I have written before about how my parents are role models for me this year. Here’s another reason: they were and are so honest about the stresses of expatriate life on a family. I vividly remember a book that sat on our shelves in London, straightforwardly titled: Stay Married Abroad. I did not understand the market for such a book as a middle schooler but I’m starting to figure it out. (The book must have worked; my parents recently celebrated their 42th anniversary).
Last year, several well-meaning friends asked me tough questions about our sabbatical plans and whether they were really equitable. Indeed, I gave up a meaningful and challenging job in my home city in 2005 to follow Terence to a boarding school in rural Delaware, then proposed to repeat the sacrifice in 2011. From this perspective, world
religions and the Middle East are “Terence’s thing.” When would my turn come? I replied, and believed, that we were actually being post-feminist, making choices to maximize life experiences for every member of the family. Whose job provided what was irrelevant; gender not an issue. I didn’t see coming to Jerusalem as that different from
moving to Delaware. In both cases, Terence’s job or project provides the structure that gives the girls and I many, many opportunities — including this once-in-a-lifetime sabbatical — as well as some constraints.
I still believe all of this but I now see more complexity in how gender and power play out in expatriate life. For many — most — internationals here, one person’s job prospects dictate everything about the entire family’s life (including where they live, or whether
they are allowed to ride public transportation. We actually have way more freedom than the average). And let’s be real: almost always it’s the wife who uproots to become a ‘trailing spouse.’ At the first meeting of the Jerusalem Expat Network, the organizer said these words of welcome: “we are here because of our husband’s jobs.” It was so very retro, yet refreshingly true.
All around me, bright, accomplished women are handling this anachronistic situation, in which the power is so skewed towards their partners, in different ways. Some, but in my experience a minority, hunker down, resentful. Others are consumed with caring for young children, and life is not that different from back home (albeit with more interesting scenery in the back ground). Others get creative and find their professional niche; they start businesses; find ways to get working papers. Others take full advantage of the “time off” to explore, nurture talents, and make friends. It’s worth noting that my mother used all three of these positive strategies in our two stints abroad. It seemed that within six months in a new place, she knew everyone and was running some kind of organization, if not several. I am sure it felt more complicated in practice, but the outward impression was stunning.
I’m inspired but also a bit intimidated by my mother’s example, and I’m not sure what my trailing spouse style is yet. (Except that I like to be brutally honest about its challenges and its rewards). However, I think it is going to start to emerge. Now that 2012 is here, we’re clearly in another phase of our year. The girls are settled in school
and Margaret has been begging to stay until the afternoon; I finally relented, realizing that the noon pick up was about my needs, not hers. We’ve come through some of the milestones I long anticipated, like visits from both sides of our family. I have a little more time now. I just need to figure out what to do with it. Obviously, stay tuned. And send me your ideas!
And back to the title of my parents’ book: Terence and I are doing fine. We have a long history of negotiating and communicating our way through changes in the work/family/power balancing act. This year may be more different than most others, but we have built the skills to figure it out. For this year, and then we’ll figure it all out again next year.