We’ve talked previously about why we feel “mom guilt” and how we can overcome it. I often find myself battling bouts of mom guilt, and it was pretty intense when I went through the experience of moving with kids. Uprooting my then-2-year-old’s life as he knew it was so hard. So many parents wonder, “How do you move with kids?” That’s why I want to talk to you about helping your child cope with moving.
Our Approach to Moving with a Kid
Recently, I got a new academic job–no easy feat considering the market for academics is, well, less than stellar. While there was much rejoicing over this great new position, it also meant that my whole family would be moving partially across the country–from Atlanta to Pittsburgh!
Taking this position meant that, not only would I be uprooting my family, but I would also be moving with a kid for the first time in his short life. Cue the mom guilt!
In this article, I explain the things we learned about moving with kids and how to help your child (and you!) cope with moving, and all its stress and anxiety.
After all of the learning as we went, my husband and I found four steps for helping your child cope with moving:
- Talk about the move. Create lists and calendars.
- Relieve anticipation and anxiety by involving your child in the moving process and not making promises you can’t keep.
- Provide a sense of normalcy.
- Take time to be present with your child.
Is Uprooting Your Family for a Job Selfish?
Now, there was a lot about this new job that should have counteracted any kind of guilt. First, my job in Atlanta was a limited term appointment. I was literally looking down the barrel of unemployment come August.
Second, getting a job as an English professor is kind of like winning the lottery. Most academics understand that they have to go where the job takes them. My husband and I had a conversation long before he became my husband about how my life (and his) would be shaped by the whims of the job market, so it wasn’t any kind of surprise.
Third, compared to some of the options on the table, Pittsburgh is actually a city we might have chosen on our own. For one, we’re closer to my sisters and parents, which means more quality time with grandparents and cousins for my son! For another, Pittsburgh is a cool city, has lots of places my husband can find work in his chosen profession, and by all accounts, is a really great city to raise kids in.
And yet, MOM GUILT. My brain took all of the positives of this move and turned them into this self-critical statement.
“You’re uprooting your family and forcing them to move away from everything they know and love for a job. Selfish.”
Why Do We Guilt Ourselves as Moms?
I am sure that some of that guilt is tied up in my own childhood experiences. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid due to both of my parents’ jobs. I attended new schools for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, and we moved again before 8th grade.
Some of the guilt, I’m sure, is tied up in feeling like I’m not putting my kid first. This despite knowing that having a good job that fulfills me is just as important as being gainfully employed so my kid can be fed, clothed, and supplied with Legos in the manner in which he is accustomed.
There are certainly enough emotions tied up with moving; adding mom guilt on top of a huge move means second-guessing yourself and adding layers of extra work on top of an already difficult process.
Here are some places where I got stuck in learning how to move with kids and ways we found to work through those issues.
A Whole New Home: Disrupting Your Child’s Life
Moving is disruptive.
Most parents will tell you that our kids are happiest (and easiest to care for) when they have a routine and are in their own spaces.
That’s why so many parents wonder, “How do you tell your kid you are moving?” They know the change will upset their children. But ultimately, we have to just tell them, and then be open to talking about the process and their feelings.
Although moving with kids is different for different children at different ages, the suggestions in this article translate to all ages.
For my then-two-year-old son, the concept of moving from Atlanta to Pittsburgh was fairly abstract. However, telling him that our new house in Pittsburgh would not have a basement playroom was fairly upsetting for him (and for us!).
I am sure for parents with older kids, there is more guilt associated with moving them away from their friends, school, favorite activities, and maybe even family.
For us, Logan was just starting to ask to spend time with his two favorite friends, Jack and David, whose parents are good friends of mine.
Three months after our move, it still kills me a little bit when Logan asks if we can go to Jack’s house to play. Just last night at dinner, he asked if we could go to his favorite indoor playground and I had to tell him that no, that playground was back in Atlanta and too far away to visit.
But even with these setbacks, systems help, and that’s what I’m going to provide you with here.
