With this short text I want to inaugurate a series of reflections about the dreaded questions expat women have to face. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them…
You are at a cocktail party, looking forward to meeting new people, chatting with other expats and inhaling some new air.
The place is crowded: three different languages are being spoken, and you’re excited by the fact that at least ten different nationalities are gathered under one roof. A gorgeous man approaches you.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks cheerfully.
You reply, and politely ask him the same question.
And this is where his dreaded question comes in:
‘So what do you do?’
As a newcomer, you’ll answer that you’re here because of your husband’s job. But by the fourth cocktail party, you realize that this is inevitably followed by a sudden lack of interest, as the gorgeous guy makes a beeline for a long-lost friend at the other end of the room.
So the next time, you try another tack. The dreaded question comes. You answer: ‘I do lots of things: I am on the board of the parent-teacher association at the kids’ school; I’m learning glass-painting; I volunteer in an orphanage; I’m taking a course in Indian cooking. And I’m learning Japanese.’
You’re pleased with yourself. This guy would never be able to do all that, even if he had one less child than me, you think.
But you soon realize that this tactic doesn’t work either.
‘Oh really?’ Mr Gorgeous mumbles, staring straight over your shoulder at some oil company director or United Nations man.
But the experience only makes you stronger: you’re not going to give up. True, you’re not earning a penny, but what you do is as valuable as any paid job. Perhaps you chair a women’s committee that has created an important health project in the filthiest hospital in town. Or you translate article upon article for Amnesty International or Survival. Maybe you’re managing an environmental project.
The next time you’re asked: ‘So what do you do?’ you casually answer that you work for a grey seal protection agency, or that you translate an average of 50 pages per day from English to Arabic and vice versa for a human rights organization.
If you’re lucky, you might at last have managed to impress your interlocutor. You might even have made a new friend. But some people are incorrigibly prejudiced against trailing spouses, so you might get: ‘Can you make a living out of it?’ or, even, ‘Does it pay? And once again, all the wind is taken out of your sails.
After ten cocktail parties you every shred of self-esteem you ever had is destroyed.
Being a trailing spouse often means giving up your own career, and this ‘defines’ you independently from any strategy you might try. But don’t despair: there are solutions, even if only partial.
Solution No. 1: Find a job in your host country. Some women really need a paid job. Without one, they feel frustrated and useless. If you belong to this category, the dreaded question is even tougher to digest. You need to move heaven and earth to find a job.
But it’s not that easy: even if you are allowed to work in your host country (which certainly is not always the case), you’ll still have to find the right job. First of all there is the language problem: if you are lucky and speak the local language well, fine, but if you go to live, for instance, in China, and in order to work you have to speak Chinese, it could be a different matter. Moreover you might be limited by your profession: for instance, if you are an architect, you can work in restructuring houses, but you might not be able to teach.
Let’s assume that these obstacles don’t apply to you: unfortunately, it won’t make much difference. Rest assured that in 90% of cases your work will not change people’s attitude towards you. Why not? Because the jobs that accompanying spouses find once they move to a new host country are considered second-class. The REAL, well-paid, stable work is your husband’s. However, being able to answer the dreaded question by saying that you do paid work is a start!
Solution No 2: Learn not to care what others think. This raises a lot of issues such as the image of women in society, our self-esteem, and our role within the family, which we cannot delve into here.
But generally speaking the ‘I couldn’t care less’ strategy works best for people who approach expatriate life positively, regardless of whether or not they have a job.
My personal experience and that of many spouses I have spoken to has taught me that people’s lack of interest towards ‘non-working spouses’ leads to feelings of deflation and humiliation. Experience, and most importantly, resilience, are the tools that help you develop the ‘water off a duck’s back’ attitude towards those who label you as a trailing spouse.
Which leads us to
Solution No. 3: Campaign for accompanying spouses: next time you are faced with the dreaded question, counter attack with every possible argument about your role.
Until accompanying spouses find the strength to destroy the clichés, people won’t change their attitude.
Accompanying spouses automatically slip into the ‘old-fashioned’ home-making role, which Europe has struggled to change for a long time. But there are elements that make this role different when you’re abroad: for instance, a mother’s presence is hugely important for children who change country and have to face a new language, a new culture, a new environment, and have to build a new group of friends from scratch. They lose all the stability they had at home.
Although people in your host country will sympathize, they don’t realize quite how important this presence is. It’s hardly worth explaining the situation to them: it’s hard to understand, unless you have experienced it first-hand, how far-reaching the issue of altered stability is for a child, and how much time, dedication, energy and commitment mothers need to invest when they arrive in a new country. Of course most kids eventually settle, make friends, and get involved in activities. Mothers can at last breathe a sigh of relief, but it’s a tough, lonely road to get there.
Some women accompany their husbands and have no children with them. They find themselves with a lot of free time. They choose not to work and spend their time on other interests. The experience of living abroad can be a period of training and enrichment in itself. It can be a phase of cultural learning and preparation for future situations in life. You don’t have to receive a salary to grow, learn, progress and discover. You don’t have to to occupy a working place in a defined environment to be able to express your creativity and skills.
So if you meet someone who seems open open-minded, don’t hold back: talk about your role and the way you feel as a nonworking trailing spouse. You will certainly provide fodder for reflection, and little by little you will contribute to changing this sad image of a woman who spends her time drinking tea or sashays about in silk gowns donating second-hand shoes to orphans.