Taking a career break as an expatriate partner

Stay at home mother and boyIf you’re interested in the topic of accompanying partners and their careers then I’m sure you’ll find this article in the New York Times (The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In) to be of interest.  It’s a follow-up piece to an article written 10 years ago about high-powered women who gave up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers.

Although it’s not about families that relocated, I couldn’t help but see many parallels with expatriate partners, whether or not they have children.

  • Giving up careers
  • Creating meaningful lives around volunteer work and child rearing
  • Financial dependence
  • Changes in the marital relationship
  • Challenges returning to the workforce

These women gave up careers in order to raise their children, but their lives once they did so, sound achingly familiar to those of many accompanying partners.  On the one hand they talk of loss of identity, lowered self-esteem due to financial dependence and difficulty returning to the workforce.  But on the other hand, they experienced improved quality of life, enjoyed spending more time with family and speak of finding meaning in their lives and changed values.

None seem to have regretted it despite the fact that most earn far less money than they did formerly; they believe the positives of the experience were a fair trade-off even though in most cases life did not turn out as expected.

“The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.”

Much is made of the conflicted feelings of these formerly high-powered women and their struggle to return to the workforce which rang a lot of bells with me, as I’ve felt this way myself and know many accompanying partners do too.  Did I throw my career away?  Was the trade-off worth it?  

“What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

We will never know the answer, as it’s not possible to know how things would have worked out if we’d stayed instead of following our partners.  I’m sure some expat partners regret it, but personally I’ve never met one.  Instead I’ll end on this quote, which reflects far better the common response from those who give up a career to follow their partners

“And not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. “


One more thing I would do differently …

Portable CareersI need to add one more thing to my list of things I would have done differently and that is to read (and re-read regularly) A Career in Your Suitcase which has just been republished by it’s original author, Jo Parfitt, and her new collaborator, Colleen Reichrath-Smith.

If you read an earlier version of Jo’s book, as I did, then don’t think you can skip this new edition.  It has been completely reworked and updated, and Colleen’s contribution as a professional career consultant is considerable..

This book should be mandatory reading for any accompanying partner and I hope HR departments and relocation companies are stocking up on copies, to hand out to the families they work with.  Most first-time expats don’t realize the long-term impact that relocation can have on careers and identities, but this book provides the tools you need to assess, plan and monitor your future life path.

I particularly like the holistic definition of career which is used (adopted from the Canadian Career Development Foundation):

  • Our life path
  • The many roles we play along our life path
  • The process by which we become the authors of our own futures and the creators of our own life stories

I also like the pragmatic “this is how you do it” exercises to help you identify not just your skills and interests, but also those which you can realistically hope to use in your present location, given language, work permit and logistical hurdles so often encountered by expat partners.

While many assume that a perfect portable career is self-employed, working from home, I’m pleased the book now gives equal weight and advice for those seeking regular employment and/or freelance assignments, with plenty of up-to-date advice about networking both in the real world and online.

Jo’s earlier editions were aimed primarily at the partners of those who are relocated internationally, but with Colleen’s input, I would now recommend this book to anyone seeking a career change.  In fact it struck me while reading it that there are now many similarities between the careers of expat partners and Generation Y.  Take this quote, for example from a recent article in Forbes Magazine:

“What do you do?” used to be a simple question. Individuals defined themselves by profession: teacher, engineer, pilot. Or by company: Con Edison, NASA, Kodak. But it was always one job, one identity.

Today’s young professionals, however, aren’t as easily categorized. I still can’t figure out what to prioritize on my LinkedIn profile. I am a journalist, marketing consultant, and co-partner for an Internet company. All are equally important to my identity. And my Millennial-aged peers find themselves in similar situations. I don’t know any Millennial who self-identifies using only one “job.” 

Asking an expat partner what she does is pretty much like asking a TCK “where is home?”  The response is usually at least a sentence, if not a paragraph.

A Career in Your Suitcase is very much a workbook, with the emphasis on ‘work.’ It’s filled with detailed exercises and links to online resources as well as detailed bibliographies for each chapter.  Although I downloaded it first as an ebook, I have now gone back and purchased a print edition and would recommend you do the same.

Career choices and the expat partner: what I could have done differently

Woman Using Computer“If only I’d known then what I know now” is not something I say often, partly because I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk and partly because the world changes so rapidly that often today’s solutions just weren’t available back then.  But an upcoming webinar on portable careers for expat spouses has got me thinking about what I would do the same and what I would do differently with my career, if I were to do it all again today.

Same: I would be a stay-at-home mom until my son finished school.  I am forever thankful that I had an opportunity to be both a working mum (before expatriation) and a SAHM (during expatriation) and to experience the joys and frustrations of both.

Different: I would have studied more while I wasn’t working.  Distance learning when we first went overseas would have been difficult but not impossible, these days it’s just a mouse click away and the choices are almost limitless.

