Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives: Do Not Patronize Them!


I can relate very well with many expat women who are feeling upset when, after  arriving in a new country, someone tells them  that it is “normal”, it is “just” culture shock, if they don’t fall in love with their new home. For career women who followed their husband to become a housewife abroad, it can feel like being patronized by so-called “expat experts”  telling them that they can make  it!  Of course they do!  They were successful executive women  able to go through much more complex issues , travelling 70% of their time around the world and making global business deals.  Some people assume that all expat wives have happily abandoned their job to follow their husband and embrace such a great experience as an expatriation!

It is not politically correct for an expat spouse to say ” I don’t want to say I am happy because I am not” . Most of those ex-career women are not depressed and they adjust very well. They just claim the right to share what their true feelings are!

In 20 years of expatriation moving every 3 years I had ups and downs but when I am down, usually 6 months after a new move, I feel both fed up and angry  because  I lost a place I managed to call “home”, friends, clients, support network and traded it for managing unpacked boxes, searching endlessly where my stuff are, setting utilities, school, house, trying to make new friends  etc…

It is not fun but those things need to be done.  The truth is, after 11 moves I find this phase pretty boring. It does not help to know coping strategies such as managing “tolerations” or taking care of unmet needs. I know what I am talking about because I have been trained to coach people using those tools.

But coaching works only when you are ready and have time to invest in yourself, identifying the gaps between where you are now and where you want to be and then have the energy and intrinsic motivation to take action.

I have developed some personal tactics to cope with resentment, and negative emotions during those first 6 months: I have been using a diary to write my feelings and everything I want to say even that my husband  is a ” #!@$%!”.  I am using social media to meet  other women who also think it is not OK  to sacrifice a career or other important things and who do not judge me if I want to vent my frustration.

Then I know I will come up again soon. I look at my dream note-book (this is like a diary but it is about writing dreams you want to achieve before you die even if it is impossible today) and start  going to the gym again to lose the “emotional weight” I gained during the transition. Sport also boosts my positive  energy

Then I open my eyes on the good things in my new life, meet positive people, other entrepreneurs, look for friends, organize play dates and call my mentor coach to help me identify new opportunities in my new environment and make the most of my expatriation.

Don’t take me wrong, I am a very positive person and I proved to be highly adaptable and resilient. I also believe in what I do when coaching other people. I just wanted to share that it is  better to acknowledge your true feelings even if they are  negative than pretending everything is great and delay searching for support. Building your local network with like-minded friends is priority #1 even if your house if full of a unpacked cartons.

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39 thoughts on “Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives: Do Not Patronize Them!

  1. Sanda Ionescu November 22, 2010 at 11:19 am Reply

    Oh, Anne, I know completely what you mean! I often go from euphoria to deep funk to anger to grim resentment to complacency, all within the space of a day. Yes, I enjoy exploring places and meeting people, yes, I know how to coach myself, yes, I enjoy reading and writing, but it’s never easy. And it’s only a few people who will be able to understand you and not judge.

  2. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 22, 2010 at 4:54 pm Reply

    Hi Sanda,
    I am glad that you are one of those few people who understand me without judging!
    Thanks for sharing
    Cheers-Anne

  3. FutureExpat November 23, 2010 at 3:42 am Reply

    So true! I think there’s a lot of harm in not allowing people to acknowledge their true feelings. Not every expat feels great about her life 24/7. Heck, people who’ve lived in the same place all their lives don’t feel great about it 24/7, so why expect it from the expats? It’s completely unreasonable.

    Thanks for posting this. I hope it will help legitimize those feelings, making them easier to move beyond.

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 23, 2010 at 7:26 am Reply

      Thank you Susanna for your comment.
      I think this is due to the “glamorous” image people have when they see the word “expat”. There is also a lot of misunderstanding of what “expat” means too. Expats are just like other people except they live abroad and face specific challenges.
      Another reason is that expat wives are expected to support their husband by organizing dinners at home or participate at social events, so of course they have to show a happy face !

