Recently I have finished writing the first draft of the booklet that will accompany my upcoming workshops. This booklet is based on the materials I am presenting in these workshops, as well as comments and reflections from my own experience of the last 20 relocation years and from experiences of fellow expat wives. The concluding chapter of the booklet (after family adjustment, and TCK) deals with the part we ‘expat wives’/’relocation partners’/’trailing spouses’ have in this task (and since I and most of the participants in my workshops are women, I refer mostly to this group).
As literature describes it, while adapting to a new culture, our role as relocating spouses tends to be the most difficult in the family, and there are quite a few reasons to that. While relocating, many of us experience a loss of both identity and purpose. Unlike our partners, for whom the transition is an opportunity for professional progress, we (who in many cases, used to have a successful career) are required to ‘reinvent’ ourselves professionally and find a new purpose – one that is different from the one that led us so far.
With the transition, we are forced to bend and revise the structure of our life. While our partners and school-goers quickly find and follow the familiar patterns of early rising, departure from home and a late afternoon return, for us there is a much more significant change in familiar routines and known social structures.
The Interruption of career and social life is yet another challenge, which raises many concerns for expat wives. Many questions reflect those concerns – is this a temporary break? Would I be able to integrate back into my old life one day? How will I score in the job market when compared to my progressing colleagues? In many cases, observing friends who stayed behind creates a sense of alienation and therefore loneliness in light of the vast differences between the life we used to hold (ones that continue to be held by them) and the life that we currently run.
Loss of support networks is another big issue. Help, which was once offered by our close-by parents, siblings, and other family members is not available anymore, and we are required to become fully self-sufficient in running our households. Sometimes for the first time… The help we may expect from our partners might be limited, as they are often required to work long hours and take frequent flights in order to justify their hearty salary.
During the relocation, it is our responsibility to make new friendships, which will have a significant meaning for our family once they become its new support networks. Making new friendships during adulthood is not an easy task for some women who may have not practiced this skill since childhood.
Another challenge for many of us relocating spouses is the change in status. From equal partners who contribute financially to the support of the family, we become “dependent”, as most immigration laws declare us. In most cases this change of status is followed by financial dependency on our partners. One which results from the fact that in most countries we are not allowed to work while on dependent passes. Issuing work permits in these countries is complex and often possible only with vast work experience and a high-paying full-time job. A requirement which, for many women, is impossible while the family is adapting to a new location and requires one free parent to function. In the absence of a part time alternative, many of us end up not working, or taking part-time, illegal low-paying jobs.
In an interesting article by Daniella Arieli, two main strategies were found to be used by expat women in order to deal with these challenges. The first was adding meaning to traditional tasks. And indeed, for me and for many of the expat women I have met along the way, the relocation turned to be an opportunity to reclaim traditional tasks with a sense of empowerment and self-realization. For women who were previously forced to function as part time moms alongside their full-time job, the relocation served as an opportunity to fully commit themselves to this task in a way that was impossible in the past. For other women who found themselves caught in an endless race of career and life progression, the relocation served as a chance to stop, self-discover, re-examine their way, and often choose a surprising new direction.
Another strategy mentioned by Arieli was the creation of a protective ‘women’s world’. In many expat communities, women were found to be creating tight groups aimed at sharing similar life situations, which are significantly different from those they shared in their country of origin. Together, these groups help the women produce a positive perception of the relocation, while sharing moments of hardship with no sense of victimization or elimination of the many benefits that come with this way of life. The workshops we ran in Singapore and which are now coming to Hong Kong are my attempt at creating such women support groups.
Looking at the number of challenges experienced by relocation spouses raises a strong sense of imbalance. Still, it is important to remember that together with the task of managing the daily life of our families, we spouses have the power to balance our and our families’ challenges by realizing and accepting the many benefits of this new lifestyle. Side by side with the aforementioned challenges, the expat lifestyle usually carries with it a substantial improvement in living standards. Many women find satisfaction in watching their children being educated in high-standard international schools, and in their own ability to take an active role in their children’s development. And of course, doubtfully, the relocation is a wonderful opportunity to experience new cultures, new foods and new, unknown worlds right in our back yard or while going on vacations to exotic destinations (ones which are made possible by the relocation).
As mentioned above, in the process of relocating we get an opportunity to stop the race and listen to our own needs and desires. Many of the women I met along the way (myself included) chose new and radically different paths from those in which they have gone before. We relocating spouses get a chance to “reinvent ourselves’ and create new identities – ones that may be more mature and cohesive than the ones we developed out of the circumstances in our country of origin.
The process of balancing the challenges of the expat lifestyle with its many benefits is a delicate and never-ending one. It is in our hands to maintain it while constantly reexamining its viability. It is us who are responsible to make sure every day that the balance is kept for the entire family, and it is in our ability (and responsibility) to warn and treat cases in which this delicate balance is disturbed.
By Dr Taly Goren, a long time traveler between nations and continents,
relocation specialist, parents groups facilitator, mother of two adolescent TCKs,
and the wife of a Hi-Tech Expat frequent flyer.