The story you are about to read shines a big light on why taking action, when you feel your identity slipping is not only the right thing to do for yourself, and something that is indeed a must to thrive as an expat spouse, but also serves you well if expat life throws you an unpredicted curve ball.
AFTER SAYING YES – ALONG COMES THE HONEYMOON
It is 2005.
Anu´s husband receives an opportunity to expatriate to Dubai. The young Indian couple decides to say yes and when doing so, Anu knows that she has to resign from her job. A job she loved and a job that she did well. So well indeed, that Anu had established a name for herself within her field in public policy and advocacy in Bangalore, India.
Anu is ok to resign as they are both excited about relocating and the opportunity to explore UAE, and in the light of Anu´s work success, they are confident that she too, will land a job in Dubai.
Excited, happy and assured the couple settle in, in Dubai, and enjoy the initial thrill of having relocated – also known as the expat honeymoon period.
WHEN SPOUSES LOSE THEIR PURPOSE
Fast forward to everyday life kicking in, Anu is ready to apply for jobs and to start working again. This turns out to be mission impossible within her field and background. Going from getting recognized in her job and thriving in her career, Anu can feel the loss of confidence, loss of purpose, and feels like she has lost her voice.
This is not a pleasant feeling to live with and this may easily turn into your confidence taking a hard bruising and from thereon it is known that this can spiral into facing the expat blues.
However, and this is one to note for all spouses, Anu takes on some freelance work as a reporter, and doing so gives her something to add to her CV and it helps re-establish a sense of purpose.
Going from more than full time to freelancing, leaves Anu with many hours on her own which is not easy though.
“Seek alternatives if you cannot get a job within your field. It may not be
what you prefer,but it adds to the CV and gives purpose.”
HAVING A CHILD SURELY HELPS (?)
In 2007 Anu and her husband are blessed with their first child.
It does not take long before life alone with a baby, mainly stuck in her house, gives room for rumination about her lost identity and her unstable future career opportunities.
Questions and thoughts like “What will I do” and “what is going to happen to me” fill her mind a lot of the time in between sleepless nights and busy days. It creates a lot of worrying.
Anu´s husband is very supportive, and the expat marriage is happy and respectful. Despite this – the prospects of being at home 24/7 with a baby, without having family around or a job to look forward to, is not easy. Also, Anu did not have too many of her own friends and that was difficult, as Anu had a good work social circle in Bangalore.
Luckily, Anu also has a voice saying, “you can do so much more”. This voice becomes the glue allowing Anu to keep a glimpse of herself and her competences alive.
“If you know deep inside of yourself that you are not satisfied with the
status quo, take that very seriously and make a plan.”
2008 – FIRST STEP TO RECLAIMING HER IDENTITY
In 2008 Anu´s husband is given yet another opportunity. This time in Singapore. He is keen and Anu is too, as she has heard that Singapore is a great place for expats. They relocate again and she and her husband adjusted well to the new life. It was easy to make new friends, and it was a great place to raise a small family. However, Anu’s hopes of working here too are dashed. Once again, she finds that there are no jobs in her line of work, leaving her – again – without a job and with a young child at home.
Although unhappy and frustrated, Anu largely keeps this to herself and keeps looking for new opportunities.
Looking aside Anu´s story I believe that most expat spouses feel that they do not want to bother their hard-working spouses after a busy day at work, with what seems like something you should just solve yourself. But hey – expat spouses have no HR department, so where else to go?
I also believe that many expat spouses feel as though they should just be happy and have no right to complain. Unfortunately – guilt does no one any good.
We are all entitled to pursue and claim our identity and purpose, and feeling unhappy and/or dissatisfied as an expat spouse is just as validated a state of mind, as being tired after a busy day at work.
Luckily, the sentence “you can do so much more” is still voiced out in Anu´s mind and that is exactly what makes Anu apply for a scholarship at one of Singapore – and Asia’s premier university, the National University of Singapore (NUS). As a straight A student and after the research proposal and interview process, she is accepted and starts studying a master’s in communication. Starting the masters gave Anu a student pass, as opposed to the dependent pass expat spouses in Singapore are on, and that was the first happy step to reclaiming her identity.
It also alleviates feelings of guilt, as her education was being funded, so she was not dipping into the family funds, plus with her stipend, she was able to contribute her share of expenses.
“The value, as a person, when being in a country on a dependent pass (just look at the wording) is in itself degrading for many spouses.”
FULLFILMENT AND IDENTITY
Difficult as it was having a 1.5 year old, doing a full-time masters, teaching part-time as part of the requirement for the scholarship, Anu is totally rocking her master´s. The feeling of pride, fulfillment and identity is coming back. This is great and along comes the opportunity for Anu to do a PHD as she qualified for the upgrade from the current MA. This is indeed a moment filled with pride and Anu accepts and grits her teeth, knowing that life would only get busier, but that it was an opportunity she should not pass.
The fact that her husband and Anu are now also accepted in Singapore as PR (Permanent resident) makes life so much easier for them and also represents belonging and inclusion. With a PR you can apply for jobs on equal terms as a Singaporean and the registration of a company is smoother.
