ABC of expat woman's life: B - Being an expat woman

07 January 2011, by

What does it take to be an expat? And in particular an expat woman? In the past seven years of my expat life I have come across many different definitions of who I was and what I was doing: international woman, expat woman, expat spouse, trailing spouse.

The first one - international woman - sounds quite neutral. To me, it reflects a woman who has an international life or career. It could also mean that you live in your home country but travel for your work abroad for example.

The next one sounds already a bit more exotic: an expat woman.

A few years ago when I moved to the Netherlands I did not consider myself being an expat woman. Although I was living and working abroad, I did have a "local" husband and friends. I did not participate in the social international community either.

From an international woman to an expat spouse

After a couple of years this changed, as my husband got a project in Mexico City and we decided to move with the whole family there. And there it happened, my label of "international woman" was replaced by a new one: "expat spouse."

Browsing on the Internet, I came across the distinction in the definition of the two. The distinction being whether you have your own career or not. So, there I was suddenly "downgraded" from a woman to a spouse. As a decent "expat spouse" I had of course a cook, a nanny, a housekeeper and even a driver. All the attributes of an expat spouse!

I was enjoying all social gatherings there were to enjoy: mornings for mothers and kids, knitting afternoons with local women, drinks with the "Dutchies," lunches with other expat spouses, book clubs, yoga lessons. You name it! I have been there and have done it. Life was fun!

So, when did I turn into a "trailing spouse" then? And who has ever invented such a name! A trailing spouse sounds very passive to me.

It sounds like you really do not choose for a life of your own but that you simply have to follow your husband and his career, whether you like it or not. It even sounds like there is a resistance, to be on a trail means that you are being pulled by someone else. You do not take part in making a decision, you do not have your own will, you are just being pulled by your husband.

woman box

To even make it worse, you are not even a woman but you turned into a spouse. All your other roles such as being a mother, daughter, sister, friend, or colleague have been swiped away. How unfair is that?

More than being a spouse

It is true that some of us do decide to put their own career on hold in order to support the career of their husband, but that does not mean we are deprived of all other attributes of being a woman, simply because we decide not to work for sometime!

It is most of the time a woman who is in charge of building again a new nest for the whole family, starting a new social life, making sure kids feel safe and secure in their new environment.

Furthermore, you have a life of your own to re-start with making new friends, deciding to find a new job or starting a new career or study. It sounds to me like so much more than just being a spouse. Most of us give of course support to their hard working partners but that is one of our roles and not the only one.

Do not let yourself be locked (by yourself or others) in one of the drawers labeled "trailing spouse." As an exercise you can write down your name in the middle of the sheet of paper. Then write down on the same sheet of paper, around your name all your roles that you fulfil at the moment. Circle them, draw a line from your name to the role and see now how many important roles you have!

What is your story? How did you become an expat woman? If you feel like please share it below.

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Comments arranged by date (Total 4 comments)  
January 07 2011, 12:18PM

Great article. I written about the same issue myself and I despise the term "trailing spouse" for all of the reasons you list. I run groups on Facebook and LinkedIN (Definitely Not Trailing) for women and men who don't want to be known as trailing spouses and who are finding ways to thrive in the expat identities. Join the discussion there too - I'm going to post your article on both groups as its a great contribution to the discussion.
Evelyn Simpson
The Smart Expat

January 09 2011, 03:45PM

Hi Evelyn, thanks a lot for your enthusiastic reaction! Dorota

October 05 2012, 11:52AM

Such a great article! I could be described as a"trailing spouse", or "an expat spouse", since I followed my husband wherever it took him, but it was all my choice! Also, we are so much more than just spouses, and this term, as opposed to the term "international woman", doesn't include women who are not married! So many problems with this term! " I also don't like the association "trailing" has- it's like being pulled, or it sounds like a burden, like an unnecessary thing. Well-written and thoughtful, thank you!

October 18 2015, 06:55PM

Great article. I have written a novel about this struggle, 'The Disobedient Wife' in which one of my main characters, an expatriate diplomat's wife, feels she has lost her roots. When she goes home, she no longer fits in, but of course, in the country where she lives, she is an outsider as well. She realizes that her identity is almost entirely tied to her husband and so she seeks to change her life so that she can find herself, the person she has become. My book resonates with expat women (yes, I know there are also men who follow spouses abroad,) because so many of us have had these feelings at some point. Yes, life is good! I would not have become a writer if I was in a stable 'job' and still living in my home country.
Annika Milisic-Stanley

About the Author
Dorota Klop-Sowinska

I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am a certified coach / counselor at Dutch...

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