Taking a career break as an expatriate partner

Stay at home mother and boyIf you’re interested in the topic of accompanying partners and their careers then I’m sure you’ll find this article in the New York Times (The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In) to be of interest.  It’s a follow-up piece to an article written 10 years ago about high-powered women who gave up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers.

Although it’s not about families that relocated, I couldn’t help but see many parallels with expatriate partners, whether or not they have children.

  • Giving up careers
  • Creating meaningful lives around volunteer work and child rearing
  • Financial dependence
  • Changes in the marital relationship
  • Challenges returning to the workforce

These women gave up careers in order to raise their children, but their lives once they did so, sound achingly familiar to those of many accompanying partners.  On the one hand they talk of loss of identity, lowered self-esteem due to financial dependence and difficulty returning to the workforce.  But on the other hand, they experienced improved quality of life, enjoyed spending more time with family and speak of finding meaning in their lives and changed values.

None seem to have regretted it despite the fact that most earn far less money than they did formerly; they believe the positives of the experience were a fair trade-off even though in most cases life did not turn out as expected.

“The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.”

Much is made of the conflicted feelings of these formerly high-powered women and their struggle to return to the workforce which rang a lot of bells with me, as I’ve felt this way myself and know many accompanying partners do too.  Did I throw my career away?  Was the trade-off worth it?  

“What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

We will never know the answer, as it’s not possible to know how things would have worked out if we’d stayed instead of following our partners.  I’m sure some expat partners regret it, but personally I’ve never met one.  Instead I’ll end on this quote, which reflects far better the common response from those who give up a career to follow their partners

“And not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. “

Laugh out loud: Diplomatic Incidents by Cherry Denman

That middle-aged women snorting on the subway this past week was me.  No, I’m not going senile, or at least not yet, I was reading Cherry Denman’s hilarious “Diplomatic Incidents,” billed as the memoir of an (un)diplomatic wife.  Yes, it is a little over-the-top in places, but let’s face it, the life of the average expat, is pretty unbelievable at the best of times.

Although she’s lived in Libya, Cyprus, Hong Kong and China, Cherry opens her story by confessing that she’s not an enthusiastic traveller.

“Abroad means dodgy lavatories and pillows dribbled on by other people.  It means taxi drivers in string vests and baby-faced policemen with guns.  It’s hard work, and it’s sweaty and uncomfortable.”

Cherry takes us in orderly fashion from arrivals and departures, through transport, entertaining, maids, children, health, visitors, home leave and celebrating holidays away from.  If you’ve lived overseas you’ll be familiar with many of the situations she describes, pedantic bureaucracy, unsuitable accommodation, crazy driving and the continual search for familiar foods from home.

And which expat woman would deny the truth in this?

What keep me going are the crowds of slightly lost, homesick, wonderful women I have found wherever I have ended up.  Each one is creating her own small version of her homeland around her and wearing it like a protective snail-shell, tying to make the puzzles of everyday a little easer to cope with.  The simple cry of “Does anyone know where to buy loo paper?” can bond a group of women in a matter of seconds. 

If you like the British style of sarcastic and self-deprecating humour, you’ll find it impossible not to laugh out-loud.  This is definitely not a book to read in a quiet doctor’s waiting room.

My Halloween Howlers

Candy?  Check.  Pumpkin?  Check.  I’m all ready for Halloween.  As a new immigrant to Canada 30-odd years ago, determined to “become Canadian,” I embraced this new and exotic celebration but didn’t always get it quite right.
Soon after arriving I was invited to attend a Halloween party.  What fun!  I looked in my closet to see what I could use as the basis for a costume and my eyes immediately fell on my traditional English duffel coat.  Perfect.  I would be Paddington Bear.  But what I’d overlooked was that this classic British children’s story was almost unknown this side of the pond.  I spent most of the evening explaining who I was to everyone I met.

You really would’ve thought I’d learn from this experience.  But no, a few years later I did it again, this time dressing up as Noddy.  “Are you an elf?” the children who came to the door asked.  I was crushed.  What kind of deprived upbringing had these poor Canadian children had?

