Expat Life Is Good… But, What Happens When You Don’t Want To Be One?
“…you sitting down?“
“Sure, what’s up?“
That’s the way it started. Just like that, we were moving. Again. And in less than 288 hours it was done. Start to finish. That’s all it took, 12 short days.
How do you go from being at work one afternoon, kids in school, plans on the calendar, to being… gone? I was in shock of some sort. Running on auto-pilot. Doing what I had done more than a dozen times before.
I didn’t even have time to think until after we had arrived at our new home that we had made plans to have dinner that very night with a good friend from another life as he was passing through! It was like that old Glen Campbell song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” where it says “(s)he’ll just hear that phone keep on ringing, off the wall. That’s all.”
We just left town in a whirlwind of packers and movers. The house was dark… no time to even let friends know. My life was over. I didn’t know what was coming, if I could work, what to tell my daughter.
Sometimes moves come quickly; sometimes they take forever to materialize and you’re left hanging, somewhere between limbo and eternity. Sometimes the family is excited, “Yea, Switzerland!” (Ok- that posting almost never happens…); other times it’s more of a bribe ’em run situation, as in, “Ok, we’ll make it work. It says here that the International school is good. What if we work it so you can come back home and stay with Uncle John for the summers- how would that be?”
We’ve all seen the scenarios where mom and dad try to soothe the kids’ worries, making everything seem new, and bright, and shiny.
But… what if it’s you. What if you’re the one who has misgivings. What if you’re the one who doesn’t want to move…again. Not again. We’re not ripping up my life, my friends, not when I finally have meaningful work, and family. You’re not leaving me adrift…again.
Judy Rickatson drew attention to a new post on Expat Lingo. Jennifer Brown’s post, “JUCHE IDEOLOGY FOR THE EXPAT SOUL” was so spot on, it made me think with 18 moves in 25 years, how many times I had lurched between Linda Janssen’s swallow hard and smile routine and Jen Brown’s mental foot-dragging.
We talk a lot about how to be an expat, how to be resilient, how to make new friends and contacts. There are any number of resources for coping with repatriation.
What about resources for coping with ex-patriation in the first place? I’m thinking of my situation, with our last move, in particular.
Recently for the Expat Experience challenge with Molly at The Move To America, I wrote about why I left. Put that way it sounds different from “why we accepted an expat opportunity.” It made me wonder about the male trailing spouse expatriation resources?
Looking back, I think my husband must have been very much like Jen Brown, going through the stages of grief that Linda Janssen talks about in The Emotionally Resilient Expat:
I believe that, as a pretty traditional, “baby-boomer”, the thought of becoming a “trailing spouse” must have been rather hard to deal with. What resources are there even today for men who need help adjusting? How many men here in the USA would even know what to say to a friend trying to discuss this?
In our case, I had made 17 moves in 22 years at that point. I had given up my work each and every time. I closed up the house and set up the next one, sometimes in similar cultures, sometimes in very different places. We always had to rent a place and wait up to 6 months to receive our household goods, deal with the damage, make claims, replace what we could and get on with things. That was my job. Learning the new culture and rules was his job.
But none of the moves in all that time had been made for my job. Not once had my husband ever been without an identity, or, been the one with no friends. Experience had prepared me, but not so much for him.
In the case of this particular move, we also had the added twist that this opportunity came about because of a corporate buy-out that would eliminate many jobs, and his being a likely possibility. At 40, to have a career go away is hard for anyone. But after 20 years in one field, it really caused some soul-searching. I thought I was being helpful by looking at a new expat opportunity for us.
This week has been like a lightning bolt for me- a real eye-opener, full of things I had just swept away in the divorce, never wondered about until now. But I saw from Jen Brown’s description, quite clearly in fact, indicator’s that might have saved us a lot of grief.
1. Denial: I believe that my husband had a good deal to be in denial about.
“My job is not going away, but if it did, I would be taken care. But if I’m not taken care of, I will get a comparable job right away…”
As a spouse I wish I had seen and understood this stage more clearly instead of being Pollyanna, saying “Here’s a quick fix.” I would have been better off to sit down and openly discuss the likely job situations and work out the pros and cons. I also think, looking back, that there were likely some pride, or self-esteem issues, related to the job- worry that somehow my feelings might change if he didn’t have that specific job or title. I never thought of that nor do I remember him ever addressing it. Sweep that under a corner of this rug.
2. Anger: My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that women identify and perhaps express anger in these situations more readily. At least in American culture, it has historically been more acceptable for women to feel emotion and men to be somewhat more stoic.
