So, your partner has been offered an international contract and you’re about to embark on expat life.
Part of you has already handed in your notice, packed your bags, and is off on a massive adventure. Another part of you is under the duvet with your fingers in your ears and your eyes tight shut.
Is it fair on the kids? Who will take care of my parents if they’re sick?
What is an expat wife and what do they DO ALL DAY?
You have a lot of questions and no-one to ask. Well here are a few answers from someone who’s been there. Here are 7 truths, and a few lies, about expat life.
By the way, obviously not all expat spouses are wives, but for the purpose of this article, I’m assuming they are. If you’re about to be an expat husband, some of this will be relevant but you’ll also have a whole bag of truth and lies of your own. Good luck with that.
Truth #1: Some expat wives may have big hair but they rarely swill gin for breakfast
Most are actually pretty normal: doing the laundry, helping the kids with their homework, driving them to soccer practice.
But while most non-expat women spend a large percentage of their day working and doing housework, there’s a strong chance the expat wife won’t be able to work, and will have more help at home.
This sounds amazing, right? Sleeping in on Monday morning? Laundry spirited away and miraculously reappears ready to wear in the closet? House clean, dinner cooked, 24/7 childcare?
I’m not going to lie, in a lot of ways expat partners have a pretty good deal. After years of bringing up kids, working full time and having a husband who worked #allthehours, being told you’re pretty much expected to have a live-in helper is great, once you get over the weirdness.
But, it’s one thing not to have the stress of work, and another to be told you can’t.
Rightly or wrongly in the 21st century, a lot of our identity is tied to what we do for a living.
You might have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or owned your own business. You might have worked in a shop, or a school library. But you earned your own money, you had a professional reputation, you could pay your own credit card.
You could HAVE a credit card in your own name. And a phone. And a freakin’ bank account.
Suddenly, “what does your husband do?” is one of the first questions people ask. You are defined by the achievements of your kids and spouse rather than yourself.
So give the gin-for-breakfast gang a break. Maybe they’re just trying to find their identity.
Truth #2: You’re unlikely to start knocking off the tennis coach
Actually, I haven’t met a single expat spouse who has had an affair with a tennis coach, or a pool boy.
But expat-land is sometimes called “the place where marriages go to die” so never say never.
The long hours, travel and stress that is often part and parcel of an expat contract can take its toll on a marriage. On the rare occasion your spouse is home, there’s a strong chance they are glued to their phone and/or still at work in their head.
Suddenly, their job isn’t just a part of their life, it’s the center of your universe.
Everything you and your family do is dependent on that job being successful. So sacrifices are made. Don’t let it be your marriage. Or your family life. Or your values.
Truth #3: The money’s good, and it’s very easy to spend it
So the upside of the big job? (You know, the one that’s become the other woman in your marriage?) It generally pays very well.
And although seasoned expats moan contracts aren’t as good as they used to be, they still often come with pretty great add-ons like school fees, living allowances, and flights home. There may also be tax incentives.
If you’re smart you can really use this time to build up a nest egg to set you and your kids up for the future.
But you need to be smart.
Many expat locations are pretty darn good at tempting all that lovely cash out of your pocket. You’re away from your normal life, you’re earning well, why not go to that ball, enroll the kids in all the activities, take that opportunity for a luxury trip?
Be smart. Live well, but save the cash.
You never know how long this will last.
Truth #4: Expat friendships are a delicate flower
Living in a foreign land, with a different language, unfamiliar customs and no idea where to buy that book-day outfit your kid inevitably needs on Day 2, it’s essential you find your posse pretty damn quick.
For many people, being away from their support group at home, be it family, or friends that feel like family is the hardest adjustment of all.
Sure, technology is a wonderful thing and cheap air travel makes the world a smaller place. I shudder to think how our expat-foremothers coped without Skype, What’s App and the chance to go home once or twice a year. (No Google? WTF?? Without Maps and Translate I wouldn’t ever have left the house.)
True friends from home will always be true friends, whatever the distance but they can’t help you pick up Little-Lottie when you’re stuck in traffic, so you need to find a new back-up crew.
The truth is, you need to find your tribe, because as wonderful as your new life has the potential to be, it’s also crazy-weird, and you need people who’ve been through it and understand.
(Also, you CAN NOT MOAN about the live-in help to people at home without SIGNIFICANT eye-rolling on their part.) Kidding! (Kind of… )
You might be lucky and land in a place where you connect with people straight away, but generally, these friendships take some work at first.
You have to put yourself through the horror of the welcome coffee. Remember being the new girl in the playground? Here you are again, 30 years later and it’s just as awkward as you remember.
You have to drum up the courage to ask your potential new girlfriends for their number and suffer the anxiety of waiting for them to call. (What if they already have a best friend? What if they just don’t like me?)
As cringe-worthy as it all is, you have to do it.
Put yourself out there, say YES! To every invitation, forget about your life in boxes at home.
DO THE DAMN COFFEE.
