Just over two and a half years ago Geoff and I left Melbourne, Australia and moved to the beautiful student town of Uppsala in Sweden. We moved so that I could take up a scholarship to finish my masters there and luckily Geoff was able to transfer to the Stockholm office of the company he worked for. After I finished my masters, Geoff started working for a Swedish company and we decided to remain in Stockholm for the time being. I might not be a traditional accompanying spouse, but I can certainly relate to the experience on a number of levels.
Accompanying spouses go by many names: trailing spouses and STARs being two of the most common, but it basically means that you’ve moved abroad for your spouse’s career. The 2013 Brookfields’ Global Relocation Trend Report showed that 79% of overseas assigners were accompanied by a spouse or partner, and 43% accompanied by children. While the number of women being sent on international assignments reached a high of 21% in 2012, the vast majority of accompanying spouses are still female.
Having lived overseas of my own volition a number of times in the past has really made me appreciate how very different it is when you do so for your partners career. When I moved alone as a single woman for work or study I could choose where I wanted to go, for how long, and I could choose to move away at a moments notice. Moving as one half of a partnership is still an amazing opportunity: you get to experience a new culture, to learn a new language and to meet amazing people you’d never have met before – all with your best friend, but it does leave you with the feeling that you are somehow not in control of the situation. Although you’ve made the decision together, some sacrifices need to be made, and it is the accompanying spouse’s career that is often the first victim.
Indeed the question that strikes the most fear into the hearts of an accompanying spouse is ‘so what do you do?’ As the brilliant expat writer Robin Pascoe says in response to this question: ‘what did I used to do, what would I like to do, what am I going to do, or what would I like to do to you for asking me this?’ (In an aside, I’d love to have met her at a cocktail party, she sounds fantastic)
Being an accompanying spouse can be challenging. When I had first finished my masters here in Sweden and didn’t have a job, I lost count of the number of times people said “So are you ever going to get a job” – often accompanied by an indulgent smile, as though they thought I must just sit around painting my nails and eating biscuits all day. What is truly frustrating about this is that acquaintances have absolutely no idea of the struggle and heart break you go through on a daily basis when you want to work – looking for work in your field, finding very little in the country in which you are currently living, considering moving to another country, debating whether or not this is a good idea or not, looking for work again. There is often a lot of soul searching, stress, tears, frustration, anger, and sometimes resentment in accompanying your partner overseas. I wanted to shout “You have no idea how hard I am working to try and start a career here”.
At the beginning of this year I took up a position in Berlin working in my field of immigration research. It was an absolute joy to be working full time in a fascinating industry and in a truly enjoyable work environment. But most importantly it gave me a sense of purpose and positive self worth I had been lacking in Sweden. I was amazed by how something so small could have such an enormous impact on me. It gave me the motivation and self confidence to pursue my dream project full time: of interviewing highly mobile children and adults about their identity and to turn this idea into a book.
Choosing to go overseas with their partner is, for many people, the perfect opportunity to spend time on a project they’ve always wanted to get off the ground. I know people who have started successful businesses abroad, who have had the time to dedicate to writing books, who have become freelancers and been able to develop their careers that way, and some who have decided to return to study. I also know some people who have successfully found work in their field (very often people working in the IT industry), some who have chosen to stay at home and focus on raising their families, and some who have decided to simply embrace this time away and to enjoy themselves, knowing that when they return home things will be very different.
All of these are valid choices and should be celebrated.
So if you are an accompanying spouse, please ignore the negative comments you receive. People might dismiss your issues as first world problems or other such nonsense, but as far as I am concerned, life is not a battle to outdo one another in the nonexistence competition of who has the most challenging problems to deal with. It is totally normal to have fantastic days where you can’t help but smile when you realise you live in Stockholm or Paris, New York or Hong Kong. But it is also totally normal to have days when you feel lost, frustrated, depressed and angry. When you find yourself looking longingly at flights home or googling ‘how to make friends in [insert city]’.
Surround yourself with positive people who support you, with friend’s who are going through a similar situation as you, and encourage each other to reach your goals. I couldn’t have gotten through my time here without the support of the amazing women I’ve met here in Stockholm. The support of your partner is also invaluable, but most importantly I think it’s important to give yourself a break, take each day as it comes, and give yourself some credit for having moved to another country and for building a new life there.