Being an expat wife with no regrets

“I want to be like Aunt Eliza,” I declared when I was 10. Eliza was my mother’s friend who had lived in several countries all over the world. She was always immaculately dressed in the latest fashion with not a hair out of place. Her nails were perfectly manicured and she wore the highest heels I had ever seen. Aunt Eliza spoke several languages and had never lived in one place for more than a few years. Little did I know that of all my dreams this one would come true. Aunt Eliza was an “expat wife”.

Expatriate wives are women who follow their working husbands to foreign countries. Local legal restrictions often make it impossible for these women to find employment, and as a result they’re seen to live a life of leisure – getting manicures, playing rummy, sipping vodka and lunching with the ladies.

From the outside, the life of an expat wife may appear to be perfect. She gets to live in exotic lands, meet new people and explore new cultures. The reality is, however, that expat wives face many challenges while trying to make a home in a foreign country without the aid of any support network.

Is it always a choice?

Until a few years ago, I had a career, working for a well-known investment company, a large circle of friends, and a household to run. Then a wonderful opportunity for my husband to work in South Africa presented itself and he decided to take it. So did I make a choice? Yes, I did – to support my husband and his career. Because I knew he would have done the same for me.

Most expat wives make this choice based not on the glamour associated with the life of an expat, but on the fact that they want to be there for their husbands and families.

The emotional and social drain

The easy part is to pack up and leave. The difficult part is to settle in. Yes, most expat jobs come with fat salaries, “hardship allowances” – compensation paid to expats for discomfort resulting from physical isolation, cultural and language differences – and a team of relocation consultants who are supposed to meet your every need and demand. But what about the friends and family you leave behind? What about the days of emptiness that stretch before you once your husband has left for work? And how do you suddenly become a stay-at-home wife after having put in 12-hour days at an office?

Most expat wives have been used to carving their own identities, building their own friendships and pursuing their own careers and hobbies. Now, suddenly, they find themselves dependent on their husbands for everything- not just financially, but emotionally and socially as well.

“At first everyone is excited about this new adventure,” says Sanet Nawrattel, an educational and Gestalt psychologist at Family Solutions, a private practice in Johannesburg. “However, when the excitement wears off, the spouse is left with a feeling of loss and loneliness. This can have a detrimental effect on the marriage, especially in cases where the woman had to give up her career. She most probably also had to give up her family and support system. If she was working, it would’ve been fine, but now she is stuck at home without family or friends or work for most of the day.”

Nawrattel adds, “Self-esteem is the first victim of women staying at home when they have been used to working. Because they do not really feel useful, they start placing the blame on the husband. Here, we must also take into account that the husband may also be undergoing emotional stress in the workplace and he might already feel guilty for putting his family through trauma.”

Jennifer King, 32, a British expat whose husband moved to South Africa on work shares her experience, “At parties, I started getting introduced as ‘Michael’s wife’.” Back in the UK, Jennifer had had a full-time job at a real estate firm. “Another thing that drives me insane is when people ask me what my husband does, without even bothering to ask about me,” she adds.

And making new friends is not easy. For the most part, an expat wife has to accept that most of her new friends will be her husband’s friends. As 35-year-old Sonia Shah, an ex-insurance industry professional who moved with her husband to Johannesburg from India two years ago says, “For a long time, my help at home was my best friend; in fact, my only friend.”

Grab the opportunity

There are two things an expat wife can do: lament the life she left behind or embrace the opportunity to discover new people and a new culture. To do the latter is certainly not easy but what’s life if not for a few challenges?

Keeping an open mind is the first step towards adjusting to a new life. And accepting and respecting a new culture is the key to making new friends. As Vanessa Allen, 40, a former IT specialist from China, says, “We never braaied in China. I didn’t even know what it meant. But since having come to South Africa, I have become quite the braai master! I never knew it could be such an easy way to get to know your neighbours.”

Learning the local language can also really help. Not only does it add to your skills, it also helps you understand the country’s people and its nuances. Sonia found that people were always more warm and that getting things done became easier when she spoke in Afrikaans, a language she began learning for fun soon after moving to Johannesburg.

Nawrattel often advises her patients to get involved in their children’s schools as she feels this will give them a purpose and also provide a forum to share their knowledge. Getting involved in community projects such as old-age homes and soup kitchens can also be very fulfilling. Joining local social clubs such as a gym, book club, movie club or hiking groups another good avenue for meeting new and diverse people.

It’s true that an expat wife has a lot of time on her hands – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Psychotherapist Dhyan Summers, the clinical director and founder of Expat Counseling and Coaching Services, an online counseling centre for English-speaking expats worldwide says, “This could be a time of re-inventing yourself; finding something that creates passion and pursuing it, whether it is a class, learning a new skill, or even preparing for a new career.”

Having helped settle her family into their new life, Suzanne Davis (45), who moved from England to South Africa in 2011 with her husband and two kids, has been using her skills and knowledge of teaching children with special needs in volunteer work. And she has discovered new skills – she bakes cakes and cookies, which she delivers into townships and sews handbags that she sells to raise money for charity.

More pros than cons

Being an expat wife does not only have to be about giving up. It’s also about what you gain. Most expat wives will tell you how they value the time they have been able to spend with their kids, which otherwise may not have been possible.

As a senior technical support manager with an IT firm in Pakistan, 32-year old Madeha Ahmed was left with hardly any time to spend with her family. “Back in Pakistan I barely saw my two-year-old son,” she says. “When the opportunity to move to Johannesburg presented itself, I grabbed it.”

As for me, I now have the time to do the things I have always been passionate about. Besides being a budding potter and writer, I work with local animal rescue groups, helping rehabilitate abandoned pets. I have found that being a trailing spouse has augmented my identity rather than take away from it. It has forced me into introspection, and to explore other aspects of myself that I might never have discovered.

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