Claudiaexpat reflects on various aspects of maintaining a career while following a partner who is constantly on the move.
Sometimes I have to remind myself: mine is an accompanying spouse’s career. I conceived, created and developed it, in line with the fact that my husband’s job dictates our movements.
Every time I move to a new country, my career is packed into my suitcase along with everything else. I unpack it on arrival, and start again. I have been doing this for twelve years now. But still, in every new posting, I am amazed by the huge amount of mental and logistic acrobatics it takes to continue working effectively.
Without detracting from the fact that restarting a career in a new place is always interesting, enriching, and a source of new discoveries and opportunities, the frustration of not being able to work immediately or to have to reduce the work pace can become stressful after a while.
It’s great to dive into new scenarios and put them into practice, but sometimes the adventure of setting up in a new place and rebuilding an emotional, social and cultural circle would be enough to achieve the welcome adrenaline rush. I have often wondered how different landing in a new country would be if our career could take off again at the same time and with the same energy as that of our partners.
As an accompanying spouse, I have encountered a number of difficulties in my career:
The unknown local market
In the long run it can be exhausting to face an unknown job market all over again, and invent a way to move professionally within it. Although it would be ideal to develop a mobile career as much as possible online, there are very few jobs that allow us to earn satisfactorily without having some contact with the local surroundings. As spouses, we don’t have much say in the choice of postings offered to our partner, and so we simply have to learn to cope with the idea that we might end up in a place where our products or services are totally unsalable.
This is a point that particularly affects me because I have lived in many countries in which, as an accompanying spouse, I was not allowed work. Of course, there are always solutions. The most sensible is to start procedures to obtain a working visa independent of the one of the partner. In many cases, though, this is a long and difficult process, not to mention the fact that often it entails foregoing some privileges that are very useful in “hardship” posts.
The power is in the hands of the leading career
The economic power that derives from being the principal earner is so strong that it also dictates the pattern of family life. Of course, every couple or family has its own way of managing their own issues, but what I have repeatedly seen in these 30 years living abroad and listening to countless expats around the world, is that it often becomes very difficult to counter the pattern dictated by the main breadwinner’s career. If the main breadwinner gets holidays only in August, and the accompanying spouse is working, this means disrupting the comfortable routine of the whole family. Childcare is the responsibility of the one who has the “weaker” job, for the simple reason that if a career must be sacrificed to spend time with the children or take them to their home country for the holidays, this will be the one that produces less income and gives fewer future guarantees.
Geography must be redesigned constantly
This of course varies according to the career. In my case, as a coach and intercultural trainer, the first area is not affected by relocations because I practice it online. As far as the second is concerned, leaving a country represents a swift and important loss of professionalism. When we specialize in aspects closely related to our host country, or create a pool of local customers, abandoning it means having to reshape our entire image and professional offer. It happened to me in Peru and Indonesia: once I became “expert” in my local cultures, I had to decline interesting job offers on the spot, because my husband’s contract had expired and we had moved on, or just because I had lost familiarity with the daily life of the countries.
This is even more so with young children. While there is nothing strange when those who have a leading career travel here and there, if we do it to keep our career alive, we must embark on an endless string of organizational issues and in some cases we also gain our partner’s disapproval. What I want to say is that there are – I always speak generally of course – a series of unwritten codes that regulate the common management of the family, and economic power weighs heavily on these: to sacrifice children and routines for a career that maybe does not produce as satisfactory an income as that of the partner, can sometimes cause friction in the couple.
In short, as in many other areas of life, when talking about mobile life, the accompanying partner has to work harder to achieve the same results as the main breadwinner, professional satisfaction and a decent income.
The good news is that the number of accompanying male partners is constantly increasing. I am curious to see if they will also be subjected to all of these difficulties in maintaining their accompanying spouse’s career, or if by virtue of being men they will have an easier path. At the moment, my impression is that financial stability is what counts, because even male accompanying spouses have met have to accept a fragmented career and adapt it, often with painful acrobatics, to those of their partners who earn more.
I would like to conclude with a quote from a wonderful woman in my Expatclic. team:
“When you are a mother and wife ‘in tow’ you make immense sacrifices in terms of career dreams, but in the end dreams remain. It’s only that dreams sometimes evolve, take unexpected directions and make you discover aspects of yourself that perhaps you did not know.”
Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)