Moving overseas is all about change: new country, new customs, new job, new language. It’s a lot to handle all at once. When the lifestyle changes include trading in a career for full-time parenting, an even bigger adjustment is required. And if the expat in question is a man, the upending of traditional gender roles adds yet another layer of complexity to the process.
Men who have successfully made the transition know that approaching these changes as opportunities is the first step to thriving in expatriate life. “My advice would be: if you’re going to do it, give it everything you’ve got,” says former expat spouse John Burke. Here are some more suggestions for getting the most out of life as an expat spouse.
Don’t rush into a job search
If you’re planning to work in the new location, you may be tempted to get the ball rolling as soon as you’ve unpacked your bags, but waiting a few weeks — or even months — might be a better option. Taking some time to recover from jet lag, explore the surroundings, learn about the local culture, and deal with the early stages of culture shock will allow you to acclimate to the unfamiliar environment without the added stress of a new job.
Create a career repatriation plan
It may seem strange to be thinking of repatriation so soon after arrival, but if you expect to restart your career when your expat life is over, you’ll have a much easier re-entry if you plan ahead. Making the effort to maintain contact with former colleagues, keep abreast of developments in your industry, and guard against the erosion of your skills during your sojourn will pay off when it’s time to start a job search back home.
If you aren’t entitled to a work permit in your host country, there’s still plenty you can do to make this time productive career-wise. Many expat spouses view this hiatus as the perfect opportunity to enhance their résumés by volunteering or upgrading their academic qualifications. Others see it as an ideal time to retrain for a new career.
Ditch the defensiveness
Preparing a short and focused “elevator speech” eliminates any awkward fumbling for words when faced with the inevitable question, “what do you do?” This is especially important if you’ll be your kids’ primary caregiver while living abroad.
Fathers who assume the main caregiver role within their families encounter a variety of reactions that run the gamut from admiration to derision. Keeping an eye on the positives — including a greater involvement in the lives of your children and a commitment to furthering your spouse’s career — will help you weather any criticism that comes your way. Having a sense of humour never hurts, either.
Communicate with your partner
Mapping out the logistics of the arrangement ahead of time with your spouse, and discussing a division of labour that works for the whole family, reduces the likelihood of conflict. But the need for communication doesn’t end there. Involving each other in decisions, supporting each other, and simply sharing daily experiences strengthen the bond between you and contribute to a healthy family life.
Remember that adjustment takes time
In the same way expats require time to adjust to their new environment, the family needs time to adjust to Dad’s new role. Dealing with multiple changes at once can be overwhelming, for children as well as adults. Psychologist Aaron Rochlen suggests allowing a low-key settling-in period so everyone can begin to adapt to the situation.
Maintain mental and physical health
Many primary caregivers immerse themselves so completely in their role, they neglect the other aspects of their identity. Indulging in favourite activities — especially physical ones — relieves stress and provides much-needed “me” time.
Let your hair down
Cracking the moms’ groups may prove difficult, and full-time salarymen don’t necessarily understand the issues facing non-working dads. “Our research has suggested that having a good support system in place, preferably one that includes other stay-at-home fathers, is critical,” Rochlen writes on his website. Groups for male trailers are springing up around the globe. (Guy Tai Shanghai deserves a mention, if for no other reason than its fabulous name — a neat little twist on the term tai tai.) If there’s no such group where you live, how about starting one of your own?
Male accompanying spouses are a fairly new breed whose numbers are growing. Unfortunately, they receive even less support in this role than their female counterparts. Carefully considering your expectations before your international relocation and following a few simple steps while living overseas will help you — and your family — flourish in your new life.