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How a Percolating Idea Became Reality: Marty Whalen on Moving to New Zealand

Some ideas hit like a firecracker, loud and dramatic, but already fading away into smoke as soon as it hits. Other ideas percolate, festering inside you, biding their time to slowly swell into something substantial as they gradually chip away at every little resistance in their path.

This is the story of a percolating idea that was made into reality.

On December 31, 2022, my family and I stepped off a plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, to begin a new life. After 30+ hours of travel with no real sleep, not to mention the substantial sustained buildup of emotional and physical stress and exhaustion from the prior months, it was hard to even comprehend what was happening right then. But we had made it.

Family Selfie with Shipping Pallet

We had left America and moved to New Zealand.

The spark of the idea originated all the way back in November 2016. A certain presidential election had just happened, and in response to the morose “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” feeling, I had started doom scrolling googling how to move to somewhere—anywhere—else.

But 2016 just wasn’t the time for such things. I was in my first semester of law school, which had been a whole decade-long journey just to get to and was something I was extremely loath to give up now that I was finally here. My now-husband and I weren’t married yet, or even living together. It simply wasn’t the time to take on such ambitions.

And/or there were still a fair number of delusions along the lines of, well how bad can it really be… (spoiler alert from the future: much worse than previously anticipated).

Fast forward to January 2021. My husband and I had been married since 2017. I graduated law school in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic had been happening for almost a year, and there had been a not-insignificant shift in our perception of the family unit from the lock downs and isolating and remote school and work. The pandemic had also forced us to actually reflect on things like how incredibly draining commuting to work and constantly running kids to all the extracurricular activities really was and how stressed and exhausted everyone had been for so long from just keeping up with the daily grind. Everyday felt like “a long day,” without any break or stop in sight. Until the pandemic hit.

And outside of the pandemic, the past four years had been filled with… a lot of mostly not great other stuff. The idea of leaving the US had come up intermittently from time to time, usually in response to yet another headline event yet again inspiring the “I don’t want to live on this planet [or at least country] anymore” sentiment.

Then January 6, 2021, arrived. And in the aftermath, my husband and I came to the swift yet very definite conclusion that, if we were going to do it, now was time to GTFO leave.

So that was when the vague googling of things like “how to move to Canada” switched to a much more purposeful research project (and a plethora of cataloguing google docs) sorting out where we could go and how we could get there. I valiantly took on the painstakingly dull tasks that law school had prepared me for, like actually reading significant portions of the rather lengthy immigration manuals for various countries.

Littleton Harbour in New Zealand

Eventually we settled on New Zealand as the country to move to, despite the fact that we had never been there. But it looked so good on paper! And it spoke English, which my shamefully poor high school Spanish skills greatly appreciated. Plus New Zealand has really excellent family visa options if you do a PhD program, where dependent children receive student visas to attend the state schools as domestic students (aka for free) and partners are granted an open work visa to work for any employer.

And I had always wanted a PhD!

When I suggested such a venture mere moments after graduating law school, my husband made ridiculous suggestions like, how about you use that law degree you just got and... be a lawyer?? (I know, sometimes men can be very unreasonable.) But here was the solution to the immigration catch-22: you can’t get a job without having a visa and you can’t get a visa without a having job. The partner work visa of a PhD student removed the link between getting a visa and getting a job for my husband, and I felt rather smug with myself for having solved that particular dilemma.

Unfortunately, there was a little flaw to this brilliant plan. New Zealand had closed its borders from the pandemic way back in March 2020. We couldn’t visit. We couldn’t apply for visas. And nobody knew when the borders would reopen.

So we started the waiting game. There was some necessary ground work to be done initially, like convincing universities that a JD degree is in fact a graduate-level education even though their law degree is only an LLB (a bachelor of laws). But once I was officially admitted to the University of Canterbury and had gotten the bulk of our supporting documents together, it was just waiting. And waiting. And waiting….

Eighteen months in total of waiting for visa applications to reopen, most of which was without any knowledge of when the waiting game would end. And living in that type of limbo and unknown was very, very hard. So one thing we didn’t do during all this waiting time was tell anybody what we were trying to do. For reasons!

