Ticking the right box: the full time ‘expat spouse’ job

Expat mums, expat spouses, expat partners – do you work?

Recently friend asked me what I did for a living and I replied, ‘I move countries’.

I’ve moved countries five times in the last five years and assisted my husband with a short term move to Nigeria in between. Goodness knows how many times I’ve moved from hotel to temporary apartment to home and back again.

A while ago another (non expat) friend asked me if I didn’t miss work. There was no harm intended and yet like many expatriate spouses, I took it as an insult.

Perhaps only expat spouses understand that even if we don’t earn money for a living, we don’t always lead a life of leisure.

But hey, here’s another question: is it even possible to work as an expat spouse? Or as an expat mother?

Last week my agenda included a pregnancy scan, an operation for my son, follow up paperwork from his school entrance exams, trips to the pharmacy for various members of the family, a parent get together at the nursery for my other son, meetings with our relocation agency, follow up with workmen fixing our new apartment and a flu jab.


What kind of employer would accept such a flexible routine? And with a near lifetime record of moving abroad every year? I’m not so sure.

At times I feel like the PA to my husband and kids. I deal with the relocation crap so my husband can get on and earn a living.

Once in Belgium after a day looking at apartments, registering for IDs and sorting other paperwork, I asked our relocation lady how expat spouses who worked did it. Or how single expatriates managed work and expat life on their own. According to her, expat spouses ‘didn’t really work‘ and as for singletons, their moves were always ‘rather chaotic’.

Professional life in any job can be tough. Add in a foreign culture, language, house move and unsettled kids and you’ve got yourself a whole new mix.

When the going is easy, I reach out and get going with my freelance journalism and update my blog. When I’m needed to sort relocation stuff, I set other things aside. When my kids get sick, they take priority.

expatriate spouse life is not always a holiday
Expat life: not always so sunny

Right now, my child is recovering from his operation and needs to stay home for at least another week. Yes, we now have a live in maid, but she started just a few days ago and I didn’t think it fair on her or my son to leave them alone. Sometimes a kid just needs his mum. Sometimes I just want to be there for my kids and my husband.

Other times, I don’t.

In celebration of Chilean Mothers’ Day today I had the honour of picking my son up from nursery at 10am instead of 5.30pm. Am I the only one who’d prefer to spend Mothers’ Day sleeping in a spa?

Organisations like Digital Mums are doing amazing work to support working mothers. There are some great platforms for freelance nomads too. Our current relocation agent has really lifted the burden. But expat life is still full on.

Am I making excuses? Should I delegate more? Should I learn to lean in?

Many expat mother and spouse friends have confided in me rather sheepishly that professional life got too much and they decided to ‘quit‘.

But they didn’t quit, did they? They just prioritised; they pivoted roles according to the needs of themselves and their families.

No quitters here

A friend confided in me:

‘I was just getting so stressed with my kids and husband. We had to do all the paperwork on weekends. The fridge was always empty. Financially we were no better off. I was looking forward to using my brain, but at what cost? Everyone just seemed so unhappy’.

Sound familiar?

It takes a certain type to live happily as an expatriate. The expat spouses I know are brave, organised, adventurous, hard working and caring.

Last week I had to fill out a form and tick a box whether I was in full time employment or not. I hesitated and ticked ‘yes‘. When asked to specify I wrote ‘PA, taxi driver, translator, child minder, nurse, blogger, writer and baby maker’. 

Being an expat spouse is a job in itself. Next time someone asks you if you work, think again. The answer is always: yes, you do.

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