  4. Patricia Linderman November 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm Reply

    Dear Anne,

    I very much appreciate your post about sharing your true feelings about adjusting to a new place, especially if it is for your spouse’s work and not yours. But you seem to be saying that it is the “expat experts” — people like Robin Pascoe and myself — who are patronizing you. I have to defend us and say that we try very hard to communicate a realistic and not sugar-coated view of the expat experience, especially for the spouse. You also seem to be offended that we say it is “normal” to feel dislocated and frustrated after an international move. It is! I call it “transition shock” instead of “culture shock,” because it includes so many more challenges than just culture (employment, personal identity, etc.). Would you rather have us say it is not normal? Wouldn’t that be worse?
    – From a friendly “so-called expat expert”

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm Reply

      Hi Patricia,
      I am an expat expert too:-) and I very much respect my colleagues especially Robin Pascoe who inspires me a lot.
      I just wanted to say if a person is feeling upset or negative, as a coach you have to listen, acknowledge the emotions, make sure to make room for the person to be heard. Saying it is “normal” or anything as this point is judging and usually the person will shut her mouth to be afraid to look “not normal”. Experts give advices when asked and it is necessary to survive in a new environment but the best gift you can give to people is to truly listen to them with no filter or judgement. Hope you understand I include myself in the “so-called expat experts” and it is not an insult. I just wanted to share my personal experience as an expat wife.
      Anne

  5. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm Reply

    I found through Mrs ExpatWomen.com, @AndreaExpat and @wifeinasuitcase a study who suggests that providing too much support for expats may actually hinder workplace performance http://bit.ly/crMypE:

    “Adjusting to the local general living environment does not seem to relate to performance in any way. At first blush this seems strange since we look to cross-cultural training to assist expatriates in their new roles.
    Yes, indeed, it helps expatriates to adjust – very comforting – but in terms of performance, there is little effect. ”
    Good food for thoughts!
    Anne

  6. Patricia Linderman November 23, 2010 at 5:30 pm Reply

    Hi Anne,

    Interesting! Thanks for your perspective. I see what you mean. When I try to reassure people that their difficulties are “normal,” I don’t mean “it’s normal, you’ll get over it,” but more like “it’s a natural response to a huge and not always positive change; you’re not weird or crazy!” But I appreciate your point about “truly listening with no filter or judgment.” That is a very good thing for all of us to keep in mind as we support fellow expats, professionally or not.

    Thanks again and take care,
    Patricia

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm Reply

      Dear Patricia,
      I appreciate your comments and I hope to have the opportunity to know you better and support your work.
      I signed-up for http://www.talesmag.com/ it is a great blog and great books to suggest to expatriate families. I think more and more families will become expatriate especially to transfer knowledge from western countries to BRIC countries or emerging markets but I think people will be more and more by their own and companies will not provide special support except maybe moving stuff.

      • thesmartexpat November 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm Reply

        …but “family issues” are a significant contributor to the failure of expat assignments. Maybe companies should stop investing in support for their employees and invest in the successful transition of the family instead🙂

        Evelyn

        • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm Reply

          Absolutely Evelyn, Great point.
          Usually the working partner has the support from inside the company, has clear status and goals and is not embarrassed to answer : What do you do ?

  7. thesmartexpat November 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm Reply

    Anne, what a great article. It illustrates the complexity of the experience for the expat partner and the fact, that it is a very individual experience. I’ve seen so many people (myself included) who have given up careers to move overseas and who feel guilty complaining about their new lives because 1) they were part of the decision to move overseas and put their careers on hold and 2) because friends and family are telling them how lucky they are to have some time out of the “daily grind”. I love that your article says loudly and clearly that we don’t have to feel guilty about feeling angry and resentful because the reality is that in giving up our careers (or other pursuits that give us meaning and purpose) we have given up part of our identity. We have so much more than culture shock to deal with! I agree with you that we should not assume that expat partners have happily left their careers (executive or otherwise) behind to move overseas, however for most (not all) it is a conscious decision. Even then though, the reality that the decision brings can be very difficult. As accompanying partners, the more we talk about our experiences; the more ideas we put out there about finding our way through the culture shock, the transition, the identity crises that are ALL part and package of being an expat, the better we help each other prepare for and get through all that the experience brings.

    Evelyn Simpson
    Coach and Consultant (“expat expert” :-))
    The Smart Expat

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach November 25, 2010 at 2:11 pm Reply

      Thank you Evelyn for your comment
      I also agree with sharing personal stories is probably one of the best way to connect with people who need us, the expat experts
      Evelyn if you are still in Belgium we should meet in person
      Anne

  8. Chantal December 6, 2010 at 7:29 pm Reply

    Thanks for reading my essay in Skirt!
    Yes, it is not always easy to be an expat wife, especially when your career was a big part of your identity. If one is open to reinvention it makes things easier.