Anu´s PHD is focusing on tech. The downside, pitfalls and dangers associated with our use of tech. This will later on, prove to be a very smart decision.
Her husband is supportive and supports the family in the ways that he is familiar with. They have a helper, and this frees up time for Anu to work on the PhD.
The feeling of guilt when being an expat spouse and relying on your spouse for money, is a common stain associated with the title of “expat spouse”. It is often the elephant in the room, that is not addressed or voiced.
Fair? No. Not at all. Is the working spouse to be blamed? No. (In some cases, yes.)
It is all rooted in the loss of identity for the expat spouse and a conversation that needs to be had prior to expatriating.
PREASSURE TO PERFORM AND WANTING TO GROW A FAMILY
Anu decides it is time for a second child, so in 2012 their second baby is born.
The plate is now more than full for Anu. A PHD, a teaching job, one primary school-going child and a baby. On top, it is a known fact that expats work a lot, so despite Anu´s husband being supportive it is hard to make ends meet timewise.
The expat couple is left in a bittersweet situation, often not spending enough time together and at the same time trying not having the kind of connection that Anu wants. When Anu comes home, the husband often goes out and vice versa.
Where and what is the solution?
For Anu, the thought of letting go of some of her activities, to free up time, is associated with going back to feeling guilt, loss of identity and purpose, and ultimately going back to being worried and anxious. It is not an option.
As anyone who has been in a long-term marriage or commitment knows, it requires time together to keep the flame alive. With Anu holding on to her happiness and identity, her husband fulfilling his work contract, and having two little children, the odds for handholding and connection are hard.
“This is how it is for many couples” you may argue.
True. But an expat couple does not have family around to help – nor long term trusted friends or security that they can stay in a country regardless. That is a huge, and often a “make it or break it” difference.
In particular, in cultures where families more or less live door to door, rely on each other, and have strong family bonding values it is tricky.
Although Anu was very fortunate to have her sister and family nearby (they relocated to Singapore in 2010), they too were busy working professionals with two young children of their own. While the moral support was immense, it is not the same as having grandparents that can help a young couple with their daily or weekly activities.
SINK OR SWIM, ANU
In 2018 the distance between Anu and her husband is simply too big.
Her marriage implodes, her husband moves out, and Anu is in a complete state of chock.
Her family helps her move and the second she get´s her head slightly above water, she is filled with an overwhelming and paralyzing state of anxiety.
Her, continuing life in Singapore as a PR is not a sure thing, as she is unsure about her career prospects and whether that would be enough to stay on.
So, now what?
- Can she stay?
- Can she get a renewal for herself?
- What about the kids?
- What about work? (Remember – she has worked her a.. of to get to the point of working as per previous)
- What will happen if she goes back to India? She has been in Singapore for 10 years now, and before that, Dubai for 2.5 years. Plus, she didn’t really grow up in India, as she moved around with her parents and sister every 3 years for their dad’s government job. Singapore was the only place she had lived the longest in her whole life, and where she felt most at home.
- Under what laws will the divorce be settled?
- What about pension?
- How will she sustain herself? Singapore is tremendously expensive.
- What will life, with her day-to-day schedule, and two children look like. Can it even be done?
In Anu´s own words, this is when “sink or swim” became the navigator for her and she literally plunges head in first and starts swimming. She is determined to keep going until she reaches the shore and are back in her dry clothes again.
Once again, Anu mobilizes and proves power and fighter instinct beyond and thus she starts applying for jobs and for renewal of her PR on her own merit. She is hired twice. However, the positions are cancelled, and Anu is back to square one – with yet another two punches to the stomach.
WHAT TO DO?
When the renewal of her Re-entry permit REP for just one year, comes in she is looking at 12 months to get sorted to continue her life in Singapore. Going back to India is not an option, as the kids needs their father too, and he is at the time already settled into a new life in Singapore.
Anu takes on a new direction and starts working with a career coach to look at her options. Luckily for her, the career coach is none other than her sister, and her father, who works in the area of cybersecurity, provide her new insights and options. Meanwhile she is continuing her teaching and are getting adjusted to life as a single mom, while managing her own budget and finances, something she has never done before on her own.
The work with her sister leaves her trusting that she can start venturing into doing her own business – alongside everything else.
So, in 2019 just 18 months after finding herself single and a single parent, she founded www.cybercognizanz.com/
The competences needed to found Anu´s company are partially to be found in what started out as Anu taking an opportunity in the process of claiming back her identity. Her PHD.
And there is the knot.
As to why it is, also, a great idea to take action when feeling your identity slipping.
QUOTE FROM ANU TO ALL EXPAT SPOUSES:
“Get a network. Choose your proximity carefully & nurture them. They will be family to you, help keep you afloat when needed, and celebrate with you”.
On a final note, a huge THANK YOU goes out to Anu for sharing her story!
I wish you loads of success.
Expat Advising – Kia Holm Reimer