The majority of couples who move abroad have children. But what about those who don't? This is a very sensitive topic and today you can learn more about Annette and her story as she talks about living abroad without children.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Annette, I was born and raised in Germany. In my previous life I was a Marketing Project Manager specializing in Events & Exhibitions. In 2016 my life changed because my husband was sent to Mexico for an expatriate assignment. I had always wanted to live abroad. So, I quit my job and became a trailing spouse. After 4.5 years in Mexico, we moved to the USA for the second assignment, and after 2.5 years, we are moving to the next destination - Hungary.
Today I'm a certified intercultural trainer. I offer workshops to expatriates and their families to learn about the intercultural challenges in values and behaviors specific to their new host country to be better prepared in their business and personal lives.
In my personal life, I enjoy spending time in nature, hiking or stand-up paddling on the lake, traveling, and creating art. And yes, it is important to mention that I (we) do not have children - the other expat challenge we are talking about today.
What is your experience with being an expat without children?
First of all, moving abroad as an expat family is an experience. On the one hand very adventurous and full of new opportunities, on the other hand full of challenges. We are all in this together!
But in general, expat assignments are still based on the old concept. That is, to this day, most assignees are men. They bring their wives, who stay at home and raise the children. For most people in society, this is considered "normal" and I understand it; an expatriate assignment is an excellent opportunity to build and nurture your family.
There are only a few accompanying spouses who do not have children by choice - like me.
I knew it and didn't think it would be a problem. Even my friends at home follow the family concept and we still have a friendship and a lot to talk about - whether you have kids or not.
But one of my biggest culture shocks living abroad was that for most expat mothers, it matters whether you have children or not. Before you can even say your name, they care more about how many children you have and how old they are.
After I told them that we don´t have children, the conversation often would fall silent and backs would be turned. I know it sounds extreme, but I experienced all of this in 7 years.
By the way, asking someone if they are having children is very personal and brings a lot of perception and judgement about a person. I met women who did not have children by choice. They get hurt by such encounters.
And the others, still a tiny number, are female expats as assignees - most of them go as singles. They have their work assignments and, fortunately, are integrated more quickly into the expat and local community because of their colleagues. Consciously or unconsciously, some female assignees tend to have a negative view of "trailing spouses" and seemed not interested in them either.
Suddenly you are the "luxury expat wife" with no work and no kids (or pets). I have nothing to worry about, nothing to do, and no justification for staying home.
You are not part of any of these groups, not the mothers and not the expat working women. You feel alone!
You are not part of any of these groups, not the mothers and not the expat working women.
You feel alone!
What are your biggest challenges navigating the life of an expat without children?
Finding a community is the biggest challenge for expat women without children.
Parents find each other very quickly. They have a first point of contact in kindergartens or schools. Small talk about children is also considered normal in society. If you have children, you share a lot of interests and fulfill expectations.
Without children, the range of topics might be even wider, but no one is interested in them.
If the culture of your host country is also very family and child-oriented, it takes a lot of time and effort to find local friends.
The second challenge, and not to be underestimated, is creating your daily framework. I respect parents and I know that they have a lot of responsibilities to integrate their children into the new life. But at least taking them to kindergarten, sports, etc. gives them a fixed schedule - or in other words, a routine. Like it or not, your kids are demanding.
Without children, you have to create your daily tasks from scratch - and keep yourself busy. This may sound fun and luxurious, but it can also be very tough.
A third challenge I want to mention is finding your role or identity abroad. This is a tricky subject, and I'll try to explain it. In my training, I sometimes talk about different roles. For example, if you ask parents, they always mention "a mother or a father" as their first role. So the dominant role of being a parent is fixed and gives you an identity that you take from home to every other country.
Partners without children, like me, usually come from a full-time job and are suddenly "at home". Honestly, I realized that much of my recognition was defined by my work before, and it followed an emptiness. Keep in mind, in some countries the trailing partner is not allowed to work or to work in his or her former profession. This sudden 180 degree change can bring a lot of struggles with time. And if you look at the positive side, there is a world full of new great opportunities to develop yourself. But it can also be overwhelming to find your new self in a different role.
So far, I have only talked about staying at home, but what if you like to work? While your expat partner is moving from one door to another in the same company, you have to find your way in a completely new job market. How to write a resume, how to apply, how to manage, or who to ask without a network?
I've always tried to work and figuring out the tax system of your host country (maybe you don't speak the language) is horrible and my personal nightmare every time. Unfortunately, your partner's company may not support you in all these open questions. Such topics can easily make you feel lost.
What are the hidden treasures/advantages of being an expat without children?
That's an excellent question, because we humans sometimes tend to dwell on the negative.
Living abroad without children gives me more freedom and flexibility. I can explore a new country differently, including trying something new and leaving my comfort zone more often.
For example, in Mexico I went to an art class to interact with Mexicans. It would never have been my intention and interest if you knew me. But I tried it and found something new and great for me.