In our case, I think there was much frustration for him over not being able to control the corporate buyout and the impending consolidation, and it all stayed inside. No matter how much we “talked” about it, looking back, I don’t think we ever got down to that level.
As a man of faith, I believe he prayed about it, but I don’t know that any answer really comforted him in this issue. And I know his nature would never have let him talk to any guy friends- in fact most of his friends were in the same boat at work.
I’m still not sure what I should have done, or what I could have done that wouldn’t have made matters worse for him. If I had said anything to anyone outside, he would have viewed it as breaking a trust. So it’s almost damned if I did, or broken if I didn’t.
3. Bargaining: For us, he said, “Yes, let’s do this one.” He seemed happy and excited, but nervous. He wasn’t in the driver’s seat, and wasn’t all that sure about Azerbaijan. Being so close to Iran and Iraq- remember we in the US were just out of Gulf War I and there was a lot of sabre rattling in the area (um, sort of like today, oddly enough!)
His bargain was probably something like, “Ok, we’ll go ahead with this until something else comes along to save me.”
Had I been able to contain my excitement about having a chance to do something meaningful, and getting a chance to stretch my wings after 20+ years of following, I might have been more attuned to this bargain-making. It should have seemed a little too easy. But that’s what hindsight is best at, isn’t it?
4. Depression: Because I went ahead to set up the business office and get the registration process started, I didn’t see this play out. I wasn’t in Houston for the sale of the house or the sorting of goods we could take (very few) and those we had to sell or donate (90%). Seeing your life go away for something you’re sure of is hard. But throwing it away if you’re waiting for a reprieve has to be unbearable. From my vantage point today, I wish I had been there.
From my side, since I was overseas already, dealing with the quirks of let’s see, having no water most days, adjusting to eastern-style bathrooms, ensuring I could find bottled water each day, I operated by the old adage, “Don’t go looking for trouble”. If there were questions, I expected my husband would call me. (We didn’t have email at the beginning.) Otherwise, I’d assume things were going ok or he was figuring out a way to resolve issues, as I had always had to do when I trailed him.
When we got stretched thin by miles and problems galore, I realize my compassion meter was the first casualty. I went into triage mode and I was prioritizing rather than supporting. My bad. I viewed my problems as just as important as his.
Funny, this is exactly what he always did when we moved before. And I understood it. Things worked wonderfully. But when the roles were reversed, I didn’t think to leave him the “Owner’s Manual” to help him do that job for the first time.
It’s easy to say he should have stepped up and spoken out. It’s easy to say he should have asked for help. And both of those are fair statements. In most relationships we do look to each partner to pull their own weight, but in expat moves, it seems that we have to “mind the gaps” by being willing to each go 100%, not just 50-50%. I did well in some areas, but like a horse off to the races, I got ahead of the plan and didn’t watch for signs of depression.
Even though I didn’t know these stages of grief then, I was personally acquainted with depression and could possibly have helped if I had paid attention when I came home at Christmas, or if I had listened more closely. It’s hard to go back and say what exactly I missed, but knowing what I know now from Jen and Linda’s writings, I hope I would do better.
5. Acceptance: This is a tricky stage. To some people acceptance means that you go along with the program and get on with it. But in our case, I believe that my husband came to the point, after 3 years of one-thing-after-another, that he accepted that he was not going to make this move with me. He didn’t have it in him to be a trailing spouse. It wasn’t a role he could live with. Ex-husband was easier to accept than being the trailing spouse or not being needed.
If you’re like me when you read those words, your first responses are something like, “Wait, that’s not how this works. She made how many moves supporting you? How could you not even try?”
I went through all those thoughts. But then I realized that acceptance is a two-way street. It had taken him three years to come to this point. It wasn’t something cavalier like “no I don’t think today is good for me and tomorrow my schedule is full too.” I think there was a lot of soul-searching that led to this acceptance that he had to let go.
Sometimes that’s what happens when you find you don’t want to be an expat. Other times a compromise can be made.
So, yes, Expat Life is good… when it’s right for you. I wouldn’t have traded that next 10 years overseas for anything.
But, if you find you really don’t want to be one, my best advice is: accept how you feel, realize the expatriate life isn’t a life for everyone. Above all,
» Be honest
» Be vocal
» Be sure
Give your family a chance to help. Work through your personal dynamics and make the decisions that are right for all of you. Just remember there are more than two possible answers, and each of them can be right answers.