Not Just Gin and Tonics: Why Being An Expat Wife Is Harder Than You Think

By Erica Knecht

I first encountered the expat wife stereotype before I even expatriated. I was about to follow my then boyfriend and his new job to India. When I told my boss of my plans, she warned me, "Don't become one of those women."

What she meant was one of those women whose days are laden with gin-soaked lunches and manicure appointments. One of those women who have a driver, nanny, cook, and cleaner yet who moan about how difficult life is. I was 24 years old with a head full of adventure and a wallet void of cash. I didn't think there was much danger of me becoming "one of those women."

And yet, here I am, a stay-at-home expat wife, arguing on behalf of my expat sisters that life is not all morning sleep-ins and afternoon G&Ts. Yes, expat life brings certain benefits: leisure time; more disposable income; travel and adventure; an expat package that may include business class airfare, private schools and a club membership. Yet these gains come at a cost. The expat wife trades luxury for her self-identity, a drastic increase in stress, and a great deal of emotional work.

With more than 200 million people living outside their passport country, it is hardly possible to generalize about the expat experience. Here, however, I'll be addressing the professional who goes abroad for work. While expats and their partners come in every ilk and strain, and there certainly are a great number of expat husbands, I'll be using the term "expat" and "expat wife" for the sake of clarity.

The Identity Cost

When my then boyfriend and I were discussing an overseas move, I was young and independent. I had a job; it paid poorly but offered the chance of career advancement. My boyfriend and I shared the rent 50/50. I bought my own groceries. I paid my own way. When we left for India, that changed. I bid farewell to my job, my friends, my snowboard, and my independence, and became reliant on my partner's paycheck.

When we arrived in Delhi, visa regulations prevented me from seeking a job, so I set to work expanding our social network. As I met new people, one of the first questions they posed was, "What does your husband do?" In the eyes of the world, my husband's professional status was how the world defined me.

My experience is fairly typical of most expat wives. These women, typically, have spent their entire adult lives defining themselves outside of their relationships to men. They earn their own money, forge their own friendships, and pursue hobbies and interests. All of this folds together to form their identity.

When expat wives land in their new home, it's as though they step back in time: husbands go off to work in the morning while their wives stay home (visa regulations and language barriers preventing them from working.) The expat wives find themselves dependent on their husbands financially, emotionally, and socially. Without the careers, relationships, and hobbies that had previously formed the core of their self-identity, expat women often suffer a crisis of self-confidence as they learn to carve out a new place for themselves in their new-found home.

The Logistical Cost

Two years ago, my husband and I moved to Japan from Shanghai where the booming economy had offered me the chance to pursue exciting career opportunities. After three years of 60+ hour work weeks, I was looking forward to a more placid life in our sleepy coastal town. Yet, I was amazed at just how quickly my days filled up. Finding and furnishing our apartment (an undertaking that even two years later is still a work in progress) took the better part of two months. Simple administrative tasks expand and become hurdles as bureaucracy, language barriers, and cultural misunderstandings intervene.

With each move abroad, the task of figuring out the lay of the land, finding a place to live, enrolling the children in school, securing heath care, and all other domestic matters varied and sundry, typically fall to the woman.

The expat husband, too, often has to adapt to a new working environment and manage logistical difficulties of his own. Yet, employed by a large corporation, he often has the benefit of cultural training and a supportive HR department. His wife, on the other hand, may be required to deal with new challenges for which she has little preparation. Perhaps she is required to maneuver through the nuances of a system of corruption that requires her to pay bribes, or maybe she must deal with a domestic worker who has been caught stealing.

The Emotional Cost

The emotional toll is, perhaps, highest of all. Five years ago when I arrived in Shanghai, I was thrilled at the prospect of exploring my new home, learning about Chinese culture, and indulging my love of street food. But I was also terrified to go out by myself. The streets were a barrage to my senses... hot, humid and ripe with strange aromas. Car horns blared ceaselessly. I was jostled and elbowed, and more than once, almost run down by a taxi. My pulse would quicken and my breaths would become shallow when I thought about going out alone. What if I got lost? I can't ask for directions! How would I find my way home? My sleep suffered. I was tearful, irritable and incredibly stressed. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I was suffering the throes of culture shock.

It is said that moving house is one of life's most stressful experiences. Moving to a new country with a foreign language, and unfamiliar standards of behavior compounds the strain. This stress is, obviously, felt by every member of the family, but the work of supporting each family member through the transition so often falls to the wife and mother. (The expat husband is occupied by the demands of learning his new professional role, often working long hours or traveling frequently.)

It is left to his wife to support the children as they make friends, start school, learn a new language, and deal with culture shock.

This is emotional work.

It is draining.

So often it is also under-appreciated and thankless, which can lead to further stress and eventually burnout.

The Sum Total

Coupled with the emotional work that the expat wife carries out for her whole family is her own inner stress: not having a job when perhaps she wants to work; the absence of a strong social network and emotional support system; the cost of forging a new identity; adapting to a new culture; running a household and a family while her husband works long hours; these are the sum total, the cost of being an expat wife.

Still, there is a pay off. I've had the opportunity to travel to places beyond the limits of my imagination. I've had the privilege of working in one of the world's most dynamic economies. I've also had time, in the past two years, to chase my dream and explore a world of words and images. Still more important, however, are the lessons I've learned about our world and my place in it. I'm more thankful for what I have. I'm more aware of what I can tolerate. I'm stronger. I can "eat more bitterness", as they say in China. And all of this has prepared me for my proudest task to date: raising my daughter. She was born in Japan, and this expat life allows me to stay at home with her. For that, I am so grateful.

Too often we fail to see the difficulties that many women face as expat wives. The expat packages, domestic helpers, and manicure appointments (be they real or imagined) cloud our image of the expat wife. We see luxury and leisure, not the emotional and physical cost of relocation.

As for me, I suppose the question remains, have I become "one of those women"?

While I don't have a club membership and do scrub my own toilets, I also have more leisure time than if I'd stayed in Canada. I'm building a writing career as I stay at home with my girl. Still, it has taken me nearly seven years and three countries to find my feet as an expat wife. It is often stressful and draining, and it is incredibly lonely. But I relish the adventure. And I'm thankful for the opportunities I have. It's not an easy road, but it's a good one.

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[Erica Knecht is a mother, writer, and professional nomad, currently based in Southern Japan. When not gallivanting across the globe with her one-year-old, she writes about the lighter side of tricultural parenting on her blog Expatria, Baby.]

Tags: japan, family, expat, china,