According to a survey conducted in 2009, 20% of expatriate managers were women. Although these numbers have slightly gone down in recent years, it seems to become more and more common to send female employees in senior positions overseas. Many people thus break with traditional roles for the expat family.
The male “trailing spouse” is not the only type of person in a non-traditional expat family. The number of separated expatriate parents or LGBT trailing spouses has increased. After all, in this globalized world, even a non-traditional couple or a rainbow family may find a niche for their own expat experience!
In today’s expat family, about 10% of accompanying partners or spouses are male. This goes to show that, while traditional roles are still predominant for the expat family, the phenomenon of the male traveling spouse and the stay-at-home dad is becoming more popular.
More men find that they enjoy expat family life at home and find happiness in child-rearing, and not only in their careers. Thus, traditional family roles, albeit widespread, are beginning to lose significance as expat men and women find the right balance in their lives as a family.
Male expat spouses and stay-at-home dads experience the same issues as their female counterparts: homesickness, culture shock, and isolation. They have to find their niche and find fulfillment in creative projects or in taking care of their expat family. However, the strength it takes to thrive when departing from traditional gender roles should not be underestimated.
When Eric (33) left Cambridge to follow his wife to Moscow to be a stay-at-home dad and take care of their two-year-old, he hadn’t expected it to be that difficult to find his place. “Most expat groups and organizations were tailored to and mostly attended by women,” he explains. “I stuck out like a sore thumb.” Male spouses need an even stronger sense of self-confidence and identity because they have a smaller peer group and less of a support system to rely on.
The general reaction to male traveling spouses and especially stay-at-home dads depends on the society in which the family tries to immerse themselves. In some places, stay-at-home dads may cause confusion. Men often face greater pressure to be the breadwinner of the family and are not respected for their role of the homemaker. At the same time, however, male traveling spouses often receive more practical support from their wife’s employer to help them overcome culture shock than the average expat wife.
The strain of life abroad can take its toll on a marriage. Quite a few married expat couples go through a divorce abroad. In particular partners who have taken up the role as the accompanying spouse need to find out how to earn a living and whether to stay abroad or move back home.
Lynne (45) followed her husband from Queensland to Grenoble, France. After eighteen months abroad, he told her that he had fallen in love with his French colleague and wanted to file for divorce.
“Suddenly, my life was falling apart. I was stuck in a strange country, without work, money or decent French skills. In addition to the emotional stress, I had to find an English-speaking lawyer and figure out how to make a living.”
Separation and divorce of expat couples becomes especially complicated when kids are involved. Issues surrounding custody are always complex, even more so in an international context. “We have an eight-year-old together. I wanted to take her back to Australia, but I am not allowed to without her father’s consent. So I stuck around.”
Expats like Lynne are usually hit harder by divorce or separation. “In the end,” Lynne adds, “we found a way to deal with the situation. Things are not always peachy, but we’re working on it. We didn’t want to make things even harder for Alice.”