Moving past the “settled-in” slump

trailing spouse syndrome

In my previous post, I wanted to acknowledge the emptiness and loss of focus that comes with rebuilding your life every few years. Experts call this lull trailing spouse syndrome and it usually comes to kick you in the shins around the time you’re patting yourself on the back for another successful move.

Yes, you must pause and let yourself feel those feelings. At the same time, it’s important not to linger here. Unfortunately, any trailing spouse will tell you that it’s also far too easy to lose your momentum and somehow end up simply existing in this place.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon this New York Times article with a statistic that stopped me in my tracks.

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

Uplifting stuff, huh? It’s disheartening to hear how many of us get stuck here and feel powerless as to how to find our way back. Only making it harder to find your way is that there’s no single path to steadying your shaken identity.

But these words above also hold the answer—the ones who got back on their feet were the ones who did something about it.

The lesson I’ve learned repeatedly the past three years is that this momentum starts in my mind. Like psyching yourself up before a big event, here’s what I do to keep myself moving towards getting my feet on the ground again.
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Three reasons you need other expats

reasons you need other expats
Sometimes, you just need a friend with similar taste in footwear.

Last summer I wrote about how important it is to not get trapped inside the expat bubble. In our first months in Bogotá, I resisted getting too involved with other expats. I thought that making American friends meant I would not “experience” Colombia. Oh, the naiveté.

There is truth in that sentiment. You will short-change yourself if you spend all your time in Starbucks, never venturing past the main streets filled with familiar shops to try the mom-and-pop cafe. On the other hand, there are gaps that only someone on the “outside” can fill. Keep reading for three reasons every expat needs other expats.
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Expat advice for the short-term assignment

short term expat assignment

When I heard about the three-month time frame on Cody’s assignment in Madrid, I knew there would be a completely different set of challenges. But when searching for advice, I found zero blogs or articles discussing this particular type of experience and the accompanying spouse.  With assignments like these, it makes sense for the working partner to go it alone because people have families, homes, and all the other things that go along with roots. However, I had no home and an expiring Colombian visa, so I packed my bags and got ready for adventure.

Heading into our summer in Madrid, most of my worry centered on finding a balance between playing tourist, having some semblance of routine and maybe an acquaintance or two. If you read my post last week about emotional jet lag, then you know I didn’t find my feet as gracefully as expected.

Read on for my thoughts about where I did well and where I fell flat.

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Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

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Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

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The truth behind an expat’s social media.

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So you’re at work, tapping away at your keyboard and—taking a minute to let your mind wander—you innocently scroll through Instagram or FaceBook.

Ugh, again? There’s so-and-so, hiking some far-flung mountain, cheers-ing in front of a tropical sunset, or arms akimbo with some group of laughing weirdos. Cue rolling eyeballs and a silent promise to unfriend/unfollow/un-whatever at the next gratuitous display of glorious life-abroad fun.

Well, thank goodness you stumbled upon this article because there are so many myths to dispel when it comes to the ‘glamourous’ life we expats lead. You can make anything look good from the outside and when it comes down to it, expats are just as good as everyone else at curating a perfect life on social media.

Of course, white sand beaches look amazing from a cubicle, but let’s take a moment and pull back the curtain on a lifestyle that is so often idealized, to see that the grass isn’t always greener. Below are a few ideas at what’s happening behind the scenes of those perfectly cropped and captioned photos.

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Is expatting better than long-term travel?

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If you are related to us, a good friend or just happened to have dinner with Cody and I anywhere between 2008 and 2014, then you know it was a dream of ours to somehow live overseas.  As we talked through the ways to do this, it seemed like the best option would be to quit our jobs and travel for a year. When we stumbled into an international assignment it seemed like a great way to have the best of both worlds—the security of a job with the excitement of living overseas.

But in the moment, I wondered if we were settling for something short of our full-fledged dream. We were afraid to leave our jobs behind, so wasn’t what we were doing kind of a cop-out?

Now that we’re wrapping up our first assignment, I realize that long term travel and expat life are two completely different animals, each with their own set of benefits. Keep reading to see how I think we got the better end of the deal.

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Expat advice: Remembering how to make friends

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thanks to Spanish class, I made some new buddies

The strangeness of making new friends is what I set out to write about earlier in the week (before I was overcome by emotional navel-gazing) and has been second in difficulty only to the weepy goodbyes said to those people I mentioned on Thursday.

As a classic introvert, moving to a new country and making friends from scratch was already a bleak prospect. After factoring in the language barrier and some cultural differences, I was looking into an abyss. I mean, can you even remember the last time that you—as an adult—made a friend? And I’m not talking about that time you were at a party and scored an invite to a group lunch, all the while nestled in the comfort of your own social circle.

In your home country, it’s easy to take for granted how your already established relationships form a kind of safety net: they provide a place for you to meet new people and should you have a social swing-and-a-miss, you already have friends and so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When your support system tally is one (because I have a spouse), every new interaction is imbued with pressure. A few weeks ago my friend Cherise and I were laughing at all the thoughts that whirl us into anxiety as we put ourselves out there: Am I coming on too strong? Do I sound stupid? Was that joke dumb? I was telling her how it gets easier, which is kind of true…I mean, I still feel awkward and uncomfortable, but now I’m used to it!

In all seriousness, I completely believe that making friends is like any other skill and if you keep at it, it will eventually feel more natural. If you’re looking for some more practical steps or ideas about where to meet people, go back to this post about overcoming culture shock. For me, however, the whole process of making friends started in my head. Keep scrolling for a couple of the roadblocks I had to overcome in order to get my social groove back.

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Recommended Read: A Moveable Marriage

moveable marriage

We get so caught up in the logistics of moving that we either take for granted or simply ignore the fact that after all of those boxes are unpacked and you’ve figured out how to get to the grocery store, you will be living in a new country with your support system gone and identity in limbo.  And remember that your marriage (already hard without the added stress of an international move) is coming along for the ride…

I did a post all about researching prior to an expat assignment, so it should come as no surprise that I looked high and low for a book about expat marriages and the impact of international relocation.  I found a lot about marriage in general and how to take your job abroad; I even found books about moving your kids and how to take care of them, but nothing dedicated to both relocation and marriage.  Once we’d been in Bogotá for several months, I finally happened upon a now out of print book about expat marriages and had it waiting for me on my next visit to the U.S.

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Expat advice: Four tips for the happy trailing spouse

expat-wife
Image borrowed from ggevrey.wordpress.com

Last month when I posted about culture shock, I briefly touched on the difficulties of being an unemployed spouse in a foreign country and have recently discovered that I have my own title: the trailing spouse. While the term itself could use some help, ExpatiriateConnection.com defines us like this:

Trailing Spouse is the word used to designate the partner following his/her spouse on assignment abroad…The “trailing spouse” is the anchor in a successful relocation process. It’s the central element around which everything falls into place. While the working employee goes to work, the trailing spouse is in charge of all the “non-corporate” aspects of life for ALL family members: the children of course but the working partner and herself as well.

While on their site today I also stumbled upon this article, “Why Trailing Spouses Can’t Be Happy” and couldn’t disagree more. Perhaps it’s because I’d just come from a meeting with the American Women’s Club of Bogotá (which is comprised of women of all nationalities). Over the course of a couple of hours, I heard all kinds of stories from women who started their own business after having to leave successful professions behind or others who raise thousands of dollars each year to support local charities. These ladies had found their way!

I don’t deny that it’s hard to find yourself after you’ve left your profession, community, and support system. But that difficulty is temporary, not a place to live.

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