When your partner is offered a career enhancing opportunity abroad and you decide together to take the step, the family will enter a whole new phase in family life.
If you are happy to leave your job behind and look forward to spending more time with the family and building a new life in the expat community in your new country, you will probably have a great time.
However, many accompanying partners are happy to take the step but are not too sure about spending the next so-many-years of their lives as a supportive partner and parent without a professional life of their own. They would really like to also have the opportunity to work, set up their own business or get actively involved in unpaid work.
Often, the first few months will be spent on settling in the family, getting the kids up and running in their new school, getting the house organised and building a social network. But once all this is on track, usually after about six months, there is this choice of: shall I continue like this and enjoy expat life, just like most of the other expat partners, or do I really want to restart my professional life.
Many expat partners stay in this phase for quite a while. They look around and see that finding this job or another professional role that they would like to get involved in, is not easy to come by. And in the meantime, the demands of the family and the pull of social life is working against their professional aspirations.
The pull from family and social life
Overseas assignments are generally a step up in the working partner’s career and they need to focus on their new role and get used to this new country and the different business culture. Their jobs are often full-on and can also involve frequent travel. The stability of having one stay-at-home parent means that the working partner can focus on work and does not need to worry about anything at home. This makes life a lot easier for the working partner.
The children probably attend international school where there is ample opportunity for the stay-at-home parent to get involved. Also, the children won’t complain because having Mum or Dad available at all times to taxi them around to sports events and other activities is very convenient.
Because the working partner is busy, developing a social life is often left to the stay-at-home spouse. They meet other parents at school or at social or sports clubs and the working partners gratefully join in with weekend social activities that have been organised by the spouses.
Clearly, as a stay-at-home expat partner, there is plenty to do that is very much appreciated by spouse and children.
However, the stay-at-home partner may feel that these roles are important but does not necessarily find them fulfilling. Over time this can lead to dissatisfaction, resentment and a strain on the marriage.
If the pull to a professional life of their own is there, it is important to make a clear decision and set concrete steps to work towards finding a fitting role. Going ‘halfway house’ is often unsuccessful and leads to more frustration and resentment.
To decide how strongly you feel about creating your own professional life, here are four considerations to take into account:
Are you happy following other people’s agendas? The support that you give the family on this assignment abroad is important and very much appreciated, but how much fulfilment does this give you? When you look at yourself and the life that you are living, is this you? How comfortable are you with leading a reactive life?
‘Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.’
You have all heard this on the aeroplane on your way to your new country. To be able to be the best spouse and parent you can be, you need to be happy and fulfilled yourself. An angry and resentful spouse and parent does not support a happy family life and will, over time, lead to family crisis. You need to create a fulfilling life for yourself and if that involves other activities than looking after spouse, house and children, you need to make sure you fulfil those needs.
Kids’ needs and wants
There is a clear distinction between children’s ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. As a parent, you want to make sure your childrens’ needs are met. However, if you look at all the time you spend on your children, is this all needed or is it just convenient for them and a good time filler for you? Is it always good for children to have a parent readily available at all times? What message does this send to the children? This leads to the next point.
What role model do you want to be for your children? Do you want your children to learn that the role of one parent is to dedicate their lives to the children and housekeeping, or do you want your children to see that both parents, and therefore, both genders, can have a professional life, away from childcare and domestic chores?
How do you feel about being financially dependent on your partner? In most cases, the working expat partner earns a good income and there is no need for additional funds. However, some partners feel a strong need to be financially independent. Perhaps not fully independent, but to, at least, feel they are able to bring in some money.
If, after careful consideration, you have decided that your life at home in a supportive role is meaningful to you and gives you enough fulfilment, then there is no reason to let anyone tell you otherwise.
However, for the spouses who have decided that this life is not fulfilling and that they want to build their own professional lives, they need to gear up for the next step.
Investing time and money to achieve your goals
Many expat partners say that they want to work, but when it comes to it, they are not taking the actions needed to identify employment opportunities or set up their own business. They are still hanging in between this life of supporting others and taking control of their own lives.
Taking control of your own life means investing in alternatives for childcare when needed, for domestic help where necessary and other arrangements so that you can free yourself up to focus on your professional life. It also means investing in yourself with time and money. This investment can be for personal development through relevant courses and coaching to help you get where you want to be. It can also involve investment in administrative scriveners to sort out a work visa or company set-up. Without the appropriate investment, you cannot expect to achieve your goals.
If you continue to support everyone else and don’t invest in your needs to develop your own professional life, the road to fulfilment will probably be a very long one.
Wendela Elsen has been an expat partner for more than 20 years. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Taiwan, Japan and now in the UK. She has been professionally active for most of that time in different capacities. She now works as a coach and helps expat and repat partners find meaningful and fulfilling ways of using their professional skills and experiences, be it in paid work or otherwise. You can read more about her work on her website https://openrabbit.com