  9. […] Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives (zestnzen.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives (zestnzen.wordpress.com) […]

  11. Pat March 24, 2011 at 8:24 am Reply

    Hello Girls, I am very glad I have found this site. It is very impressive how you are able to describe my feelings in a manner that I am not able to. We grow up hearing about how you feel when you get married, how you feel when you have kids, how you feel when someone dies, there is a lot of how you feel talks, and I am a person that like this kind of emotional discussions. But I never heard about any expats housewife feeling. That was before I moved from my country with my husband. Now there is just 3 months that we have moved. I am very lucky that I could find a job, 1 month ago, and it is a good job, in the same company I have worked for in my country. Even with my job, I don’t feel the same. I had this very big identity crises, and I think, even more, that we should priorize the family. Then a I got this job, but I am not the same… I still have some identity crises, I really don’t know how can I explain. And I feel guilty of this feelings, because I was very very happy to move country with my husband, I don’t regret to be here with him, and I would go with him to anywhere, I also have found a nice job (it is a nice position, but I was about to be promoted in my country, and now I think I will be like this forever). Whatelse can I ask for? I am lucky, but I still feel something very diferent that I don’t really know what I want. I am also scared of having to move again, or stop working again for any reason and feel the same way I did when I got here. It is very hard, but I don’t want to be so dependent of working. I hope you understand me and could say some words to me. Thanks for the opportunity to talk.
    Pat

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach March 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm Reply

      Hi Pat,
      I don’t know if I understood your particular situation but it looks like you are in the second phase of a culture shock. The first step is full of positive feelings and excitation: you get excited to learn something new, you imagine all the positive things that this move will bring to you, eventually you participate in forums, make new friends, get a new job and new colleagues, search for a house etc. Then the second phase is like after drinking too much : you get an “emotional ” hangover. Suddenly you are facing frustrations about not being understood or not able to explain what you want, you start missing your family and best friends, your favorite food, you eventually feel lonely with nobody to share your true feelings and most of all you don’t know how to stop this guilt of having “everything” yet being miserable ! You are allowed to feel that way and it is healthy to respond to this negative stress by talking with other women living similar situation. I encourage you to search online expat forums and also try to find meetings to make friends who can cheer you up without judging you. Do you have a hobby you wan to share? Do you want to meet other expats? Do you have energy to volunteer in your community ? These are few examples of what you can do to meet people with whom you can vent your frustration. Good luck !

      • linda@adventuresinexpatland.com July 15, 2011 at 4:53 am Reply

        Hi Anne, I found the article thought-provoking and really enjoyed that you spoke straight from the heart. It’s important for working women, indeed ANYONE, to feel safe and comfortable expressing her/his true feelings, and to be heard and respected.

        I have to say that in my research and experience, I haven’t felt that most of those you refer to as ‘expat experts’ were sugarcoating or underestimating the challenges of expat transitions and cross-cultural identity issues, just trying to share about them. As for the ‘judging’, I’m not sure exactly who is supposedly doing this judging. Of course no one likes when people sound ‘preachy’, and perhaps being told what you’re experiencing is ‘normal’ might be a relief to some and an insult to others. I like Patricia’s re-wording along the lines of an empathetic reassurance about the ‘natural response to a huge and not always positive change’. It’s not unlike your sharing with Pat that you believe she may be in the second transition phase and your encouraging suggestions. What I’ve found is that some people talk about what they’re going through, some don’t (although they may, or may not, benefit from doing so). How other people respond to them can be similar (eg., running from the person who seems caught in a negative loop, reaching out to someone who appears to be in pain, etc.). Some seasoned expats are gentle and take you under their wing, others are more direct, some downright dictatorial and a few just scoff. But that’s true for people in general. Your great bolded quote in the article says it all – people have to be ready to want to understand and (if necessary) make changes.

