I’m basing this month’s Expat Focus blog on one of the search terms that someone used to find my blog – the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. I love it when I’m allowed to see search terms (unfortunately it seems pretty random as to which you can and can’t see – Google and WordPress mostly want to conspire against me and not let me see any of them…). Some of them make perfect sense, like this one, and “why is travelling with kids so important”. I get confused by others – why did someone who asked “Indian real mom” end up on my blog? I am not Indian and I don’t really write about either mums or moms. I guess I am real – but I’m not sure if I am “real”!
Anyway, Accompanying Spouse What is it? has been my favourite so far because it makes perfect sense. And because it is a question I have so far failed to answer on my blog, despite the fact that it is aimed squarely at accompanying spouses. Or trailing spouses. Or even expat partners, if you like.When I started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, one of the first things I did was to research who the expats were, where they were, what they were doing….and then dig a bit deeper and try and find out about their partners. Starting with expats, I looked specifically at my own fellow Brits and found there to be (according to a BBC special report called “Brit’s Abroad”) at least 5.5 million British nationals living overseas. The most popular countries for them to be living in were Australia, Spain, America and Canada. According to different research, there are around 750,000 Brits moving abroad each year, and the average length of each posting is 5.4 years.
Moving on to the partners of these expats, and I quote directly from my book here: “A surveysurvey in 2005 of 264 trailing spouses from twenty eight different countries (including Britain), found that almost all the spouses were women and married, that just over half were under forty, that almost forty per cent were on their first posting and that fifty seven per cent had children with them. It also showed that almost sixty five per cent of them had to give up a career in order to relocate, and that over half of them could not work in their new country because of work permit or visa restrictions.”
So that’s the factual explanation of what an accompanying spouse is, but it doesn’t really give a true portrait of who we are. When I mean that, I don’t mean where we are from, or where we live, how old we are, what we do with ourselves. I mean, it doesn’t really give a true understanding of what we are – of what our lives are, of how the experience of following our partners has shaped us. Of the careers we have given up, the financial security we have thrown aside. The empty days and the empty diaries. Or the days filled with things simply to get us through those empty days – with gym classes and coffee mornings, lunch dates and tennis lessons. The loss of our identities as fully earning workers in our own-right, not reliant on another for not just financial security but for the very visa that keeps us where we are.
But of course this, again, is only one half of the story. Yes, we give up so much when we accompany our partners overseas. But we gain so much as well. We have to be creative to find ways to occupy ourselves, and who knows where this creativity will lead? Suddenly we are writers, photographers, bloggers. We have learnt a new trade in coaching or counselling. We have gained experience through volunteering. We have travelled to places others can only dream of, we have spent more time with our children than we ever thought we would. We are even fitter than we have ever been!
So in answer to my original question, Accompanying Spouse: What is it? We are many things. Sometimes we are depressed, lonely, our days are empty and we feel lost. Sometimes we are creative, fulfilled, full of life and discovery. Often we are all of these things, all at once or one after the other and then back again.
But overall, you know what we are?
We are survivors.
Born an expat, in Cuba to British diplomat parents, Clara Wiggins has travelled all her life, and has lived in 11 countries on 5 different continents. She and her family are currently preparing for another overseas move, to South Africa. Clara has used her extensive experience of living overseas, as a child, as a diplomat and as an accompanying spouse, to write a book The Expat Partner's Survival Guide (due out Spring 2015). You can find out more about the book and read her blog at expatpartnersurvival.