Actually, I am more forced to find something outside the expat bubble. It is not so easy in the beginning, but in the long run it is more beneficial. It gave me more of the expat experience and a lot of cultural insights.
I also worked partially in each country. I tried out new opportunities and different work tasks that I never did or could do before. I even moved to the Caribbean part of Mexico for a few months for a job opportunity. All of this gave me a lot more experience and helped me to develop my profession today. I can now speak in my classes about private and business-related topics while living abroad.
And a big advantage is travel. I can go where I want, when I want, drive as long as I want, and go at my own pace.
I am forced to find something outside the expat bubble.
What advice would you give a spouse who is in a similar situation?
Be open to trying new (local) things and really go for it. See my example with the art class. Unfortunately, I hear too often what people can't do - I can tell; try.
Get involved and learn the language as quickly as possible. You depend more on local contacts and speaking the language allows you to understand the culture better and to make new connections.
But don't shut yourself off from the expat community either. In expat groups, ask if there is anyone here without children. If there is, they will write back to you and be happy to make a new contact. Getting to know each other in the expat community takes more work without children.
And with time you will also find great moms who are also interested in your life. I'm lucky to call some of them my friends to this day.
Look for volunteer jobs! Sometimes it sounds easy, but it can be hard to overcome working for free, especially if you had a career before. But it will pay off with more experience and give you more insight into your host country.
Besides it is great for your mental health. Studies show that helping others makes you happier and more fulfilled. It also helps you set your daily framework and allows you to be grateful for what you have and know your privileges.
Do something you can see you have done! For example, mowing the lawn, growing some plants, or painting a wall will help you feel satisfied.
Get your finances in order with your partner! When I talk to others, I often wonder why couples don't talk about this. When you leave your career, it can feel like you have lost part of your identity. Part of the job recognition is money, or better said, the opportunity for your savings. Be honest with your partner about how you will manage abroad and what you need. But do not apologize or justify when you buy something for yourself; this could make you feel even more worthless - with or without children.
What life lessons have you learned during your time in Mexico and Alabama?
OMG, where to start 😊?
If you think you are experienced, forget it - you always start more or less from scratch, especially when meeting new people and learning about cultural factors (or the tax system :-D).
And everything takes time -better said, a lot of time. Don't try to rush things; it won't go any faster. I would love to say that it makes you more flexible and resilient right away. And yes, it does, but in the long run. Along the way there is a lot of trial and error, which can be exhausting.
And life lessons never stop. In every culture I get a chance to learn about myself from a different perspective. Someone once said that you seem to be addicted to it - I agree. I like to reflect and get to know myself, my culture and others better.
Other important points:
Stop comparing yourself and stop trying to please others, especially if you like to fit in.
Also, when I wrote that you need to keep yourself busy - allow yourself to rest - it is okay!
All of these points seem normal, and you could have these issues at home. That's also true. But remember that when you live abroad, the weight of the problems is doubled or tripled. So please - with or without children - don't forget to give yourself time. You do it the way you do it, not better and not worse!
Where do you see the benefits of having a coach during a time abroad?
When you move abroad, you are in this acculturation process. In short, from the hopefully honeymoon phase to the culture shock to the "new normal". In addition to your personal issues, you have to deal with other norms and people's behavior. Understanding that others have different perspectives and expectations can be hard work - in business and in your personal life. It can sometimes leave you feeling confused and disoriented.
In my intercultural training, I specifically prepare people to deal with the "other" or differences. Even though we tend to see ourselves as equal or similar in our global world, cultural differences are still real.
Preparation through intercultural training is essential. Before our first assignment, we also had training that helped me understand what could happen during my acculturation process. It is even better to have intercultural coaching during the assignment or at least during the first year. It helps you a lot, for example in your company, to deal with upcoming issues.
I also worked with a coach for a while; it gave me more clarity about my life and what I wanted to achieve abroad. It is worth talking to someone who has been in your shoes and will take your concerns seriously. Sometimes friends and family cannot help because they have never been in the situation or experienced it differently.
And one last personal recommendation. When you read articles about the expat lifestyle or living abroad, the focus is always on family and children. I never found anything about women like me. I wonder if women, singles or without children, tend to be stronger and don't like to share their challenges? But there are other issues you may have to deal with and you may find less advice. That is why a coach can be beneficial and give you the space you need.
There are other issues you may have to deal with and you may find less advice.
That is why a coach can be beneficial and give you the space you need.
How would you continue Coaching because…?
...you are worth being seen and sharing your thoughts!
In an overseas community without children, you disappear somehow. As mentioned before, coaching sessions can be a safe space for you. And you will change! I always say in my trainings (even if it sounds cheesy), "You will no longer be the person you were before.” All this change can be overwhelming and it is good to have someone to talk to who understands.
Where can people find you?
Or you can contact me per email: Annette.firstname.lastname@example.org