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Trailing spouse? I would like to be a fulfilled spouse more!

Claudia shares her experience as a trailing spouse across many countries and continents, touching the delicate issue of self-esteem and gratification of expat women who choose to leave career behind for their family’s sake. We wish her story might be an inspiration to overcome the sense of “unworthiness” some spouse feel for not pursuing a career. Claudia puts back on the map the importance of being there and how capital her contribution is to her family success. Most importantly though is her insights on the importance of the expatriate experience for anyone and how this resulted in the creation of Expatclic.

I am an Italian lady who turned 40 a couple of years ago and who started her expatriate life 17 years ago. I left Italy in 1989, the year I changed my life's direction to follow my husband (who worked for an humanitarian organization) in what has turned out to be a rich, interesting and, yes!, a very fulfilling life.

Nowadays things are changing fast (sometimes, it  is the wife who accepts a posting abroad), but back then, when I boarded the plane to Sudan, one of the main reasons for an Italian woman to move abroad was to be with her loved one.
I was no exception.

Nevertheless, once I had arrived at my destination I found myself a job. I am interpreter and translator, and working with languages is always a pretty easy option all over the world.
A job meant being paid for something I was doing, on a regular basis and with no limits to my working schedule. Working in Africa in the humanitarian context did require availability well past the traditional 8 hours per day.
But even so, the transition in the new country was not too difficult.

Things obviously changed when our first child was born and the second one came along soon after. I decided to give up working to stay at home with the children and take care of them myself. It was not a hard choice for me, both because I genuinely enjoyed being with the children full-time and because I never really felt isolated or useless for not contributing to the family budget.

Still, when children reached schooling age I found jobs to do during school hours or during our break periods in Italy. I always tried to work whenever I could.

Anyway it soon became clear that moving from one country to another with children, and devoting most of my time to their adaptation and happiness, made it impossible for me to maintain the same professional level as before the children were born.

Working in the free time left from family tasks, meant having to accept underpaid wages because the odd collaborations were not part of a career path. This made me feel that my jobs were second-class ones.
I soon started wondering whether I was really interested in working, even if seriously underpaid, or if it would not be better to use my free time to do other things.
This is also part of being a trailing spouse: not only you are unable to pursue your personal career because of the continuous changes your life is exposed to, but you are also supposed to accept jobs whose payment in most cases do not correspond to your level of experience and qualifications.

The answer came in Honduras, where we moved after 8 years in Africa. New continent, new language, a totally new reality for ourselves and the children!

I was again actively engaged in accompanying them during the long and complex adaptation phase. Past which phase, my job quest was on again.
While waiting for a job development, I started volunteering with an international women’s organization, on a project with the Paediatric Burnt Unit in one of the biggest public hospital in town. I really enjoyed visiting the children, talking with the hospital personnel, contributing to solve the numerous problems the hospital faced daily.

I was confronted with a dilemma when I was offered an interesting teaching position at a good university in the capital town where we lived: paid job versus an unpaid one, a cv enriching job versus one that, most likely, would not count for future job searches, a “professional” job versus a “loved” volunteer mission.
I honestly wondered whether I really wanted to give up my work at the hospital, which I loved so much, to go work at the university. The meagre salary I was offered at the university sped up my decision (local contracts are often very poorly paid), definitely giving up a job I loved for a poorly paid one was not an option!

Another thought had crossed my mind.

After all those years as an expatriate, I was firmly convinced that the experience of living abroad, of continuously adapting to new cultures, new lifestyles, new friendships, of regularly adjusting to the emotional turmoil that leaving a country to settle down in a new one entails, brings with itself a richness and a fulfilment that must be considered and valorised somewhere and somehow.

For this to happen, though, it is important to understand how unique this experience is. It took me years not to feel diminished when someone asked me if I was working, and showed an immediate loss of interest when I answered “no”.

In Honduras the pieces of the puzzle started getting together, and for the first time I was able to understand exactly the kind of life I had led so far, exactly the value of devoting my time to my third culture kids, exactly the importance of the decision to not accept jobs just for the sake of it, exactly the reason….

that was it, I enormously enjoyed my global experience and learnt so much from it.

It was at that point that I felt the urge to find a channel to express all these feelings. The idea of a website for Italian expatriate women was the logical consequence of how I felt towards the experience of expatriation.

I really wanted to use what I had learnt in terms of managing both feelings and practical aspects during the comings and goings that are the constant feature of expatriates’ lives. My intention was also to fill a void that had been affecting me over the years: there was no common space on the Internet where Italian women could talk about the expatriation experience, nor to get useful and up-dated information about a variety of destinations and about the practical procedures that mark our moves. A lucky encounter on the web prompted me to reconsider the structure and content of the website that I intended to launch.

Marie, a French expatriate woman that had set up a website for francophone expat women, proposed me to create an intercultural portal by joining our expertise, capacities and enthusiasm. Expatclic was born!

An international portal where several language teams work together and offer a common space to all expat women of the world, that can access it not only according to their interests and geographical locations, but also to the various languages they speak.

Personally, to me Expatclic means being able to actually share my experience with others. It is a space where I can create and express what I learnt so far. It is a moment that makes me appreciate both the use of new technologies and the good deal of languages I speak.

What makes me most happy is to see how women that visit our space are thrilled by the articles we propose and come back steadily to read the new ones we regularly publish.
What I try to transmit in the work I do for Expatclic is the sum of my whole experience.

I might have not contributed to the growth of our family bank account, but all through my period as an expatriate I learnt new languages, met hundreds of persons of an endless variety of nationalities, witnessed situations of extreme hardship and deep tragedy, travelled through a huge number of landscapes and populations, learnt to “function” in a good number of cultures that are deeply different from mine, followed with interest the political and social events of countries I did not even know existed before, learnt a multitude of recipes from all over the world, absorbed habits, ways of talking, customs, traditions, weaknesses and points of view of people with whom I had the privilege to share a period of time… all this pays me back from not having had a personal professional career.

And I can even push myself to say that I do not really care whether people recognize the value of my experience or not because in the end what most matters to me is the fact of having used it not only to open my mind and widen my horizons, but also and mostly to give my children the opportunity to grow into the world, to become citizens of the world.

I am proud of having offered them the opportunity to learn since they were born how to express, read, write, think, dream and joke in three or four different languages. I so much rejoice when I realize that they have absorbed the concept that nothing is ever granted in life because what they have is not what other children of their same age have, just for having been born at different latitudes and in different social contexts.

It makes me absolutely happy that my children have not learnt these things through a book or from a screen, but from real life. I feel so satisfied when I see my home full of people of all nationalities and cultural backgrounds and see how my children open up to this cultural kaleidoscope with the same spontaneity they employ to shift from one language to another. If I had to sacrifice my career to get to all this, I can say with absolute honesty that the sacrifice has been worthwhile and, should I go back, I would do and chose exactly the same things, even if this kind of life implies losses, sacrifices and a hardship which is sometimes different to cope with.

I consider myself very lucky because since that moment in 1989, I never ever felt that I was “accompanying” my husband. I have been actually living, experiencing, learning, rejoicing, growing and opening my mind during the whole of my periods abroad, without even thinking of the reasons that had taken me away from Italy.

It took me a while, though, to explore all the contradictory facts and feelings that make up the life of women who, like me, should feel upset because of the loss of their personal career, but are in fact very happy of having exchanged it with a rich fulfilling life on the move!!!