What Does Your Husband Do? The Secret Identity Of The Expat Wife

Of all the questions a modern woman expects to be asked when meeting someone for the first time, “So, what does your husband do?” is not one that would’ve been on my radar. In fact, it would have grievously offended my pre-expat-wife self.

What do you mean, what does my husband do? How is that relevant to who I am as an individual? How does his career, his role, his position - define me?

And yet, after “expat-wifing” for 5 years now, it’s a question that no longer causes me to bat an eyelid. In fact, after being asked my name, my kids’ ages, where we live, my often-spoken, almost pre-rehearsed line about his position at X company dances at the tip of my tongue, waiting for its inevitable release.

I am a dependent. I am someone else’s Plus One. I am so-and-so’s wife or so-and-so’s mother. The homemaker, the baby-caretaker, the healthy-toddler-muffin-baker.

It crept up on me, you know? There were the occasional flickers that uncomfortably zapped my career-driven, ambitious, independent persona: when the immigration department took the liberty of filling in our visa renewal forms and presumptuously stated “housewife” as my occupation; or when I went to get my mobile phone SIM card replaced but was told I had to obtain my all-powerful husband’s permission to do so; or when, despite me being the one who actually does all of our banking online, turning up to a bank branch only resulted in a strained, polite smile accompanied by a request for the employed, and more importantly, male, account-holder’s name with the requisite authority to return in my lowly, unauthorized place.

I worked, and was child-free, for the first 18 months or so of our expat stint, so I didn’t get the full expat wife experience until, in true expat wife fashion, I became the resident baby factory, churning out one child very soon after the other. Don’t get me wrong - I chose to stay home with my kids full-time and I am extremely grateful to have had that choice. But in our current assignment, the possibilities for me to go back into the workforce, and specifically, a job I would actually enjoy doing, are limited, if not, non-existent.

In my role as a stay-at-home-mom, a big part of my daily life is the modern parenting phenomenon known as the play date. Amongst the other mothers that attend, we have engineers, psychologists, pilots, lawyers, public health experts, insurance consultants, physiotherapists, tax specialists, bankers, marketing managers, naturopaths, journalists, designers, teachers and chiropractors. To name a few.

But amidst our discussions over the ingredients in that delicious, refined-sugar-free baked good, where the best place is to buy cheese, whether anyone had seen That Highly Sought After Imported Product in stock recently at the local eye-wateringly overpriced expat supermarket, our travel plans for the summer, or the #expatfirstworldproblems relating to hired help (I know, I know), one thing we rarely discuss is what we did before we crossed the threshold into the realm of the expat wife. Our shoes, our diaper bags, and implicitly, our former professional selves are checked at the door. It’s almost an awkward question sometimes, maybe because it so rarely comes up, or maybe because deep down, we’re not sure we can still legitimately claim that part of ourselves anymore because our days now look so very different to how they used to.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: I want to be asked that question, and what’s more, I want to ask that question. It is incredible how much more I learn about the other woman in front of me when she opens up the side of herself that, truthfully, has nothing to do with her role as a wife or a mother. It’s wonderful. There is a spark in her eyes, and a subtly proud straightening of her posture as she sits on the floor changing that diaper, as she tells you about what she used to do. Or maybe it’s what she’s still doing, a passion she’s pursuing, but it’s in the background of her role as a wife or mother and so it is rarely seen in your regular interactions.

The other thing I’ve learned? While I think it’s healthy to embrace the season of life I’m currently in as I parent two toddlers, I also need - no really, I need - to devote some time to pursuing what sets my soul on fire. Or maybe it kindles it a little. That’s fine, too. But I need something, and I’m willing to bet that you do, too. One of the perks of expat wifing (that is now, officially, a verb in case you couldn’t tell), is that you can engage in projects, classes, hobbies or entrepreneurial feats that you otherwise may not have been able to. I’ve come to know several fellow expat women who have taken risks, started their own burgeoning businesses, pursued a dream that had taken a backseat, courageously decided to learn something new, or taken on employed or volunteer roles which may be completely different to what they used to do.

So yes, I am an “expat wife”. I may be, technically, my income-earning, visa-providing, manly man’s dependent. You may be one, too. But I refuse to accept that being a dependent means I am completely dependent. Who I am, as an individual, as a woman, is not dependent on anyone. Sure, the circumstances of life right now may coax or even dictate some of the decisions I make, but I will not accept a designated part to play, or a designated place in the life into which I’ve fallen. I will not lose myself to the role I am expected to take.

Ladies, we may be the homemakers, the baby-caretakers, and the healthy-toddler-muffin-bakers, but let’s also insist on being the typical-conversation-shakers, the risk-takers, and the stereotype-breakers.

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