There seems to be no great label for a role that is challenging, hard to define and often overlooked when talking about life as an ex-pat. Historically, the term has been ‘trailing spouse,’ which many feel implies that the one in this role (usually women, but we’re now seeing an increasing number of men) is no more than an add-on to the more important spouse, presumably for whose job the family is moving abroad. Relocation managers and Human Resource departments often have few to no resources for the needs of the spouse who will, most likely, be doing the lion’s share of setting up the household and getting the children registered at school, among many other tasks. The accompanying spouse’s first overarching assignments are to make sure the breadwinner and the kids are able to hit the ground running, that the lights are on and the fridge is stocked. So, not only does the non-working spouse have to do all manner of logistical heavy lifting, in a language they most likely don’t speak, and with no point person to help along the way, but he or she is also suffering a huge hit to their sense of identity and dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness. By understanding how common this experience is and by learning some new tools for coping and getting practical help, life abroad can be lighter and more fulfilling for the accompanying partner.
When deciding to become ex-pats, partners usually understand that for one of them, giving up – or at least putting on hold – their career is a necessary component of making this leap. In their home country, dual-career couples may have had extended family or a trusted babysitter or nanny to help with childcare and household responsibilities, but now that they’ve decided to become ex-pats, these couples often decide (before moving abroad) that since one spouse will now stay at home, he or she will be the one to handle the kids and the home. While this may sound perfectly logical, the impact of such a massive change for a spouse who was used to going to work each day (or even part-time), means that a significant part of their identity has been essentially amputated. In addition, the loss of interaction with other adults (who speak their language!) and no longer having a set schedule or structure to the days, can leave the now at-home spouse feeling isolated, lonely, bored and like a person they no longer recognize.
Now, add the role of family counselor to the new list of responsibilities. The at-home spouse usually takes the lead on making sure all members of the household are adjusting to life abroad, and this can be a bumpy road for the children, depending on their ages and personality types. This is especially true if it’s the first international experience for a family. Some hiccups that children living abroad for the first time can experience are cultural adjustment issues, behavioral challenges and friendship stresses, all of which play heavily into upheaval at home, increasing tensions all around.
So, how can you, the accompanying partner, set yourself up for success, to both thrive in your new roles, and also make sure you are tending to your own needs and engaging in regular self care? First, let’s remember how important it is to connect with other people. If you had a job, you automatically and effortlessly connected with people every time you went to work. You might not have given these interactions much thought, but once you no longer have these types of daily exchanges, it’s easy to miss them. As quickly as possible, find some other people to talk to. This sounds obvious and basic, but it’s so important. You need to talk to other people. Both fellow ex-pats and locals. They don’t have to be your best friend. You don’t have to have a lot in common with them. Your Italian is better than you think, even if you hardly speak a word. Every single Italian will appreciate any effort you make. And if you’re brand new, take heart that every single ex-pat you meet was once as green as you are. Find other spouses like you. If your children go to an international school, it’s the most fertile ground in town for accompanying spouses. You might think that all the other stay-at-home mom and dad ex-pats have it way more together than you, and you’re feeling too shy to tell them what a hard time you’re having. Remember that looks can be deceiving and most ex-pat accompanying spouses warmly welcome a discussion of the challenges, and yes, the joys. Because there are many of those, too!
If you had a busy job back home, you may have had limited time for being involved with your children’s school. Now that you have more time, the schools are great places to meet other parents, and international schools are usually looking for parent involvement with all kinds of activities and programs. Even if this hasn’t historically been your cup of tea, now’s a great time to give it a try.
Was there a sport or hobby that you engaged in back home? Find a way to keep it up now that you’re in Italy. Even if that means making modifications. The more core pieces of yourself that you maintain now that you’re in a totally new environment, the less likely you are to feel anxious, sad or depressed.
I know this one may sound counterintuitive to successful cultural adjustment, but you do not have to learn the language. If you are excited to devote time and energy to the pursuit of learning Italian, then by all means, go for it. But, if you find that you have neither the time, the energy nor the will to tackle the books, then immediately let yourself off the hook. Learning a foreign language as an adult does not, unfortunately, happen through osmosis. It takes hard work and patience. You can live a functional and happy life in Italy with minimal Italian.
Last, take time for you and only you. It does not need to involve an expensive trip to the spa or abandoning your family for a week’s retreat. It does mean making time for self care, which can be exercise, time with a friend, a long phone call with someone back home (WhatsApp, FaceTime and Skype mean it’s free!) or whatever it is that makes you feel a little calmer, and a little more like you. And if the stresses and challenges feel like they are becoming unmanageable, seeking support from an English-speaking counselor can help. More than ever, you are ground control for your family, and by taking care of you, you’re taking care of them.