let it go and that was my one thing that I was passionate about for myself. Ever since I dropped that, I’ve been really, really lost. I’m in a good place with my partner and I’m in a good place with my kids, but I’m completely lost within myself. I don’t even know where to start.

Esther: Well, that’s where we’re gonna start. I wanna hear just a little bit about when you say “I’m in a good place with my partner and I’m in a good place with my children,” because those are pillars that we are going to be resting on as we try to retrieve the woman that is behind the wife, that is behind the mother. Something happened and you’re not sure what happened to you.

Caller: Yeah, that.

Esther: Because you came from a very close system where there was a ton of involvement of people, and then suddenly you were projected into the extreme opposite where — it’s not just that you have freedom — but where, if nobody answers your emails and you can’t connect with anyone, then this freedom becomes isolation, loneliness, silence, and you are thinking, Whatever happened to me? I was a social person. I had a passion. I created, I learned. 

Caller: Exactly.

Esther: And it started postpartum or it started separately?

Caller: I think it’s always been there, even before I even got married, because I never really had like a job. I went from graduating from the university and I got married. I had some internships, I had some stuff I liked, but I never really had like something that I was working towards. And then obviously I had really bad postpartum depression with my first kid.

Esther: You say, obviously like it’s obvious or like I should know it? 

Caller: No, no, I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve always been a very anxious person. I tend to get panic attacks and I’ve been in therapy for, I don’t know, 15 years. I wasn’t surprised that I had it. So after I had my first kid, things got really bad. I was really sad, but no one really knew, because I’ve always been a really good mother. That kind of postpartum depression that no one knows you have. It’s not like I couldn’t get out of bed. I was fine. I was out and about, but I was really unhappy.

Esther: It’s important for us to understand: Is this only child one and happening in the midst of your multi-distraction life in Mexico? So if you were lost, other people could always find you? If you didn’t know what to do, other people could always suggest, let’s go do X, Y, Z? 

Caller: Correct.

Esther: I think what I’m hearing from you is: second time came a postpartum again, but there was not enough distraction to take you out of yourself. It’s not about just, I’ve been anxious my whole life. I mean, you’re saying this with a semi smile, but these are very …

Caller: I know, but because I’m really open about it, so to me it’s normal.

Esther: How are you right now?

Caller: Like in this moment that I’m talking to you?

Esther: Yes. In this moment here. 

Caller: I’m wound up. I don’t know. I think I need to breathe.

Esther: Okay, let’s do that together. Let’s put our feet on the ground

Caller: Yes.

Esther: So we breathe in and then we take another sip, and then we’re gonna breathe out in eight. One more. Let’s breathe in. Take another sip, fill yourself up and ground the feet. And then eight even more down. Yes, you can close your eyes.

And this anxiety, where in your body is it mostly? Is there a particular place? 

Caller: When I get like that? In my shoulders.

Esther: Shall we roll them a bit? Just loosen them up. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: So what happened the second time? And how did you get out of it the first time? 

Caller: I stopped breastfeeding. That was a game changer for me, because I had a really hard time with it. Like it didn’t come naturally. He was never full. He was losing weight. It was like a nightmare. As soon as I made the decision, which was really hard, I felt really guilty at the time. Once I stopped breastfeeding, everything started to change. I had a lot more help. My husband would help me feed him and I could sleep better.

Esther: How many months? 

Caller: Three months. Also, I started to regain my body. I could feel my body was mine again. That was really hard for me — I didn’t like sharing my body. My friends tell me “It’s the most beautiful thing,” and it is beautiful, but it’s also a lot.

Esther: And then what happened? What allowed you to make this very major decision and to actually realize that it may even be a generous act.

Caller: Honestly, I should have done it for myself. I didn’t. I did it for medical reasons for my son. Last time before I stopped breastfeeding that I went to the doctor, he told me“ if you wanna keep breastfeeding, you can keep breastfeeding. But he has to start taking a bottle every time after he breastfeeds.”

Esther: Because he’s malnourished? 

Caller: He was malnourished, exactly. He wasn’t gaining weight. They even did blood tests and everything. So I was like, Okay, this is no longer even about my health, and if I’m not even gonna look at my own health, I’m gonna worry about his. And I didn’t even stop there. After that, I kept giving him a bottle, and I kept pumping, which was horrible in itself. It was a nightmare. And that lasted for maybe another month where I kept pumping. And then I was like, enough.

Esther: And when you stopped, your baby was fed. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: He stopped crying, you stopped feeling terrible that you couldn’t feed him, and a different bond began to grow between the two of you and the postpartum lifted.

Caller: For sure.

Esther: And the second time?

Caller: The second time, I held on less for breastfeeding. I didn’t have postpartum depression. I had baby blues, I think — nowhere as near as bad as the first time. I breastfed for two months. But not even that well, like only — I don’t know the word. Like I wasn’t like super strict about it.

Esther: Charged.

Caller: It was like, it’s fine. I’ll do whatever it needs to be done. If I have to stop, I have to stop. And I had a little guilt — not like the first time around when I stopped breastfeeding — but nonetheless, I did feel a little guilt a second time around. But this time, even though my depression wasn’t as hard, I was lonelier than the first time because everyone came when the baby was born: My family and my husband’s family, my mother came and stayed for a month, which was wonderful, honestly. It was really, really nice to have everyone. But when everyone left, it was super hard.