        What I appreciate is that through the internet and social media, the sharing of the knowledge and experience has a broader reach. I had the experience of dealing with my ‘career adjustment’ one move BEFORE I then had to deal with the expat adjustment. I went from a 20-year successful, high profile career to staying at home and eventually working part-time on less than thrilling work after my husband and I made a joint decision to move (a great career option for him and a belief on both our parts that a more balanced life adjustment would benefit our family). I found that, FOR ME, the career adjustment was far harder than what I experienced as an expat, yet I (as most of us) definitely experienced the challenges of expat transition and having to deal with professional and personal identity issues. I truly feel for those having to deal with both simultaneously. I believe that having been through the career readjustment actually better prepared me for the expat transition. Finding out important info from an expat parent support group, other ‘acquaintances’ (some of whom eventually became good friends), social media and research on the internet really helped me. That said, a family member had a difficult expat transition despite my being aware of the process and their trying to do all the right things. In the end, I believe it’s all about identity.

        Whatever your personal and professional situation, I believe each of us deserves an individualized approach built upon the more general truths that others have helped identify. Your coaching is personally tailored, as is the path each of us chooses. Great article, generating lots of healthy discussion. Thank you!

        • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach July 22, 2011 at 7:40 pm Reply

          Thanks Linda for challenging and add new ideas to the debate. Perfect timing for me to make a new blog post about move #12🙂 It is quite a long story, starting roughly in January 2011 with our decision to make a lifestyle choice to live and work the American dream without being sponsored by a company. Seven month later I am in my new house in NJ, with our container to be custom cleared. Right now I really feel at home and I am excited with all the new things I discover, the great people I meet etc. but I did ride the emotional roller coaster being at the bottom the first two weeks of July while on vacation “in the air” between Belgium and New Jersey. More to come in my next blog post. Thank you again for participating in the conversation.

  12. […] Desperate Ex-Career Expat-Wives giving an idea on why you should not be afraid or ashamed of sharing your true feelings. […]

  13. Desperate ex - expat July 13, 2011 at 4:20 am Reply

    I really liked your article. After being an expat wife for nearly ten years and moving anywhere from every six months to our most durable post of two years, all in my husbands career benefit, I understand perfectly when you talk about starting a new life, the anger, the resentment and the insecurities.

    I love that you are able to help people go through this. But do you also help people that go through all this craziness for the sake of their partners careers only to realize that after 15 years of marriage, having moved at least 10 times, your husband tells you, so long honey, I found me a beautiful Chinese girl, good luck with your life.

    Now, not only I don’t have an identity, I don’t have credit history, no family nearby, and no money because my soon to be ex-husband is giving me a very small allowance, but on top of that I am changing careers (From PR to teacher) so I can spend more time with my 3 year old son, and what is really devastating is that I need to prepare a resume for my new teaching job and I have no clue on how to start.

    What do you do in this situations?

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach July 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm Reply

      Hello Monika, thank you very much for sharing your story. What you are experiencing is very hard for any couple but when you became the “trailing spouse” ten years ago you probably did not think about your pension and how to stay independent financially in case of divorce as most trailing spouses do, me included! If you need a friendly ear I can listen to you and see if I can help or refer you to someone who can. Please email me directly: asterixafab@yahoo.com, we can arrange a phone call. In the mean time good luck and take extra care of yourself: read my post Be Incredibly Selfish !

    • Kirstine September 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm Reply

      Dear desperate ex-expatriate, I’m totally in the same situation. I wish I could have contact with you since I do not have family and only have very few friends. I’m a teacher too and will have to make a resume too and which I’m overwhelmed with.

  14. Swiss expat September 8, 2011 at 5:19 pm Reply

    Hi Ladies ,
    I too am an expat wife . This was my 3rd move . Yes , I gave up my career , but that was more for having a family than for the move itself . As a mother and a housewife , in a country where you don’t speak the language …. I can tell you , it’s not easy . I’ve decided a while back to stop ” feeling sorry for myself ” and to go out and make ” friends ” ……… but , I am so swamped with housework & motherhood , that it leaves me very little time for any ” extras” ….. this has caused me to go into a depression . I try to keep my spirits high …more so for my children , than for myself . My husband works very long hours and we’re both exhausted at the end of the day .. that all we do is eat and pass out sleeping . Not much of a life . I miss my family and friends more than ever . As for the country I’m in . I respect the people and the culture . … do my best to intergrate … but ….. ” There’s no place like home ”