Same: I would study the local language.  Even though I know now that hell will freeze over before I could work in another language, it is such an insight into the local culture and even just a few words and phrases make everyday life so much easier.

Different: I would find a mentor or coach to brainstorm with from time-to-time.  Like many expats I had no idea how long we would live overseas.  Even those who have fixed term contracts often find they are extended or cancelled.  I had never heard the term “portable career” and I didn’t realize that once my spouse had an international resume, more international assignments would follow.  Years slip away before you realize what’s happening.  If I were doing it again I would conduct an annual review of my situation and goals, ideally with someone who has expat experience, an unbiased opinion and enough guts to tell me what I need to hear (in other words, probably not a close friend)!

Same: I would do a lot of volunteer work.  Looking back I can see I learned a hell of a lot doing things I didn’t get paid for and with a bit of creativity they can be made to look quite impressive on a resume. Nobody ever asks how much you got paid. 😉

Different: When I did finally return to the paid workforce overseas I would have looked harder for something related to my original profession.  My personal experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally from other expats, is that starting a new career when overseas often doesn’t translate well when you return home.  I found prospective employers here far more interested in what I did in Canada 15 years ago than what I did in Dubai 1 year ago.  But maybe that’s just me and Canada, and for those who never return to their country of origin it wouldn’t apply anyway.

The webinar, “Creating a Flexible Career for the Accompanying Spouse,” is hosted by a new Canadian group, Spouses Without Borders, but is open to anyone who has an interest in this topic.  It is on Tuesday, January 29 at 8.30am EST (1.30pm UK time) and you can register here.   I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Career choice and the Accompanying Partner

I try not to indulge too frequently in the game of “I wonder what would have happened if …” as I prefer to look forward rather than backward, but if someone seriously asked me what I wish I’d known then (before I became an expatriate) that I do know now, it would be about the existence of expat coaches.  Was there such a thing back in 1996?  I don’t know and even if there were, I don’t know how I would have found one back then, but now having met many both in person and through social networks, I can see it would have been helpful to brainstorm with a professional as I dealt with the transitions from country to country and through various stages of my life.

Two who I feel I know well through their blogs and tweets are Louise Wiles (Success Abroad Coaching) and Evelyn Simpson (The Smart Expat).  They have just launched a survey on the attitudes of accompanying partners of expats towards work and career.  Louise tells me:

The survey will explore the choices accompanying partners of expats make regarding whether or not they work as well as delving deeper into the reasoning behind each individual’s choice. Finally it will consider whether or not there is a connection between career choice and overall satisfaction with life.

We believe that understanding more about those choices will help accompanying partners with their decision-making in relation to international assignments and will also help organisations to more effectively direct the resources that they assign to supporting accompanying partners.

The survey is totally anonymous and participants are offered the opportunity of entering a Prize Draw as a way of saying thank you. Prizes include two coaching packages and two books.

To access the survey, click on the link 

All participants will be able to receive a copy of the summary report which will be available early spring 2012.






Third Culture Kids starting careers

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a pot luck dinner for a bunch of young adult Third Culture Kids.  Alaine Handa and her dance company were in town, performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and they came together with several others connected with the local TCK community.

As we chatted the conversation naturally turned to these young people’s careers.   All were at some stage on the path to establishing themselves in the working world and several were living outside their home country or not in the same country as their parents.  Anyone with a 20-something child knows how difficult it is these days for young people to get a start.  Getting any job is hard, and there are often many false starts and changes of direction.  From my own family’s experience I know it is hard when kids can’t tap into their parents’ network of contacts, friends and colleagues.  Many TCKs haven’t held part-time jobs through high school and trail competing candidates when it comes to local work experience.

Watching my own son look for his first job, together with my own job search upon repatriation, was an eye-opener for me on how much the working world has changed in recent years.  Internships and contract work are the norm, as are many more part-time jobs with evening and weekend hours than used to be the case.  Employees, even freshly minted grads, are expected to perform “out-of-the-box,” with little or no training and flexibility is key.

While TCKs may lag their contemporaries when it comes to contacts and experience, many of the common characteristics of TCKs will stand them in good stead in this new environment.

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

Far from being at a disadvantage, I suspect that today’s TCKs have a significant advantage over their stay-at-home counterparts.  Certainly these particular TCKs seem to be taking it all in their stride.

Repatriation – Two Years On

It’s time for my annual report on the state of my repatriation.  Last year I optimistically wrote “I’m gradually putting my life back together again.”  Looking back I think I was trying to convince myself that was the case.  After all, things SHOULD have been going well.  I had found a job which OUGHT to be have been perfect for a trailing spouse and my husband had started a new job in Canada, after spending most of the first year of our repatriation working overseas again.  In theory all the pieces of the jigsaw were finally coming together.

