What Does Your Husband Do?: The Secret Identity of the Expat Wife

Of all the questions a modern woman expects to be asked when meeting someone for the first time, “So, what does your husband do?” is not one that would’ve been on my radar. In fact, it would have grievously offended my pre-expat-wife self.

What do you mean, what does my husband do? How is that relevant to who I am as an individual? How does his career, his role, his position – define me? 

And yet, after expat-wifing for 5 years now, it’s a question that no longer causes me to bat an eyelid. In fact, after being asked my name, my kids’ ages, where we live, my often-spoken, almost pre-rehearsed line about his position at X company dances at the tip of my tongue, waiting for its inevitable release.

I am a dependant. I am someone else’s Plus One. I am so-and-so’s wife or so-and-so’s mother. The homemaker, the baby-caretaker, the healthy-toddler-muffin-baker.

It crept up on me, you know? There were the occasional flickers that uncomfortably zapped my career-driven, ambitious, independent persona: when the immigration department took the liberty of filling in our visa renewal forms and presumptuously stated “housewife” as my occupation; or when I went to get my mobile phone SIM card replaced but was told I had to obtain my all-powerful husband’s permission to do so; or when, despite me being the one who actually does all of our banking online, turning up to a bank branch only resulted in a strained, polite smile accompanied by a request for the employed, and more importantly, male, account-holder’s name with the requisite authority to return in my lowly, unauthorised place.

I worked, and was child-free, for the first 18 months or so of our expat stint, so I didn’t get the full expat wife experience until, in true expat wife fashion, I became the resident baby factory, churning out one child very soon after the other. Don’t get me wrong – I chose to stay home with my kids full-time and I am extremely grateful to have had that choice. But in our current assignment, the possibilities for me to go back into the workforce, and specifically, a job I would actually enjoy doing, are limited, if not, non-existent.

In my role as a stay-at-home-mom, a big part of my daily life is the modern parenting phenomenon known as the play date. Amongst the other mothers that attend, we have engineers, psychologists, pilots, lawyers, public health experts, insurance consultants, physiotherapists, tax specialists, bankers, marketing managers, naturopaths, journalists, designers, teachers and chiropractors. To name a few.

But amidst our discussions over the ingredients in that delicious, refined-sugar-free baked good, where the best place is to buy cheese, whether anyone had seen That Highly Sought After Imported Product in stock recently at the local eye-wateringly overpriced expat supermarket, our travel plans for the summer, or the #expatfirstworldproblems relating to hired help (I know, I know), one thing we rarely discuss is what we did before  we crossed the threshold into the realm of the expat wife. Our shoes, our diaper bags, and implicitly, our former professional selves are checked at the door. It’s almost an awkward question sometimes, maybe because it so rarely comes up, or maybe because deep down, we’re not sure we can still legitimately claim that part of ourselves anymore because our days now look so very different to how they used to.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: I want to be asked that question, and what’s more, I want to ask that question. It is incredible how much more I learn about the other woman in front of me when she opens up the side of herself that, truthfully, has nothing to do with her role as a wife or a mother. It’s wonderful. There is a spark in her eyes, and a subtly proud straightening of her posture as she sits on the floor changing that diaper, as she tells you about what she used to do. Or maybe it’s what she’s still doing, a passion she’s pursuing, but it’s in the background of her role as a wife or mother and so it is rarely seen in your regular interactions.

The other thing I’ve learned? While I think it’s healthy to embrace the season of life I’m currently in as I parent two toddlers, I also need – no really, I need – to devote some time to pursuing what sets my soul on fire. Or maybe it kindles it a little. That’s fine, too. But I need something, and I’m willing to bet that you do, too. One of the perks of expat wifing (that is now, officially, a verb in case you couldn’t tell), is that you can engage in projects, classes, hobbies or entrepreneurial feats that you otherwise may not have been able to. I’ve come to know several fellow expat women who have taken risks, started their own burgeoning businesses, pursued a dream that had taken a backseat, courageously decided to learn something new, or taken on employed or volunteer roles which may be completely different to what they used to do.

