What are your immediate thoughts when I say I am an ex-pat? Perhaps adventure, courage and ambition are the words that come up in your own mind. What about if I tell you that I am an ex-pat wife, what do you think now? An easy life of coffee mornings, yoga and socialising are perhaps more the connotations. Ex-pat wives are commonly thought of as being privileged as they do not necessarily have to work for the financial stability of the family. Of course both of these are both stereotypes but the reality is that being an ex-pat and being an ex-pat wife are two very different roles and experiences.
When I moved to Stavanger five years ago I was the trailing spouse and my husband was the ex-pat. Whilst there are many expats who might recoil at being described as a trailing spouse, for me the term captures well this new state of being. I went from being a woman with a promising career and a sense of independence to a dependent within the space of a short plane journey. This was a huge transition of role for me having been anything but dependent in my previous life. At times, particularly at the beginning, I felt incredibly vulnerable, isolated and bored. I often felt lost, invisible even, and struggled to find, and be comfortable with, who I was in this new role. An important part of my identity was undoubtedly lost through the career that I had left behind and the social structure in which I previously functioned.
As a psychologist I began thinking about how I might find meaning in a life that I had not, and could not, have planed for. I often contemplated what happens to our identity when we move to a place where we have no previous history or experience? What happens to our identity and sense of self if we cannot make use of the skills we valued previously? There were times I would find myself caught in self-doubt and struggling with my own self-worth.
After the first year I knew that I was not one of the trailing spouses who was satisfied with coffee mornings and knew I needed to upgrade my status from dependent to independent. Fortunately I was not alone in this and many of the friends that I had surrounded myself with were struggling with the same issues and trying to become the new generation of ex-pat wives…the independent dependents! In 2015 a study by Expat Insider reported that 84 percent of trailing spouses are women, 50 percent hold postgraduate degrees, and yet only 24 percent were currently employed in their host country. Whilst the reasons for such a significant group of highly educated women not to be in employment vary hugely from person to person and country to country, from my own personal and professional experience, neither trailing spouses, nor their career plans, are typically considered at the beginning of the expat journey.
For some trailing spouses however, moving abroad brings the opportunity for reinvention, either into a new career or down a new educational path. For me this was exactly the case and five years on I find myself not only working as a psychologist but also running my own business in a foreign country. A place I could never have imagined myself at the beginning of my clinical training. So whilst I wouldn’t necessarily term myself as entirely independent, nor would I want to, I have at least dropped the “trailing”.