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. “

One more thing I would do differently …

Portable CareersI need to add one more thing to my list of things I would have done differently and that is to read (and re-read regularly) A Career in Your Suitcase which has just been republished by it’s original author, Jo Parfitt, and her new collaborator, Colleen Reichrath-Smith.

If you read an earlier version of Jo’s book, as I did, then don’t think you can skip this new edition.  It has been completely reworked and updated, and Colleen’s contribution as a professional career consultant is considerable..

This book should be mandatory reading for any accompanying partner and I hope HR departments and relocation companies are stocking up on copies, to hand out to the families they work with.  Most first-time expats don’t realize the long-term impact that relocation can have on careers and identities, but this book provides the tools you need to assess, plan and monitor your future life path.

I particularly like the holistic definition of career which is used (adopted from the Canadian Career Development Foundation):

  • Our life path
  • The many roles we play along our life path
  • The process by which we become the authors of our own futures and the creators of our own life stories

I also like the pragmatic “this is how you do it” exercises to help you identify not just your skills and interests, but also those which you can realistically hope to use in your present location, given language, work permit and logistical hurdles so often encountered by expat partners.

While many assume that a perfect portable career is self-employed, working from home, I’m pleased the book now gives equal weight and advice for those seeking regular employment and/or freelance assignments, with plenty of up-to-date advice about networking both in the real world and online.

Jo’s earlier editions were aimed primarily at the partners of those who are relocated internationally, but with Colleen’s input, I would now recommend this book to anyone seeking a career change.  In fact it struck me while reading it that there are now many similarities between the careers of expat partners and Generation Y.  Take this quote, for example from a recent article in Forbes Magazine:

“What do you do?” used to be a simple question. Individuals defined themselves by profession: teacher, engineer, pilot. Or by company: Con Edison, NASA, Kodak. But it was always one job, one identity.

Today’s young professionals, however, aren’t as easily categorized. I still can’t figure out what to prioritize on my LinkedIn profile. I am a journalist, marketing consultant, and co-partner for an Internet company. All are equally important to my identity. And my Millennial-aged peers find themselves in similar situations. I don’t know any Millennial who self-identifies using only one “job.” 

Asking an expat partner what she does is pretty much like asking a TCK “where is home?”  The response is usually at least a sentence, if not a paragraph.

A Career in Your Suitcase is very much a workbook, with the emphasis on ‘work.’ It’s filled with detailed exercises and links to online resources as well as detailed bibliographies for each chapter.  Although I downloaded it first as an ebook, I have now gone back and purchased a print edition and would recommend you do the same.

Career choices and the expat partner: what I could have done differently

Woman Using Computer“If only I’d known then what I know now” is not something I say often, partly because I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk and partly because the world changes so rapidly that often today’s solutions just weren’t available back then.  But an upcoming webinar on portable careers for expat spouses has got me thinking about what I would do the same and what I would do differently with my career, if I were to do it all again today.

Same: I would be a stay-at-home mom until my son finished school.  I am forever thankful that I had an opportunity to be both a working mum (before expatriation) and a SAHM (during expatriation) and to experience the joys and frustrations of both.

Different: I would have studied more while I wasn’t working.  Distance learning when we first went overseas would have been difficult but not impossible, these days it’s just a mouse click away and the choices are almost limitless.

Same: I would study the local language.  Even though I know now that hell will freeze over before I could work in another language, it is such an insight into the local culture and even just a few words and phrases make everyday life so much easier.

Different: I would find a mentor or coach to brainstorm with from time-to-time.  Like many expats I had no idea how long we would live overseas.  Even those who have fixed term contracts often find they are extended or cancelled.  I had never heard the term “portable career” and I didn’t realize that once my spouse had an international resume, more international assignments would follow.  Years slip away before you realize what’s happening.  If I were doing it again I would conduct an annual review of my situation and goals, ideally with someone who has expat experience, an unbiased opinion and enough guts to tell me what I need to hear (in other words, probably not a close friend)!

