Expat wives and women’s choices

Thais Bessa

(Note: although I agree the distinction between expat and immigrant is artificial and utterly discriminatory, I will use the term “expat” exactly because I am referring to the privileged group the term is associated to).

I have recently found myself in a situation I have not imagined before: an expat wife.

I confess I was full of preconceptions and prejudices about it. The judgemental image I had of the so-called “trailing wives” was of women who abdicate everything to follow their husbands and turn into classic “anti-feminist” clichés to occupy their time: intense homemaking, socialising (The Ladies Who Lunch) and exercising.

As I began to meet fellow expat wives, I could not refrain my own judgment. As I learned that virtually all of them had given up on their careers to be expat wives and in “former lives” (in their words) they were architects or lawyers or psychologists or physicians, I could not help but to think “What a waste”.

You imagine my horror when I realised that this was exactly the same thought that went through the minds of my family, friends and former colleagues when I told them about my decision. I could see it in their eyes, I could hear it in their voices behind the half-hearted congratulations and comments about how “at least the weather would be nice there”. “What a waste”. Even my 5 year-old daughter expressed that in more than one occasion. She was raised by a working mother (though I was lucky to have a flexible and understanding employer who enabled me to be as present as a non-working mother) and we try really hard to raise our children in an environment critical of gender stereotypes. So I understand it was very hard for her to suddenly have a mom who “stays at home”, even if that was just over the summer. She kept asking me why I wasn’t working, what the heck was I doing all day long and even drew a picture book with job options for me in America. Bless her.

I tried to analyse the “what a waste” reaction – mine and of others. My own case shows that nothing is so cut and clear. My decision was well discussed and thought out. My husband had done career sacrifices before and now it was my turn. Even though I gave up a nice and meaningful job, I still had career plans to keep me busy (doctoral research shall keep me busy, right?). Considering the conditions and opportunities in that moment it was the rationally right choice to make.

This led me to think about feminism and women’s choices – and in particular choices made by expat wives. Let me make a caveat here: I know this all sounds and actually is very much First World Problems. Expat wives are part of a small privileged group that is able to make this type of choices. The majority of women in the world are not able to even consider giving up their jobs, taking a break from their careers or going on sabbatical.

From my experience most expat wives left their good education and careers behind to focus on areas that are considered to reinforce the patriarchy: childcare, homemaking, beauty care and socialising mostly with other women. My initial prejudices towards the expat wife image were closely associated to liberal feminist thinking: how dare they concede to traditional gender roles and set the fight for equality backwards? But as I experienced it myself and actually got to meet and talk to many expat wives I realised it was a conscious choice. In that sense, it would be easier to frame it under the non-judgemental lens of choice feminism, according to which the mere fact that women are allowed to make choices – whichever they are – is a feminist act.

However, whilst respecting women’s choices, it is possible and necessary to critically analyse them, their context and the myriad of influencing pull and push factors. Are women’s choices entirely theirs? Are they arrived at autonomously? Labour legislation in the US is incredibly strict and harsh on workers. Working hours are long, annual leave sparse and benefits such as maternity leave practically inexistent. The few working expat wives and mothers I met so far rely heavily on the work and/or exploitation of other women as domestic workers, which from a feminist standpoint does not mean greater gender equality in the bigger picture.

But the main reason why women are compelled to make such choices of taking breaks or leaving their careers (and this refers to expat wives and many other women worldwide) is gender inequality in the labour market and in society in general. Expat opportunities usually arise for senior positions in organisations, which means that in the majority of the cases they will arise for men, who are still the majority in leadership positions in any industry. Childcare and domestic work are still largely perceived as women’s responsibility. Women progress much slower in their careers, earn less and hit glass ceilings more often (meaning their careers are economically “less important” or more dispensable).

Understanding that these – and many other – choices women make happen in scenarios that narrow the possibilities eliminates a binary logic. As Katherine Cross states, individual choices and acts are not inherently feminists but neither inherently anti-feminists. It is important not to assign positive or negative political values to individual woman’s choices, but to explore them in context. After all, our choices are how we navigate through patriarchy and the same applies to expat wives, even if they navigate it from a more privileged standpoint – and over a glass of wine.

One thought on “Expat wives and women’s choices

  1. Interesting, Thais, and something I’ve thought about myself as a trailing spouse for a few years in my late 20s. One overlooked thing is the liberation I felt to find interesting work / volunteer opportunities without the pressure of having to earn money. I always managed to make a really interesting life for myself, and my work a lot more interesting than my husbands. But of course there is the question of who is ‘progressing’ in a more traditional sense. All food for thought.

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