This are my reflections on a topic that matters to all accompanying partners: finding a career or a purpose during their international journey. It is the first time I write about this and putting it all “onto screen” has a very liberating effect. (warning: this is a long text…)
When we lead an international life, we’re not always the one who gets to decide the next place to live in. When we moved to the Netherlands 11 years ago, I turned from the breadwinner into the stay at home mum within 48 hours. The first months I considered it a gift, a prolongued holiday.
I didn’t really have holidays the years before that move: I worked at my project and collaborated at three others as a researcher in Italy, so the “new life” in the Netherlands meant for me to finally spend entire days with my son and make up for all that time I didn’t get to spend with him the 2,5 years before due to my work. It really felt like a fantastic opportunity and I tried to fully embrace it.
Short comments from friends and family like “you don’t need to work now that R. has this great job” or “you’re an expat now…” made me think about what had changed. Family and friends had a totally different opinion on what our life in Italy had been: “I’m so glad to see that you don’t struggle that much anymore… that you have time now…”. It wasn’t easy, but we really enjoyed those years in Florence and if we would have a choice and if the working conditions were different, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. I didn’t like the comments about me being a stay at home mum: “you’re so lucky, you can just stay home…”, and the worst “what do you do all day now?”…
What hurted the most were the comments of working mums and friends, who pointed out that they couldn’t “only” stay at home… neither did I but I didn’t really have a choice.
I shifted from hard working person to not-working person and honestly felt puzzled and frustrated about all this new role entailed. – I needed some time to adjust. At least this is what I thought.
After the first months of exploration of our new “home”, I started looking for a job, hoping I could continue my career at one of the Universities here, but I kept on bumping against that hard glass ceiling over and over again. It felt like it was bullet proofed.
I asked former collegues, contacts I had made during countless conferences, people I just met in the Netherlands and who were working at one of the Universities to help me connect with the “right” people, but quickly realized that the academic world was not global (yet), and even a PhD doesn’t help if you don’t have a solid network. – Mine wasn’t ready yet for my demands: the network I builded up in 7 years wasn’t solid enough to support me and help me in the situation I was at that moment. There were many promisses and no real help when I most needed it.
It also didn’t help that I went to job interviews when I was 5 months pregnant with twins. – During this phase I not only experienced the glass ceiling mentioned before but also the non existant support from women. One lady boldly told me not to apply for a job “in my condition”, another one said “see you in five years”.
Being neither… nor…
After the birth of my daughters I took some time off to focus on my family and to reassess all that I had done until then. The fact that I didn’t have a proper night’s sleep didn’t help much as I was in a constant survival mode (I completely understand why sleep deprivation is a method of torture!).
I felt like in limbo: I was no longer the avid reader that could spend days reading, researching, writing, even forgetting to have lunch when completely absorbed in her study. But I wasn’t that happy mom wrapped up in her new role as mother of three either… I was something in between. When getting ready to go out with three children under 4 I longed for my desk and those books that were getting dusty. And when I sat at my desk and saw our babysitter walk out the door with the twins in the pram, I felt guilty and would have liked to go with them. Both felt like done half-heartedly. Getting back and forth between these two me was painful. There wasn’t any balance, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever.
The end of the tunnel
I remember the day when I came out of this neither this nor that and sleepless-survival-mode. It was the second week that my daugthers were at the crèche and my son at school. I sat down at my kitchen table with my kopje koffie that was supposed to help me stay awake until noon, and started to read a scientific book for an article I was supposed to publish and read the whole first chapter in one go.
When I made this attempt months before I re-read one paragraph 5 times without understanding anything. It was all blurry. Some call it the baby-brain, I call it the mother-exhaustion brain… So, when I sat down to read this same book that day, I suddenly felt that the words I was reading made sense, connected in my brain again and literally sparkled. I read that entire book in 2 days (i.e. 248 pages) and finished the article in 2 weeks.
I was reborn.
I started making plans, meeting other mothers from my childrens’ daycare and school, connecting with more people around me. I extended my comfort and action zone, and stretched it until I felt that I was confident enough to “go out there”.
I know now that I was still grieving the life I had “before”. One day I would feel confident, the next day I would feel disoriented and deeply longing for the former me. I was on the rollercoaster ride of my new-life-and-the-new-me. I idealized the before: even if we sometimes struggled to meet the end of the month and if I felt guilty not to be with my son all the time during his first 2,5 years in Italy, that life felt more valuable and more rewarding than this new one, the one where I had to stay at home and didn’t get any recognition of the work I was still doing (I kept on writing). – I know that this sounds ungrateful to some, but not every woman, not every mother, feels fulfilled with staying at home. I know that I don’t and this doesn’t have anything to do with my children, my family or the household (well, at least not entirely…). It has to do with my character, with the way I am “wired”; a friend said to me once “Ute, you’re simply wired in a different way”: I’m a multipotentialite.
I’ve always worked since I was 20 and spending more than 5 years searching for a payed job was daunting. My professional needs weren’t met and not having the support I asked and longed for made it all more difficult. People around me would not recognize my skills. It was tiring to re-explain over and over again why I wasn’t working. I was demotivated and I doubted my skills. And I wasn’t getting any younger.
I withdrew in my comfort zone and silenced that little voice that kept saying “get out there! – you can do it!”.
Being in our comfort zone is important to reload our batteries, “fill our cups”, but if we stay in there for too long we become passive, we end up in the passenger’s seat of our own life.