But of course life never runs as smoothly as you would wish and that’s certainly very true with repatriation.  Just when you think you’re finally getting over it, there’s a setback; three steps forward and two steps back.  I found my new “perfect” job to be isolating and as my husband dealt with his reverse culture shock upon repatriating, I relived it all again through him.

So by the beginning of 2011 I resolved to find a new job and eventually in April started working for a couple of Toronto’s top real estate agents.  It involves many of the skills I’ve acquired along the way and enjoy using – administration (I started life as a secretary, back in the day when that was a job title to be proud of), real estate (I worked for 15 years as a real estate appraiser), social media (my newfound interest since repatriating) and relocation (my last gig).  It’s busy, interesting and the people I work with love what they do, which makes for a very positive atmosphere.

This last year I’ve also, FINALLY, made some new friends right here in Toronto who understand my expat experience.  Not that my long-distance friends aren’t important, but I need to have people I can talk to face-to-face sometimes and it’s got me out of my internet cocoon.  For that I also have to thank my last job in Destination Services, because that did at least get me exploring and reconnecting with Toronto again.  As an admitted computerholic, I’ve been very bad at taking my own advice about getting out and meeting people.

So now, two years on, I can truly say that I’m glad to be here, and when my husband, who is still struggling with his reverse culture shock, muses about the possibility of going overseas again, I’m not instantly exhilarated and ready to pack my suitcase again.  Which is not to say it won’t ever happen, just that it’s good to feel good about where I am now.  It’s taken a long time and I will enjoy it while it lasts.

A Year in Destination Services

Working as a destination services consultant was an interesting year for me.  Although I knew my home city of Toronto well before I began, I learned a great deal more, particularly about the practicalities of renting a home and obtaining a variety of government documents (social insurance number, health card, driver’s licence, etc).  Never having received destination services during any of our international moves, it was an insight into the kinds of services on offer and how they work.

Most companies offer a menu of services, but they essentially break down into:

  • General Orientation
  • Finding a home
  • Finding a school
  • Government paperwork
  • A few offer spousal support

Before I started the job, I assumed most of my clients would be senior executives, married and with children.  But looking back now over a year’s worth of clients almost 70% of them were in the 25-35 year old bracket, 50% were single and only 25% had children.  Bear in mind, this is a small sample, from one city and one destination services company, so can’t be construed as indicative of the industry as a whole.

By far the most popular service asked for was help in finding a home; rental searches were 80% of my business.   Orientation (usually helping people to narrow down neighbourhoods prior to a rental search) and obtaining government documents were the next most common, comprising about a third of assignments.  One other point to note is that 25% of my clients were domestic relocations and of the remaining international relocations, more than half were moving from the US.

All the clients assigned to me worked for large corporations or organizations and for the most part my relocation company worked in partnership with a relocation company at the departure point.  My assignments came to me via my office, so I had almost no direct contact with either my client’s company or their primary relocation provider.  My point of contact was the transferee themselves and although I could suggest or recommend additional services, for the most part I was told which services to provide and the billable time available.

Some other personal observations:-

  • Most destination services consultants work from home, sometimes (as I did) 100% of the time.
  • Workload fluctuates; for me it was either feast or famine and quite unpredictable.
  • Weekend work is involved, particularly for rental searches, as most clients weren’t able or didn’t want to take time off from their new jobs.
  • Phone calls and emails arrive 24/7 and need to be monitored and answered promptly.
  • Pre and post client contact can be considerable, depending on the client and their circumstances, typically I would put in an additional ½ -1 day of work for each day I spent out with them face-to-face.
  • All the clients I dealt with were polite and pleasant.  Although sometimes things didn’t go to plan I never had a client be rude or angry with me.

If you’re going to succeed and enjoy the work you need to be:-

  • Friendly, communicative and a have genuine desire to help.
  • Very organized as you’ll have to keep track of multiple ongoing files.
  • Detail oriented, particularly when helping clients with government paperwork.
  • Able to think on your feet and deal with last-minute changes of plan.

It was interesting and fun because I like working with people and I had a lot of empathy for my clients’ situations.  I found it challenging and I was always learning, both plus factors for me.  What made me decide to quit and pursue something different was a combination of issues.  Although I knew going in that the workload would vary and involve weekend work, in practice I found that more inconvenient than I expected.  Probably if I had young children, I’d have appreciated the flexibility more and that would have balanced it out.  But what surprised me was how isolated I felt working remotely all the time.  Although I’ve worked part-time from home in the past I’ve always spent some of my week the office.  So another thing this job taught me is how much I value in-person interaction with colleagues.

When I started, I described destination services as “A great job for a trailing spouse” and I stick by that claim.  It just wasn’t the right job for THIS trailing spouse but I’m still really glad I had a chance to try it out.