LAMENT OF A TRAILING SPOUSE
In the first of our PERSONAL OPINION posts, thingstodoingeneva editor, Chené Koscielny shares her thoughts on the woes of being an expat wife.
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Being a trailing spouse – is a label I wear with serious discomfort like a scratchy jumper bought in haste but too expensive to chuck away.
This label belies many of the core values I treasure – such as a fierce independence and a deep belief in equality.
Yet, when I fell in love at the age of 27 and chose (yes, it was a choice) to marry someone from a different culture with more earning potential (not difficult, I was a journalist after all), I quit my job and jumped on the next plane without a second thought to follow him to a foreign land. Let me hasten to say – I don’t regret my choice, but I did pay a personal price that at times was difficult to bear.
COFFEE MORNINGS AND TIPSY LUNCHES
For many years the trailing spouse label has condemned me to what sometimes felt like secondhand citizen status with an endless stream of coffee mornings, tipsy ladies’ lunches and book clubs which have more to do with bubbly than books. (Don’t ban me from the book club – till you’ve read till the end). I DO enjoy a giggle and a tipple as much as the next expat wife, but sometimes after too many of these utterly enjoyable, yet also somewhat empty activities, I usually feel a familiar emptiness gnawing at the core of my soul.
“Spoilt!” I hear you mutter. Sure, but the reality is that being the trailing spouse – like a puppy following its master on a leash, is not always easy. (Puppy image credit to localpupplybreeders.com)
Giving up my early career as a successful journalist in South Africa – has caused me much heartache over the years, as I settled for ‘lesser’ roles in a serial attempt to reinvent myself with every move for my husband’s career.
Sure, this has arguably been the best for the family, though I’m not always sure it is the best example for my daughter – and a part of me will always wonder – “Was this decision good for me?”
“Selfish!” I hear you shout. Maybe, but selfishness is yet another label often applied to women that makes my neck itch.
What this naive 20-something young wife didn’t realise, blinded by romance, is that, in deciding to become an expat wife, I not only sacrificed my job, but also my future career, my passion, my dreams and to some extent my identity.
HELPING IN THE SOUP KITCHEN MAY NOT BE ENOUGH
I’m aware that sounds winge-y, but I’ve met enough unfulfilled expat wives to know I’m not alone. Of course, it applies to expat husbands too – but they’re still only a sprinkling – even in this modern age.
Travelling, seeing the world and exploring different cultures is exciting for sure, but add to that the pressures of settling a family with little or no support and learning a new language and ‘my dreams’ were soon buried under a mountain of everyday crises. By the time I looked up, I’d been 10 years out of the job market.
“Why don’t you find a job?”
Many careers not only require fluency in the local language, but also additional studies or a contact book that takes years to build. Available jobs often entail a big step, if not sheer drop, down the career ladder.
Kind advice often is to bury your degrees and aspirations and help out at the kids’ school or the soup kitchen or do a language class. This will make you feel useful again. Without dissing any of these things – there are many positives to them – let me just say that as noble and rewarding as these pursuits might be, they’re unlikely to provide you with the same mental stimulation, challenges, financial reward, status and fulfillment my husband enjoys from his full-time, professional job.
Of course, he works hard every day providing for the family, but so many times I’ve been tempted to carjack his taxi on the way to a work conference, rather than being left to find my ‘true purpose’ surrounded by dirty dishes and crying babies prepping for another coffee morning.
FLEEING THE GOLDEN CAGE
Which brings me to independence – not having your own money is never a great situation to be in, is it? Ask any long-in-the-tooth expat wife trapped in an unhappy marriage with no nest egg. This particular misery is not limited to expat wives, but if you’ve ever tried to navigate your way through international divorce laws, you’ll know that being an expat spouse makes it even more difficult to flee the gilded cage.
A HAPPY ENDING
You’ll be happy to know that this story does have a happy ending and overall I have made the best of the opportunities, many of which I created for myself.
So, what advice would I give my 20-something self? Apart from choosing to be the breadwinner – which would definitely be my first choice in a next life – my advice is this: Don’t lose yourself and keep reinventing yourself.
BE SELFISH, UNAPOLOGETICALLY!
I’d tell my young self this:
“Invest in yourself, study, learn new skills, get support to allow you the time you need. Don’t feel guilty about it and most definitely don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Be selfish. Unapologetically. You deserve to protect and follow your dreams. No-one else will.
This way you’ll give yourself a fighting chance of finding something meaningful to do – maybe even discovering something more enriching than your original dreams. It’s never too late.
Learn the language, drink bubbly, eat cake, help in the soup kitchen by all means, but never give up on being the independent, best, strongest woman you can be. I raise my glass of bubbly to you – cheers!
PS. Please may I still come to book club next week?