When we moved to Azerbaijan, I was determined to share this important part of North American culture with the local students who visited me once a week to practice their conversational English.  All went well as I described the dressing up, candy and pumpkins.  My mistake was to try and explain some of the ancient beliefs behind the celebration.  As I started to talk about spirits rising and walking the earth I could see them eyeing each other nervously and shifting in their seats.  What kind of voodoo was this crazy Kanadka promoting?

Despite my best efforts it seems I really haven’t MASTERED Halloween.  How well have you adapted to celebrations in your new country?

No more goodbyes

As August draws to a close it’s a time of year when many goodbyes are being said. Vacations are over and expats are heading back “home.” It’s also a time when many expat teenagers are packing up and leaving for university, an exciting and scary time for them, and for parents a time of anxiety mixed with pride over their soon-to-be independent offspring. But all involve goodbyes.

Our repatriation two years ago wasn’t planned. As I tried to get my head around it and find the positives in the situation, one of them was that there would be far fewer goodbyes in my life. I had always hated saying goodbye to expat friends as they moved on and goodbyes to my son and friends in Canada after our annual visits. The life of a global nomad is full of goodbyes.

When we set off on our last expat assignment we left our then 18 year old son behind in Canada at university. That was probably the most difficult goodbye of all. As we waited in the front hallway for the airport taxi to arrive, he said wryly “Isn’t it the kid who’s supposed to leave home to start university?” I cried all the way to the airport and the birthday card he sent me, just a few weeks later, didn’t help any either. But the excitement and activity of setting up a new home soon distracted me. At least I was spared the heartache of walking past his empty bedroom every morning.

He has a knack for always choosing great cards. He also calls me “Chief,” reflecting my true status in our family ;-)

We soon fell into a routine of emails and Skype calls, he came to visit us for Christmas, we visited him during the summer. If I count the hours we spent together, we probably had as much time in each other’s company as many non-expat families and yet the goodbyes each time we parted never got easier and the next visit seemed aeons away. I believe expat life brought us closer together as a family. We three were close before we started living overseas and perhaps that helped us to deal with the transitions.  But I also think the shared adversity, dealing with the initial strangeness and loneliness each time we moved, made us more reliant on each other and brought us closer than before. It’s a good thing, except when you have to part.

So my heart goes out to those who are currently saying goodbye and I’m relieved I’m not amongst you. I know it may not always be this way. One day no doubt my son will move away, or who knows, maybe we’ll move away again. But until then I’m happy not to have to say goodbye.

Third Culture Kids starting careers

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a pot luck dinner for a bunch of young adult Third Culture Kids.  Alaine Handa and her dance company were in town, performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and they came together with several others connected with the local TCK community.

As we chatted the conversation naturally turned to these young people’s careers.   All were at some stage on the path to establishing themselves in the working world and several were living outside their home country or not in the same country as their parents.  Anyone with a 20-something child knows how difficult it is these days for young people to get a start.  Getting any job is hard, and there are often many false starts and changes of direction.  From my own family’s experience I know it is hard when kids can’t tap into their parents’ network of contacts, friends and colleagues.  Many TCKs haven’t held part-time jobs through high school and trail competing candidates when it comes to local work experience.

Watching my own son look for his first job, together with my own job search upon repatriation, was an eye-opener for me on how much the working world has changed in recent years.  Internships and contract work are the norm, as are many more part-time jobs with evening and weekend hours than used to be the case.  Employees, even freshly minted grads, are expected to perform “out-of-the-box,” with little or no training and flexibility is key.

While TCKs may lag their contemporaries when it comes to contacts and experience, many of the common characteristics of TCKs will stand them in good stead in this new environment.

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

Far from being at a disadvantage, I suspect that today’s TCKs have a significant advantage over their stay-at-home counterparts.  Certainly these particular TCKs seem to be taking it all in their stride.

A Year in Destination Services

Working as a destination services consultant was an interesting year for me.  Although I knew my home city of Toronto well before I began, I learned a great deal more, particularly about the practicalities of renting a home and obtaining a variety of government documents (social insurance number, health card, driver’s licence, etc).  Never having received destination services during any of our international moves, it was an insight into the kinds of services on offer and how they work.

