I’ve read countless Facebook posts recently alongside articles and discussions in expat groups all about the same thing. How are we defining ourselves as an Expat wife or Trailing Spouses or whatever the new term for us is? The discussions include debates on who is really the trailing spouse, different names for “us” and a long diatribe about what we are, aren’t, want to be, could be and should be. The question is…
What is an Expat wife?
But it was a conversation last week that had me floored:
“So are you working here? Or are you a lady of leisure?”
The second question was accompanied by a raised eyebrow, a slight smirk and a straight face. She already knew the answer. Or at least she thought she did. Young and single with no kids, she had a preconceived idea of who I amend what I do.
Since becoming an expat 8 years ago, I’ve seen and heard all the conversations. I’m all too familiar with the stereotypes of the wives drinking gin at lunchtime. Honestly, to start with, it never really bothered me. I was in Houston working a job I had landed with the company I was with in the UK. I was earning my own money just as I always had. Not much had changed except suddenly we had a thing called a housing allowance among other things and Mr Wanderlust was suddenly earning a lot more than me. And it felt like we were on a permanent holiday with lovely weather, living in an apartment complex with a concierge, a gym and a pool.
I met a few other expat or former expat wives and we laughed about their fun together in another location (here, as it happens). Gin may or may not have been involved. Then a colleague declared he didn’t want to marry his girlfriend (both expats) because he didn’t want to be supporting “an expat wife”. I wondered what he thought of me given I was also an expat wife.
An Old Conversation
I’ve read so many articles about this that I’m frankly bored of the conversation. Kirsty Rice’s post about The Expat Woman went viral (I think it might be how I discovered her) and was every reason why I never wanted to write this post – how could I do better than that? Kirsty has just started a bit of a movement within the Two Fat Expats Facebook Group to “change your sentence”. To get us thinking about why we are here, what made us physically get on that plane and come here or go there… Wherever you are.
It’s hard to believe that, since she wrote that post in 2010 (around the time I had that conversation with my colleague), pretty much nothing has changed. On the world stage, I mean.
For us personally we have acquired a dog (the Original Thing) and Things 1 and 2. We have completed an international assignment, repatriated and are 2.5 years into this assignment. I’ve started 2 jobs and had to leave both for us to move on. Our finances have become a lot more merged – something I swore would never happen but it does when you have people being paid in multiple currencies and then not being paid at all.
Yet I’m still having the same conversations and reading the same stuff. I mean I’m now writing the same stuff!!!!
I recently shared a lovely post about The Expat Wife and the Career Breakdown. It really resonated with a lot of you. Many of us who have chosen the expat route struggle with the concept that we have given up our careers to pursue a life of travel and expat-ness. I know the Suffragettes fought for us to have the equal rights, for us to have choices, not for us to have to work. But it still feels a bit disloyal to them. I don’t think that’s necessarily an expat thing. I know loads of stay at home mums who struggle with the same thing. Like me, they struggle with the feeling (not reality) of not contributing financially. Like me, they struggle with the concept of not being a good enough role model to their daughters (or sons for that matter). For not “working”.
Behind the stereotype
For all that we giggle and smirk about the stereotype of trailing spouses, there’s a darker side that is not talked about. Many of us will end up with depression or anxiety. Like, more than the general population of “normal” people who stay at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if alcohol addiction and abuse rates were higher in expat communities, especially among the unemployed spouses. Suddenly that gin joke doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.
Going off on a bit of a tangent… You never know who you are talking to. You never know if they miss their jobs or (like me) were quite relieved to leave them. You never know if the person you’re talking to has had no sleep for days or if they’ve brought a child with learning difficulties on this adventure with them. You never know if they are suffering from severe depression as a result of being an expat. Or if they feel they have lost their identity as a result of becoming a mum and or an expat. You have no idea if they have a good marriage or are struggling. If they are struggling with fertility or just lost a parent. You don’t know if they are happy or sad today.
You just don’t know.
Back to my conversation last week
I find it depressing that the concept of a woman not working in this day and age is something to be smirked about. That stereotypes can exist in this alternate universe of expat life which I now live in. It’s depressing that I’m still justifying myself to myself and to others about what I do all day. I hated hearing my answers because they sounded so hollow and trite. It’s depressing that women are still mocking other women for making decisions that they know literally nothing about.
