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?