Same: I would do a lot of volunteer work.  Looking back I can see I learned a hell of a lot doing things I didn’t get paid for and with a bit of creativity they can be made to look quite impressive on a resume. Nobody ever asks how much you got paid. ;)

Different: When I did finally return to the paid workforce overseas I would have looked harder for something related to my original profession.  My personal experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally from other expats, is that starting a new career when overseas often doesn’t translate well when you return home.  I found prospective employers here far more interested in what I did in Canada 15 years ago than what I did in Dubai 1 year ago.  But maybe that’s just me and Canada, and for those who never return to their country of origin it wouldn’t apply anyway.

The webinar, “Creating a Flexible Career for the Accompanying Spouse,” is hosted by a new Canadian group, Spouses Without Borders, but is open to anyone who has an interest in this topic.  It is on Tuesday, January 29 at 8.30am EST (1.30pm UK time) and you can register here.   I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Out of my comfort zone

Scan 11When I tell my friends that I’ve battled shyness most of my life, many of them laugh in disbelief.

I was the toddler who cried when the bus driver said hello to her and I earned the nickname of “Noddy” when I went the entire first semester of school not speaking to the teacher (I would just nod my head).  My mother often recounted the day I finally rushed home “Mummy, mummy, I SPOKE to Miss Dixon!”  “That’s nice, what did you say?”  “Yes, Miss Dixon” I said with pride.

Making friends for me was always a slow and painful exercise but was made much easier once I married a sociable extrovert.  However when we moved overseas, I suddenly found myself alone and friendless while he was at work.  My shy inner-child re-emerged.  Fortunately in most of the places we lived I found friendly fellow expats who reached out and drew me into tight and friendly expat communities.  In time, I felt comfortable enough to extend my own hand of friendship to newcomers and locals alike.

In Dubai I started hosting a weekly coffee morning for expatriate women.  For the first one there were 5 of us (all friends I had coerced to attend) but soon the group grew to 20 or more.  From time to time I had announcements to make, gulp, I was public speaking!

Looking for a portable career, I enrolled in the CELTA course to learn how to teach English as second language.  It was very intense, very hands-on, involving a lot of teaching practice.  To say I was petrified to stand in front of class of 20 Emirati college students is an understatement.  But I did it and I survived.

As a volunteer I got involved organizing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. When I  took over as Committee Chair one of my responsibilities was to take the microphone at the starting line to thank all the volunteers.  As I looked out over a crowd of 12,000 people, my relief that we had a record turnout helped overcome my wobbly knees.

Each of these experiences was a valuable step along the road to overcoming my shyness and none would have happened if we hadn’t moved overseas.

This year I’ve been strong-armed asked to moderate a panel discussion on expat blogging at the Families in Global Transition Conference in March. Fortunately the panelists are well known to me, as (I hope) will many of the audience. Inside that little girl is quaking at the prospect, I just hope I can shut her up with cookies. :)

Online Support Groups: Facebook

546230_60701028In my last post about the Online Coffee group, I mentioned that they also had a Facebook group. It was set up to a) promote the online chats and b) continue the conversation in-between.

Facebook groups are a excellent way to provide free online support for expats.  Why?

  • A large number of expats are on Facebook. 
  • Groups can be ‘open’ (totally public, anyone can join and all posts are visible) ‘closed’ (an admin person grants access and only members can see posts, but someone searching FB can find the group and read its official description) or ‘private’ (similar to ‘closed’ except it cannot be found in search)
  • No matter what the settings, groups “feel” more secure and friendly than FB pages, so conversation flows more freely
  • Posts in groups are more likely to appear on your Home Feed than pages you’ve liked, so they are more visible to members, thus increasing participation
  • Apart from the Expat Partners Online Coffee group, I also belong to the Toronto Newcomers Club FB group, which is restricted to club members only. They have a lot of real world activities, and the FB group represent less than half the members but it offers useful location-specific support such as, “where can I buy…” “have you seen this exhibition… “here are the photos from yesterday’s event …” Some relocation providers and companies set up groups for transferring employees, which sounds like a good idea, allowing families to ‘meet’ prior to departure and exchange information with those already on location.