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach September 8, 2011 at 8:49 pm Reply

      Hello fellow expat, I know it won’t help but I have been there too, deep down ! Depression in not having the “normal” expat blues, it is a medical condition but you know that, right ? There is no shame to seek professional help, you know that too of course, yet you blame yourself…. you don’t need another advice but you can call me and we can have a frivolous chat, maybe even laugh or cry, who cares? Life is not a show that must go on:-) Do not hesitate to call Skype ID: AnneEgros

  15. Rebecca Danbury December 16, 2011 at 5:57 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing this and explaining that it is normal to hate all of the moving. I am sure there are a lot of military people who hate all of the constant change. It is great that you are finding a way to surround yourself with people that help you to not feel alone.

  16. ResumeSmith December 17, 2011 at 11:52 pm Reply

    Ann, I think your points are relevant to any woman who abandons or takes a break from a career to follow a spouse, even if they aren’t expats in their new location. I haven’t experienced it, but I have close friends who have. Teachers and Attorneys can’t just get a new job in a new state without re-credentializing, and it makes an otherwise independant woman suddenly dependant. The lifestyle differences between Indiana, Southern California, Oklohoma, and San Francisco can be dramatic as well. I imagine many culture shock similarities exist with these moves as well.

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach December 18, 2011 at 9:44 pm Reply

      Hi Karleen, I totally agree with you, great point. I remember American friends from New York who lived in Atlanta when I was there and they also were suffering form “culture shock”. No friends no family nearby. However being a foreigner makes things a little bit more complicated as expats often don’t know the basic culture traits and habits shared by the citizens of their host country. For example in the US, communication is very direct compared to France. Frustration can come from very little things such as putting the address of the sender on the front of the envelop instead of the back as we do in France. I think when you live abroad or in a different city or state where you were born, you have to open your mind and your heart and be humble to realize that what you take for granted at “home” must be earned elsewhere.

  17. stcarriesclassroom December 18, 2011 at 1:23 am Reply

    This was an interesting article. I have traveled abroad for my work and experienced many of the same feelings. I also talk to study abroad students or volunteers who work abroad who deal with the same myriad of feelings in a short time. I am glad that you are coaching and working with those who are often misunderstood. Yes it is a euphoric experience to find yourself in another country and culture yet it has it drawbacks which aren’t often discusses.

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach December 18, 2011 at 9:51 pm Reply

      You are absolutely right Darleana. Recently I was interviewed by the BBC and in the article: BBC News – How an overseas job can affect family life, there is a great video of a British expat woman living in the state of New York. There is also a great book, about expat women stories and struggles called “Expat Women Confessions” from Andrea Martins who is also the founder of expatwomen.com, where you can read expat life is not always fun and glamorous.

  18. Dorien Morin-van Dam December 18, 2011 at 10:21 pm Reply

    I have been the expat for so many years, that when I went to my OWN country for just 4 months, I felt like the outsider there! I understand the feelings you described and I salute you for trying to put it all on paper. Glad you are sharing with the world something so many people struggle with. Great article, Anne.

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach December 18, 2011 at 10:41 pm Reply

      Thanks Dorien for sharing, I have same feelings, I spent more than 60% of my career living and working abroad, My son was born in the USA, lived in NYC, Tokyo, Atlanta and Brussels but he never lived in France ! I am wondering where is home for him ?

  19. […] Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives: Do Not Patronize Them! (www.zestnzen.com) […]

  20. expatsincebirth May 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm Reply

    Thank you, Anne, for writing this! It’s so true. I’m really a positive person and always focus on the positive side of changes, but when these moments hit me, it’s awful. The fact that other expats I met didn’t understand this phase wasn’t the worse thing, for me it was worse that close friends and family (and at some point even my husband) didn’t really understand that I had these feelings and needed to express them. It is very natural. After more than 10 years of a workaholic-life I had to adapt to become a stay-at-home-mum and after 6 months (exactly!) I realized that I couldn’t go on doing what I did before. I’ll share this article on my blog.

  21. […] time ago, Anne Engros did publish an interesting article called “Desperate Ex-Career Expat Wives: Do Not Patronize Them!” that I would like to share […]

  22. Repat Jack | REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK #3 July 30, 2013 at 5:36 pm Reply

    […] Expat wife career identity  […]

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