How can you not be happy if you’re an expat wife?
Surely expats lead idyllic lives? The earning partner might have a very demanding job, but chances are he earns pretty well. Expats seem to have lovely homes, go on pretty amazing holidays and don’t have to worry too much about paying the credit card bill.
Even if there isn’t a big fat salary coming in, life can look pretty good from the outside. Some people have help at home. Okay, some can’t work because of the terms of their residency but they have time to pursue their own interests. They can read that pile of books, or start training for a marathon if that’s what they want to do. They can plan trips to dreamy locations for a fraction of the price as they don’t have to pay for the long-haul flights. Their kids go to amazing schools, all fees paid.
Many expat wives take to the life like a duck to water. They seem to effortlessly acquire a circle of friends. They fill their days and seem happy and fulfilled. Their lives seem picture perfect, at least from the outside.
There is another side to this life though.
Sometimes, once the honeymoon period is over, expat wives can find themselves in a tough place. If this is you, know that you are not alone.
Read on to find out how you can get help facing the challenges of expat living and create a happy fulfilled life for yourself.
Do you sometimes feel isolated and find it difficult to find someone to talk to? Maybe you don’t know anyone well enough in your new country yet and find it hard to explain these feelings to friends at home.
From the outside, you may seem to be living a golden life, with help and leisure time and few financial worries. You might not feel you can Skype friends at home for a cathartic moan when you know they are crazy busy with work and family obligations. It’s also difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been in the same situation and doesn’t understand the challenges.
Similarly, it can be hard to talk to your spouse, who might be going through his own period of transition in a new job with an unfamiliar culture and high expectations.
You might also have kids who are struggling with change. You feel you need to be strong for them at a time when you don’t feel it.
“What does your husband do?”
As wonderful as it is not to have to get up for work on a rainy Monday morning, not being able to work can alter your sense of identity, especially if you’ve had a fulfilling career in your home country. Suddenly you seem to be defined by your husband’s job and your kids’ achievements rather than your own, and it’s an adjustment some of us find really hard.
Living in a foreign country isn’t easy either. This isn’t a holiday so you need to make real-life work.
Finding healthy, affordable food your family will eat sometimes feels like an impossible task. Where do you find a family doctor and dentist you can understand? Dealing with pest control companies, air-con servicing, working out how to drive all over again, can all seem overwhelming.
And the simplest of things are suddenly really hard. Finding a supermarket that delivers fruit that doesn’t arrive looking like it’s been used as a football is a major sense of achievement.
These feelings aren’t confined to first-time expats. You might have had an easy time on your first move, but for some reason find it harder to find your tribe the second time around.
Expats move on frequently. You might have had a really good friend and feel lost when she moves on.
You might go through a period when you find it hard to invest in friendships. It can be difficult to continually put yourself out there when you know friendships come with an end date.
And although the qualities of self-reliance and resilience that come with expat experience are positive character traits to develop, they also sometimes mean it’s harder to let people in.
So what can you do to be happy?
If you’re reading this and nodding, be reassured ALL these feelings you are having are completely normal. You are not the only one to struggle. Even those women with the enviable group of friends probably had tough times along the way.
First of all, you need to recognize that there is a problem that needs solving. If you’ve read this much of this article I’m guessing you already achieved this step – congratulations! Now read on to find out what you can do about it.
When the going gets tough, the tough GET OUT
Do not shut yourself away at home. Even if you have a house full of boxes that still need unpacking, even if the thought of ‘welcome coffee’ brings you out in hives, say yes to every invitation and opportunity to meet people. If you don’t go, you won’t know.
If your kids are at school there are bound to be events organized by the PTA at the start of term. Otherwise, do some research. Most expat locations have clubs and associations who run tours, book groups, craft and walking clubs and a hundred other activities to fill your calendar. Search on Facebook for expat groups in your new country and put a message out to see if there are any coffee groups or other opportunities to meet people.
Every expat spouse has been exactly where you are now. We understand what it’s like to be new, or feel alone. People are welcoming: they have to be because friends move on so quickly they have to keep on making new ones. Ask for help.
If you hate the idea of turning up in a group of unknown women and making small talk, tell yourself you only need to go for half an hour and talk to one person. If you hate it you can leave. I’ll bet you’ll meet someone you can talk to, and who knows? Maybe you’ll find something out that’s useful to you. These women are the best source of info about your new home. You might even find a potential friend.
