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.