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deuil en expatriation

Kirsten is the ex “Kirstenexpat”, the dynamic and clever woman that launched, a long time ago, the anglophone section of Expatclic. Five children, a full and rich life always on the move, Kirsten comes back from time to time to visit the website, to whom unfortunately she has no longer time to devote, and this time she sends us a witty but deep reflection on the condition of the trailing spouse from the Philippines, that she is about to quit for new adventures…

Thank you Kirsten, and good luck for your future destinations!


I wanted to write something short and witty on this subject, but as with all things that make my blood boil, it’s hard not to come across as a demented ought-to-be-committed lunatic. Please excuse me while I vent.

It happened again last week

My husband and I had bumped into another expat couple we know slightly and started chatting. The men got involved in talk about work, the other woman and I compared what our day as a trailing spouse had been like. You know, the usual complaints of household staff, traffic, the kids’ overloaded after-school schedules, termites in the kitchen, etc.

The men started to listen in on our little grumblings. One of them then turned to the other and, with a knowing smirk, remarked ”Yes, yes it must all be so terribly difficult for the ladies. But honestly, in my next life I would LOVE to come back as an expat wife”.

I hasten to add that it was not MY husband who said this. He does value his time on this planet enough to know that that comment, which I have heard uttered from Lima to Brussels to Manila and places in-between, is sure to make me react in a most explosive manner. I consider it to be one of the most insulting and demeaning things you can say to me.

Whenever a man says this

Whenever a man says this, it means he has a warped view of what an expat trailing spouse’s life is actually like. To him, it must be Nirvana having live-in household staff read every desire off your lips, meeting other fascinating women with whom you spend all day shopping and drinking coffee, having a driver, chauffeur, your kids around, getting to take unlimited golf and tennis lessons, enjoying a fabulously long vacation every summer, and of course all those great short trips to nearby countries whenever the mood strikes. Yes, I too would like to come back as a woman whose life looks like that. Unfortunately, I have never met a single expat trailing spouse (female) whose day-to-day existence resembles this fantasy in any way, shape, or form.

Some of the things we give up

Let’s start with some of the things many expat wives give up to follow a man to his new posting: a sense of rootedness and connections to her immediate society, closeness to her family and life-long friends, inside information about the best doctors/hairdressers/tutors/vet/you-name-it, confidence in making the best schooling decisions for her children, her standing in the community, perhaps a great job or career, being able to speak and think in her own language all day, a sense of purpose/self-esteem, deeply-valued volunteering opportunities, an independent income, perhaps close affiliations with her church.

What we have to put up with

And then let’s take a look at what the trailing spouse has to put up with on a daily basis which would not happen in her own environment (I can cover this briefly as most of you reading this rant will know 3000 other things to add here): household staff who can be rude, passive-aggressive, careless with treasured family heirlooms and favourite items of clothing; a culture she does not understand and which may not be welcoming; children who are rebelling and conforming to the norms of this new society which scare her; the dangers of kidnapping, trigger-happy policemen and constant low-level crime; frustrating discussions with schools about internationally accepted standards; regular and complete breakdowns in electricity, internet and even telephones; the exposure to local diseases such as dengue and the fear that any medicines needed will not be available; the sense that every shopkeeper is taking advantage of your naivety and good nature. You get the picture.

Difference between expat men and women

Of course the expat men do not have easy, cushy lives here either. But their exposure to stress is still quite different. When an expat mother is stuck in traffic, she cannot sit back and watch a movie on her i-pod. Most likely she will be doing the driving herself while 3 kids are whining in the back that they need to pee/eat something/throw up. When an executive is frustrated that his assistant has filed something in the wrong place, there is usually someone else in the office to help him finds what he needs.

But an expat wife will be left howling in frustration when the gas men finally bring a refill tank only to connect it to the wrong pipe and blow up the stove. Or the husband complains that the baby was up all night crying with an ear infection and the expat mother has to explain that the simple operational procedure which would spare the child so much pain is unavailable in this country.

I was an expat kid

I was an expat kid, then employed internationally, and am now an expat trailing spouse. I LOVE living overseas and really take advantage of the many positive things this life can bring us. But the lifestyle I have chosen isn’t always easy: many things in my daily life bother me and sometimes upset me quite deeply. And who can I talk to about this? Certainly not friends and family left behind, who are simply unable to comprehend our new lives. Not locals I’ve met in the new country.

And if my husband is convinced that my life is just a bed of roses, I can’t even talk to him. How incredibly depressing and isolating. That is why friendships with other expat women become such an absolute necessity. So when I do connect with another expat spouse in whom I feel I can confide my worries and frustrations, it’s fantastic – until 6 months later when her husband gets transferred. Bye bye any sense of security or permanence.

Both expat husbands and their trailing spouses have good days and bad ones, brilliant experiences and some quite disastrous moments. However, I have never heard any expat woman patronize an internationally mobile man by saying that she thinks he was stupid to give up his former life, has no respect for what he has accomplished, and sees no added-value in what he does every day. But every time a man says “In my next life I want to come back as an expat wife”, that is exactly what he is telling me. Even if he says it with a smile.


February 2010
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