OK, being an expat isn’t strictly a midlife event but it’s a journey many women embark on as trailing spouses, following the dreams and careers of a significant other. If you do it as a youngster or take the plunge as a mature, here’s a manual to help you from A to Z.//
When I set out on my own expat journey (coincidentally, I handed in notice to quit my job ten years ago this month) I left the UK armed with youthful enthusiasm, ignorance and a book on cross cultural working practices – nothing more. As the trailing spouse, I faced my own career hiatus, total unemployment and financial dependency completely unprepared. Setting out for an english-speaking country an airplane ride away, and initially only for two years – no problem? Within days of arriving in British Columbia, the twin towers fell and the world changed. Since then I’ve learned to be resourceful and make my home in a foreign country. I’ve become a parent and an artist/business woman. I think I’ve actually learned more than my (working) spouse, but I’m still on the road to coping with being ‘an unsalaried and totally dependent nobody’. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t always been fun, and I’ve learned that no one expects complaints.
Luckily, the company my husband seconded into was full of expats from all corners of the globe, and with them their seasoned trailing spouses. These lovely ladies took us newbies under their wings and taught us, inspired us that we could make a new life for ourselves. Babies came, kids grew up and we acclimatised. Families arrived, families were re-posted, friendships were made and lost. We became expat women and learned to fly.
Nowadays there are websites such as Expat Women which offer a virtual meeting place and support for trailing spouses less fortunate. Even ten years later I need the like-minded understanding that the global expat community offers. Having it ‘on tap’ 24/7 online makes life easier.
I pounced on the chance to review the new book, Expat Women: Confessions – 50 Answers to Your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad. The content is culled from the column of the same name on the Expat Women website, distilling practical advice in all things female and expatriate. I admit skipping over the business advice for relocating salaried career women as irrelevant to me, but eagerly homed in on conversations in the Settling In, Relationships and Raising Children chapters.
The book, written in question and answer format, distills advice gleaned from reader comments, author insights plus occasional experts, and thus covers many aspects of expat life. The result is a robust and encouraging walk through the kind of obstacles frequently encountered by women abroad. Broad chapter headings such as Settling In and Repatriation group the conversations into subject clusters, for efficient browsing. Although it’s the kind of book which can be used for reference only, I highly recommend reading cover to cover. For instance, although the Career and Money section might not appeal directly to a trailing spouse such as myself, there are very useful conversations on dealing with loss of identity and financial dependency, plus practical advice on maintaining self confidence, career relevancy and fiscal awareness.
The key advice which jumps out of every answer, is to network and make friendships; to build your local support network and try to assimilate with your new surroundings. Rather than leave it at empty advice, the authors compile excellent responses on Starting Your Own Club and Starting Your Own Business to offer robust and practical encouragement in a global setting These two conversations empower the reader to take control and make it happen in their new lives. But it’s not all happy smiles in expatriate land – conversations on infidelity, homesickness, death, and divorce acknowledge the reality that an overseas posting can bring, and deal with them in a thoughtful manner. Real life experience is not negated, the shoulder is always there for support and the tropical island ‘all is fine in paradise’ myth dispelled.
…and do not forget to check out the excellent list of resources at the back of the book, listing books to order from your local library and websites to add to your favourites (and I’m sure there will be some).
The feeling throughout is that other women have been there, done that and this is their experience and advice. This saves the whole book from becoming yet another “how to” lifestyle manual. It never feels preachy. The advice and solutions are practical, tried and tested the world over. This isn’t advice from la-la land – it comes from real women who have walked the same walk and want to share what they’ve learned.
In psychology, one of the key relational needs for living and growing as a person is finding your validation in a community of like-minded individuals. Expat Women: Confessions reassures the reader that yes, they are not alone.
The book is dedicated to “to all the wonderful expatriate women across the globe…. believe in yourself and know that you are not alone”