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Finding My Identity: The Changing Faces of a Trailing Spouse

As featured in Global Living Magazine Summer 2013. Being an accompanying partner on relocation provides the perfect freedom to choose a new identity or update our existing one. What freedom....!

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Finding My Identity: The Changing Faces of a Trailing Spouse

  1. 1. 42 Global Living Magazine Global Living Magazine 43 photographybyCarolyneKauser-Abbott Emerald Lake Lodge's Point Cabin balcony imagecourtesyofEmeraldLakeLodge v Finding My Identity The Changing Faces of a Trailing Spouse contributed by Nichole Esparon O n a trip to Singapore a few years ago, I had a conversation with an expatriate friend that would eventually change the course of my life. Having not long before relocated from the U.K. to Singapore where her husband was setting up the company’s regional headquarters, she had the archetypal expat lifestyle: idyllic house, generous income and the ultimate outdoor playground on her doorstep in the form of one of the world’s most vibrant cities. I don’t mind admitting – I was more than a little jealous. But that day, sipping her Chablis by the buzzy riverside where we sat, my friend launched into a jaw-dropping attack on her life that shattered the rose-colored glasses through which I had been looking at it. “I’m invisible,” she suddenly poured out. “I’m not even sure who I am here. I hate it.” Her words got me thinking. Just how did newly relocated professionals pick up and leave their regular lifestyles, with its home comforts and social networks, to jet off to a completely foreign environment to work? Years later, I found myself back in London following a period of working internationally, at home with two young pre-school children, stung with a sense of isolation and loneliness that I was in no way prepared for, when memories of that day at Singapore Riverside flooded my mind. And so began a new phase in my life that, unbeknownst to us at the time, had germinated during that fateful afternoon. I embarked on a voyage through the lives of accompanying partners about relocation. I was curious – the glamour and excitement was clearly a huge incentive, but there was clearly more to it. What made so-called ‘trailing spouses’ agree to suspend their own careers and social lives to pursue their partners’ goals? How easy was it to integrate into a completely new location? And was there anything I could do to help them in the process? It used to be the case only a couple of decades ago that companies could practically take spouses’ cooperation for granted when relocating employees. They would largely be willing participants, packing their families’ lives into
  2. 2. 44 Global Living Magazine Global Living Magazine 45 suitcases and moving vans, ready to be recreated in a new environment. Fast forward to 2013 and the landscape is almost unrecognizable. Well-educated and highly independent, today’s accompanying partners are driven to achieving dizzy heights in their own careers. Not surprisingly, there is increasing reluctance to the idea of puttingtheirgoalsonhold–orinsome cases abandoning them altogether – to accompany their partners on relocation. Asurveycarriedoutin2008byPermits Foundation (a lobbying organization working to persuade governments to provide work visas for accompanying partnersonrelocation)discoveredthat 82 percent of accompanying partners have university degrees and almost 90 percent were working prior to their partners’ assignment. Yet, during the assignment, only 36 percent were employed. Put those statistics together and it isn’t hard to imagine the scene: one partner desperately trying to get to gripswithaforeignworkenvironment while an intelligent, highly educated partner sits at home bored. Despite the drawbacks, relocation offersameshofuniqueexperiencesthat many find irresistible. Opportunities offered by an international move are vast: a chance to re-evaluate life choices, gain new skills or completely change careers – the options are seeminglyendlessforthosethatchoose to embrace them. And the sense of adventure, glamour and excitement associated with the expat lifestyle is clearly still very much in evidence during my conversations with trailing spouses. It seems perverse that one of the greatest advantages of relocation is also one of its greatest disadvantages: anonymity. I have heard it described as both a help and a hindrance at various times. Meeting one of our newly-arrived members at their welcome evening earlier this year, it was clear which side of the fence she sat on: “I didn’t realize how restricted I had become by my own identity until I was anonymous,” she said. “Suddenly, I’m free to be whoever I choose to be, not what I’m expected to be – because, actually, there aren’t any expectations. How can there be? Nobody knows me yet. I find that incredibly liberating.” It makes sense. No one will know that you were the last teenager to have aboyfriendinhighschool–leavingyou free to reinvent yourself as a vamp, if that’s what you choose. On the other hand,ifyouwanttobethepure-as-the- driven-snow mother of four, there’s no one to spoil the image by divulging those drunken episodes at university. In other words, you can be exactly who you want to be. Yet, while many might welcome the anonymity that a new location offers, others confess waking up in a state of panic when they suddenly realize that they have to actually choose who they want to be. It’s not uncommon to find spouses withholding from integrating into their new environments simply becausethey’reworkingoutwhattosay when people ask the dreaded question: “What do you do?” My advice to any of mymemberswhoaskmeisclear:Jump in. We can only truly develop a sense of identity once we’ve taken steps to integrate into the host location. To a large extent, our identities are shaped by our relationships, and so to regain the sense of self we crave, we need to start developing those relationships. When it comes to making friends, and those oh-so-vital connections, each city will have its own social ‘rituals,’ and newly-relocated families often find it isn’t as easy to integrate socially as they had imagined. London, for example, is a city where building friendships can be a bit of a minefield for the uninitiated. Jump onto any mode of public transport in England’s capitalandtheexperienceoftheBritish reserve will be immediately evident. Those that try to break through it with small talk will often be met by a wall of total silence, leaving them with a sense of rejection. Does that mean the British are unfriendly? Not at all. The British culture simply doesn’t allow for conversationstogenerallybestartedin such situations. In other words, there is a particular social ‘ritual’ that needs to be undertaken before the British can make friends. When it comes down to it, sure, the expat lifestyle is glamorous; sure it’s exciting. But we should also celebrate themanysacrificesthatgloballymobile professionals must make to achieve success abroad in the broadest terms. We also need to appreciate that each time they move on to new pastures, those lessons have to be relearned in the context of the new location. My journey through the lifestyles and preferences of relocating families over the past years has left me with a huge sense of admiration for repeat assignees; it has also left me with one inevitable conclusion. With all its challenges, the global lifestyle offers a unique gift that few people are lucky enough to ever receive: the chance to design a truly bespoke identity. We should celebrate the sacrifices that many globally mobile professionals must make to achieve success abroad in the broadest terms. allimagesforspreadprovidedbyNicholeEsparon, usedunderlicensefromShutterstock

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