Step One: Talk About the Move and Create Lists and a Calendar
Three things I found that helped Logan before our big move were
- Talking about it, including what will be the same and what will be different
- Making a list of things that he was excited to do in our new town
- Creating a countdown calendar
These things helped us talk through the move as a family and gave our son a sense of what the move would look like and when it would happen.
Talking about the Move
Discussing the move, and what would be the same and what would be different, is a technique that I straight up stole from the Daniel Tiger.
Check out the “movie” about the Tiger family trip to go stay with Daniel’s grandpere (“Going to See Grandpere.”)
The general advice from Daniel Tiger, which many toddler parents understand in sing-song, is, “When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.”
We knew with a couple of months notice that we were going to be moving to Pittsburgh, so we started talking about it over dinner at night.
“Do you know what we can do in Pittsburgh?” was a fun way to frame these conversations.
Once we knew exactly where we would be living, we added questions like, “Do you know what is great about our new house?”
These conversations are great for helping a child cope with moving because they prepare them mentally for what’s to come.
Making a List
About a month before the move, Logan made a list of the things he wanted to do when we got to Pittsburgh. (Mama helped with the writing part).
Some of the list items came from things we told him about the city (there is a big museum with lots of dinosaurs!).
Others came from things he’d heard about moving up north. (All of our friends in Atlanta seemed to focus on the fact that it snows in Pittsburgh – so much so that I’m pretty sure Logan was expecting snow on the ground when we arrived in August!)
A list of things to do in their new home is a great idea when moving with kids because it gives them something to look forward to. It also helps them feel not only involved in the moving process, but in charge or parts of it.
They cannot control the move, but they can control what’s on the list and hold the parents accountable for making those things happen.
Basically, I wrote a series of numbers on index cards.
Every morning, we would remove the top one so it counted down to the day the moving truck came.
The calendar is a great tool for helping your child cope with moving because they can actively do something as you prepare for the big day.
It also helped Logan have a sense of when the move was getting close. He could physically see the stack getting smaller.
It also helped him feel involved in the preparation. Removing the top index card became one of his “chores.”
Then, we could ask him at different points during the day, “How many days left until the moving truck comes?”
Step Two: Relieve Anticipation and Anxiety
“How can I help my child with moving anxiety?” One way to help your child cope with moving anxiety is by involving them in the move itself.
We started to realize that Logan had some anxiety about the move when he began asking things like, “Mommy, are there monsters in Pittsburgh?”
Relieving the anticipation and anxiety of the move by involving him–and not making any absolute promises about what life would look like once we were there–was incredibly helpful.
My top two tips for helping a child cope with moving anxiety:
- Allow your child to help pack and be involved in the moving process
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Involve Your Child in the Moving Process
Allow your child to help pack and be involved in the moving process.
Logan helped decorate a big box for all of his stuffed animals. We spent an entire day coloring cars, trains, boats, rocket ships, and other modes of travel on the INSIDE of this big box while talking about the trip his stuffed animals would make in the box.
We let him designate his favorite toys that would come with us to our friend’s house and in the car with us by putting them in his suitcase.
My new employer paid for us to hire movers, so we were able to have him watch the start of the moving process. He was excited by the moving truck pulling up to the house and got to look inside when it was empty.
But then he got bored pretty quickly. He was only two, after all.
Not Making Promises
You don’t want to upset your child by having them freak out when you arrive because things aren’t exactly as you told them they would be.
By not making absolute promises, you leave things open enough for your child to accept them as they are.
For example, we knew we wanted to enroll Logan in preschool when we got to Pittsburgh, but we couldn’t promise anything beyond that.
While waiting to hear back about the house we leased, we wanted to show him pictures and tell him about the park that was just down the street. But we didn’t want to change things on him if this house didn’t pan out.
We left things open enough while also giving him the finite opportunity to help us pack. When we arrived, he was able to experience the newness of the place without the anxiety of looking for all the things we’d promised him.
Preparation for Moving with Kids
Before Logan was born, I had moving down to a science. I could pack up a house without a whole lot of thought. And at a certain point, I was prepared to commit to a life of takeout and sleeping on an air mattress. You know, no big deal.
But when you are moving with kids, that timeline suddenly becomes way more complicated.