So yes, I am an “expat wife”. I may be, technically, my income-earning, visa-providing, manly man’s dependant. You may be one, too. But I refuse to accept that being a dependant means I am completely dependent. Who I am, as an individual, as a woman, is not dependent on anyone. Sure, the circumstances of life right now may coax or even dictate some of the decisions I make, but I will not accept a designated part to play, or a designated place in the life into which I’ve fallen. I will not lose myself to the role I am expected to take.

Ladies, we may be the homemakers, the baby-caretakers, and the healthy-toddler-muffin-bakers, but let’s also insist on being the typical-conversation-shakers, the risk-takers, and the stereotype-breakers.

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11 thoughts on “What Does Your Husband Do?: The Secret Identity of the Expat Wife

  1. Can’t agree more! It’s pathetic how the world works now. I am newly married, relocated to a new city and I choose not to work for the initial few months. I hate the office stress I want to live a life without it for a few days, what’s so wrong and ‘dependent’ about it I don’t understand. But just like you I have been tagged “the housewife”. My freelance work which I do from home is not taken seriously. It’s like you have to go out of your home to prove the World you are ‘independent’.

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  2. I am also an expat wife and I took it and turned it into a book, a blog and now a new career (well maybe career is taking it a little too far) as a freelance writer. I have never been so busy in my life! But yes you do need to get out there and make it a good life or it will pass you by 🙂

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  3. I have just red your article about ” expat wifing” and I love it. It is so true! I still face many sides of being “such a kind of wife ” and I still remind myself doing the job that I used to love so much. Well, step by step I am building my new life….and hope to succeed. I wish you all the best!! 😊

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  4. Unfortunately we still live in a world dominated by men. I work and have lived in the US for a while now. Recently I was asked “if there was a Mr.” In my house when I called to a windows replacement company to get a quote. I asked why was that relevant at all, and they said it was part of the protocol questions. I refused to answer that chauvinist question and I just told them I would keep looking and hung up. I have a husband but it was none of his business.

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  5. I’m an expat of 23 years, 12 international moves and mum to 2 children born overseas. I have worked in every single country we’ve lived in, full time, part time, freelance, found my own employment sponsors pre-marriage in Muslim countries … I’ve re-trained once, set up two companies and volunteered on top of working in most locations.

    Being an expat is fantastic permission to take risks without having the pressure of mortgage payments and knowing that live-in childcare is an option. I’ve not analysed data but can see from anecdotal evidence that expat partners who don’t take responsibility of feeling fulfilled (whether that is forging a career or developing a manicure habit – we’re all different), are often the ones who are unhappy in their expat location. We are all responsible for finding our own happiness and being removed from your home country doesn’t absolve us of this.

    Don’t want to be dependent? Don’t be.

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  6. It was not just the ‘what does your husband do?’ but the ‘what rank is he?’ which really put me off a certain women’s club and I never went back. My self esteem is marginally higher since filling in ’employment’ slot on many forms as ‘House Manager’ (slightly pathetic, I know!). Otherwise enjoy the company of all the others in same situation and form a book group (or wine and chat) to keep your brain ticking over and thereby your sanity. The children phase passes all too quickly and it’s often harder to make contacts once the children have moved on, but with hobbies, volunteering and enthusiasms the expat life is not so bad!

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  7. Thank you, what an uplifting, encouraging post! I have been living abroad for two years now, in my husband’s home country, and the beginning was not easy, but now I am definitely starting to find my feet. I am currently solely (besides some occasional blogging of course) focusing on my PhD, which would probably not be possible in my home country, so yes I am very lucky too! In addition to this expecting our very first baby and already practicing baking those healthy-toddler-muffins 😉 Let’s do our best to enjoy this precious part of our lives, and yes, let’s support each other in order to find our way in our new homes.

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