Esther: You didn’t have the mommy blues but you had the woman blues.

Caller: Exactly.

Esther: And now comes the question of who are the people in your life here with whom you can create what you came to do here? Which was to create a family of choice. You have the family of origin, which you’re very tight with, but which you felt you wanted to emancipate from and in a way, this was a migration of emancipation for both of you. What have you done together and apart towards this greater sense of emancipation? Differentiation from your family, from your culture, from your community. The goal was not to leave it, to reject it — you are very connected to it — but you wanted more.

Caller: The first weird thing we did was put our older son in non-religious school. He knows kids from different types of religions, ethnicities, some have same gender parents. Within his class of 10 kids, everyone comes from different places, has different stories, which to me is great for a three and a four year old.

Esther: He gets to meet children with all kinds of different backgrounds and stories, nationalities, language, relationship configurations. Do you get through him — where are all the parents?

Caller: Where are all the parents? That’s the thing that’s been challenging in this city, to be honest. It’s really hard to connect and we came during COVID, so we didn’t see the parents. We would drop off the kids downstairs, I never saw anyone. I never even saw the kids until like a long time after. Just now, two years in, we’ve made maybe two really good couple friends from our kids’ school, and that’s been nice. I love it, but, like you said, I don’t have a mother here — not a mother per se, but a motherly figure. I don’t have that closeness with anyone except for my husband, and I feel like it’s a very big load on him and on myself. I don’t want him to be my mother, my sister, my best friend, and that’s what’s happened during these two years. That’s what’s brought us closer together. But that’s also been, to me, unacceptable. I need to have more really close people, and it’s very hard to do it. Even the mommy and me classes from around where I live — they’re all nannies. You know what I mean? I go to the playgrounds, I really do try to connect, but it’s really hard. That’s the other thing: I find that even though I like my son to look at other cultures, I don’t feel like I quite fit into the American culture. My real close friends are other immigrants. They’re not American, they’re from other places in the world.

Esther: I can relate. When I arrived, I met many foreigners from all over the world before I met any people born in the United States. But that connection between other people who are going on a parallel journey is actually very meaningful because you may come from very, very different places, but you often encounter some of the same challenges about entering this particular society, this particular city. The people that you have met, does the circle widen as you meet one, you meet their two people who meet their four people, et cetera? Is that happening?

Caller: Not really to be honest. We’re friends with those people, but it doesn’t really go deeper than that. They’re also really busy parents. Most of these women that are my friends work full-time, which I admire so much. I don’t know how they do that. So they’re not even in the same rhythm as I am.

Esther: The friends you make in the first year or two or three when you arrive in a new city or country are not necessarily the people with whom you’re gonna live the future. Sometimes out of ten, you stay in touch with one, but one introduces you to two to three, and then suddenly another one arrives and that becomes the person with whom you connect, with whom you start to share a slice of life and the others kind of dissipate. So that’s the first thing: It’s not about I’m meeting and examining everyone by will you be my next best friend? At first, you don’t make necessarily best friends. You create a social carpet, you create a network of people that you can share activities with. but they don’t have to become deep bonds yet. Sometimes you just invite two, three people to your home and you just say “I work less than you at this moment, let me take care of this.” And you don’t expect them to invite you back because they’re too busy to be able to reciprocate. You say, “I’m happy to be the headquarters where we gather.” Sometimes you say to each of them, “why don’t you bring somebody that you really like and you think I should know?”

Caller: That’s an easy idea.

Esther: You’re so not alone in this situation. They’re all over — the depleted mothers that have arrived and are raising their young children and are on their own. They don’t even have to come from another country, for that matter. This is a conversation that, if it’s done with others, in and of itself, it already changes the reality. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: So that’s one very low risk. It’s all about low risk. Right? At this moment. Then sometimes you just go alone with them and you have the children stay together so that the kids can make friendships with each other, if they click. You don’t have to just relate couple with couple, it can be all kinds of subsystems, mini configurations, you know? 

Then I do think you can ask the people back home “who’s here?” There are some communities right here that are heavily Latin and Jewish and progressive and trying to discover a new world. Just go and attend. Go on a Friday night on a Shabbat and see what happens there, if it speaks to you. Become a little bit anthropologist together. Let’s go discover. Maybe every week we go to one thing that is not familiar to us and we see. You know what we like, what speaks to us, because in some way, you know the life you have left and you don’t yet know the life that you can have. You’re in a liminal space between what is no more and what is not yet.

But the shift you wanna make, and I’ll leave you with that, is that you experience the unknown at this moment, the future or the world that is here, where you don’t feel familiar. You still experience it with great anxiety and trepidation, and I would like to invite you to experience it with anticipation and curiosity. That’s why you came — because you were curious. What else is out there? What other lives exist? What is the world that is larger than the one I grew up in? When you go and you become sad and lonely and depressed, you lose touch with the curious one that’s inside of you, with the exploratory part of you, with the part of you that is hungry for discovery — the part of the two of you for that matter. And every time you will come to your husband and say, there’s something I wanna try, you will bring a tremendous amount of energy to your lives together and to your relationship and that will change your whole migration story.

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