The Expat Wife and the Career Breakdown

Expat Wife Gustav Klimt's The Kiss in a jigsaw puzzle

I was thinking a lot about being an ‘expat wife’, and then I came a cross an article which talked about how Frida Kahlo was described as the ‘Wife of Master Mural Painter’. The point of the article was that if someone as legendary as Kahlo was described in terms of being ‘someone’s wife’, and yet went on to leave a legacy that surpassed her husband’s, then there’s hope for all of us…

But it wasn’t until I moved abroad that I felt like ‘someone’s wife’. Yes, I was married, but I never felt defined by my marital status. A wife, yes, but also a mother, a career woman, an expert multi-tasker, a sister, a friend.

What happened to my career?!

And then we moved, and I was no longer a ‘career woman’. I had hoped to continue my job from Bangkok, but that didn’t work out. Forget ‘culture shock’. For me, biggest shock was this: I didn’t have a job anymore. Work was always a big presence in my life – it was a part of who I was. And then suddenly, it wasn’t. It was like losing a part of the jigsaw puzzle that made me me.

So there was a change in how I was perceiving myself, but also a change in how I was perceived. I’m sure I’m not the only female expat to have been asked – before any questions were asked about me – ‘So, what does your husband do?’ I don’t think I even answered, I was so convinced I’d been transported back to the 1950s. But then, when asked what I ‘did’… all I could think was ‘I don’t do anything anymore’. That what I was – wife and mother – was not enough…for them or, even worse, for me. I was just another expat wife.

I felt I had to point out to people that I used to have a career, that I did used to do something ‘interesting’, once upon a time. That I didn’t just aspire to be a housewife. That I was…more.

I don’t want this to sound like I am playing the victim. I want to say quite clearly – for a while, I DID play the victim, if only in my head. The feeling like all this change had been ‘done’ to me. That I had sacrificed my career for my husband’s. That I had given up working to be at home with the kids – and the little monkeys weren’t even grateful!

And it strikes me now, that the issue wasn’t the idiot asking me about my husband’s job; wherever you go, there will always be people who think you are what you do – or rather, you are what you earn. The issue was me. I was thinking about myself as ‘just an expat wife’ and getting all bugged about it. I was limiting myself.

‘The Expat Wife’ – not a career choice, but definitely a job!

There are loads of reasons why expat women don’t work. Often, it’s impossible to get a work visa. Or you don’t speak the local language. Or you’ve just had a baby. Or your husband is literally never at home and there’s got to be someone around to keep the children alive. Or the school finishes so early that you could only manage a job for four hours a day – you know, that dream job, as common as rocking horse poo – because otherwise you’d have to get help to look after the kids, because you have no-one to rely on…and when you’re in Germany, when you add up the tax implications, and the costs of additional childcare and the fact that actually you’re not very employable because you can’t speak German anyway…it gets to the point where you think – why am I even contemplating this?

And let’s cut to the chase – having someone at home, doing all the practical as well as the emotional work of keeping a family stable as they move to a new place, is worth its weight in gold. But it can be hard to remember when that ‘someone’ is you. When your husband just goes off to work and the reality of his days hasn’t changed much, and you are left to navigate a new place, with no mates, whilst coming to terms with the numbing realisation that you are no long sitting in board meetings, you are sitting on the sofa feeling bored at the prospect of yet more laundry…

But. As we women have realised, ‘having it all’ is a myth. And for all my working friends – I know they feel like they miss out too. Like they want to be more involved at school but seriously how can you possibly do that when you are in meetings all day and have a hectic travel schedule? I know these women beat themselves up as much as us no-longer-in-the-job-market women.

This is not about working vs not working though. This is about realising that the career path you were on has suddenly come to a stop sign – because of a decision you have willingly made.

Time for a mindset change

It’s another psychological shift that’s needed. Stopping working isn’t a dead end. It’s a change of route. A plot twist. A chance to do something different. A gift.

And when I started to see this no-job-sitiuation as something precious that I had been given, rather than something that had been taken away from me, things started to change.

We are not ‘just’ anything – neither wife, nor mother nor expat. We are all these things and more.

So here it is: I am not working at the moment and I am grateful for it. Because I’m seeing this as an opportunity. I am not employed, but I am definitely not ‘just an expat wife’. I’m my own boss.

And while I would love to reveal myself as an artistic genius a la Frida Kahlo – ‘So that’s what she’s been doing with her time!’ – unfortunately I most certainly am not. But I’ve had the chance to work on myself – definitely not a masterpiece, and a long way from being finished – and accept the situation I’m in with appreciation for all the opportunities it has brought me and continues to bring.

Turns out that ‘lost piece’ of the jigsaw puzzle wasn’t ‘career’ after all. It was acceptance…it just took me a little while to find it.

‘Feet what do I need you for, when I have wings to fly?’