“Well I’m not in paid employment but I wouldn’t say I’m a lady of leisure either.” I began.
I proceeded to list all the things I do (besides be a taxi service for my kids’ extra curricular activities). I’m on the Parent Council at school, I’m a class mum (another expat concept – don’t get me started), I volunteer to help with school fundraising. I am a Brownie Leader (Girl Scouts for you Americans). I run all the events for a professional women’s network. And I’m trying to set up my blog so that one day, one day, it will earn me some money.
I don’t mention the coffees that I am lucky enough to have with friends during the week. Nor do I mention the awesome holidays I’m lucky enough to go on with my most fave people. Then again I don’t mention other things either. That the grocery shopping is done as are the Things’ haircuts and dentist appointments.
I don’t mention that I do nearly all the drop-offs and pick-ups complete with bickering and fighting, meltdowns and separation anxiety. The hours upon hours that I spend in the car or walking to and from it. That the day we get the call from school or nursery to say one of the Things is sick it’s always always me that drops what I am doing to get them.
That Mr Wanderlust can (and does) come home today and tell me he’s travelling for the rest of the week and I will just pick up the slack. And that just because I am not in paid employment doesn’t mean I’m not contributing financially to our family.
What else can you say?
I could spend hours debating this topic. And I have. But I know I’m preaching to the choir here. I know you all have my back. Is there anything else I would say to this girl? Is there anything else you would say?Maybe next time I’ll just hope I am with someone more eloquent than me or with someone who has the guts to tell them what they really think.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on the me part – my sentence, my understanding and belief of what I’m doing here and what I contribute. And I’ll be teaching my kids about all the different ways grown ups can have a fulfilling place in society so that maybe one day they aren’t having the same discussions I’ve been having.
NOTE: If you have made it this far, thanks for reading! I have read and re-read this post countless times before publishing it. I’ve thought about publishing and not publishing it. I know the other side to this story comes across as poor little rich girl and first world problems. I’m well aware of how lucky I am. That still does not give anyone the right to pass judgement on my life (or vice versa for that matter!) I’d love hear your comments and perspectives.
Very well said! You’re a great figurehead for all of us ‘trailing spouses’ – good for you for having the confidence to stick up for your life decisions and helping others to understand them a bit more too xxx
Thanks Polly! It’s a bit of a putting myself out there post tbh – everyone has an opinion so it’s a bit of a polarizing one. Xx
Great post! I loved the part about ‘Assumptions’. The stereotype overshadows the fact, that there in fact might be struggles internally one faces, that people are not aware of.
We all do it don’t we? Important to try not to though.
Oh this rings so true. Thank you for writing this, it doesn’t make me feel so alone! Being an ex-pat wife has more ups than downs, but those downs can go pretty deep sometimes.
Thank you for reading! I got even more annoyed as I wrote the post. I mean so what if I was a lady of leisure? It’s no one else’s business but my own!!!! I’m so glad that it has been resonating with people.
This topic resonates with me a lot at the moment and I agree that it is a difficult one to tackle. There ares so many facets to it but the bottom line is that if you are a parent and there are 2 of you and if one of you doesn’t work in a different place (other than home) and is around with the kids and does all the drop offs and pick ups, than that person will be the one that picks up the slack lol. I completely agree that we cannot know for sure what goes on in another family, why they’re doing what they’re dong, so the best thing to do “not to judge them”.
I was in paid employment, in an office, and had a childminder for the kids but have since September started working as a freelance and building up my own business. For other people that don’t know my situation i would look like ‘a stay at home mum’ or for those that know i am an expat (Albanian living in London) they could be thinking i could be a lady of leisure. But my answer to all of them is that i work from home (part-time) and i also look after my kids before and after school. That is a lot to keep my busy and those that want know more about it, can come over for a coffee – not during my working hours though… lol
Nice to read your blog and thanks for visiting, laura x
Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply. My biggest point is whose business is it anyway?! If you want to be doing that then good for you and if you don’t then you should fee empowered to change your situation. What worked for me mightn’t work for you and vice versa. And that’s ok!
