I’m currently in London visiting a friend from my university days. It was a last minute trip to catch up with her and other friends before I jet off on my next expat adventure. It only just dawned on me that it’s my first childfree trip in three and a half years. Three and a half years.
I’ve handed over responsibility and left my husband in charge of our kids. I’ve given instructions to our cleaning ladies, prepared nutritious meals in advance and a former nanny is on hold just in case things get desperate. I’m sure he can cope though. He’ll either learn quickly or if all else fails he’ll drive to McDonalds daily and rummage for cleanish clothes among the dressing up box.
Anyone who knows me knows that I travel a lot. Hopefully they also think of me a person in my own right and not just an extension of my husband and children. I’m as surprised as anyone that it’s taken me so long to have some proper, childless ‘me time’.
Of course, as you’ll have guessed from the blog, I do enjoy an incredible amount of me time. I get my nails done, see my girlfriends, go to exhibitions and eat out as much (or more than?) anyone else. I’ll always work it round my kids though. I’ll get my hair cut when they’re in nursery, I’ll see girlfriends when my husband isn’t working abroad and I’ll write my blog when the kids are in bed. When I do have my kids in tow, I’ll prioritise doing what they love (although I admit I can’t stand the sticky, local soft play centre).
I’m keen to maintain my pre-baby lifestyle and if that means taking my children along to a fancy restaurant, so be it. I even tried sneaking my youngest into a luxury spa in Belgium, trying to hide him under a towel while distracting the spa manager: ‘Oh hello, umm I just wanted to say what a lovely spa you have here… oh yes, you’re right that is a baby… umm yes he is mine. I promise not to take him into the sauna…’
As expat women we face an especially tricky task in making sure we prioritise time for ourselves, be it for our career, our health or our wellbeing. We move countries and put our lives on hold until we fix the lives of the ones we love. We become chauffeurs, personal assistants, relocation consultants, administrative assistants, ‘trailing spouses’. If we’re not careful we risk losing our own identities along the way. Of course our partners and children will always need us, but not always in the same way. When the tide shifts and the opportunity to reclaim our identity arises, we must recognise and seize the opportunity.
An Expater friend set limits from the start. Friday nights and Saturday mornings were hers and her husband would look after their newborn on his own. At first I thought it incredulous that her husband working throughout the week had to commit to her schedule just so she could get a facial. As she rightly pointed out however, she also worked during the week looking after their baby and she also deserved time off. It wasn’t just fair but also efficient – the knowledge that she got time off at the weekend made her happier during her working week. Her husband was entrusted with looking after their child alone and bonded in a way other sidelined fathers may only dream about.
Not everyone is so smart, not everyone is so lucky. One Expater buddy commented how she felt that expat living sucked the life out of her and turned her into someone she didn’t like. Formerly a Paris socialite she felt she’d gradually morphed into a Swiss mum at home. She’d given up her career in France, waved au revoir to her friends back home and devoted herself to making a safe nest for her newborn.
While this friend had it very, very tough, we can’t always blame this shift completely on our husbands, our children or expat life. Somewhat slow to the game I’ve just read the business and life manual of the decade ‘Lean In’. So much in this book is relevant to expat life. It strikes me that it’s especially important for us expat partners, wives and mothers to lean in to the lifestyle we want and deserve. While we may run the household like a fine tuned machine, we have to accept that it’s OK for our home to get a little rusty now and again. If it means a few cobwebs so we can get a job, try a new hobby, socialise, then so be it. We have to delegate to others, to let them learn. We have to wave goodbye to our old selves and embrace our new identities.
Like most expat mothers, I’ve acted as the stop gap while my husband has moved or travelled for work. While my second child was sick and my husband was abroad it was impossible for me to get a job, see my friends or truly be myself. I’d like to think I’ve had a stabilising influence on my husband and my children’s expat life. But I’m no longer needed the way I was back then and it’s time to move on.
I figured that when I returned back from London my husband would greet me with open arms and sob about how tough life is as a single parent. I’m getting daily updates and far from McDonalds drive through, it seems he’s been preparing healthy meals. No take away boxes in sight and the kids’ clothes don’t appear to be Halloween themed. Meanwhile, I’ve been reconnecting with friends, making contacts and working on my blog. I may be coming to London more often.