Are you an expat wife? Do you work?
As I’ve said before, no matter what, yes you do. Maybe you get paid for your job, maybe you’re a stay-at-home spouse and you don’t. It’s all work. Accompanying expat husbands, the same is true for you too.
This week I realised how vital this stay-at-home role truly is. My husband has been abroad for work, so I was tasked with looking after our three kids single handedly.
My expat wife story
As always, my alarm is set to 6am to get our boys ready. But I’ve already been awake since 5am feeding the baby. Then at 7am we’re out of the door, and it’s a traffic slalom race to reach school in time. The traffic situation is so horrendous that there’s no time to return home, so I wait in a cafe with my baby until 12pm. Then at 12.30pm I pick up child number two and at 1pm I collect my eldest.
After an hour or so in traffic we arrive home and it’s operation ‘get food in kids’ bellie’s (bonus point if I manage a vegetable). Then it’s a get-them-to-sleep, get-them-to-wake-up, get-them-to-sleep-again kind of afternoon.
One of my fellow expat wife friends sent me a very kind message, because last month my husband was away and
My timetable was the same as before, but on top of it my boys had four hospital appointments in one day, my baby was sick and I had three articles due (in my ‘spare time’ I’m a freelance journalist). I was averaging three hours sleep per night. One day I ate five baby fruit pouches because it was the quickest thing I could find to eat.
But this is not a sob story.
The expat wife silent army
My point is that I’m not alone. We push, we push, we push… as if we’d never break. We’re like glass marbles that never show any sign of damage until one day, totally unexpectedly, they shatters into tiny pieces.
That night I lay in the bath and collapsed. I’d already vomited in the kids’ toilets in a mall and got the shakes when I went to pay for my kid’s ice cream. My psoriasis (a stress induced rash) got so bad my elbows bled through my shirt. Some suggested I see a doctor, but it doesn’t take a medical genius to tell me that this no sleep lifestyle isn’t conducive to healthy wellbeing.
Surprise expat life challenges
I’m the first to say get help from others. But sometimes there is no one else. Sometimes, like this time, it all just piles on top unexpectedly, out of the blue. You can’t schedule for sick kids, sick babysitters, traffic accidents.
When my aforementioned friend offered her help, I thanked her but explained it was all over for now. Things were back to a more controlled chaos, and I was looking for more freelance work again. As Sheryl Sandberg would say, lean in, right?
But I now realise that it’s not that straightforward.
Expecting the unexpected
Fellow expat wives and husbands, we’re the slack in the system. We’re the ‘just in case’ army. We’re the crisis firefighters. Sure, when things are calm we can sip lattes in the sunshine. But then the following week we’re nursing a sick child, desperately liaising with visa officials or frantically packing moving boxes for our next move.
My life plan was to return to full time work, but with three young kids, one of whom has severe allergies, it’s easier said than done. Rafa can’t ever be without someone who knows how to administer his medication. School buses are no go, and after a recent incident, we had to say goodbye to our household help.
I’m scaling back my work, focusing only on the stuff I really believe in. I’m being more realistic with my time. Sure, I have two kids in school in the mornings, but I also have a baby to look after all day (and sometimes all night).
Keep it realistic, keep it fair
I’m not suggesting we leave our former professional lives and shackle ourselves to the stove. Whether we’re in professional work or not, it’s only fair that household chores are shared proportionately.
I also acknowledge that this ‘luxury’ of scaling back paid work isn’t an option for everyone. Sure, one of my children has allergies, but otherwise we’re all safe, happy and healthy. We are very fortunate.
My point is only this: there is no shame in helping your household, without you there’d be no expat assignment. Don’t ever feel guilty for the quieter times; treasure these moments forever. Don’t overburden yourself, allow some slack in the system for when things do go a little wonky.
Expat spouses, forget leaning in, it’s time to lie back.