Yes, it’s a funny position to be in, isn’t it? Getting a family settled in a new country is a huge amount of work. I’m lucky enough to have kept some freelance clients, but it probably looks like to others that I’m not doing much! There isn’t a big expat community where I live, so I don’t have to explain myself much, thankfully!
I’m loving the fact that the next time we move I can just pick up my blog and take it with me! The digital age is a huge help but there is still the perception that it’s not a “real” job!
wow this really resonates with me because (no ex pat ness unfortunately) I am trying to figure out how and if and when and what I want to do in terms of formal employment vs staying home with the kids. I can tell for you an issue is not maybe being ABLE to work in your new country. For me its that I dont want to work full time and be totally gone, but anything part time would pay so poorly and still require some shelling out for childcare (plus gas, new clothes, etc) that its just not worth it. Its so hard. Plus I like staying home. And every once in a while there is alcohol at lunches. no shame in that game!
To be honest its a bit of both. I could work here but the logistics of it mean that it would have to be my dream job for it to be worth the extra expense / hassle / mummy guilt… I know some people who have gone back to work and are losing money on it but it is an investment for them to stay current in their industry and / or they just don’t want to be SAHMs and / or they are keen for their kids to get the socialisation and structure offered by a nursery so their job is subsidising this. Its hard to tell if all these explanations are defending ourselves to others or to ourselves… either way it shouldn’t be necessary!
PS I am so glad this resonated with you – thank you for the feedback!
I feel you so much! I am an expat living in California currently and I am not allowed to work on the visa we’re on. I’m a trailing spouse and I am constantly having to walk that fine line between considering myself lucky that we, as a family have this amazing opportunity, and dealing with my own identity crisis. Being a stay at home mom was never my plan and suddenly being at home full time with a toddler in a place where I didn’t know anyone and I was missing all my friends and family was really hard. I feel guilty that I am not as grateful as maybe I should be, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself a lady of leisure.
Its so hard isn’t it. But I figure being lucky doesn’t mean we can’t have bad days or that people can’t make assumptions about us that are wildly wrong or inappropriate! Maybe I need to set up a Ladies of Leisure group lol
Great post and so relevant to that feeling of inadequacy that all expat women (and some men) go through. I hate it when someone from my home state asks “So what do you DO?” And my response has become “You mean, what do I NOT do??!”
Haha this is a GREAT response!
I followed my Husband from Singapore to Cambridge UK. I was previously employed in Singapore . It’s been 6 months since we moved to Cambridge and I have still not found a job and I don’t have a baby . My Husband is not ready for a baby inspite of being married for 5 years . All my friends when they call me they always think that I am enjoying sitting at home doing nothing which is not the case . I feel very Low and disheartened as inspite of being qualified and experienced I am unable to find job and I feel stuck in my life. Everyone else is doing well . My friends are paid well they have carrers and kids . I have none:(
My heart goes out to you Bil. The expat wife role is a lonely place to be and it is hard, hard work. Keep persevering. You WILL find your balance again. It took me a few years if I’m completely honest but eventually I found this blog and I love it. Keep trying new things and you will get there. Go out and look for your tribe. They are out there looking for you too! Once you find them, expat friendships will run deeper than you could ever imagine. It takes a huge amount of energy and perseverance but it is totally worth it. Go out, meet people, say yes to invitations. It will be worth the effort! feel free to message me privately ([email protected]) if you need a whinge. I’ve been there and done it several times. I know you can do it. xx
I think a HUGE barrier with spouses working wherever we land also deals with the host country. Some places are way easier than others – some do not have bilateral work agreements and therefore making it impossible or some have an agreement but have so many hoops to jump through it takes 1.5 years of a 2 year posting to get hired….at which point what is the point. Another obstacle I’ve encountered is reaching out to people in your field (from my past life) and it’s crickets….no one calls you back/replies to emails. Have I been out of the field too long now?
Ohhhhhh I feel this so much! I have a few close friends who would help but everyone else… nothing. I definitely feel like I’ve been out of it for too long now. 🙁