Search for “expat” on Facebook and then select “Groups” from the left hand sidebar to narrow it down and you’ll find literally hundreds of groups, some with a handful of members and some with thousands.  But if there’s still nothing to meet your needs, why not start your own?  Technically it’s very easy, but there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Choose which kind of group will serve your needs (open, closed, private)
  • Decide who will be eligible to join
  • Create some guidelines for posting and publish them in the group as a document, it may be obvious to you that it’s not appropriate to promote your cousin’s business, but someone’s gonna do it! 
  • More than than one admin is highly recommended. Quite apart from sharing the responsibility, I once deleted myself accidentally and needed someone to let me back in!
  • Someone needs to monitor the group at least once a day, every day
  • At the beginning you need to “seed” the group with posts, images and articles to generate discussion. 
  • Similarly, like and comment on posts to encourage participation

Facebook groups can be a useful tool for offering friendship and mutual support. They work well for people with a shared interest who are separated by distance and also for those who meet face-to-face regularly but still want to connect in between meetings. Just remember to step away from that screen every now and again :)

Expat Partners Online Coffee

After a blogging hiatus that lasted longer than I intended (work, vacation and the ups and downs of life got in the way) I’ve got my mojo back and want to tell you about a very recent online expat support group called the Expat Partners Online Coffee.

It began as a result of a chance remark at the end of an online chat with Global Niche founders Anastasia Ashman and Tara Agacayak and a group of online trailing spouses/accompanying partners/call-us-what-you-will.  We’d had a good conversation about the challenges of expat life and wanted to continue the conversation. Why not a virtual coffee morning? I asked.

Evelyn Simpson, Louise Wiles and I decided to run with the idea and hosted our first online chat in March.  Needing an online space to gather, we started a Facebook group, and since then have held monthly online coffee mornings (or tea, or wine, depending on your time zone).

Each month we set a topic for the conversation, and sometimes we’ve had to continue the topic the following month, as there’s been so much to say.  Although some in the group are professional trainers and coaches, many of us are not.  We are just expat partners, coming together as equals, to share experiences.

The platform we’re using is GoToMeeting, which you may be familiar with. You can access it via the Internet or by phone, using one of many toll-free numbers.  We tried using a service that included video, and it was great to be able to see people as they spoke, but too many of us had problems with the video causing Internet connectivity problems.

Many of the people on the calls have been people I follow online, either through their blogs, their Twitter accounts or on Facebook.  To finally talk with them in real time has been fascinating; it’s amazing how much more information you get through the spoken word.

We’re not going to save the world, or substitute for professional coaching or real world friendships, but so far they’ve been fun, informative and stimulating.

If you’re free next Friday at 8am EST, 1pm in the UK, then do join us for this month’s topic which is ‘Mindset. How does it affect you and your assignment? Can you change it? How does it affect those around you?’  The details are here and the Facebook group, if you’d care to join, is here.

There’s a special place in hell for expats …

… who don’t help other expats.*

When I first moved to Azerbaijan in 1996, the online world was in its infancy, and although the company provided us with practical help (housing, school, shipping, etc) there was no orientation or cultural training. I was on my own. The first expat women I met were wives of my husband’s colleagues working for his company. Another mother of two of the western children at my son’s school was working at her embassy. I frequented the handful of stores catering to westerners and never saw another western woman. In the end I assumed there probably weren’t many non-working expat women like me. Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely.

When I learned that an expat neighbour (also working) belonged to an international women’s club I asked her how to join. She said she’d enquire but came back and told me they weren’t accepting new members at that time. I was devastated. Later I learned that the club had a byelaw about maintaining a balance between local vs expatriate members  and that for a while they suspended taking new members. To this day I don’t know which is worse, that a club for expats should ever close its doors to new members, or that my neighbour didn’t at least offer to introduce me to some of the women outside of club meetings.

Five years and two countries later, I found myself in Egypt. By then, I was a much more experienced and self-confident expat wife.  I thought I knew the ropes.  I joined a thriving expat community centre, took language classes, joined craft and bridge groups, volunteered at my son’s school, did everything to put myself out there and meet people. And while I certainly met lots of people and had a busy life, in the year I was there I never found a group I really wanted to hang out with, or someone I could truthfully call a friend.

Four months after arriving in Azerbaijan a new child arrived at the tiny international school. His mom, a veteran expat wife, quickly sussed out where the other women were getting together and soon I had a circle of not just expat but also local friends, some of whom remain friends to this day.

