The 10 worst things about being an expat wife

The 10 worst things about being an expat wife

Feeling all alone in Bordeaux.

It seems only fair, after writing earlier this week about the joys of being an expat wife, that I should give equal time to the dark side. Here, then, are the 10 worst things about being an expat wife:

1. Frankly, the “wife” part. Being a permanent “plus one” becomes wearying at times, and that feeling of being dismissed as an afterthought seems to intensify in expat circles. It was especially frustrating in Singapore, where I couldn’t get a single utility company to talk to me because my name wasn’t on the contract. Whenever something needed fixing, Chef Boyardee was invariably off in a different time zone — either on a plane, in a meeting, fast asleep, or otherwise unreachable. I never once managed to breach the inviolable wall of “so sorry, Mrs. Michael, but Mr. Michael needs to call us.” Asking politely, wheedling, threatening, crying hysterically — nothing worked.

2. Forced career break. This wasn’t an issue for me, but it certainly is for many women and men who move overseas in support of their spouse’s career. Laws preventing the accompanying spouse from working in the host country are often cited as the number one reason international assignments are turned down. The Permits Foundation is doing wonderful work in nudging countries toward rethinking their legislation in this area. The fact remains, however, that too many dual-career couples are shafted when it comes to expatriation.

3. Logistics/red tape. ‘Nuff said.

4. Isolation. And its partner, loneliness. It’s worst in the early days of a relocation, when you have neither a social network nor the slightest clue how to function in this crazy place you’ve moved to. Language definitely plays a role, but it’s not the only culprit. One of the most surprising revelations of expat life is that you can be surrounded by a million people and still be completely alone.

5. Being far from home. It’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because moving away from all that’s familiar is exactly what allows you to experience a world that isn’t. A curse, because moving away from all that’s familiar tends to leave you unmoored and a little fragile, which is not always a pleasant feeling.

6. The revolving door. It never fails: you move to a new country and make a friend. Not just any friend, but a great friend, the best you’ve ever had. Once you’ve arrived at the point where you’re swapping clothes and finishing each other’s sentences, she packs up and leaves for the next assignment. (Or you do, which is just as bad.) Making friends with host country nationals has its own issues: many are hesitant to put the effort into an expat friendship with a built-in expiration date, and who can blame them? As an expat, it’s understood that saying goodbye is part of the deal… but that doesn’t make it any easier.

7. Struggling with language and culture. The old rules don’t apply. The new rules don’t make sense. And everything was easier back home. Well, of course it was — you’ve been internalizing the norms of your passport culture since birth. Now you feel as though you’ve regressed back to that infantile stage, and that’s not a comfortable place for any self-respecting adult to be.

8. Watching your children flounder. Being a third culture kid comes with tons of benefits, but it’s not all plain sailing. While it’s true that children are adaptable, they still experience the challenges and frustrations of acclimating to a new culture. Most expat kids eventually find their way, but some do go off the rails. As parents, there’s a lot we can do to support and guide our children through the initial stages of culture shock and adjustment, but we can’t actually do it for them. The heartache comes from stepping back and letting them work through the hard stuff on their own.

9. Outsiderness. Some people don’t mind the sensation of being on the outside looking in (Tom at Expat Alley wrote a neat post about it), but others find outsiderness and its distant cousin, rootlessness, unnerving. I think the need to belong is a strong one — and by “belonging” I mean experiencing the peace that comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

10. Guilt and worry. Are we ever truly free of this gruesome twosome? The decision to move overseas is a monumental one, with far-reaching implications. There’s always something to feel guilty about, and even more to worry about: adjustment, safety, and career issues in the host location, family issues back home, the usual inventory of marital and financial concerns that pop up no matter where you’re living — the list is endless, and expatriation only adds to it.

It’s true that no situation is perfect, and I’ve spent this week mulling over the best and worst aspects of being an expat wife. Today was a bit of a downer, I’ll admit. But it was a useful exercise: when I put my two lists side-by-side and weigh up the pros and cons, I’m more convinced than ever that being an expat wife is a damn good gig. What are your thoughts?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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20 Responses to The 10 worst things about being an expat wife

  1. Judy says:

    Oh boy, you’re going to end the week on a downer? 😦 Well if we’re getting into the negative stuff, let me add:

    11) Living constantly in a state of impermanence. Knowing that whatever you do is for a limited time only can be unsettling and even depressing (although it can also be liberating). I’ve seen in manifest itself in a very unpleasant expat attitude: Why should I care? It’s not my country.
    12) Limbo – that period just before moving when you’re physically still in one place, but mentally in the next, when there’s no point cleaning the apartment anymore and apathy sets in.