Most companies offer a menu of services, but they essentially break down into:

  • General Orientation
  • Finding a home
  • Finding a school
  • Government paperwork
  • A few offer spousal support

Before I started the job, I assumed most of my clients would be senior executives, married and with children.  But looking back now over a year’s worth of clients almost 70% of them were in the 25-35 year old bracket, 50% were single and only 25% had children.  Bear in mind, this is a small sample, from one city and one destination services company, so can’t be construed as indicative of the industry as a whole.

By far the most popular service asked for was help in finding a home; rental searches were 80% of my business.   Orientation (usually helping people to narrow down neighbourhoods prior to a rental search) and obtaining government documents were the next most common, comprising about a third of assignments.  One other point to note is that 25% of my clients were domestic relocations and of the remaining international relocations, more than half were moving from the US.

All the clients assigned to me worked for large corporations or organizations and for the most part my relocation company worked in partnership with a relocation company at the departure point.  My assignments came to me via my office, so I had almost no direct contact with either my client’s company or their primary relocation provider.  My point of contact was the transferee themselves and although I could suggest or recommend additional services, for the most part I was told which services to provide and the billable time available.

Some other personal observations:-

  • Most destination services consultants work from home, sometimes (as I did) 100% of the time.
  • Workload fluctuates; for me it was either feast or famine and quite unpredictable.
  • Weekend work is involved, particularly for rental searches, as most clients weren’t able or didn’t want to take time off from their new jobs.
  • Phone calls and emails arrive 24/7 and need to be monitored and answered promptly.
  • Pre and post client contact can be considerable, depending on the client and their circumstances, typically I would put in an additional ½ -1 day of work for each day I spent out with them face-to-face.
  • All the clients I dealt with were polite and pleasant.  Although sometimes things didn’t go to plan I never had a client be rude or angry with me.

If you’re going to succeed and enjoy the work you need to be:-

  • Friendly, communicative and a have genuine desire to help.
  • Very organized as you’ll have to keep track of multiple ongoing files.
  • Detail oriented, particularly when helping clients with government paperwork.
  • Able to think on your feet and deal with last-minute changes of plan.

It was interesting and fun because I like working with people and I had a lot of empathy for my clients’ situations.  I found it challenging and I was always learning, both plus factors for me.  What made me decide to quit and pursue something different was a combination of issues.  Although I knew going in that the workload would vary and involve weekend work, in practice I found that more inconvenient than I expected.  Probably if I had young children, I’d have appreciated the flexibility more and that would have balanced it out.  But what surprised me was how isolated I felt working remotely all the time.  Although I’ve worked part-time from home in the past I’ve always spent some of my week the office.  So another thing this job taught me is how much I value in-person interaction with colleagues.

When I started, I described destination services as “A great job for a trailing spouse” and I stick by that claim.  It just wasn’t the right job for THIS trailing spouse but I’m still really glad I had a chance to try it out.

Expatriate Time Travel

I didn’t expect to travel through time as well as space when we first moved overseas.  Yet that’s exactly what happened when I gave up my job moved overseas to Azerbaijan with my husband and 9-year-old son.  Not only did I move almost 6,000 miles I also travelled back 30-odd years to a time when mothers stayed home, cooked from scratch and met their friends for coffee mornings and afternoon tea.

According to the oft-quoted Permits Foundation survey, of the women who follow their men overseas 90% work before they leave, but only 35% work while they’re on assignment.  I willingly gave up working because at the time I was close to burn-out.  My husband travelled internationally frequently and often for weeks at a time, I had a child who was usually the last to be picked up from daycare yet had reached an age when he needed a parent to support him with homework, I had a house and a large garden to care for and no extended family for support.  So the chance for some time out was just as good an opportunity for me as the career move was for my husband.

I found myself in a place where convenience food didn’t exist, where people still shopped at the markets on a daily basis and no-one had heard of 24/7.  In other words, I became my mother, circa 1960.  It was a huge culture shock, quite apart from the fact that I was in another country.  Thank goodness I had the sense to bring my mother’s edition of “Cookery Illustrated and Household Management “ 1936 edition.  Although I’d often laughed at those instructions that began  “Draw, singe and truss a medium-sized turkey . . . “ I now welcomed the detailed instructions for home-made soups, stews and baked goods.

