Where Do I Belong?

Seaside Florida, adirondack chairs, white picket fence
Snowbirds deal with a range of coping challenges no matter where they are. [ Seaside, Florida, South Walton County]

Where Do I Belong?


Recently I was asked by a reader about coping with the challenges of living in and between two homes and communities. Specifically, regarding the bittersweet emotional process of physically letting go of one set of friends/family, residence and community to move into an entirely different place. And once there, to feel fully engaged and a sense of belonging without longing for one's other "home." To those who have not experienced life as a seasoned snowbird, it may come as a huge surprise that it isn't as easy as simply packing your bags and traveling back and forth from one residence to another without a second thought. It's a series of mixed emotions that can make or break your happiness as a snowbird and make yourself ponder, "Where do I belong?"


Winter Residents vs. Winter Visitors

First, let's address a common alternate term for "snowbird" that is completely inaccurate: "Winter visitor."

Is there anyone who still feels like a "visitor" after spending more than a short time in your warm weather residence? I doubt it. Snowbirds usually consider themselves fully invested in their southern communities on many levels, so a better term is "Winter resident" or "Winter Texan, Floridian, Arizonan," etc.


House vs. Home

There's also a common misuse of the term "house" vs. "home." A "house" is a building or structure used for human habitat. A "home" is a place of emotional connection where one feels comfortable, safe and a sense of belonging.

Before anyone starts judging about "first world problems," let's cut to the point. There's a lot at stake financially, physically, emotionally. Many modern snowbirds are middle class and have worked, sacrificed and saved their entire lives to achieve this goal -- it isn't a lifestyle exclusively for the wealthy.

It's not all that uncommon in today's society to live in two homes. Just as children of divorced parents need to feel "comfortable, safe and a sense of belonging" in each home, so do adults.

It makes no difference if you own or rent your home -- just ask a child. They don't own their home, but they sure know if they feel they are "home." The emotions of one's "home" are the same for everyone, regardless of age, marital status, geographical location, ownership or the size of one's bank account. If you have a lot or a little, recognizing and acknowledging the psychological issues of living in two homes can provide a huge advantage to feeling well adjusted vs. floundering.


Two Homes, Deep Emotions

Snowbirds typically live in two modest homes or one modest home and one rental home, park model, condo or some combination of all of these, anywhere from a few weeks to half of the year or more. Most of the time, all is well and although there is some psychological adjustment, surface feelings are kept in check.

However, many snowbirds don't openly share the deep emotions of living in two communities. To an outsider, it may seem like a carefree life, yet there is a wide range of emotions that fall into several categories. Sometimes I wonder if this is part of some sort of midlife crisis? Based on years of experience, I've identified the most common feelings of living in two homes, along with strategies to bring more balance. By confronting one's emotions, it can be therapeutic. As they say, "What you recognize, you energize."


Transitioning Between Homes

Issues:

--Coping with the emotional struggle of anticipating and letting go when transitioning to/from one home to the other

--Feeling unsure of where "home" actually is, for example, if someone spends half of their time in the south, but feels the north is one's "real home"

Personal Account:

There are snowbirds with a more complicated situation than others. For example, the reader who inspired my post shared that she works part time in her southern community, which is where she and her husband live most of the year. Their son also lived in the south, but moved back north two years later and it’s very hard for her being away from him. She lives in her northern home for two warm months of the year and at Christmas. Her mother visits for two weeks in February. Her husband has absolutely no problem with the transition of having two places, but despite having great friends, she struggles with "Where do I belong?"

Strategies:

Know your triggers. Recognize that there are many emotions interacting and it could be a mix of many different issues. 

Ask yourself: "If I were at my other home right now, would I be missing my present home?" And then answer why or why not. It will likely be a good reality check. You may be forgetting many of the qualities that long ago attracted you to your choices of homes.

Apply the same principles that divorced parents of children living in two homes instill in their kids: acknowledge that the range of emotions you're feeling are normal and not bad. Tell yourself it’s OK to go to the other place, have fun while there and enjoy being at each home. Remind yourself of the different benefits to each place and that although each home is entirely different, everything will probably be OK. You're not going to do things the same way in each home and that’s fine too.

Reevaluate and examine if any changes need to be made? If you're stuck in a rut, it may be time to take steps in a new direction.

Plan a list of goals, projects and objectives for your time in each place. As an example, "While in my southern home, I want to: explore new geographical areas, try new activities and learn a new skill." And "While in my northern home, I want to reconnect with loved ones, take a community class and make some home repairs and upgrades."


Fear of Missing Out

Issues:

--Feeling disconnected, isolated, left out, empty or unsettled, regardless of having friends in both places

--Missing family and loved ones and/or fears of abandonment

anniversary bouquet
Thoughtful gestures such as a flower bouquet help bridge the distance

Personal Account:

We have a senior family member who truly wants to spend time with us in our southern home. To date, primarily due to mobility issues, she has been unable to travel that far. Of course, she is greatly disappointed to be left behind and miss out on time in a warm climate. She worries about who will help her at home with mundane tasks or anything major that might happen. Of course we feel the pressure and guilt of leaving not just her, but everyone else, even though we are away for weeks, not months at a time.