    Enough negative! I liked the 10 BEST post better 🙂

    • Maria says:

      This one wasn’t as much fun to write, it’s true. But I’m a realist at heart, and I wanted to present a balanced view.

      It’s funny that you mention being in limbo — that was one of the hardest parts of expat life for me. Not knowing where I’d be living a year down the road really began to prey on my mind toward the end. And yet I didn’t even think of it while I was writing my list. I wonder what Freud would say about that?

  2. bookjunkie says:

    I can totally relate to the part about the loneliness and missing a friend when they move. One of my dearest friends had moved abroad and I miss her so much. It’s also much harder to make friends when you’re older.

    • Maria says:

      At least it’s easier to keep in touch these days. When we were kids, it was a lot harder to maintain a long-distance friendship after someone moved. Right now, as I’m typing this, my daughter is on a skype video call with a Singaporean friend who now lives in Ireland. I can hear both of them laughing, and it makes me happy to know that my children will never lose touch with the people who are most important to them — no matter where in the world they end up.

  3. ML Awanohara says:

    I have written about this topic myself but forgot to mention the part about being in limbo. You are sooooo right about that. I’ve been an expat in both the UK and Japan, and while in Japan I used to liken my life to the geisha’s floating world. This image worked for me because it suggested impermanence (which as you say applies to so many of the relationships one forms abroad), a sense of having entered a twilight zone (should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in expat clubs), and its strong fantasy element (many of us live fancier lives abroad).

    It’s said that Japanese men enter the world of the geisha to forget themselves, to find another self, to live out their dreams, to be treated like kings. I think that’s also true of us expats.

    One more point is that many expats, while complaining about the impermanence of their floating world, are loathe to step away from its excitements, onto firmer ground. That can be a big part of what makes coming home again such an adjustment. (I’m now a repat, and have written about that experience as well!)

    • Maria says:

      Yes! The floating world — that’s a perfect analogy. Ukiyo was all about pleasure, right? And a sense of unreality, if I’m recalling the orgy of reading I did during my teenage Japanophile period correctly. I think with this phrase: “to find another self, to live out their dreams, to be treated like kings” you’ve absolutely nailed it.

  4. Louise says:

    Guilt and worry feature highly in my world at the moment – guilt over the summer as we moved our two young kids – one from her only home, not very far but far enough to put everyone and everything on edge. Yep it was one hell of a summer!

    I can’t quite relate to the geisha/expat analogy – it all seems very real to me and not at all fantasy like….. perhaps its a function of the world economy – and back to the worry again! Yep we can return home but that feels like we’re giving in… no actually as a Brit lets be honest it all comes down to one thing and that’s the WEATHER!!

    • Maria says:

      Louise, I guarantee you that your expat days will become more dream-like the further you are from them! I’ve been back home for 3 years now (I’m from Canada, if you want to talk about WEATHER) and sometimes I wonder if I’m just making these stories up. Good thing I have plenty of photographic evidence to remind me it all really happened.

    • Judy says:

      Ooh too right about the guilt and worry! As expat wives and mothers we often feel that it is up to us to hold the family together. And yes, the current economy does add an extra layer of tension because for most expats residency is dependent on a work permit. Job loss doesn’t just mean the loss of an income it often means losing your whole way of life – your home, your friends, your children’s school. Been there, done that, not pretty.

  5. Pingback: The 10 worst things about being an expat wife by Maria « RELOCATION MATTERS! by Dr Rona Hart

  6. Oh god! Just arrived in singapore. after years of moving in india and switzerland. And just when i thought here things maybe a little easier as the plus one, I come across this! Well all said, have enjoyed the trip.

    • Maria says:

      Oh no! Please don’t get bummed out by this post. Read the 10 Best Things About Being an Expat Wife — it’s much more uplifting. 🙂 I think there’s more good than bad in being an expat wife.

  7. Grace C. says:

    Loved your post, I really think there aren’t enough blogs and forums dedicated to this matter online. My case is just a wee bit different from that of an expat wife’s; am a Singaporean female who moved to the US to be with her husband a year ago, and still feeling displaced somewhat, probably because due to hubby’s school externships, we’ve moved twice so far, with 2 more states to go. I love Singapore and I’m starting to like the US, but I guess until we really settle down in one place and I can finally get back to work, the loneliness and constant feeling of isolation will remain. The points listed above are spot-on.

  8. Lani says:

    Thanks for a great post. I agree with all the points and would add one more: boredom. Which leads to time wasting, unproductivity and then guilt!

