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 Expat Wives 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 the expat wife – a lady of leisure?
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.