After a year in Egypt we were transferred to the UAE and a kind company wife immediately phoned and invited me to join a craft group, which became a springboard to all kinds of friendships and opportunities. I never looked back.

These experiences, good and bad have left me forever aware of the importance of support for expat spouses. It needn’t be complex or expensive and sometimes it’s best left to the spouses themselves.  Back home now in Canada and working, I have less time to devote to real-world expat groups and yet I’m finding new ways to connect online. Next example of successful online support groups, coming up ….

*Adapted from Madeleine K. Albright’s quote “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Expat support groups: Forums

(Sorry if you’re receiving this by email for a second time.  I goofed and hit the Publish button before I was ready and then for some reason the post disappeared altogether on the blog.  That’ll teach me to talk to my husband and blog at the same time *sigh*)

If a measure of success is longevity, then the ExpatWoman forum has to high on the list of online support groups for expats. When I moved to the Dubai for the second time, Jane Drury had just launched her website http://www.expatwoman.com (not to be confused with Andrea Martin’s successful website http://www.expatwomen.com).

Jane was a trailing spouse who following her arrival in Dubai had collated a huge amount of information, for fellow corporate spouses and then realized this information was too valuable not to share with the wider world. She launched the website in 2001 and soon found herself overwhelmed with emailed questions about life in the rapidly growing Gulf state. A forum was added to the website and I was one of the early participants, soon answering as many questions as I asked.

In time the website and forum covered the whole Gulf region and these days there are almost 10,000 active members usually with 150-200 people online at any one time and posting every few seconds. Topics vary from the mundane – where to buy grocery items – to the poignant – how to deal with a failing marriage – and everything in between. Although the language of the forum is English, many nationalities are represented and it’s THE source for information for those planning a move to the region as well as those already living there.

Unlike many expat support groups, ExpatWoman is a commercial business. However it has the feel of a volunteer organization and definitely takes its service role seriously. It makes its money from advertising on the website and limited sponsorship of its real world events. As the business has grown so has its staff, predominantly women, and many of them working part-time. I started working for EW just 2 hours a week in 2005 and gradually worked my way up to a full-time position as Events Manager, but as with all small businesses I turned my hand to many tasks, including moderation of the forum.

So what has made this online forum so successful?

1. It’s complemented by a comprehensive website. Anyone looking to learn about life in Dubai (as opposed to tourism) will find their way to this website. Over time it has become an authoritative source of practical information.
2. It’s also complemented by real world events, although it’s important to note that many forum participants never attend events and many who attend the events don’t participate on the forum.
3. The real key to its success, in my opinion, has been a moderation policy which ensures a friendly and helpful tone. As someone who has worked behind the scenes I am well aware of the time this involves. For EW it’s a team effort as the online world runs 24/7. Posters on the west coast of the USA are just starting to post their questions as would-be expat Aussies are hitting the sack.
Maintaining the right tone involves much more than deleting rude comments and spam. It involves creating a safe place where there are no “stupid” questions. Many forum users are not just first time expats, they are also new to the online world, and tart responses, text-speak and “in” jokes can easily intimidate.

What particular benefits does a forum offer over other online communication?

1. Anonymity. The number and regularity of sensitive topics discussed shows that anonymity has its advantages. Posting questions about marital abuse, troubled teens, job loss or even just the embarrassment of loneliness are all good reasons not to want to use your real name.
2. A large volume of posting doesn’t present a problem.
3. Forums usually have a search facility and separate boards can be set up for popular topics to further clarify and define discussions.
4. Moderation can be done easily and precisely. Conversation threads can be precisely edited rather than entire discussions removed and all information lost.
5. A lot of website platforms have a forum option or if you’re willing to tolerate advertising there are many free stand-alone forums out there which require no hosting at all.

In the online world ten years is a lifetime and these days forums are generally considered “old hat.” However the fact that this one continues not just to prosper but to grow demonstrates that they still have much to offer.

Can you recommend any other expat forums?  I’m very slowly working on a project to upgrade the Resources section of the Families in Global Transition website and would love to add your links.

A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.

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.