Frida Kahlo

18 Comment

  1. Rika says: Reply

    Becci you are not alone and as always found the right words. Very surely most expat wives will share the above mentioned emotions. My experience arriving in Bangkok was not as hard but I was already on parental leave for 4 years and just on the edge of getting back into work life. So when we made the decision to leave it was nearly perfect timing. Kids have not started school back home yet and I wasn’t back in a job that I would miss. However the “what is your husband doing?” Question is very familiar to me too and I am happy to answer but it’s also nice if once in a while I can “jump” back and tell people about what I have been doing in my professional life. Because this is a big part of my life and my personality. 😘

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much Rika. I also think for a lot of us this ‘not working’ period goes on for longer than we perhaps anticipated. And you should tell people about your work life – it was interesting! xx

  2. Maru says: Reply

    I absolutely relate and love this one Becci, I love how you used Frida Kahlo in your writing as I admire her very much and wish I had also that streangth and convinction she had against all odds… like all of us moving abroad and finding yourself against all odds..
    Lots of love my lovely friend, miss you always ❤️

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you my lovely friend. I admire Frida Kahlo so much, and like you say – what strength of character! Sending lots of love back to you, miss you lots x

  3. genelle sharples says: Reply

    Hi Rebecca
    Truer words…I struggled as well. My best tip – I stopped asking everyone (including the blokes) what they “do”. It was driving me crazy – the idea that we are defined by our jobs is a nonsense.
    I ask people “what would you be doing today if you were at home?” and “what do you like to do when you’re on holidays?” and so on… much better insights into what people are interested in and makes it so much easier to find your tribe. It’s been 3 years here and I still don’t know what any of my friends or their husbands do for work! haha Have met some extraordinary kind and interesting people who will be my friends long after we leave Dubai. And that’s why I love blending travel and work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Nellie

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Nellie! I think this is a good way of looking at it…better to ask ‘What do you love to do?’ than just ‘What do you do?’ And for me definitely this time away has allowed me to do more of what I love…

  4. I can relate to this as a non expat too. My family didn’t make it impossible but certainly made it difficult to continue my career as I had known it. It took me a very long time to come to terms with the fact I no longer had a job and the independence associated with that. I felt very judged but ultimately I think it was mostly me judging myself. However now the children are a little older that loss of career has opened up new doors for me and I have found some self worth somewhere else. I’m not sure anyone else has seen a difference as no one was ever quite as bothered about my being a house wife, dependent mother as I was.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      I think that’s exactly it – no-one is judging you as hard as you are judging yourself! I think we all need to be a bit kinder to ourselves – I definitely never saw you as ‘just’ as a housewife! If we were as nice to ourselves as we are to our friends…that would be a good start x

  5. Lucy says: Reply

    I love your style of writing. You’re so talented with the way you express your feelings and all the connections you make.
    I was fortunate enough to find our transition to BK very easy as I was looking forward to giving up a rather stressful full time role. However when we moved back here I found it hard to begin with finding my position as i’d only ever worked here, as did all my friends. Thanks for putting it all into words! Now I feel very fortunate to be working in a part time/flexible position that allows to also manage the home.
    When’s the next article?!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much Lucy. I think you’ve hot the nail on the head – flexible and part time is the holy grail of working for me! Next article…hopefully next week, not quite as fast at this as I would like! x

  6. Jodie says: Reply

    Becci, I know I will meet you someday because Lucy is a very close friend of mine. This post is amazing. I love your writing and Frida Kahlo rocks! What you said is so true and something that few of our friends from ‘home’ will ever be able to relate to, but this is our life. You can try to explain it but the minute you say you aren’t working, people feel no remorse. As wonderful as it seems, at the beginning it is tough! And having no children makes it that much more interesting! (we don’t have children!) Giving up your career and your profession is not easy. But I hope we ‘traveling spouses’ can unite wherever we are and help one another. Can’t wait to read more of your wonderful blogs xx

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      So nice to hear from Jodie, i have heard a lot about you! Thanks so such for your comments, I think you are right. It has also been my experience that other women in the same position as me have been helpful, supportive and inspiring. One of the biggest plus points of moving is the people I have met…and hopefully one day I’ll get to meet you, too! x

  7. Isabela says: Reply

    This post is amazing! It was all that I was needing to read today, even the coments. So inspiring! Thank you!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much…really glad you enjoyed it & I appreciate you taking the time to comment 🙂

  8. Michelle says: Reply

    Thank you for this–perfectly expressed! I’m about to enter year two as the “trailing spouse” and still struggling with trying to justify my existence when people ask “what brought you here?” followed by “and what do YOU do here?”

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you! I try so hard to avoid asking those questions now. Because, isn’t it more interesting to know what people are passionate about, or what book they are reading, or where they have travelled to recently? x

  9. Sharon says: Reply

    Your writing inspires me! You manage to outline the expireance of many carreer woman stragling with change. Also great to find through it some realistic hope in the situation. Thank you!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Sharon! I feel like this is a practically inexhaustible topic…and one that took me quite a long time to get my head around! I really appreciate your comment, thank you 🙂

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