Why the expat spouse is no stranger to Coronavirus stress

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re an expat spouse, just like me. You know how stressful an international move can be. Chances are, if you’ve experienced this physical, mental and emotional upheaval, you were well prepared for the coronavirus lockdown.

Now hold up, hold up… I get you. A deadly pandemic is not the same as a hop, skip and jump from one sunny country to another. The fear, confusion and panic COVID-19 has spread is no way on the same scale as a planned relocation abroad.

Nevertheless, in some ways I feel I’ve been here before. And I bet you do too.

expat spouse with child

Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on women’s equality. A few months ago we were being told to work hard for independence, to strive forward in our careers and think beyond our household. Now we’re being told that, oops sorry… actually you’ll need to take care of the kids. And cook. And clean. And don’t forget the laundry. Oh and while you’re at it, put the kettle on, will you?

For emancipated women around the globe it was a rude awakening.

As a friend of mine said, it’s not that our husbands are selfish, mean or lazy, it’s just economics. He earns more than me, so he has to work, while I get on with raising the family.

Of course, I know many couples where the women earns more and the roles are reversed. There are many couples who earn equally and work hard to find a balance with the housework and childcare.

expat mom with child

For us accompanying spouses, this is nothing new, however. We gave up our work back when we moved country. We quit our jobs to take care of the kids, find a house and do all the home office admin life crap. Whether it was a conscious decision or a gradual realisation, we understand our fate.

Oh cut the moaning, I hear you say. Sure, we’re grateful for all the wonderful things that expat life affords – excitement, glamour and new skills. But ohhh we’d love to work. We’d really like to work in an office, with real people, for real money.

We’d like the routine, the structure and most of all, the people. Expat life can get lonely, very lonely. Whether we’ve just upped sticks and don’t know anyone, whether we can’t speak the local language or whether we find the new culture all rather daunting, it can be hard to make friends.

As time goes by we foreigners learn to make friends very quickly. We’re adept at socialising online. We were doing the the virtual coffee / wine date thing back in 2000.

For those of us who’ve lived in hardship locations we feel the coronavirus déjà vu even stronger. The denial, panic, fear or anger that sets in when it isn’t possible to leave your compound for security reasons.

I know it’s not just me. An migrant mummy friend in Canada remarked how much the current situation feels like living in a Gulf State during the Gulf War.

All this experience doesn’t necessarily make the coronavirus any easier. Like any other human, we still sleep restlessly, we still wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘what if?’

woman in lockdown

As for me, I found living in Angola really hard at times. I found it hard to accept not going out as there was no driver available and it wasn’t safe to drive on my own. Many nights I spent alone, without WiFi, desperately willing the sketchy internet to retrieve any link to the outside world. I’d play music full blast (when we had electricity) and dance around the house wearing little more than mosquito repellant. (Side note – a robber got quite a surprise one morning).

Just as people are downplaying the crisis now (‘all you have to do it watch Netflix!’) I was told to man up. This was Africa, after all.

Then a dear friend took me aside. Surround yourself with the things you love, he said. Congratulate yourself for just being here. Take the rough with the smooth.

I often think back to that conversation. For him, it was all about repairing with a G&T over Seinfeld. For me it’s a candlelit bath, a glass of wine on the patio by sunset, a snuggle with my kids over cartoons.

When I first packed my bags in 2013 I didn’t realise what life as a serial expat would really be like. It’s taught me many things, including that I’m no stranger to this lockdown.


  1. Vikki K
    April 22, 2020 / 5:14 pm

    So true – we are learning (once again) how to live in a new culture. Who knew I was so happy for my husband to buy his own lunch every workday (in spite of the extra expense)?

    • Nina
      April 22, 2020 / 10:31 pm

      Yep, I hear you!

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