The changing label of the expat wife

Expat wife - What does the term expat wife mean to you?

Expat wife.

I could probably leave my post at that and I’d get a whole raft of comments. They’d range from something about drinking gin to something about how it’s a demeaning label, only marginally better than trailing spouse. Some people would say they didn’t understand what the fuss was about, that they are an expat wife after all. Others would say that they wouldn’t indulge in people that have such stereotypical hype. That those opinions say more about the person that holds it than the person they’re judging.

It will be 10 years this year since I became an expat wife. But my expat journey began long before that.

Third culture kid

As a third culture kid it never occurred to me that I had this particular label. In fact it was only when we moved to the Middle East that I fit in that box. Until then when people asked where I was from I would usually hesitate and then, depending on the situation, I’d choose one of two answers.

The first answer would usually involve a deep breath before I launched into a description of where I had lived and when. That my first assignment started when I was just 3 months old. That Granny Wanderlust took us to Australia for a year just to prove to herself that she could. (Side note it is only now that I am older and little wiser that I can appreciate the enormity of doing that!). That I had taken 2 gap years in Ecuador that completely changed me and the trajectory of my life.

The second was short and sweet. “I’m from the UK.” Which was, and is, true and pretty accurate in terms of my identity. I never had those crises of identity that many TCKs struggle with. I’ve never questioned where I’m from or where my roots are. I’ve never thought of myself as anything other than British. Wherever we have lived we always returned to our picture postcard hometown in the depths of Devon.

Expat woman? Expat wife?

I am an expat wife. But what does that mean?

I’m someone who has done every sort of expat assignment since I left school.

I did a gap year volunteering and travelling in South America. That year would open my eyes to people and cultures and experiences that I had never dreamed of. It would change the degree I would take and ultimately lead me to my future husband.

2 years later I returned to Ecuador as part of a sandwich year at university. The 9 months abroad, as I saw them were a gift. I would have to start work when my degree finished. When else in my life would I get 9 months to go and do exactly what I wanted? My time there involved a hectic combination of volunteering, taking language classes (there is little more confusing than learning Portuguese in Spanish as a second language), paid work and a social life so packed that I have no idea how I didn’t collapse with exhaustion.

As a young professional I skipped off to San Francisco for 3 months on a secondment. Some years later, the first three years of married life were spent as an expat wife. Both assignments involved me worked for the only grown up company I had worked for. I made a name for myself as a hard worker who could have fun while doing what is often a pretty dull topic.

If you asked me I would describe each experience exactly as I have here: a gap year, a sandwich year or whoever many months or years working in that location. In the same way that I never thought of myself as a TCK, at no point did I ever think of myself as an expat wife or even, for that matter, an expat. They were just things I had done, places I had lived.

Aren’t we all just expats?

I had coffee this week with a friend who has been on the expat trail for around 20 years. Mention the phrase expat wife to her and you can be sure it will lead to a heated debate about the topic. I say heated debate – it never gets heated among us because we’re both on the same page. So maybe she and I just end up calling into our own little echo chamber.

Our conversation followed a couple of posts in an expat group. One was about why we are still using the term “expat wife” and the other was from another lady who is a married expat with no kids. She felt she didn’t belong in the group for a variety of reasons. One was that she wasn’t an expat moving around at the mercy a large multinational company that paid for housing and send enormous shipping containers with a professional moving company. The other reason was that she didn’t have kids.

The discussion on who belongs comes up regularly in that group – single expat women, expat men, same sex married women… All these different people feel they don’t belong because of a preconceived idea of what an expat woman or wife is and whether or not they are one.

In case you’re wondering, the first post – the one about why we are still using the term expat wife – predictably got heated and was taken down by the admins before it got too personal.

Agree to disagree?

Over the years that I have known her, this friend of mine and I have had the expat wife discussion online and in person numerous times. One thing that has never been clear to me is why, when I completely agree with all her points and disagree with all the ones on the other side, I don’t feel as strongly as she does about this?

20 years ago when she started her life on the expat trail, the phrases expat wife and trailing spouse carried with them some heavy connotations and stereotypes. Most of them were pretty negative and, even, downright derogatory.

Expat wife - being an expat wife has opened up opportunities that I would never have had. Here are me and Mr Wanderlust taking a selfie in front of the Burj Al Arab
Being an expat wife has opened up opportunities that I would never have had

10 years later when I started my own experience, I didn’t have the same images in my head when I thought of being an expat wife. Maybe it was because I wasn’t even thinking of us as expats. Or maybe it was because the stereotype was changing. Who knows?

Over time, I started to realise that some people did still carry preconceived ideas about what an expat wife was and wasn’t.

Changing times

If I’m completely honest, expat concepts like third culture kids, adult third culture kid, trailing spouse and expat wife have only really been things I have become conscious of since moving to the Middle East. I’m in a place where roles are way more gender stereotyped than anywhere else I’ve lived. Our expat life is way more stereotyped than anywhere else I’ve lived.

When I got here I wasn’t that bothered by the terms expat wife or trailing spouse. I am an expat wife. I have followed Mr Wanderlust to be here. It’s not a label. It’s just a fact.

This friend has done masses to show me why I need to be more conscious of the labels I have been so dismissive of. About how the word trailing has connotations of women blindly following their husbands around the world for the sake of their careers without a second thought to themselves. And about how the term expat wife can be seen as elitist or can make others feel excluded because they don’t fit neatly into the box.

The new expat wife stereotype

This week, as we explored the subject again, I started to get some clarity and some more opinions of my own. They’ve been brewing for a while. Just simmering under the surface waiting for me to realise why they’re different to what I think I should believe.

“Why do we need to be expat wives? Why aren’t we all just expats?” asked my friend. And she’s definitely right.

But now I have a different question.

Expat wife means so much more now

I have so many female expat friends who are married. Who are expat wives.

Some of them take care of their family’s every need to their husband can be in paid employment. Some of them are the lead career with their husbands trailing in their wake. A few of them have dual careers, negotiating international moves with their spouses. Some quit their careers reluctantly, others gladly escaped jobs they found unfulfilling – grateful for the opportunity to do so that was offered by the expat lifestyle.

Many of my friends have re-trained. They’re personal trainers and life coaches. They’ve got their masters online or spent half the year abroad getting their PhD. Some have found jobs that fit in around their family life and others volunteer every waking hour that they have. Some of us have turned to blogging and writing or found other ways of working and are now considered to be digital nomads – where you can be anywhere to be doing what you’re doing.

Let’s change the label of the expat wife

The label of expat wife needs to change.

When we hear the term expat wife, let’s not think of professional gin drinkers. Let’s forget the idea of lazy women who swan about all day having lunch and mani-pedis and burning holes in their husbands’ credit cards.

From now on, when you hear the term expat wife, think about all these expat wives (and women – it’s not just the wives) who are smashing it.

Day after day. Week after week.

The women who recreate themselves after every international move. Who guide their families through the excitement of moving and the trauma of saying goodbye. Who battle depression and anxiety in locations that can’t always help them in the ways they need it but just carry on regardless because there’s no other choice.

People who went out and found what they really wanted to do and made it work against the odds. Who have seen the opportunities in this expat life and grabbed them with both hands.

Women who are achieving incredible things and who are changing the label of the expat wife.

Ladies who inspire me literally every single day in a million different ways just by doing what they’re doing.

From now on, when you hear the term expat wife, think about them.

Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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