“What does my husband do? What an interesting question! Where did we meet? Well, it’s a funny story, actually…”
You’ll find there is a very strange selection of people to choose from. The Queen-Bees, The Pampered Princesses, PTA Mom, Soccer Mom. The I-Used-T-Be-A-Lawyer-AND-MY-KIDS-WILL-ACHIEVE-GREATNESS-Mom.
But there are some GREAT people too. Brave-, adventurous-, timid-, kind-, funny-, dependable-, AWESOME-Moms. (You know who you are.)
If you’re lucky, you’ll bond quickly over the craziness of your new life, share WAY too much too soon, and before you know it you’ll be picking each other’s kids up and having gin for breakfast. (Kidding again.)
BUT even after you make your friends, you’re not out of the woods because being part of the transitory world you now find yourself, inevitably they will leave. And you’ll have to suffer the welcome coffee all over again, all be it a little older and wiser.
Truth #5: The life of a TCK is a complicated one
Bringing kids up anywhere is way harder than anyone told you, right? Even once the sleepless nights, gratuitous vegetable blending and oversized-diaper-bag stage is over, it’s still tough.
You worry about your kids not making friends.
You worry about your kids making so many friends they don’t do their homework.
You worry about your kids making THE WRONG DAMN FRIENDS.
There’s a tonne of joy and a whole lot of worry.
Well, if you’re an expat you don’t have just-kids. No way. Now you have Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and there’s a whole new section in the bookstore about how you’re screwing them up.
Once you got over the “When do we tell the kids we’re dragging them away from friends, family, and everything they love?” conversation and “I’M NOT GOING!” you’ll be on the “Is that, like, a country?” and “Where even IS IT?” discussions.
Before you’ll know it, you’ll be feeding them to the lions at a swanky new school, in a shiny new uniform, with ambitious foreign language choices.
The good news is, international schools are used to kids coming and going, so new kids are not weird, and chances are there will be a good integration program.
You might even feel a tiny bit jealous of how quickly they make friends, and the fact they have a structure in their life that feels pretty normal. They go to school, do sports, practice their trumpet (or not), do their homework, just like they would at home.
BUT those new best friends you’re so relieved they just made? Chances are they’re leaving in June. or Christmas, OR NEXT WEEK.
And this transitory life sometimes means that kids don’t even bother trying to make friends, especially after a few moves.
And they might not be great with conflict resolution either. What’s the point going through the pain of getting over a fight? Its way easier to just wait until that kid leaves and the problem disappears.
If you have a child that isn’t great with change, it’s tough both academically and emotionally. And one thing you can be sure of? Everything changes a lot.
On the other hand, if you can maintain stability at home, with your family and your values you are giving your kids a lifestyle and opportunities that can define them IN A GOOD WAY.
TCKs become RESILIENT and SELF-RELIANT and KNOWLEDGABLE about a global perspective from living in a global culture first hand.
They have friends and experiences from all over the world.
They will see that it’s okay to take a calculated risk. That there’s a world outside their hometown. That you really can achieve amazing things if you work hard and believe in yourself.
Surely, that would make you a great future employee, an interesting friend, a solid spouse?
And they’ll have a suitcase full of hole-in-the-floor-toilet-stories to tell at College.
Truth #6: Homesickness is a physical pain
Before I left, a friend of my parents who had done the expat thing in the 1970s (before Facetime, cheap air travel, and Google Translate – shudder) said to me, “Expect to feel homesick, and it will hurt.”
She was right.
Homesickness is not the psychological problem you think it is. It’s a pain that makes you clutch your gut and hold back tears. And it catches you unawares. When you watch a TV programme from home (Damn you, Strictly Come Dancing!), or reach for your phone to call your friend and realize she’s still asleep.
When you want to take your Mum Christmas shopping or pick her up on the way to your kid’s concert.
When the milk tastes wrong, or it’s TOO DAMN HOT.
There’s not a lot I can say about it. It is what it is. Take a breath, swallow hard and carry on. List your blessings. It will pass.
Truth #7: You need to invest
Just like those TCKs who now live in your house, you have to invest.
There’s no point thinking, “I’m only here for two years, I don’t need to go to the welcome coffee. I’ll Skype my friends at home if I need a chat. What’s the point making friends when they’ll leave and I’ll miss them?”
“What’s the point learning to speak the language/ converting my license/ trying to get a job/ starting that course? We don’t know how long we’ll be here.”
“I don’t need to bother working out where to buy shoe-laces/ a swimsuit that fits/ bread we can actually taste. I can get my Mom to send it/ we can do without.”
Let me tell you, that two-year contract? It might become 3, or 5, or 15.
And even if it is only 2, it’s 2 whole years of your life. Don’t waste it. Find friends, learn the language, take the trip. This is the only life you get. And you have the opportunity to make it a MASSIVE adventure.
So invest in new friends, culture, language, YOURSELF. Take the opportunity.
So, is expat life all cocktails and sunsets and tennis lessons and brunch? No, it is not.
Are there tough times, and hardships and tears? Sometimes.
Do you miss home, family, familiarity? Yes, absolutely.
Is it an adventure? Is it worth it? Would you do it again?
Without a doubt.