By Gabriela O’Malley
Although changing in gender, women continue to lead in numbers the unpaid workforce of expatriate assignments as in domestic relocations in general.
In a place where language and culture are confounding, the spouse/partner kicks-off her role in between raising her children and directing all the minutiae of the relocation. She does so, unpredicting how leaving behind a big portion of what she’s built for herself over the years to figure out who’s the ME in the new life she’s crafting, will impact her overall experience.
Early stages in relocation are packed with things to do, learn and adapt to, it’s hard to impossible assessing in-depth, how certain critical challenges affect the journey to figure out the ME.
A fragile social network, with continuous rotation of friends and only few family visits. Withdrawals from losing the identity and reassurance your career was feeding you with. Realizing that carrying the burden of the household - mostly as a single parent, with your partner gone traveling or working long hours, wasn’t what you planned in College. Last but not least, absorbing the impact of a career transition, going back to the start line, to figure out how to stand up from the crowd in a new market; going back to job searching and networking. Dealing with work permits and possibly learning a new language.
These realities for relocating partners are a big deal. What comes next, are the labels she’ll be identified with - unemployed, dependent, trailing spouse; and let’s not forget, the well-known, stay at home mom.
Labels hurt us. The paradox is, that in our global society, no one is nearly excited to be associated with any of them - relocating partner or not. They are disempowering and uninspiring. First, they put you in a box, then throw you to second-row.
The disenchantment with their welcome package is enough to put anyone in bed for weeks or at the psychoanalyst chair. The problem is real. I hear it from my clients and it’s also a conversation women return to frequently in online expat forums. Sharing their discouragement and frustration.
I keep coming across a great number of posts of so many women - some writing anonymously; typing away their pain, venting about feeling lost, lonely, unachieved, unfulfilled, or burned out taken for granted by their partners. Annoyed by the labels they’re given - millennials and middle-age women, all yearning for answers. Hoping or praying perhaps, there’s someone ‘out there’ who can comfort them with -‘you’re not alone’.
The number of replies they get reassure them they’re not alone. Every time I read their posts, I understand their sadness because I’ve been where they are; but I also feel frustration that we’re wrestling with the same puzzle present-day. We can go back ten years in time, and find articles addressing the same issues.
This isn’t about gender equality. That’d require a summit to unravel that unpaid work – like caregiving, raising children, domestic work or volunteering; mostly gendered, have social value, but miss to grant the status that paid work has. That work is work - paid or not. That in the real world, recognition and money are not an option for those who have to care for their family and carry whatever they must.
It’s about cost of opportunity. Something so simple, yet missing.
The Guardian’s Identity
What’s interesting is, that while riding those years in the unpaid workforce, with young children in one hand and holding the fort at home in the other, as we bounce around from one territory to another, we’re not shy to place everyone ahead of us; so much, it goes without notice even by ourselves. Until one day, we’re at the cocktail party and someone asks - what do you do?
If that question has ever made you feel uncomfortable, then you’d agree with me, it sounds more like – how good enough are you, for doing what you do?. You’d agree, that the first thing that comes to mind is - geez, where would you want me to start?
But we don’t answer; we choke, fire back with another question to change the subject or fly the scene pretending someone is calling for us, would you excuse me? Yet, there you are, wearing your new labels like necklaces, surrounded by what seems to be an eclectic international group of people; clueless about your future and navigating the room hoping you won’t bump into the person with the what do you do question again.
It’s overwhelming and mentally exhausting.
Searching for a well-worth title that’d describe everything you do in a usual day inside a culture that appraises value via a transaction system - tagging a price to what you do, what you create, how you look, what ideas get you invited to the table, and what words validate you - where are you left and what are you left with?
What may seem a simple question, what do you do?, really is a big one that plays a weighty role in our heads. What we do, projects the value we bring to the table every single day.
It makes us feel uncomfortable, when we allow that value transaction system determine how we assess our self-worth.
The discomfort also signals we want a seat at the table; we want to experience expanding our value and strengths over relocation amenities, diapers, raising teenagers, or household chores everyone pretends to not see, but you.
The good news is that in recent years, the growth of dual income families and increased awareness of the integral role of the spouse/partner are making enough noise, support is now critical and central for a lot of companies that today offer exceptional spouse assistance programs. Merging a pool of experts, strategies and tools to offer solutions for career development and transition support. Opening the window to opportunities and possibilities.
Not everyone will qualify for this benefit, and sadly, some will miss to take full advantage of it. Yet, finding a job is only one facet in relocation success. Integration, adaptability and many other elements are equally important.
Calculating your ROI
Better than dismantling the side-effects of wearing disempowering labels and of the arduous unpaid work battling challenges, is to focus on your cost of opportunity and ponder the questions - what is it for me in this assignment? and what return of investment would I like to get?
Taking ownership of the journey is always the first step. You’ve got to own it and go all the way. In between your choices for career, to relocate supporting your husband’s career advancement, or to raise a family - aligning those choices the best way to fit your goals, is the second step.
To get better answers, ask better questions.
What are the personal and professional goals I’d like to work towards achieving?
What do I need to be successful?
How can I cultivate a greater understanding of my self-worth and recognition of my accomplishments while I become employed/professionally active again?
What challenges do I foresee in this assignment? (i.e. language, personality, etc)
What’s missing in my life right now?
A great place to find what’s missing in our life is, in the check and balance of all those parts of life that make us feel Empowered, Strong and Alive.
Keep It Real
Great art is not instant. We are a work in progress, this is only the beginning of mapping a new path in your journey. I say this, because not much is emphasized in how time and hard work are the top two components of achievement. Rather, we overwhelmingly get invited to buy quick-fixes and magic formulas wrapped to appeal our egos or fear-motivated triggers.
Comparing ourselves against the success of others is heading the wrong way and what you see is people falling into discouragement or self-pity behavior; dispirited their short-lived grand conceptions failed to turn into the next Apple. Others opt for meaningless jobs just to wear a different label; others disappeared in limbo where dreams and personal goals remain buried.
Broadway musical Hamilton was written over the course of six years. It took director Alan Barillaro three years to make the six-minute award-winning short film Piper. Nora Ephron said, “I had been working as a journalist for nearly eight years before I could easily write in the voice that I turned out to have”. Freddie Mercury first started developing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the late 1960s, with the album released for the first time in 1975.
Even genius take their time to create great art. Why be fooled buying to the outside noise of quick-fixes and magic formulas for success?
I’m a mother of two young girls who are well aware of their early global exposure; my first daughter was born in Texas and my youngest in Singapore. They already are talking about wanting to live in Europe before going to College. I don’t want to be an overprotective parent and make decisions for them. I want them to grow up and explore the world - owning their journey, assessing the cost of opportunity in the choices they make and calculating their return on investment.
There are many strategies to avoid falling in the shadows of unlived potential; all start with taking ourselves seriously enough to find ways to empower ourselves. Grounded on the facts that in the realm of value and success - it’s hard work, tenacity and a load of perseverance what we’ll find.
Meaningful relationships, enriching personal growth, a career aligned with what you do best, and a solid social network, are top resources in the ongoing pursue of fulfillment and success in our journeys.
Yes, we can help others build an awesome life, what we can’t do, is forget to continuously nourish ours.