    I just moved to Chile, am housebound a bit with my baby and it seems I waste a lot of time fluffing about on the computer and watching dvds. And it’s not from a lack of things to do. But being in a foreign land with few friends and a lot of alone time , it’s easy to procrastinate. And get bored.

    http://freezecheese.blogspot.com/

  9. patrician says:

    I am SO THRILLED to have found this site!!!
    So nice to see that I’m not the only one 🙂
    I have been an expat oil mom and wife for 5 years…
    currently living in the UK.
    ( In reality our family has moved 13 times if you include relocating all over the US before heading over seas-)
    I can undoubtedly relate to every post written.
    My most recent worry is that we have 2 TCK’s-
    one who will be graduating and returning to the States for University at the end of next year….
    my heart aches with the thought of being so far away from my daughter 😦
    and our 11 year old son who will continue our worldly adventure with us until it is his time to go to college.
    We have just been notified that there is a very strong chance that my husbands job will carry us even further away from our daughter and family to Queensland,Australia.
    Though we have a year to pull everything together – I seem to have started the partial empty nest mourning process… not coping very well lately.
    We have become way too settled- not something any of us are accustomed to.
    I LOVE living in England…I love the home we have created…and the expat life we have built together as a family…
    I’ve grown accustomed to being the “single parent” over the years as my husbands work takes him away almost weekly – my kids have become my life…. they have have carried me through our travels…. our ups and downs –
    We generally move every 1 to 2 years- this has been our longest assignment to date.
    I’m always so strong and organised and ready for the next challenge , but the mere thought of so much extreme change in the coming year has truly set me into an emotional rut.
    Expat life is not for the faint of heart or spirit… it truly pushes us to the outer limits of who we are as a family –
    If I were ever asked the question …would I do it all over again ? ….most definitely….
    but one can never be fully prepared for the wild ride !!!

    • Maria says:

      You’re a pro at this! I wish you all the best as you adjust to your half-empty nest. It’s another flavour of adventure for your daughter — and for you, too. Thanks for subscribing to my blog; I hope to hear more from you!

  10. Lucy says:

    I am not technically an expat wife, I am a girlfriend. I advise for ‘partners’ to really consider the pro’s and con’s before making the move. I thought that moving to a sunny island described as paradise was going to be the most blissful days of my life. I went through the some of the most difficult and I am still going through the most challenging year and half of my life. To start I don’t speak the language, I thought my language skills were basic but that got kicked into touch when people started screwing their faces up every time I made an effort to speak the language. Then followed the racism, I am an English national and have always looked slightly oriental so when I arrived I was told by strangers you wont get work as your Chinese. I look back naively and think of the times when I was blanked within the first few seconds after turning up for a job interview. Then came the trying to get work, and my partner did not see this coming neither, he thought that I would be contributing to buying food etc. No one told us there is a 40% import charge on food and other items here. And if I get things posted they mostly get stolen in the post. I started cleaning and babysitting for my partners work colleagues and this left me feeling less than when I socialised with his work colleages. I had a few horrible experiences of women treating me like a door mat. One of them short changed me and I felt like I could not say anything. I ended up not wanting to socialize with his work colleagues in the end. Then the tenants back in the UK decided not to pay my rent so I had to fly back home to the other side of the world to sort the problem out. I sometimes lie on the beach but the quality of my life has gone down. I now work part time as a maths teacher. When I told people at my partners work when they ask me what I do, I tell them and then they try and correct me and say ‘you mean your an English teacher’? I find myself frustratingly saying no a maths teacher. I am trying to support my boyfriend, and feel like I’ve not done my job of supporting his career. I appreciate it may not be the same for everyone but I did meet one wife, who appeared so strong and together, who did not belong in the same group as her husband at a different company who told me she had depression when she first got here. I with people has been more honest about the situation here as people seem to gloss over what really happens. I want to keep it real as I would not want any other girl have the same think happen to her!

    • Maria says:

      How awful! It’s very stressful for a relationship when one partner is isolated and unhappy on assignment. You don’t mention having a look-see visit before you moved, but that might have given you a better idea of what to expect, especially if you’d been able to talk to some of the other expat partners there. Thank you for sharing your story. People do sometimes get caught up in the excitement of the idea of living abroad — you’ve provided a good look at how sobering the reality can be.

    • Hi Lucy,
      Thank you for sharing your experience as an expat partner. I can relate to some degree to what you have been going through.
      When I moved in 2006 to Singapore, following my boyfriend at the time, I was without work for the first 1/2 year I was there. Having no work commitment and not having always my partner around, due to his work commitments, and not having made real solid friends yet, I was left with feeling often lonely and out of place..
      Once I was allowed to build up my Private Practice as a Psychologist and my business began to grow in Singapore, things became better.
      Since I had a lot of experience working with the expat community in Singapore for more then 7 years, I have become specialized working with the Expat community. I’m offering my services also online via Skype or Viber.
      In case you are in need or know anyone who is, for Psychological Services, please check out my website http://www.calcounseling.com.
      Warm Regards,
      Anette 🙂

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