Earlier today I read an article on Expat Trailing Spouses, the term being a crudely impersonal way of describing the many of us that follow our husbands from country to country often at the detriment of our own careers, family and relationships. The article was full of lots of helpful hints on what to do when the honeymoon period is over and the realities of daily life in a country that is not your own set in. Helpful hints like; volunteer, join a club, start a blog, take up a hobby and even have a baby. As someone who is very familiar with the sense of isolation and desperation that can hit once all the local hang outs have been discovered, day trips been done and you realise your just stuck in a country with worse shopping and food, and better weather than that which you are used to, this article gave me pause for thought.
When we moved to South Africa the ‘depression’ hit almost exactly six months after arriving. To make matters worse I was pregnant with twins and couldn’t even have a nightly tipple to get over it. We lived there six years and I did it all; joined clubs, volunteered, started blogs, even had kids… and did the pervading loneliness ever end? Did I ever ‘find a purpose?’ not really, is the truthful answer. The fact is, that like most Trailing Spouses I didn’t just give up my family when I emigrated, I gave up my career and therefore much of my identity. So much of what we are is tied into our careers. Before our move to Cape Town I held a senior position with a very well known brand. I earned a similar salary to my husband and felt proud of what I had achieved. Beyond the status and cash I also thrived on being social, I loved office banter, I loved long lunches with girlfriends and getting drunk far too early in the evening at after work drinks. I loved work trips, I loved conferences, I loved random emails about not eating Simon from accounts yoghurt from the fridge, but most of all I loved that it made me feel important.
Expat moves can be nightmarish or amazing but most often they are something in between. You will always make friends, you will always find something to do in the day even if it’s just a supermarket shop. If you have kids you can fill your life with pre school/ after school activities and planning birthday parties and buying them new clothes… you can and will have trips to amazing places, and you will be able to post with regularity pictures from your weekend that look like people back homes yearly holiday snaps. You can do all this but you can’t as easily replace the loss of a career, or the absence of family, or simple pleasure being able to pop in for a quick cuppa with your best friend.
So why mock that ever so helpful list, after all the tried and tested remedy for loneliness is the same the world over and it’s not wrong. My problem with the list is that we aren’t always looking for advice, sometimes what a trailing spouse needs is recognition. Confirmation that they are more than just a spouse that follows their partner about, that life wont always be about finding ways to productively while away the day… that they were and will be, and are still are, important and worthy, even if the high-flying career is now extremely unlikely to resurrect itself.
I’ve been in Nairobi 3 months and the ‘expat blues’ hit me after just three days, then again 3 weeks in and now again I examine how I’m feeling and what is this feeling of missing something all about. On paper it’s all good, I’m starting to make friends, the kids are in a routine and love their school, the house is lush, and there are nice places around us. Tick Tick Tick… but 6 years in South Africa and 3 months in Kenya and I’m still unable to answer the question ‘Who am I if I don’t work?” And that’s crux of the problem, can we ever really be happy if we don’t have an identity of our own? Or at least one one that’s formed as part of a dependency on someone else. And in a foreign land, often without a working visa, a grasp of the local language or support from old friends and family, how is it possible to carve a niche for ourselves and begin to understand what contribution we can make to our world.
Answers on a postcard please…..