When do you put toys into boxes?
How can you downsize the pantry when there are some days when he will ONLY eat Goldfish crackers and others when he will ONLY eat Wheat Thins?
I held off for a long time on packing Logan’s toys. First, I focused on my things, family things, cleaning out and getting rid of things we didn’t use.
Packing Kid’s Things Is Hard
Then, I started scoping the toys he rarely plays with.
One evening after he went to bed, I packed up all his wooden puzzles that he hadn’t played with in weeks.
The next morning, while I was making breakfast, I heard him turn to my husband and say “Daddy, I want to play with puzzles.” Of course.
Then there are the even bigger guilt-inducing questions, like when do you pull down the “artwork” that has been hanging on the walls, fridge, and windows for the past year?
Then, how do you deal with the pangs of guilt that comes from tossing that art work??
We were moving to a much smaller house and there just wasn’t space to hold on to stuff we didn’t need. But man, I felt like a monster getting rid of those early crayon scribbles.
Pro-tip: take photos of that delightful preschool art, and then download those photos to your desktop or laptop! Label the file with a name like “Logan’s artwork,” and every time you open it, you are guaranteed to smile.
Plus you save it for posterity. Win/win.
Step Three: Provide A Sense of Normalcy
We were lucky enough to have good friends who were able to host us for the last couple of days of the move.
From the day the moving truck came to the day we took off to make the long- haul drive from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, we were able to stay in a house with beds, a stocked fridge, and plenty of toys!
We were able to provide Logan with some semblance of normalcy right up until we left, which was a huge blessing.
Keep Your Routine and Talk About the Changes
If you don’t have friends and family who can host you in the days leading up to the move, your best bet is to keep the same routine you normally do.
When moving with kids, nap times, meal times, and any other sacred time for your child should stay as much the same as possible.
Talking about what will change can help too, especially in the context of “what’s different and what’s the same.”
After the moving truck takes all the furniture, everyone will sleep on an air mattress (different). But, your little one will still have their favorite jammies and will still read stories with you before bed (the same).
Keeping a few books, toys, and blankets out that your child cannot live without also provides a sense of normalcy and relieves anxiety.
We let Logan choose the books and toys that fit into his suitcase, so he felt like he had a say.
This sense of control is essential for helping a child cope with moving.
Step Four: Take Time to Be Present with Your Child
On any given day, I’m a busy mom. If you’re preparing to move with kids, you probably feel the same way.
I have meetings, classes to teach, papers to grade, presentations to give, and articles to write. Preparing to move means adding a million and one more things to the top of the to-do list.
Time Away Was Inevitable
To make matters worse, I was working until the week before the move in August, and summer is my busy time when it comes to traveling for conferences.
My husband and I made two trips to Pittsburgh to meet with employers and to look for housing, which just added to the guilt for being away. (And that’s not to mention the added guilt for leaning so heavily on my mother-in-law for childcare while being away!).
I also wanted to fit in time to say goodbye to the people (and let’s be honest, to restaurants) that I would miss most when we left town.
These things were important to me. But scheduling lunch, coffee, dinner, drinks with colleagues and friends meant more time away from home.
The days when I was at home, I felt like I was literally snowed under with all of the chores that come with preparing to move.
There were always boxes to pack, clothes to sort, cabinets to clean out, loads of donations to take to Goodwill.
Even when I was home, I rarely felt like I could just stop and be fully present with my son.
Making Time When You Don’t Have It
Then, one afternoon during the height of the move, my husband and I were at our house cleaning, spackling, repainting and doing all those move-out tasks that just have to get done.
My mother-in-law had Logan at our friends’ house, and he fell. He scraped up his hands and knees pretty badly.
By the time I got back from cleaning–filthy, exhausted and wanting a shower more than anything–I found him cuddled in my MIL’s arms on the couch, trembling and sobbing, refusing his Paw Patrol band-aids and any attempts to calm him.
Children Need Help Coping With Moving Emotions
I think the fall actually wasn’t all that bad, but it opened the floodgates for all the other things he was feeling (and maybe not understanding).