When we first started looking at visa options, we certainly weren’t confident that we were actually going to go through with this scheme, either for logistical challenges (can we even get visas) or for deciding we didn’t actually want to move after all (don’t worry, the US kept being very motivating). We didn’t even know where we would be trying to move when we started. And it’s challenging to have a casual conversation about life-altering plans with nothing but vagueness and unanswerable baseline questions that people will surely ask.

Even when we had locked things down a little more, the New Zealand border closure—and really, the part of not knowing when the international borders would reopen—continued to make it hard to feel like anything was actually set. We are trying to do something! Someday! Maybe! If we can! It was terrible as adults (who decided to do this in the first place) during the months and months of indefinite waiting, and we didn’t want to put that on our kids. So we just… didn’t tell them? And because we didn’t want to tell the children, we didn’t tell the rest of our families either, with the concern that someone would say something in front of them. It may not have been the best long-term strategy, despite the reasoning behind it.

And then the waiting game abruptly ended when visa applications reopened on August 1, 2022.

We still didn’t know for sure whether our visas would be granted, and I was particularly concerned about whether there would be delays or complications with bringing the children as my husband is not their biological father. We were also still just hoping timing would work out as we wanted it to, but again, without really knowing how long it would take for the application to be processed and visa granted.

So I still had a lot of apprehension about sharing our plans, as I still didn’t feel like everything was finalized and set. It could still very much not come together, or have many months of delays. But in order to finalize our visa applications, each of us was required to have a medical exam. Our children were 12 and 14 at the time, and while teens aren’t always known for their powers of detailed observation or general awareness of the world around them (cough-pick up your dirty dishes please how do you not see them just sitting there seriously why is this so hard uggghh-cough), I still thought that they just might notice us taking them to a random medical office and going through things like blood draws and chest X-rays. And maybe not be suitably distracted from asking what is going on with a piece of candy?

So then we began the telling saga, to actually share the news of “hey we’re (hopefully) moving to New Zealand,” first with the children, and then with each of the family chunks, and eventually with our employers. It was without a doubt one of the absolute worst parts of this entire process, and one that I do not want to revisit ever again, perhaps only topped by leaving behind our pets.

Leaving Our Colorado House for the Airport

But we got through it. Our visas were eventually granted. We lined up an estate sale to remove everything from the house. We packed up a single pallet of mostly sentimental items (but also a ridiculous number of Legos, because #priorities) to ship, which we still haven’t received (four and a half months later and counting!). We coordinated with a realtor to sell the house after we moved. We (mostly me) went through months of intense and overwhelming cleaning and packing and logistics coordinating hell (while still working full time). And we said tearful goodbyes to our families and kitties and guinea pigs.

Then we boarded a plane with seven suitcases' and four backpacks' worth of worldly goods and clothing for the four of us.

And now we live in New Zealand!

Somedays it still doesn’t feel real, like it’s the stuff of stories, and yet also somehow life.

I also struggle a lot with guilt about everyone left behind and the knowledge that it took some very real privileges for us to be able to leave at all. I often feel like I am not deserving of the opportunity to be here at all, to start this new life trajectory for myself and my children. And that despite the significant amount of labor we put in to pulling this all together, it was still just so much dumb luck on things actually coming together that made it possible.

But here we are. Living in New Zealand.

And I try to remind myself that we did that. With some good luck, but also, some very real work and sacrifice, and deliberately choosing what we wanted for our lives.

The takeaway:

Life doesn’t have to be this way. Change is hard (so incredibly hard) and it will take so much work and time and patience and sacrifice and persistence and fortitude and tenacity. Plus a wee bit of irrational blind hope. And you will end up crying in the back of your closet more times than you want to admit during the worst parts when it truly feels like you can’t possibly do this.

But as I tell my children (and sometimes myself):

You are a smart and capable person. This is hard, but you can do hard things.

And just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.

Moving to New Zealand was very hard. But we can do (and did!) hard things.


Marty Whalen Brown is currently pursuing a PhD in law at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She holds a J.D. degree from the University of Colorado Law School and previously worked in public service with the State of Colorado.

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1 Comment

Apr 20, 2023

I love everything about this post. Congratulations on following your passion, Marty.

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