Having lived as a non-working British expat spouse and mother of two young teenage girls for the last two years in the beautiful city of Sydney, I would like to speak up for those of us in this role that are enjoying the overall experience without the constraints of work and the career treadmill we all seem to think we should be on to maintain status and identity these days. I speak as an educated woman who had a successful full time career, pre-kids, and who worked as a part time tutor before making the move Down Under.
When I look back over the last two years, I realize that despite the inevitable struggles at first to establish a structure and network, I‘ve been able to develop new skills, meet amazing people, make great friends and learn so much more about myself as a result of taking the tricky decision to become an expat. Many friends back home described me as “very brave” for taking the plunge, but all things considered, I would say I’ve been very lucky considering the opportunities that have arisen.
Whilst acknowledging that for many working spouses, a move with a partner’s career abroad can affect their career opportunities and progression, depending on circumstances, for me it was less of a wrench from a professional perspective. I was still left wondering however just what I would do, particularly if I decided that I wanted to try and find work.
As a family we had made our decision more or less within two weeks of the job offer and a short whistle stop trip to find a house and school. We did our best not to panic but consider the bigger picture – a better education for our two girls and the chance for us all to experience a new country and culture with the added safety net that an expat company posting offered. This was something we had never imagined doing in our wildest dreams. I also had the option of working too under the terms of the visa, so with everything considered and little to lose we decided to go for it.
Three months later, with all our worldly possessions packed up for sea or air- freight, we threw a leaving party and then set off on the ten thousand mile trip to our new home.
We loved Sydney the moment we arrived – its beautiful scenery and tangibly relaxed atmosphere was intoxicating and curiously homely. We felt, despite a few obvious reservations and concerns, that this would be right for us.
The traditional role of supportive wife and mother can suddenly play a major part when faced with the huge change in circumstances for the whole family, and its importance cannot be underestimated. This was what we discovered. Moving to Australia there was no support from long established friends and family – a mum’s role had never been more important.
Most expat spouses could have umpteen job titles if they so wished given all the demanding physical and psychological tasks they handle, if my experiences have been anything to go by.
Resettling the family may, as in our case, involve constantly reassuring children struggling with all the changes, particularly at school. Managing letting agents both as tenants here and landlords back home can also be a factor. Meeting new people and trying to fathom potential friends for everyone also requires skill and patience. For us, this has involved the hosting of dinner parties for near strangers, attempting to befriend not so friendly neighbours, inviting school friends to tea and other social efforts. More often than not, these were seldom reciprocated in the early days. Then there are the general challenges of everyday life in a different culture, and possibly language barriers to overcome if you aren’t lucky enough to relocate to a country in which your mother tongue is spoken.
It is not all about baking cakes and keeping the expat pad spotless. A modern expat mum has to develop an emotional hide like a rhino and the kind of skill set that many so-called senior executives can only dream of ever acquiring: psychologist, mentor, diplomat, cultural attaché, host, project manager, accountant, administrator, crisis manager, negotiator, advocate, et cetera. To be honest, I don’t think an expat family could manage without a tough mum at the helm.
An expat family has to work as a team – it is not a case of one spouse being more important than the other. That successful expat career would not be possible without the necessary supportive role a non-working spouse can provide, particularly where children are involved.
Be positive and develop a personal action plan. Eventually it becomes necessary to put your own needs in the spotlight and make your own resettlement plans to ensure you get the most out of this opportunity. You can even reinvent yourself if you so wish. This is something you must definitely address if you are to feel fulfilled and happy in your new role as family Tsar.
I can only speak from my own experience and from fellow expats I’ve got to know, and I am not saying that life is always easy. Resettling in a different country and culture certainly can be challenging at times, and I would be lying if I said that I never wanted to pack up and go back home in the early months. With a positive and resilient attitude however and supportive partner, it’s reassuring to anyone about to embark on a similar experience that it’s not all bad and needn’t be a problem if you don’t have work to occupy your time. Be brave, optimistic, and embrace your vital role. The new world you are in could be your oyster.
Originally from Chester in the UK, Kathryn Bunce is a pure sciences graduate who once worked within technical sales and marketing in the chemical industry and more recently as a private tutor. She moved to Sydney with her husband and their two girls in 2012 and is now enjoying life as a non-working spouse. She runs a website and blog to record the highlights of life down under.
If you are an InterNations member and would like to contribute an article, do not hesitate to contact us!