We decided that this summer we’ll take a four weeks’ vacation to California!
I hereby declare the planning stage to have begun 🤔
I knew it the second my precious and I entered the room on baby’s first day at preschool. I knew that there was going to be trouble. In the little cozy preschool room, 80 pct. of baby’s future little friends had runny noses that needed to be wiped off. I even wiped off a few, while I was thinking that these kids needed to stay home and not pass over their germs to others. On day two of our short 30 minute visit, the kids with the runny noses were still there, happily trolling around, and I felt a pang of positivity. Maybe they weren’t sick, maybe they were the kind of kids that have runny noses throughout their childhood, not entailing any contagious diseases? Or maybe Danish kids just have runny noses through fall and winter, not entailing any need for sick days? I was optimistic. On day four of another short visit to baby’s preschool, I suddenly felt extremely cold on the way home. So cold that I bought wool socks for the whole family and wool pants and slippers for baby. I was shivering outside, I was shivering inside our apartment. I was almost panicking: If this was how the cold felt in early October, how would December feel? The cold that I felt was a warning. On the night of day four, baby had a fever and a runny nose, whereas I started throwing up, which continued all night even when I didn’t have anything left in my body to throw up. I felt I time travelled back to the nights where baby’s siblings were the same age, as I alternated nursing with handing my feverish baby over to his dad, while I ran outside the bedroom to throw up in a plastic bag.
When I called the preschool the next day to let them know, we weren’t going to make it that day, they let us know that those two viruses were indeed going around the house. Is this how fall and winter time are going to play out for us, again? Well, if that’s the case, I guess I’m going to have to look for daycare programs with only one or two other kids to minimize our exposure to germs instead of the otherwise perfect preschool we managed to find. Sigh.
Me: “If I were on vacation, I would probably be super excited about how beautiful, cozy, and cool Copenhagen is with its outdoor dining cafes, trendy clothing stores, parks, canals, bridges, and biking community. Instead, I feel nothing. I don’t feel like a tourist, and I don’t feel like a local, what I do feel is a sense of not belonging and not really being here, like an out-of-body experience”
My 8-year-old: “Mom, I think I’ve got to take a break from thinking about my American friends all the time. I should think about my new friends”
Me: “I belong in our San Francisco life and I’m exhausted being away from home for three months; I need to go home now”
My husband: “Sometimes on my bike on the way home from work, it hits me: What the hell am I doing in this life, I don’t belong here”
Me: “What if nothing will ever feel like home again”? (Aka the expat curse)
My 12-year-old: “I like my new friends, but I feel I don’t belong with them. I belong with my American friends in our American life”
My 12-year-old: “It makes me feel comfortable speaking English with my friends, I don’t like the way Danish sounds, it sounds harder”
Me: “I can see us taking a second dig at expat life in the U.S.” to which my husband replied: “I’m working on ideas on how to get us back to the U.S. in a few years” followed by a collective huge sigh of relief
My 8-year-old, fifty times this week: “Mom, look, I found the costume I want to wear for Halloween” (vampire chearleader/voodoo doll/ghost bride — all costumes that we’ll never find in Denmark a few days before Halloween, when she finally makes up her mind)
I’m adjusting our repatriation, every day. Yesterday included a huge modification. Things that don’t work or that we have a gut feeling won’t work, we change. It’s a risky business, because we act fast. My husband and I are a damn good team: We see it, call it, and act on it. We don’t always initially agree, but over the years it seems like we agree on most things. Even when we don’t agree, the other person’s enthusiasm will convince us. When changes entail financial consequences, we sit down and cut our budget somewhere else. Making changes is damn hard, but trusting my gut and my partner’s gut has been the key to our successful expat years. Hopefully, it’ll work for our repatriation too.
We initiated a change concerning our daughter’s school after only four weeks, and some people would probably think that we’re overreacting. School wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. But in our expat years I learned that listening to my gut feeling is always the right choice. Originally we thought and heard from other expat families that the key to a successful repatriation was to reintegrate your expat kids into a Danish class and environment. But it just wasn’t a fit, for both her and us.
This Friday she and I had a meeting with teachers from a bilingual class, where kids besides a Danish education, get an English one. It’s at the same school. I loved her teachers, I loved the signs and words of wisdom they had hung on the classroom walls. Hell, I wanted to be in their class — which is the exact feeling you want to go for. It was that same feeling I had when I found her a second preschool in the U.S. Sometimes in your adjustment phase, you make mistakes, you miscalculate, and although it seems impossible, you have to change those circumstances to get the “YES-feeling”.
During the weekend, she resisted visiting the class and told me that she couldn’t and wouldn’t start all over again. That fitting into a new class is too hard. Our gut feeling was telling us that she would thrive in a “Danglish” environment, but we worried we were imposing one change too many.
For two days now after six weeks of insisting she should be picked up right after school, she wanted to stay for bookend (SFO). She has in her Danish class been a little shy. Well, that phase definitely seems to be over. On her first day in the bilingual class, she was elected for student council. She stood up in front of her class and pleaded her case. And won with the most votes. Her teacher emailed me that this line was the deal breaker: “I will treat people the way I like to be treated”, which she apparently said very confidently. So many other small changes in her behavior are positive too. Overall, we feel we owe it to her as well: Moving to the U.S. five years ago was hard on her, and not helping her keep her English would be a waste, it would not be fair to her.
