WHAT AM I? THE STRUGGLE OF DEFINING YOURSELF AS AN EXPAT WIFE
Since we moved abroad I am struggling with naming myself. It is hard to classify the new “me” into a category. When people ask what I do, I feel the urge to explain myself as I am still unsure about my new “label”. It is actually weird that our society needs these kinds of labels to communicate with each other. However, not knowing your label makes it unnecessarily stressful.
In this blog post I will explain the emotional journey of an Expat Wife and the deep, mind-changing learning I drew out of that experience. My motivation behind this post and the blog itself is more than ever: Empower women who were bold enough to quit their job and joined their husband on their joint adventure abroad.
MY JOURNEY AND MOTIVATION BEHIND MOVING ABROAD
For those who are new to the blog, first a few words about myself. I am 31, born and raised in Germany and was happily living in the city of my choice Munich, together with our very close friends and my beloved companion. I have studied and worked abroad before and was in the 6th year of my Management Career when my partner came home with the proposal to move abroad.
As I have a huge passion for different cultures and I love to travel, I committed myself immediately to this new adventure. Consequently, I quit the job I was enjoying a lot, knowing that this would be a perfect way to support his career, while satisfying my own thirst for a new adventure.
In the meanwhile, we are living in the States, in beautiful Chicago, for almost one year now and each day is still a challenge, an adventure, an eye-opening event and I am very grateful for all that I have learned in the last 12 months.
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WHY I CARE ABOUT MY PERSONAL LABEL: THE UNFLATTERING REACTION TO EXPAT WIVES
Getting my work permit and a job was more challenging than I would have expected it. Some options I had in mind did not work out as I thought and establishing a network and finding a job takes more time than I actually expected. Actually 12 months after our move I have created a profound network of friends and business partners. I guess it would be easier for me to find a job in my old industry now as network is really key when it comes to find a job abroad. However, I became inpatient in the meantime and my entrepreneurial mind started spinning around other ideas but that is a story for another time.
Let’s get back to the time I did not figure out yet what I was planning to do with my career and started to get familiar with my new surrounding. In my mind this is one of the most important phases of the life of an Expat Partner. While the Expat himself is occupied with work in an international context, the partner has to figure out what to do next and set new goals in life. This is not a honeymoon phase if you have basic underlying values which are challenged. In my case it was not having a career anymore.
THE STAGE IS YOURS: WHO ARE YOU THEN?
During that initial time, I met a lot of new people. And one thing is almost always identical – a presumably simple question at the beginning of each small-talk conversation: What do you do?
Very simple, isn’t it? For my husband, it is indeed. His position allows him a straightforward answer: I am working for xyz as an xyz. Common answer to that is normally: Oh, really interesting. So how do you like it?
Then they turn to me – “And what do you do?”
And at that moment the world stands still and everything is silent except my head which is spinning, working so hard on a straightforward answer. You can imagine little figures walking stressed from one corner to another discussing with great passion a suitable answer. But what is the suitable answer?
THE CLASSIC STEREOTYPE OF BEING AN EXPAT WIFE
Your past has vanished instantly and no matter what you did before and what sacrifice you made to come here, you now have to stand up against the old-fashioned stereotype of an Expat Wife. Some people think Expat Wives are spoiled, bored, sitting at home waiting for their husband to come home all-day long. Modern, career-oriented women will think that you betray feminism and all the progress women made to emancipate yourself and focus on your own career instead. But guess what, I am a career-focused woman and I have not given up on that only because I moved abroad to support the career of my husband. Somehow, it’s seen as the international equivalent of being a soccer mum. And when you google “Expat Wife” and “Alcohol” there is definitely a less glorious overlap.
Of course, all reactions are different and a lot of people are also very understanding and supporting. But somehow, I found that there is a common reaction which you can see in the eyes of the person you are talking to. In their eyes, I can see a mixture of pity, lack of understanding and/or lack of interest normally quickly summarized in their response: “Oh, okay – I see.”
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LABELING THE EXPAT WIFE: WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?
