Imagine, if you will, a world of single-income families in which one spouse of each couple does not have a full-time job. This is the bubble in which most expats live. The primary reason for this somewhat anachronistic scenario is the lack of availability of jobs for people who may not speak the local language, or even have a work permit.
Fortunately, most expat spouses do not have to work to put food on the table. There may be many other financial incentives to work: paying off student loans, paying your own kids’ college tuition bills, saving and investing, travel, and so on. But, thanks to decent salaries, good benefits, and (usually) free rent, no expat family is going to starve without a second income.
So, what do expat spouses do all day?
Well, some actually do work. Foreign Service spouses, for example, usually have the option to apply for a variety of Embassy jobs. Most are clerical, and none pay all that much. But if the first priority is simply to have a job of some kind, a job can usually be had, after quite a bit of paperwork and a long wait for a security clearance. Many FS spouses happily make careers of hopping between so-called “EFM” positions from post to post.
A growing number of spouses also have freelance or telecommuting jobs. I used to have one myself. Unlike embassy positions, these jobs can usually be carried from post-to-post without interruption. And the flexibility can’t be beat.
However, these jobs may only be part-time or intermittent in nature. And they can be isolating if one works from home. This is a non-starter for many extraverts, and presents a challenge even to introverts such as myself. Others may have trouble organizing their own time without a standard office environment or work schedule. However, many spouses are very happy with an independent freelance career. Very happy indeed.
Expat spouses with kids do not usually have much trouble staying busy. Aside from normal child care responsibilities, international schools can provide an instant community, with lots of opportunities to socialize and to volunteer if one is so inclined. For younger children (and their parents) there are community playgroups. For my part, when I had two kids at home plus part-time work, that was as busy as I needed to be!
Parents of older kids, empty-nesters, or child-free spouses can have a harder time finding a place in the community. Ask me how I know this! But there are other ways to stay busy.
Social activities. Any post with a large expat community will have one or more organizations largely devoted to keeping expat spouses busy and connected to other expats. This is more important than you might think. Without a workplace environment for socializing, and with substantial language barriers between expats and the local population, loneliness would be a serious problem for many “trailing” spouses without these groups. I would go so far as to say that they are essential to mental health!
At my current post, with its large expat population and many organizations, I could be engaged in a different social activity every single day of the week if I chose to be. There are coffees, lessons, and interest groups of all kinds. I am selective because, as an introvert, I don’t feel that I need to be social every minute of every day, and small talk actually tires me out after a while. But if you are a “people person” these clubs can be a lifesaver.
Classes. Language classes are an obvious, and usually available, option if you don’t speak the local language. For other subjects, it can be tricky to find classes in a language that you speak. But if you have an interest in a subject, or are willing to blunder by in the local language, you can probably find a way to learn something new just about anywhere. Or, some spouses study online for certificates and degrees.
Volunteering. Aside from schools, there are many other ways to volunteer, whether it is serving on the board of an international group, or reading to kids at an orphanage. Some expat spouses turn volunteering into virtual careers, even founding charitable organizations in their host countries on occasion. (Here are some award-winning volunteer projects by Foreign Service spouses!)
Exercise. As an underemployed expat spouse, there are few excuses not to get regular exercise in most countries. Of course, there are places where there are no gyms and it is not safe to walk or run on the streets. But, usually, there is some way to get exercise, and most spouses take advantage of the free time to at least take a yoga or zumba class. Walking/running groups also abound in the expat community.
Hobbies. If you always wanted to take up quilting, photography, painting, home brewing, gourmet cooking, or even just read a lot of books, now’s your chance. Go for it!
What do I do all day? I take Polish classes three times a week. I also take a half-day art class that doubles as Spanish practice because it is taught by a Mexican! I try to go to the gym two or three mornings per week. I walk a lot, and participate in a weekly power-walking group. I don’t have a cleaning lady, so I do all the cleaning and laundry myself (this counts as exercise, too!) I do 90 percent of the grocery shopping and cooking. I have several hobbies: knitting, sewing, photography, genealogy, and blogging. I am currently taking an online photography course. I teach a blogging workshop for the international women’s group and occasionally participate in other activities with the same group. I go to coffees now and then for “water cooler time.” And sometimes, I just flop on the couch and read a book—though that’s usually on the weekends!
Truthfully, I would like to have an interesting part-time job, and I’d love to have more opportunities to build things and to garden. After 27 years (!) of pinging all over the world, I am feeling the need for more focus in my life. I look forward to settling down for a while after this tour. But in the meantime, there is always something to do. It’s not an ideal situation, but really, how often does anyone find themselves in an ideal situation? I know that I am lucky that I do not have to work full-time—although I made my own luck to some degree by agreeing to move overseas in the first place.
Expat spouses are privileged in many ways, but they are also remarkably creative and adaptable. They routinely manage challenges that most people will never encounter, or can even imagine. Primary among those challenges is finding a way to stay
sane happy and busy while supporting corporate and government employees overseas.
One of my favorite expat bloggers just posted about how every little daily activity takes just a bit more energy in a foreign country. I couldn’t agree with her more. I think we should all give ourselves credit for the job we do in simply creating a normal life for ourselves and our families at each post. Maybe we should go out for coffee and a nice chat. We’ve earned it!