Our Gilded Expat Cages

It starts as an adventure. We are young, ambitious, qualified, full of dreams. We feel powerful. We know exactly what our life will look like. We have big plans. We want to explore the world. We find a partner who shares our dreams. We fall in love and, together, we’re off to great places.

The first couple of moves go relatively well. We are childless, unattached, free to grab every opportunity that comes our way. Our career is our priority. Our independence is sacred. Our partner respects that. That both careers are equally valued is not even an issue. We’re on top of the world.

As the years pass, we start wanting to have a family. We decide to go for it and take a step – or two – back, career wise. Temporarily, of course. There is no regret; on the contrary, we feel fortunate, even grateful to be able to do that. We appreciate that our partner enables us to focus on taking care of our young family by taking over the burden of being the main breadwinner. We forget about our sacred independence for a while. We trust. Nothing can go wrong. We are blissfully unaware that that is not true.

Especially the first few years, we are busy with the children, the household, organizing the moves, making sure everyone is well adjusted and settled. We are still on track. We are still exploring the world. But with every move, it becomes harder for us to pick up where we left off, professionally. In every new place, local laws need to be navigated and work permits negotiated, careers that don’t “travel” well need to be reinvented and short-term moves don’t allow us the time to do any of that because, by the time the boxes are unpacked and the kids settled, it’s time to plan the next move – something which we are rapidly becoming masters at organizing, on our own. Soon, we have been away from the job market long enough to lose confidence in our ability to ever go back. If and when we do manage to go back to work, what we end up doing usually does not have much to do with the ambitious plans we had when we started our journey.

Thankfully, we are still equal partners in our relationship. We have access. The money our partner makes – which they always refer to as “our money” – buys us a beautiful home, expensive cars, designer clothes, exotic vacations and perfect manicures. But there is no equality in dependence, which just keeps growing in the background, imperceptibly, discreetly. Until someday it is right there in front of our eyes, in black and white, when we realize that we can’t even get a credit card in our name.

While these kinds of dependence relationships are not an exclusively expat phenomenon, expat life makes them much more likely. Expatriation can be disempowering, especially for women. The ideal of a dual-career family can only be maintained for so long when that family moves every few years, before children even enter the picture. Usually, the ideal becomes logistically and practically impossible. Usually, one of the two careers stays behind. I’ll let you guess which one. The power balance is transformed, but it’s a subtle process.

When does this start to bother us – if at all? Many partners, to their credit, behave in a way that it never does. But there are also wake up calls. For expats, this happens often when the relationship or marriage breaks down and the massive power imbalance is revealed. We realize how powerless we’ve become. The extent of our dependence is so terrifying that many choose to stay in failed, suffocating relationships, too scared to face the consequences.

There are many of us out there – with advanced Ivy League degrees, impressive work experiences, respectable salaries and all. We enter our gilded cages voluntarily. We put away our dreams and hang our prestigious credentials on the walls of our “home offices,” so that we can glance at them – not without a tinge of regret – when we pay household bills or schedule doctors’ appointments for our children.

So here’s my question. How do we get ourselves into this? Why do we disguise as “our choice” something that goes against all our principles? Is it love? Trust? Comfort? The urge of motherhood? More important, how can we stop making choices that render us powerless and dependent? How can we help others like us avoid making such choices? This is not a discussion about whether women can “have it all” in a modern society; this is about what goes on in our head. What are we thinking when, fully aware of the possible consequences, we willingly enter those gilded cages and give someone else the key?

A version of this post was published on the Huffington Post Blog.

2 Comments

  1. As an expat stay at home dad, I know this isn't a "female" thing. I make money, but it's not my career because at one point I chose kids and no one else made them a priority.
    The choice is obvious, though we may look back with regret, we choose family over our self (dreams, glory, independence, career).

  2. This is not a recent post but I just stumbled on it today. I recognise myself in these words, every single one of them. I have written a book about our 12 years moving around the world as an expat family (the book still hasn't been published but it's in the hands of an editor who is evaluating it, so fingers crossed). It's quite an upbeat memoir, but the point I make at the end it's exactly this. Don't lose your financial independency at any cost. Back to the question of why we do this. I think it has to do with the fact that most of us do it when we are young and love-drunk and underestimate the consequences, we need the illusion that the temporary imbalance within the family will be short-lived. I have written post about this in my blog:
    http://packingbeast.blogspot.ch/2016/03/expat-dilemmas-dilemmi-da-espatriati.html
    I have gone back to work (I am a pharmacist) after moving to Switzerland. I had to learn German, but I did it. My revenge in showing that I hadn't "missed the train" was wild. I started again at 42 in a foreign language, in a foreign country, with the salary of a person with no experience, as if I was fresh from university. I have now quit that job that I have never enjoyed and will go back to university. It is definitely an uphill battle with very little recognition.

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