Moving abroad as a partner is not the same as going abroad for your own job.
Unlike when you move to a new country for yourself, one of the biggest challenges in going as a partner is that you are not following your career path of choice. Living abroad is already new and unfamiliar, and it brings its own set of daily challenges. And also, because you’re not doing your job – something that is your area of expertise and which brings the accompanying self-worth and confidence – the whole experience is a lot more challenging.
It is easy to lose confidence in your abilities. When I first moved abroad, I had to sell a business that was just getting off the ground and which I loved. On one hand, maybe it was easier for me than for others as I haven’t worked for other people for a long time! Self-employment has a lot of benefits… and self-reliance being an important one. But it also means I am pretty much not able to find ‘employed’ work anywhere. For others, who had to give up a much loved career to move overseas, this change can be devastating.
You have to search hard and for a long time to find the capable person you had been. To morph from a career person into someone who has almost nothing to do but the grocery shopping and school runs is a total shock to the system and can cause unexpected issues around confidence and self-worth.
What comes up in general is the issue of identity. A lot of people gain affirmation of their identity from their job title. Our jobs give us a sense of fulfilment and it gives us a sense of pride. A sense of being an expert in something and when this is taken away – this all goes. It is a challenge to reclaim your identity without the addition of a specific job. It’s difficult, requires a lot of confidence, but is well worth it in the end, you have to trust me!
Once you’ve settled in, there is nothing obvious to fill your day. You have to be both proactive and creative. In your own job there will always people around. Even if there’s not a very active social life connected to the company, you still get to talk to people throughout the day. One of the most difficult things many people have to cope with is this constant feeling of isolation. It can make you very insular and magnify whatever difficulties or challenges you are facing.
“What does your husband do?”
Also there’s this stigma of being known as a ‘trailing spouse’. It is not only a dismal name; it’s also a very disempowering term. You are following your partner, yes, but usually it’s a decision you make together. And to be frank here, if it wasn’t for your willingness to ‘trail’, chances are, your partner wouldn’t be doing this new, overseas job anyway! It may be because it’s the best option financially, but ultimately you go as a couple. It’s not as if you move along and are being told where you’re going (well, actually, for some of us, this is the case, but we – the ‘trailing spouses’ – do have the possibility to veto if a country does not seem the right choice for the family. Honestly, you really do!). We are taking part in that decision and often, where companies are concerned, you’re just an addendum or post script on their formal contract – “alright, you’re bringing your partner, yes.” So that framing of your position from the company can be quite demoralising. Many companies help accompanying partners very well; others, well… let’s just leave that there, shall we? Otherwise this could turn into quite a rant!
And the one question we women get is, “What does your husband do?” Unfortunately, the assumption by a lot of other expats is that the woman is the ‘trailing spouse’. You can feel like an afterthought in the process. And what is interesting, it’s only other expats who ask this question… You have to be pretty pushy and assertive. And come up some intriguing answers to make light of it, because, to be honest, it becomes very boring after a while.
There are a lot of extra challenges that come with being the partner rather than being the person who’s actually posted. Yet it is important for you to make it work for you, and to make sure you both keep your relationship intact. The working partner needs to really step up to help out.
Get ‘out there’!
Seek out some new hobbies and take courses. Get out there in your own right so you don’t feel like a spare part in the family life. For sure, you have a very important ‘job’ – which is the raising your children. But you have to make time for yourself also, for your own self-confidence and peace of mind.