How do you continue professional and personal growth when everything has changed, your professional life, your support systems, the balance in your relationships? That’s the challenge faced by a growing cadre of mostly women who accompany partners or spouses whose careers take them to another country. (The number of male accompanying partners is growing but the vast majority are still women, so for the purpose of this article, I’ll be talking from a woman’s perspective)
While it is possible to orchestrate a move to another country keeping two careers intact, it is the exception. In a November 2009 survey of expatriate spouses and partners, the Permits Foundation found that, although 89% of accompanying partners were either employed or self-employed prior to moving overseas, only 35% were employed or self-employed while on assignment. Of those who find employment in their new location, many find work outside of their preferred field or work at a lower level than prior to their relocation.
What stops accompanying partners from working? For some there is no choice, work permits are simply not available. Others find professional equivalency requirements, language and cultural barriers or lack of network prevent them from working. Some simply choose to take a break from their careers so they are available to facilitate the move, support their children, or take the opportunity to re-evaluate what they want to do.
The stereotypical expat “trailing spouse” (to use the out-dated and patronising term which is still a part of today’s HR lexicon in many organisations) is one who lives a hedonistic life of coffee mornings, lunches, the gym/tennis/golf, shopping and parties with a bit of volunteering thrown in for peace of mind. Like any stereotype, these portrayals have always been a caricature and an exaggeration, but it is particularly so for today’s generation of accompanying partners who are probably used to having their own careers and financial independence.
So what is an accompanying partner to do if work is not an option but growth, development and fulfilment are a priority? While continued financial independence is not always possible, with forethought and planning, creating a meaningful experience certainly is.
- Understand the implications of your overseas assignment BEFORE you commit to moving. Making an informed choice does not guarantee your happiness but it will help you to take ownership of the decision and deal with its consequences. It will also give you the opportunity to ask for the appropriate support from your sponsoring organisation. Many organisations moving families overseas offer support for accompanying partners, including career counselling and job search support, opportunities for language learning and education allowances.
Note that Informing yourself means more than understanding whether or not you can legally work; it means talking to people who are already living in your new country and can educate you on the practical realities of what you want to do.
- Evaluate what you would like to get out of the experience of living in another country both personally and professionally. It could be the chance to work in another country, or an opportunity to further your education or it could be a needed break from the daily grind to focus on your family. There are, of course, dozens of permutations and possibilities in between but understanding your own desires and values will help you to make better choices.
- Start evaluating what you CAN do even before you go. Talk to people who already live in your new host country, read online, if you have the opportunity to go on a familiarisation trip (a “look-see” in expat jargon) arm yourself with questions. You may not get an answer straight away – I’ve encountered more than one local relocation agent who has put me into the stereotypical expat box and assumed that all I’m interested in is shopping – but persist and take the opportunity to ask other accompanying partners you meet along the way.
- If you find opportunities that interest you, evaluate them against your personal values. You will find that, especially when you arrive, other accompanying partners will be very welcoming and if you let yourself you will get pulled into all kinds of commitments. If they don’t fit with your values or goals, say no or take time to evaluate the pros and cons. Its easy to say yes and find yourself with myriad commitments that become a burden 6 months in.
- Re-evaluate frequently to ensure that you are moving in the right direction – are the commitments you have made making you happy?
– are you achieving what you want to achieve?
– is there anything you could do differently to make life better?
- Last but not least, make your partner part of the discussion and the decision process, just as you were part of the decision to relocate. It’s easy for him to get caught up in the excitement and pressure of a new job and take for granted that you will take care of your own happiness and personal development, but by making him part of the process, you are more likely to get support when you need it.
Accompanying your partner on an overseas assignment can be a life-changing experience and with conscious and informed choices can be an amazing opportunity for personal and professional growth.
Founder of The Smart Expat