As I continued to search the web for a new way to describe my situation, I came across some very unflattering name tags for our situation. I guess the worst “label” for me is the term “trailing spouse”. Then there is “Dependent” or “Accompanying partner” which are more descriptive.
However, none of the terms are showing the full picture.
WHY I CARE SO MUCH
With all these terms, I have my difficulties as they take away my own personality making me a 100% dependent on my partner. While it is true that I decided voluntarily to quit my job – it was actually a mutual decision. It was not forced on me – but offered. And I took this chance having been 100% aware of the potential consequences.
However, these terms make me unequal to my partner. I am represented as someone who is just a small part of something bigger and better. I more see myself as a supporter and enabler and not as a poor dependent who anybody should feel a pity for.
I am happy that I am enabling my partner to take this important career step.
I am happy for every day I can give him support and guidance in this jungle of working and living in another culture and business environment.
I am happy to give him the stability to overcome the cultural burden and to digest the huge amount of change that comes along when you decide to move abroad.
Moreover, I also feel that there is a lot of personal growth potential in my situation.
We should not face pity, lack of understanding or disrespect. We should be seen as brave human beings who decided to take on this challenge. That’s why I feel the terms “Expat Wife” and “Trailing Spouse” do not reflect the complexity of our situation.
In my opinion, it is time for a new term. A new way of identifying yourself when you are in a similar position.
I found articles who state that Expat Wives should call themselves Expats. And while I am sure I will find work someday, I am not feeling comfortable with this term in my current situation, while still searching for it. Maybe I should call myself Enabler as without me, we would most likely not be in this situation. However, it somehow sounds cheesy and might not fit to all of us.
MY PERSONAL EYE-OPENING MOMENT: FINDING PEACE WITHIN THE EXPAT WIFE ROLE
When you move abroad you will face an adjustment phase which can take a couple of months. The newfound freedom gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself and search for hidden passions and interests. I learned that this takes some time and you should not rush through it as quickly as possible, as it will simply take as long as it needs. The important thing is that you take your time and be patient. Allow yourself to step away and listen to your inner voice.
Someday you will wake up and there will be a new purpose in your life. Whether that is indulging yourself fully in the new culture, learning languages, writing, photography or even a new job position.
For me, it was blogging. I got triggered by the idea to empower other women being in a similar situation and blogging about my experience abroad – this was something that felt right and reasonable. I still remember that eye-opening moment: We have been driving the car through a beautiful National Park in California. The Road was ahead of us, there was a cristel clear lake on the left and a forest to the right and I was once again spinning ideas around my brain. There was this one big number in my head: 1.5 Million.
1.5 Million women have chosen to move abroad for their husband’s work but have not been able to work again after quitting their job back home. There are so many women out there who are going through the exact same situation than me. No matter the country, the culture, the language – on a mental level we are all challenged by similar things. That was the moment I decided to do something about it. I started www.sharethelove.blog and couple of months later I started my training to become a coach.
The moment you start something that fulfills you, the term Expat Wife does not feel like a misunderstood burden but finally shows its true meaning: The opportunity to start over, to reflect and to follow your dreams.
"The term Expat Wife does not feel like a misunderstood burden but finally shows its true meaning: The opportunity to start over, to reflect and to follow your dreams"
CHANGE STARTS IN OURSELVES
I can see that this is no groundbreaking revolution – however, the moment you start to make the most out of your new situation, you will find peace with the label Expat Wife as it doesn’t feel like a stigma anymore but as an opportunity.
Nevertheless, it is still the negative public opinion we have to change. We have to stress the sacrifice we make and the braveness it demands to take this step. Only because I have personally found my peace, it does not mean it is easy. As it’s an adaption process there are millions of women out there who face identical obstacles like me and who have to look in the same pitiful eyes when introducing themselves to a new person.
This is what we have to change. To adjust our own personal opinion about our new lifestyle is the first and most vital step in the right direction.
And please, dear Expat partners, there must be someone creative in our huge community who comes up with a new powerful term that sums up our situation in a short, snappy sentence so that we can end this topic.
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If you are interested in other posts about being an Expat Wife check out my other articles on the blog below.