The Roles Not Chosen

September 2020

‘Which company does your husband work for?’

I was so taken aback by the question I just answered it.

In the next moment, the event organiser called for everyone’s attention to introduce a speaker. I half-listened as I mentally retraced the friendly conversation. We’d been talking for maybe five minutes about the challenges of settling in to a new country. I asked myself if I’d missed something, but no…we definitely hadn’t covered my marital status, sexual orientation, whether I worked, or whether I had children. I had mentioned something about the kind of super-resilience we need as expats to navigate the visible and invisible stresses of frequent transition. Which, I suppose, prompted the enthusiastic twenty-something I’d just met to wonder why I moved a lot.

But that’s not what he asked. Instead, he offered up seven words laden with a pile-up of assumptions, based on my gender.

February 2022

This time, the conversation with a new acquaintance had already included mention of my kids, MT’s role, our being a family of serial expats. Then, my work:

‘Sounds like a good distraction from all the mum stuff.’

This time, I paused, just for a beat. Not so much taken aback as deciding what I felt like getting into in that moment. I was in a celebratory mood. I’d just met this person, and pragmatism was kicking in: they weren’t likely to become a close friend in the near future. I could, if I wanted, chalk up the word choice to the awkwardness of small talk. How much energy did I want to invest in unpacking their assumptions about me?

‘Something like that.’ I smiled, but very soon we were both casting around the room for other conversation opportunities.

How I got here

Those subheadings above are not just there to organise the stories: it is the 21st century and we are still having these conversations, making these assumptions. I’m sure many of you reading have had similar conversations. (Want to share some? The most demoralising expat anthology ever?) I wonder how many similar assumptions we’ve all made ourselves. That first story, in particular, felt utterly outdated, with the question coming from a generation that I thought had already progressed past the stereotypes of ‘expat wife’ that were rife a decade ago. Perhaps the echo chamber of my communities, where we talk about these things a lot, has me deluded into thinking that everyone else has figured this stuff out by now too.

I have a lot of freedom and choice in this world, a lot of privilege. But still, it’s exhausting sometimes, battling to define myself as something other than the roles I haven’t chosen, to shake off the assumptions that seem to come as a package deal.

‘What do you mean the roles I haven’t chosen?’ Is that what you’re thinking? Didn’t I choose to be married, to leave a career and follow his, to have children?

Here’s what I chose. I wanted romance, to fall in love and make a partnership. Marriage in itself wasn’t the goal, but when the time came, we wanted the meaningful moment and the big party.

Growing up and into womanhood, I was sure I didn’t want kids. As I got older, I could sense that perhaps one day I’d love a man so much that having children together could be a natural extension of it. That day came, and we chose to have a family together, in partnership.

When I stepped off the career path I’d previously set myself on, to go on an adventure, it wasn’t because I had decided my purpose was now his, that my days were someone else’s.

I am my husband’s wife, but I never chose ‘expat wife’. I am ‘Mum’ to my kids but I never chose to become ‘a mum’. Those labels, those roles as defined by so much of the world, are the tip of an iceberg of hidden assumptions and expectations that have nothing to do with my reality as a partner, a spouse, a parent.

The facts are undeniable. It is a fact that we live in this place at this time because my partner’s job is here. It is a fact that my partner is my spouse. It is a fact that my spouse is a man. It is a fact that we have children together.

But those facts are not an explanation for my existence.

It’s also a fact – a deeply unsatisfying one – that our situation makes us pretty representative of serial expat families. I do have a lot of friends who, as women, are the partner on assignment, with their partner or family accompanying them. I used to think that our globally mobile population existed in a time warp, at least where families are concerned, stuck in the 1950s while the rest of the world had moved forwards.

But the events of the last two years made it clear that the role of women and mothers is still universally laden with these underlying assumptions and expectations, as some women’s days became a torturous game of time Tetris, fitting in working from home, with supervision of home learning, and feeding families who were there all day long. The second shift became an all-day double shift.

Where do we go next?

There are still changes needed to let us see more women in couples and families taking the lead in mobile assignments. We need to normalise parental leave over maternity leave, see more equal sharing of that second shift, and ditch outdated perspectives aligning masculinity with breadwinning. We need to cater for all in the expat partner space, not just the interests of women, and support all expats who aspire to dual career or entrepreneurial goals. We need to normalise men who choose parenting as the focus of their expat life. (Some of the most sexist comments I’ve heard are directed at men who are accompanying partners. It can be a very isolating place to be.)

In some ways, these are institutional, cultural shifts, that can’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, can we at least pay attention to our language when we’re connecting as expats? Can we drop the assumptions? Is that too much to ask in 2022?

Can’t I be an expat who happens to be a woman? A woman who happens to be a parent?

Let’s stop defining women’s roles by the people around them, and see them as the people they are.

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