That day your tween has his first playdate with a friend from school (that you kinda set up because you met the friend while out and about), and then your tween skypes and plays PlayStation with another friend from school at night.
Good things happen to those who hustle (Chuck Noll)
… Now, on to some more repatriation hustling!
Let’s talk about a sensitive issue. I have encountered so many trailing expat spouses that either couldn’t work or chose not to. Their reasons are diverse, such as not being able to get a work permit, having to help their kids transition, not being able to work within their special field, not wanting to use a nanny, or simply choosing not to work. What we all have in common is that we’re used to having to explain, sometimes defend, that we have exchanged our careers for being a SAHM (a stay-at-home-mom). Some of us struggle with an identity loss, others struggle with self worth, and most of us worry about returning to work after our expat years. In my repatriation, I’m returning to work after nearly five years abroad.
Repatriation in terms of returning to work for a trailing spouse can be a damn intimidating thing. Not for me! Which is why I want to share my thoughts to all the trailing spouses out there, who might need support and encouragement from a fellow expat.
This is how I feel about coming back to work after nearly five years abroad:
“Boy am I glad that I didn’t waste one single second worrying about my career and about how others perceived me”.
In my years abroad, I exchanged my career in the legal field for being a SAHM with extension classes and eventually some freelancing on the side. When we decided to move abroad, our main purpose was to exchange two busy careers with more time with the kids and as much traveling as possible. I chose to perceive this choice as empowering and to see our expat years as a gift to do something completely different.
People (some more, others less) look down on SAHMs. It’s a fact. I never thought of or labelled myself as a SAHM, most of my friends were working moms, and I mingled and fitted in both “groups”. Countless times, I have overheard or been told demeaning comments about the SAHMs at school by working moms.The SAHMs were no kinder towards the working moms. No sisterhood there! I remember an expat SAHM, who told me that the working moms should be grateful for the SAHMs, who assumed a lot of responsibility at school. Something about a higher balance. Such bullshit, nobody owes anybody anything. On the other hand that same expat SAHM told me that her biggest hurdle to getting back to work in her field was her old female colleagues, who had taken very short maternity leaves and were “doing it all” and looking down on her choice of becoming a SAHM. No sisterhood there. I have personally experienced a negative attitude, when Danish guests visited San Francisco. After having listened intensively and excitedly to my husband’s stories about his work life, they then looked at me and asked in a “I feel sorry for you voice” “so, how do you spend your time, Julie?” sometimes even followed by a joke about SAHMs. I would laugh with them (or at them :), I don’t take it personally. I know that friends and acquaintances never intended to hurt me with their comments, they probably felt sorry for me. Maybe. Or maybe it relates to people’s poor perception of SAHMs. Most likely people’s negative attitude relates to their own issues, which has nothing to do with me/ you/SAHMs. Most times I actually felt sorry for the people who had a negative attitude towards my situation, because I felt that we were experiencing so much in our expat life, while they were stuck in the same home, the same job, and the same routines and on top of that they were sharing how stressed they were about their work-life balance situation. But I never said anything because that would in my world be judgmental and rude, right? The fact is that I don’t and didn’t care (enough) about how people perceived me, and neither should you: Put your energy into something that will make you happy instead.
Nobody’s life is perfect, including lives of expat SAHMs, and while I was annoyed with the mom-duties in the U.S., I cherished the freedom it gave us in terms of family life and traveling. I chose to feel empowered based on my “master plan” for our expat years. My “master plan” was to acquire new skills through a degree, while getting as many American experiences and traveling adventures as possible. I achieved both goals and have no regrets. Quite the opposite! I was lucky that my degree actually opened doors in the U.S. too to some exciting freelance assignments as well.
In my repatriation, not one single head hunter or employer so far perceive my nearly five years abroad as disqualifying. Yes, really. Job opportunities are plentiful and interesting. Yes, really. In my resume, I explain why I’m hot shit, and they agree. Really! I have been approached regarding positions much higher and better paying than I would ever have expected. I’m flattered. But the question I ask myself is still the same: “What would make me happy”? Right now it’s family-friendly work hours and challenging work that will put a smile on my face.
I’m returning to my old workplace and will work within new legal areas, with more responsibility (for a higher salary than five years ago, of course :). They agreed to wait for me a few months and let me start part-time, while we get settled. Win, win! I’m gonna spend the next six months figuring out, if I want to change field and step up my game in 2017. I’m gonna ask myself again: “What will make me happy”?
My message is: I don’t feel I have missed out on anything workwise during our time abroad, quite the opposite. I’m where I want to be with even broader possibilities based on the degree I acquired in the U.S. I cherish every single memory about our California adventure. Workwise, I never anticipated the interest and possibilities, and I had prepared myself for the opposite situation because I had decided that our expat years were worth my time off including consequences for my carrier. Are yours?
One thing I’m sure of in terms of returning to work after being a trailing spouse:
“If you don’t believe in yourself and value your own competences, nobody else will”.
So to all the expat trailing spouses out there, I want to say:
“Enjoy your expat years, figure out what you want to focus on during your time abroad, and don’t let other people’s view on expat trailing spouses get to you. Figure out what makes you happy, create a “master plan”. You are acquiring new skills and will return as a much better employee and happier person, because life abroad will teach you so much about life and yourself. If your years abroad disqualify you professionally or make you feel unhappy about yourself, then revise your plan: set a new list of priorities such as getting a job or an education, finding a nanny, or move back home. Revise your “master plan”it, when your situation changes.