We have snowbird friends who stay months at a time. By the time we join them for the last portion of the season, at times we know we've already missed a lot.

Strategies:

Admit, you and they will miss big and small happenings and things will not be the same, but life will go on. Acceptance is the first stage of coping. 

Remind yourself and those left behind that no place is perfect and the perceptions vs. reality don't always match. As an example, even if our loved one was able to visit us, there would be a whole new set of problems, such as a lack of furniture that would accommodate her mobility issues.

Help your loved ones understand that as much as you might want to, you can't just pick up and return back and forth between your homes for a host of reasons. But you will do your best to communicate regularly and help solve their problems from afar.

Make small changes to stay in contact. If you don't already use video conferencing such as Facetime or Skype, learn how to do it and then make regular contact with loved ones.

Try sharing your emotions with your spouse, closest friends and loved ones if you haven't already. Let them know you are having feelings of abandonment, fears of missing out, feeling stuck/trapped and so forth. Chances are, they feel the same way about your absence and may need to express their feelings as well. Communication is key.

Keep up with your regular online social presence. If you typically stay in contact via Facebook or Instagram, make sure you are checking in regularly to feel connected.

Send care packages. A bouquet of flowers or thoughtful small box of cookies or treats with a letter or note at regular intervals can help you and your loved ones bridge the distance.


Feeling Down

Issues:

--Feelings of depression or being in a funk despite living in a warm weather climate. In other words, "I shouldn't feel this way."

Personal Account:

I have a friend whose husband is not yet retired so she is a solo snowbird four months of the year. Her first season she was so excited to experience beach life she kept very busy. There were many, many groups of friends she hosted who came to visit and she spent time traveling around the region, exploring exciting new cities, such as New Orleans. The following year, my friend's social life slowed down and she realized she was feeling depressed and didn't leave her condo for days at a time, despite being in her beloved

Holiday Isle Florida, snowbird blog, two homes
Periods of bleak winter days affect snowbirds at home or away [Holiday Isle, Florida]
new southern home.

Strategies:

Recognize that you may be prone to feelings of depression or feeling down, regardless of where you live. It may be due to an extended drop in the weather, a lull in activity, being away from loved ones and/or biological.

Make sure you create daily and weekly reasons to get out of bed, dressed and into your environment before you get caught in a quagmire.

Plan more exercise and physical activities, such as a long daily walk. Reach out to a friend or neighbor to make plans. Take care of your health by eating clean and nurture your intellectual side with a good book. Take up a new hobby or expand one you already have to give yourself direction and purpose.


Fear of Change

Issues:

--Fear of change, such as not being able to come back to one's southern home

--Fear that one's friends and loved ones will no longer be there upon return to either place

--Fear that one's northern or southern home will not be the same due to uncontrollable reasons

Personal Account:

I realized I was having mixed feelings about returning to either my southern or northern home after a series of negative events in each place.

The first year, our beloved dog became gravely ill and died within two weeks of arriving in our southern home. After Reilly passed, we felt empty and hollow without her. It was a very tough start to what I anticipated as a very happy chapter in my life. When we returned north without our dog, I felt I had nothing to look forward to -- no plans, no dog, just an empty house. And I do mean house. It took a long time to feel like my home again.

Our fourth season, despite the fact that our northern home was occupied at the time, we had an undetected major flood in the lower level within days of arriving in our southern home. It caused huge stress for my husband and I while away and upon our return we had to deal with the aftermath of repairing and putting our home back together.

Strategies:

Recognize that nothing is static, problems happen regardless of where you are and that life is a series of large and small changes.

Dump the baggage. Admit that just because something horrible happened in the past, it is time to let go of the blame and negative energy to redirect towards the future.

Have a Plan B, C and D. Don't lock yourself into only one trajectory to feel happy in either of your homes. Evaluate and make adjustments if you need to, such as spending less time in one home in favor of the other.


More Strategies

Seek good self-help books on a range of general topics related to the emotions you're experiencing. Libraries are a great place to explore the options before committing to buying anything. If it's a great book, buy it and re-read it as needed.

Find someone who can work with you one-on-one to discuss the issues. It may be a clergy member, professional counselor or a trusted friend.

Look for some sort of support group -- online or a civic or religious community group. Perhaps a group designed for people of a similar age, especially if you are retired or semi-retired.

I have not found much information specifically relating on the topic of the emotional toll for snowbirds of living in two homes. Sharing common concerns has been very therapeutic for me. Those who have never been a snowbird see a different picture from the outside looking in, but it's never as easy as it may seem.

Where do I belong? The answer is complex.

"Home is about love, relationships, community and belonging, we are all searching for home."

-- Erwin Raphael McManus, Author, Futurist, Filmmaker, and Designer



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