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?’