The struggle of going from a professional, financially independent person to a stay at home mum abroad.
A while back my coach (yes, coaches have a coach too, they believe in the power of coaching 😉 ) was in the Middle East for work. When he came back, he told me in exasperation: I can’t believe it. All these talented expat women living there and being at home because they do not have a work permit.
I could have told him about all the great things these women do, such as caring for their family abroad (no easy feat), contributing to a thriving community, studying, working in secret or online.
But I didn’t.
Because sometimes I wonder myself:
How did I end up in this 1950-ies movie?
Where the women are in charge of the household, care for the kids, and gossip with the neighbours. Where the husband brings home the (halal) bacon, earns the money and whose schedule decides the timing of the family holiday.
From Equality to Division of Responsibilities
This is not the life movie I thought I’d be playing in when I graduated from University with a degree in International and European Law. It is a far cry from my life before expatriation.
Before I moved, my husband and I were a dual career couple. We were both working, both earning money. When we were at home, we shared responsibilities such as the cooking and the cleaning (we didn’t have kids yet back then). We listened to each other’s stories, we shared our professional learning and we gave each other advice about work.
It felt like an equal partnership.
That all drastically changed when we moved abroad. I started in China without a job, and the same thing happened again in Brunei. In China, we arrived without kids, so I was free as a bird to go out and explore this fascinating country. Not so in Brunei.
My Brunei start
My husband went off to work the day after arrival and I was left to my own devices. No job, no friends, but a crying baby and an uprooted toddler in a tiny apartment.
The women I met were all busy though, keeping busy. Volunteering, taking golf classes, playing social tennis and attending endless coffee mornings (and yes, do not get me wrong: coffee mornings can be amazing! I just do not need to go there every day).
Were they happy? Some were. But many of them uttered this sentence:
“Brunei is great for the kids.”
And indeed it is. But it is also so much more than that. It is great for adults too.
We are not really in the 1950ies. We have modern amenities. Many of us have the luxury of a helper. We get to travel a lot, not just on home leave once every 2 years. Relatives can come and visit us. The internet has made it possible to study.
There are even many Stay at Home Men/ Dads here too (I see you guys, you’re doing a great job too!).
Ambitious expat wife
And yet, there’s no guarantee that we feel happy in a tropical paradise. Not working has a profound effect on your identity.
Having ambition as an expat woman is not the default setting here in Brunei. Even though the local Bruneian women mostly work, the foreign expat partners do not have a work permit. In fact, worldwide, the most successful expat postings are the ones where the woman wasn’t working before the move. But over 70% of expat women were working full time before the move, and around the same percentage would love to work when living abroad.
Staying sane as an expat partner
So, how do you stay sane as an ambitious expat partner abroad?
1. Do something for yourself
Whether it is learning a language, studying for a Masters Degree, setting up your own business, writing a book or being president of the tennis society, engage in something that enables you to learn and grow. Especially if you have the luxury of earning money not being necessary, make sure it is something you enjoy doing.
Even better, make sure it is something you’ve always wanted to do. And it doesn’t even need to be work related.
If you have young kids at home, doing something for yourself is almost more important, although you may feel that you “can’t” do certain things as you “should” be with your kids. However, as a Mum or Dad, it can be so nice to engage with adults, to have a conversation about something else than nappies and sleep habits.
Engaging in activities that improve bonding with the local environment and local people (think Wildlife Society, Malay class, Toastmasters), may help to feel more at home too.
2. Know why you are doing this.
It ain’t easy in these days of self-development to give preference to your partner’s career. But you must have had reasons to move abroad as a family– more time for each other, more money, or more travel and adventure are often factors in the decision. Perhaps you remember the Simon Sinek TED Talk about Finding Your Why from when you were still working.
What was your why when moving abroad? What did you think you might be doing, and how is that going? And if you’ve been abroad for a few years, is it time to change your why? Life is not static, it keeps changing and so can we.
3. Don’t be a victim
An expat posting can be the greatest gift of all. You may never experience so much freedom again in your life. You can develop yourself, both personally and professionally; in ways that you would never have been able to if you had stayed in your home country.
That is not to say it will always be easy. Do not be fooled by all the holiday stories and Instagram pictures, many people struggle abroad. Because, well, expat life is still life, with all the ups and downs, not some kind of fantasy world.
Wishing you were somewhere else, blaming your partner for your situation, or playing the victim is not going to help you though. Did you “sacrifice” your career or did you make a choice to prioritise family for a few years? What would you be doing if you let go of the negativity, if you accepted the reality, and looked into opportunities for self development rather than career limitations?
Because after all, it’s not the 1950ies, is it?