So what did I learn other than sage & onion stuffing and macaroni and cheese don’t have to come from a box?  Well I instantly noticed an improved quality of life for all 3 of us.  My son went from reading at a grade 2 level to a grade 4 level in less than 6 months.  My husband could enjoy 2 full days of relaxation at the weekends instead of running around with me doing chores.  And I caught up on 9 years of sleep deprivation, worked out on a regular basis, had time to explore my new surroundings and developed a wide circle of  friends.

Looking back, I can see that the volunteer work I threw myself into was an attempt to satisfy the professional working woman in me and I always cringed whenever I faced a form with the box every expatriate spouse dreads:  “Occupation.”  Yet it took a surprisingly long time for coffee mornings to wear thin and a genuine desire to return to the working world to surface.

I’ve just started a new job (my 3rd since repatriating 2 years ago).   Since returning home I’ve travelled forward in time to a place where many of my contemporaries hold high level, professional positions and my struggle to find a niche in the working world has not been easy.  My new position is part-time and not particularly well-paid or high status and yet I’m happy with it, for me, for now because it gives me the best of both worlds I’ve lived in.  I’m very fortunate that living overseas and “time travel” gave me the opportunity  to try out another way of living and the wherewithal to continue to do so now that I’m back.

A postscript on commuting

Since mentioning Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners as a topic to be discussed at the upcoming Families in Global Transition Conference I’ve heard news of 3 expat girlfriends currently living apart from their husbands.  All are repatriated,  have husbands working away and have been married for many years.  Their reasons for living apart are varied – children in need of support, elderly parents, spending time with grandchildren – but all are struggling with marital conflict to a greater or lesser degree.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had friends in this situation and the commuting assignments may not be entirely to blame, but there’s no doubt that living apart puts a huge strain on any relationship, even a long term one.  After the conference I’ll report back on what I learned and add to my original post on this topic.

There are huge implications for accompanying partners when marriages fail, particularly if they’ve been out of the workforce for many years.  It’s a fictional account, but Robin Pascoe’s blogella about a divorced expat woman will ring painfully true for many.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

Meet Father Frost

I first met Father Frost (Ded Moroz – Дед Мороз) in the early 1990’s.  My husband brought him home from one of his many business trips to what was then called the FSU (Former Soviet Union).   I was enchanted; I loved his “orthodox” outfit and typically Soviet naivety.  Of the many gifts my husband was given during his travels (which ranged from exquisite china to a shovel built for a midget) he was my favourite.

Although the roots of Father Frost go back to pagan beliefs, over the years he adopted traits from Saint Nicholas and latterly has essentially become the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus.  The main differences are that he brings gifts at New Year, rather than Christmas and is accompanied by Snow Maiden, his grand-daughter.  All this was explained to me several years later when we moved to Azerbaijan.  A group of university students used to visit me once a week to practise their conversational English and from them I learned a lot about Azerbaijan and Soviet Union traditions.

The first two years we were in Baku we travelled to spend Christmas with family.  But the last year we decided to celebrate “at home.”  It was a bit of a challenge as all our Christmas decorations were in storage in Canada and there was nothing in the local stores.  Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and even the few Russians living there who were Christian would not be celebrating until January 7, the Orthodox Christmas.  Fortunately a departing expat gave me a small table-top tree, but I think my students realized that I was missing many of the traditions from home.

The few expats who were in town got together on Christmas Day for a pot-luck dinner at a friend’s apartment.  Afterwards we lit candles, dimmed the lights and sang carols. It was a simple yet memorable evening.  But the icing on the cake that year was a knock on my apartment door on New Year’s Eve.  Yes!  Who should it be but Father Frost himself and Snow Maiden.  Bahruz, one of my students and his girlfriend had travelled across town, carefully donning their outfits in the stairwell of my apartment building.  We laughed and hugged as I let them in.  I was so impressed that they had gone to all that trouble to surprise me.

Every year as I unpack my Christmas decorations they bring back happy memories – the tarnished baubles from my childhood, the beautiful blown glass ornaments I bought in Egypt, the clumsily sewn decorations I made at Stitch ‘N Bitch in Dubai – yet the one that makes me smile the most is Father Frost.

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