Everyone who knows me knows that I prefer sitting in the drivers seat. A part the fact that I love driving, I love being in charge, being responsible and doing, making things happen. I like things to happen and to happen fast (I’m quite impatient). So, sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Fiat 500 (old model, the one that goes max 90km/h) instead of sitting in the Ferrari (ok, that’s too much…) wasn’t me. It’s like wanting to run and pulling the brake at the same time.
When I realized that I was able to read complex texts again and to write intelligent articles, to learn and research again, I signed up for courses, collaborated at new projects and became a freelance translator, editor, author and teacher. Later I did a coaching and counselling course, refreshed my skills in psycholinguistics and re-read my notes on bilingualism (one of my main areas of interest at University and when I worked at the Dept. of Romance Languages) and catched up with some of my ex-collegues.
Re-assessing my skills and learning new ones helped me to re-define my goal. At the beginning it was very blurry: I wanted to work again, but not for a 9-to-5 job, I wanted to be passionate about what I do. It had to be very interesting and stimulating, and it needed to be flexible and fit into my family routine.
What would possibly be something that I love, what I’m good at, which the world need and which I can be paid for?
(source: Talking Good Facebook group 7.4.2014; @TalkingGOOD.profiles)
I reassessed my skills, sat my priorities straight and took action. – I felt like Baron von Münchhausen who pulls himself and his horse (!) out of a mire by his own hair (illustration by Oskar Herrfurth).
When priorities shift…
Like for many parents, my new goals were very different from those I had before having children or when I could count on my husband as house-man. I now wanted to be there for my children and my husband. I wanted to do something where I could see (almost) immediate results. I didn’t want to spend hours and hours in endless meetings where no decisions are made, neither did I want to spend too much time in travelling for work.
I finally was putting “me” first again and I knew exactly what I don’t want (anymore).
Like many accompanying partners, my main need is to be financially independent and to get some recognition for the work I do.
Where to start
The best way to start and bridge the “in between” and the “here” is to volunteer. At least here in the Netherlands volunteering is very common. You’re not payed, but you get to hone your skills and learn new ones. – When I started volunteering people would comment on saying “I wouldn’t have time for this”, “are you bored?”. It took me a while to manage and actively ignore these peoples’ comments…
I wondered if I could do this for a long time. I was commited, reliable and worked more than others without getting conventionally recognized, i.e. getting paid. Did this gnaw at my self-confidence? No. In these more than 8 years that I volunteer I can only recommend it to everyone; even those in the highest positions should volunteer regularly. Why? Because it makes you understand that you can reach fulfillment with a simple smile and a “thank you”. Volunteering helps to understand the real meaning of society – to give and give and give and give… and take – and to ponder about our core values.
It’s like walking in nature after a day in the office.
A portable career…
Even if we don’t plan to move in the nearer future, I chose a career that I could easily take with me wherever I live. At Ute’s Lounge my main purpose is to help accompanying partners quickly adapt to the new place, connect with like minded people, and find a new purpose. I support and empower them to fully embrace the opportunities they have.
With “career” I mean:
The progress and actions taken by a person throughout a lifetime, especially those related to that person’s occupations. A career is often composed of the jobs held, titles earned and work accomplished over a long period of time, rather than just referring to one position.
While employees in some cultures and economies stay with one job during their career, there is an increasing trend to employees changing jobs more frequently. (definition by Business Dictionnary)
One of the 6 hours volunteer work I still do on a weekly basis consists in organising talks for my childrens’ school community. In the past 2 years I have organised more than 24 talks/workshops with a great success and countless “thank you’s” and “smiles”.
Today it was Colleen Reichrath-Smith turn, co-author of the 4th edition of Jo Parfitt’s “A Career In Your Suitcase“, to hold a workshop at our school about this topic. It was like if I would re-live some of the stages I just described. Some of the 23 parents who came to this workshop were puzzled, wondering what to do with the excellent skills they already have and that they can’t really use in this new phase of their life for multiple reasons. Mainly because they are the accompanying partners and because they have to look after their children, their family, while on this journey. They are torn between what they once were and what they are now, recognizing that all they did “before” embarking on this international journey is gone, somewhere lost in transition.
Living an international life means to make sacrifices and many families can’t afford a dual-career, either because the children are too young or need extra support, the working parent travels a lot, or because they move very frequently. It is very difficult to find a balance that meets everyone’s needs. As parents we tend to put our childrens’ needs first, for obvious reasons, but we shouldn’t forget our owns either. Finding a new purpose during every phase of our mobile life is so important for our very own sanity and health, and I find that it should matter more and be more supported by those companies who post their employees, and by the communities who welcome these families around the globe.
– Having a portable career enables accompanying partners to keep that healthy balance and helps our family to thrive during our international journey.
The Six Must Haves (from Career In Your Suitcase)
- KNOW YOURSELF: be consciously aware of your backstory
- PLUG IN: Your passion, values, interests and purpose will sustain and keep you going as long as you engage them.
- NAVIGATE AN UNCHARTED PATH: Use your personal North Star to guide and keep you on course, as you navigate your way off the beaten track.
- RECOGNIZE OPPORTUNITY: Notice unexpected and unplanned things along the way that fit your criteria, and allow room for serendipity to play a role in your journey.
- CONNECT: Link with others along the way, support them, learn from them and apply that information.
- ADAPT: Adjust to new information and opportunities as everything stays in motion around you.