How I’m Forging Ahead while Trailing

Turning 40 triggered the thought process.  I couldn’t escape the idea that my best decade was behind me, and that I’d spent most of it having babies and trailing Mr Nester.  (Leaving aside for the moment that it was an irrational idea, and that the most important achievement of my 30s was meeting Mr Nester in the first place.)

At that time I was in limbo.  We were back in France for training between posts, so we knew we weren’t staying long, just a few months.  In more settled circumstances I would have been thinking about getting back to work; instead I was happy to commit to a period of full-time parenting, after having had full-time help for the previous year, and knowing the next posting would bring the same opportunity.  But as time passed, our date for moving on again got delayed, and once again I started to feel like I was marking time, waiting for the next new start before I could make plans and decisions.

This, combined with the milestone birthday, made me so acutely aware of time falling behind me.  Over 6 years ago I took a ‘break’ from my career to follow someone else’s.  (A break I was more than ready for – step out after 10 years of teaching teenagers, working for an over-stretched and mismanaged council, to go and live in southern France with no obligation to work at all?  Ummm, yes please!)  And in that time we’ve created our family, as so many do at this stage of their life.  I’ve also become near-fluent in another language, worked for a little while before having our first baby, and experienced the world in a way I never thought I would.  I’m glad I said yes, and glad to have been able to make the most of what has come my way.

But after 10 years of single working life, not to mention the studying and training before them, when I made my own plans and decisions and followed through on them, when I had long-term goals and expectations for myself, and when I knew I was in the place I had chosen to be, it was no longer enough for me to wait and see what would come my way.  So I was eager for the next move, to get myself out of limbo and start making plans.

So the thought process continued.  It’s a fantastic benefit to be a trailing spouse who is also an English teacher – surely one of the most portable jobs.  I have friends who are incredibly high achievers, trained professionals in all sorts of important fields, but simply can’t continue their career overseas, or at least not before they’ve learned the local language, transferred their certification and/or updated their knowledge, so often not feasible within a two- or three-year posting.  For me, however, there is always the possibility of finding work in an international school, or offering individual tutoring.

But the thought process was taking me down a greedier path.  Finding work wherever I happen to land every two or three years is not the same as having a career.  I needed to think of a way to feel more in control of my future and my time, to gain a sense of continuity.  And that was when clarity came.

Because I realised I was able to answer this question with action: if you could do anything you wanted in life, what would it be?

How many of us have the chance to go back to square one and actually do whatever it is we left by the wayside?  It was a liberating moment when I put aside the embedded idea that to work, I have to do the job I’ve always done (teaching was never a vocation for me, although I do love it).  At that moment I was able to let go of the idea that had been holding me down for the last couple of years – the idea that I couldn’t control my future, that I had sacrificed it – and turn it on its head.  With my children both starting school, help available at home, no obligation to earn money…good grief!  I could do ANYTHING!

So, now I’m writing.  It’s lucky for me that my ‘anything’ isn’t restrained by geography or availability of resources.  Lucky too that the spouse I trail totally gets it, and for my birthday organised a stay at a writing retreat before we came here.  (Actually, that’s not lucky at all.  I picked him.  Important achievement.)

And I’m extremely lucky that in this Francophone African economic hub everyone seems to want to learn English, and I’ll be able to teach whenever I choose.  The hard thing has been saying no, to volunteering or work opportunities, as well as to some other activities that are often expected of expat spouses wives (yes, that word there).  By letting go of embedded ideas about what I’m capable of and how I should be living, I’m able to say yes to this creative moment.  But I am working, to hold on to the renewed sense of myself that I’ve achieved.

For some trailing spouses the answer to the question might be more complicated.  It might be that what they’ve always wanted to do is what they’ve already left behind.  But still, the chance to ask it in the first place…to be open to the possibility…that’s the rare opportunity to be seized.

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