Even if you don’t, get up tomorrow and do the same thing. The law of averages means that the more you put yourself out there, the chances are you’ll meet someone you connect with.
Be happy: Fill your diary
If you’re used to working, you may find having more time on your hands difficult to cope with. In the early days just fill your diary, even if it seems forced. Make sure you do something outside the house every day.
Search up tours of local places. You might only meet tourists, but you’ll gain some local knowledge and you’ll have had some adult conversation! See if the museums and galleries have any lectures or exhibitions you’d be interested in. If you’re into sport, find a running club, or a gym. If you love reading, ask a question about book clubs on an expat forum.
Become a tour guide
Have a look at the map of your new home, divide it up into sections and explore each one. Get a guidebook and investigate each interesting place one by one in preparation for taking your kids at the weekend or your inevitable house guests when they arrive. Make a plan and note it down in your diary, so when you go to the dreaded welcome coffee you might find others who want to join you.
Do not fall into the trap of feeling guilty for doing “fun” things during the time your husband is at work and your kids at school. You are investing time to make a life for your family.
And think how good it will feel when you take your family on a trip at the weekend and you’re the local! Be sure to ask “Who’s the Trailing Spouse now?”
Ask for help
In a foreign country, everyday tasks can seem overwhelming. If you’ve ever run around a foreign city trying to find random items your family needs – watch batteries, shoe polish, face paint – you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The local food in your new country might seem exciting and exotic when you’re in the mood, but sometimes you just want some good old-fashioned comfort food you recognize. And heaven forbid you need to negotiate any administration. Post a parcel? Get a prescription? Deposit a check? You’d be forgiven for just wanting to go back to bed.
But you’re not going to do that! Make a list of all these annoying jobs and when you go to these welcome coffee ask people. If you have any potential sources of information (spouses of your husband’s work colleagues, for example, or a neighbor) ask them.
If you’ve found an expat forum on Facebook, post some questions. Remember, everyone has been where you are now and people love to help. Tick off these achievements one by one. You will feel 100% better when you have ordinary life sorted.
Be kind to yourself at first. This is a big deal. Settling in and making friends takes effort. Give yourself permission to take the time to do it properly.
What would make you happy?
Once you’ve met your tribe and you have a backup crew, you’ve unpacked your boxes and got normal life working, there will come a time when you feel ready to take the next step. You’ll decide you’re ready to stop simply reacting to everything this new life is throwing at you.
Now’s the time to sit down and think to yourself, what do I want to do?
Some people are very happy being a SAHM, and if that’s you, embrace it! As long as you feel fulfilled and your family finances can cope, being an expat spouse can give you the opportunity to be a full-time Mom, so if that’s what you want, take it.
You might feel, however, that you would like to do something else. If this is the case, make time to think about it. What have you always wanted to do, but never had the chance?
What are your options?
- Do you want to investigate going back to work? Is this possible in your new country?
- Can you work freelance, or telecommute with old contacts from home?
- Have you always wanted to set up your own business? Meet with an accountant who specializes in small businesses in your new country and find out what’s involved.
- Would you like to do voluntary work, help at school, work for a charity?
- Would you like to do a new qualification that might help you with future career goals? Take an online course or investigate local colleges. Maybe you could take the opportunity to do some work shadowing?
- Have you always wanted to spend more time on creative projects? Take an art course, or learn a musical instrument or start a blog (I can strongly recommend it!)
- Maybe you’ve always wanted to run a marathon, or quit sugar or take up Taekwondo. Is this the time to give it a try?
Do some research, set yourself some goals and who knows what you can achieve? This expat experience isn’t just an opportunity for your spouse’s career and your children’s education. It’s also an opportunity for you. Make sure you make the most of it.
The last word
So, while there’s no doubt that life can be pretty good for expats, don’t feel discouraged if you have tough times. The most important thing to do is reach out. Every expat spouse has been where you are now, and most of them would love to help.
Make a plan, take control, put yourself out there and make some friends. And once you’re organized and feeling ready, take some time out to decide what you want to do. What makes you happy?
We only have one life, and you have the chance to have an amazing one. Take it!