He was an absolute wreck.
And I was FLOORED by the amount of guilt that came pouring in.
My baby was hurt and needed me, and I wasn’t there because I was scrubbing out the oven and sweeping out the garage!
WORST MOM EVER!
So I stopped everything.
The next morning, my husband went back to clean the house alone, and I spent the morning with my little guy.
We didn’t do much, at least nothing particularly special. We cuddled on the couch. We ate breakfast together. We read books.
I was lucky that I had a support system that allowed me the time, but it really did help, him and me, to slow down just for a few hours.
Create Space to Cuddle and Talk
I actually took this lesson and used it after we moved, and I highly recommend that.
After Logan fell, I started making a point of having a short time everyday when we cuddle and talk. Most often, this is right before bed. But sometimes, it’s sitting in the hammock in the backyard, or on the front porch while he eats a popsicle.
It only takes a few minutes and a bit of patience, but he’s at an age now where he will start to talk about things that are bothering him if I just give him some unprompted space. Taking the time to listen to your child’s worries and fears can help alleviate them immensely.
I know it’s a busy time when you’re moving, mama. But learn from me and Logan, and take a moment or two every day (schedule it in if you have to!) to be fully present for your child.
Neither of you will wish you hadn’t.
Have Your Own Feelings When Moving with Kids
One of the things I realized when Logan and I started having our cuddle and talk time was that I had been trying to hide from him all of my mixed emotions about moving.
Even though the job was a fantastic opportunity for me, and I really was excited for us all to move to a new city, I was SAD.
Moving is Hard for Adults Too
I lived in Atlanta for 6 years before graduate school and for 4 years after. I have family in Atlanta and a batch of irreplaceable friends, many of whom also have kids around Logan’s age.
The more I let Logan talk about how he was feeling, the more I realized I had been keeping my own feelings bottled up.
Perhaps helping my child cope with moving needed to include showing him that I was coping, as well.
That’s one thing that’s hard about moving with kids–it’s easy to think so much about them that you forget about yourself.
One afternoon, while talking to him about leaving Atlanta, Logan worried out loud that he might get left behind. I told him that no matter what, no one would leave him behind.
I reassured him that, no matter where we lived, no matter what house we were in or where our stuff was, as long as we were with each other, we were home.
Show Your Emotions
And in that moment, I just felt so overwhelmed and sad about all of the people and favorite places that we would be leaving behind. I started to cry.
That goofy little angel patted me on the cheek and said “Its ok Mama. Don’t cry. We’re going to Pittsburgh!”
It occurred to me then that I might be doing him a disservice by not letting him see that I also was apprehensive and sad.
It is one thing to try to affirm his emotions and reassure him that it is okay to be sad or scared or unsure. It is another to show him what a healthy range of emotions looks like in his own parents.
We don’t need to feel guilty about being human beings.
What’s more, we can help our children be better human beings if we give them good examples of what that looks like.
Let them see you have feelings and be prepared to talk through them.
The Upside of Moving with Kids
Once we were finished with the all the stress and anxiety of the move, we were able to enjoy the benefits of moving with a kid. Yep, you heard that right! There are benefits to moving with kids.
Moving with Logan gave us an excuse to be tourists in our new city and really motivated us to get out and do something new every weekend.
We had a good streak of visiting a new playground or park every weekend for the first six weeks or so (which is aided by the sheer number of public parks here in Pittsburgh).
We have only lived here for 3 months, and we’ve already visited the Museum of Natural History, the Zoo, and the local apple orchard.
We’ve participated in local events and spent lots of time at the local library.
The weather is starting to change, and the treat of real foliage is fantastic.
The funny thing about all of it is that sometimes Logan will turn to me and say, “Mama, we have to go to Pittsburgh.”
Baby, we’re already here.
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Rebekah Fitzsimmons, PhD, is Undefining Motherhood’s expert on children’s literature. She has a PhD in English (Children’s Literature) from the University of Florida. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Professional Communication in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Rebekah’s book, Beyond the Blockbuster will be available through the University Press of Mississippi in April. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, mother-in-law, and awesome dog.