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. “

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Evernote for Expats

evernote_twitter_profile2I’m a scheduler and an organizer.  I’m one of those people who has to have not just a Plan B, but Plans C through Z.  They’re my security blanket.  Once I know I have all my bases covered I’m willing to take all kinds of leaps of faith, including moving halfway across the world to place I can’t even find on the map.

I’m also a bit of a geek, and looking back I’m amazed at how I managed so many moves without the aid of the tools I take for granted today.  One which I’ve fallen in love with over the past few months is Evernote.  It’s cloud based (although you can download it to your computer if you have the paid, upgraded version) and is a way to store information so you can access it on any type of computer, tablet or smartphone.

I registered about a year ago, took a quick look, but couldn’t see an immediate use for it, so left it alone.  Perhaps you did too.  But recently I started using it at work and quickly realized that this could be a powerful tool for expats.

Evernote’s tagline is “Remember everthing” and that truly is what it’s about.  It’s strengths are the many types of information you can store in it (text, emails, pdfs, photos, web pages, bits of web pages, photos, sound files, videos…) coupled with the ease of putting that information into Evernote and finding it again when you need it.  Let me give you some examples.

I’m going to the Families in Global Transition Conference next month and no doubt will be meeting lots of new people and picking up a lot of business cards.  As soon as I get home I throw them in a desk drawer, along with all the other cards I’ve been meaning to enter into my contact list.  Three months later I’d like to contact someone.  But what was her name?  She worked for a relocation company in New York didn’t she?  Where are those cards?  Frantic rummaging ensues.

Using Evernote I just whip out my smartphone, open the Evernote app, take a quick photo of her card and hand it back to her.  Three months later I open Evernote search for “New York” or “relocation” and Evernote searches for those key words – including the text on her card as well as anything I may have hand written on the card and I’ve found it.  Instantly.

Another example.  Imagine I’m apartment hunting in Dubai.  I have 2 days of appointments set up with several different real estate agents.  I set off in 450 heat, armed with a notebook and camera (I’m organized, remember).  At the end of the second day I sit down with my damp and crumpled notebook, filled with notes like “#1505 blue, no “unreadable scribble”, laundry, Bella, 130K”.  The photos would be helpful if only I knew which apartment was which.  Did that great view go with the one with the hideous bathroom or the one with the dark kitchen?  And who the hell was Bella?  What did I do with her card?

Using Evernote I could leave the notebook and camera at home.  All I need is my tablet or smartphone.  My only preparation is to create a “notebook” (file folder) in Evernote for each property I plan to see.  For each one I

  • snap a photo of the agent’s card
  • snap a photo of the building from the outside and the number on the apartment door
  • take photos inside the unit and of the view
  • make a short voice recording of my impressions of each property and the answers to any questions I ask the agent

At the end of the 2 days I’ve got all my information automatically organized into individual notebooks and am ready to make a decision.  Better yet, I can instantly share those notebooks with my spouse who (of course) is out of the country on a business trip.

Imagine how great this would be for school visits.  In addition to photos and audio notes,  I could prepare by clipping bits of the school website and putting them straight into Evernote from my browser.  The email they sent confirming my appointment I could forward straight into the relevant Evernote notebook.  The pdf attachment?  That’s there too.  All in one spot, easy to access anywhere I’ve got internet access.

Copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, academic certificates?  Scanned and stored in Evernote, ready to print out or email whenever and wherever I need them.

Starting a shopping list for the next home visit?  Photos, clipped web pages, or even just hand written notes, all stored in one “Home Visit” notebook and tagged (yes you can tag notes, just like blog posts) with, say “drug store” or “grocery store” for example.  Everything will be there on your phone, just when you need it.

Now are you starting to see why I’m a fan? And no, I don’t work for Evernote or benefit from promoting it.  I just think it’s really useful, particularly for expats.

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.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

Sponsored Expat Support Groups

One of the most important things you can do when you relocate is connect with an expat group in your new location. No matter how much or how little support you’re getting from your employer, local expats can provide you with up-to-date, nitty-gritty details and invaluable moral support as you deal with everything from how to cope with an identity crisis to where to find peanut butter.

In this age of companies searching for innovative ways to provide more with less, I believe there’s a huge potential for corporate sponsors to work more with groups of willing trailing spouses.  Not only do the families get the support and information they need, but these groups can be a source of  employment (paid or unpaid) for the spouses themselves.

Some companies have been doing it for years for their own employees, such as Shell, through their Outpost organization,  and the Schlumberger  Spouses Association.   These are both large multinationals who have been smart enough to realize the huge potential for their families to help each and all it took was for them to be the catalyst.

But I’ve also seen some great examples of companies coming together to sponsor organizations that serve the wider expat community.  In Cairo the Community Services Association was a real lifeline for me, providing not only an opportunity to meet both locals and expats, but also orientation and language programs.  It was founded 25 years ago by the wife of the American Ambassador and is a non-profit organization sponsored by both multinational and local companies.

Another model, in the UAE, is ExpatWoman.  Here, Jane Drury, a corporate trailing spouse, realized the information she had amassed to help fellow “company wives” could be turned into a successful business.  It provides support to thousands of expat women (and through them, their families) with a busy online forum and over 500 events each year.  Again it is companies who pay for most of the expenses through sponsorship of events and advertising on the website.

I would by no means downplay the important role of volunteer organizations, such as the huge network of American Women’s Clubs, Newcomers Clubs and other similar, often purely local groups.  But the point I’m making is that corporate sponsorship of groups, whether large or small can be a winning strategy.  A financial “leg up” can allow an expansion of services and a higher level of professionalism, and the companies benefit from cost effective destination support, local goodwill and promotion of their brand.

Do you know of other similar examples?

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A Great Job for a Trailing Spouse

I took a hiatus from blogging due to several recent events, most of which are fodder for future blog posts.  The first one being that I’ve started a(nother) new job.

I’m working as a Relocation Specialist for a company which provides destination services.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term it relates to the receiving end of the relocation process.  My job is to help new arrivals in Toronto find a home, schools and daycare, acquire their government documents and generally show them around the city and their new neighbourhood.  It’s part-time, contract work which means I’m self-employed, work from home and get paid by the assignment.

I’m amazed I didn’t think of this job before but put it down to the fact that a) we’ve never been provided destination services by any of the companies who relocated us, so I only vaguely knew such a thing existed and b) my stupidity on not viewing my hometown as an “expat destination.”  I found this job through a referral at the FIGT conference (thank you, you know who you are!) so again would like to plug the importance of networking when job hunting.  In fact the woman who hired me says she ONLY hires via referral which I thought was rather interesting.

While I’m probably a perfect candidate for the job – my former life in real estate in Toronto means I know the city well and having been relocated myself so many times I have a good understanding of my clients’ situation – in reality I’ve found it quite a learning curve.  So at the moment I’m investing a huge amount of time researching everything from how to get a government health card for an infant who’s not a Canadian citizen, to night clubs and restaurants for young, single professionals.  Not only have many things changed in Toronto since I last lived here, but some things I never needed or experienced.  So far it’s fun, interesting but also a bit scary as I’m expected to be a seasoned Toronto expert and yet I still feel far from it.

A destination service specialist/consultant is a great job for any trailing spouse as they’re needed pretty much anyplace you find expats.

Pros

  • Flexible hours
  • Not stuck in an office
  • I’m learning lots about my city

Cons

  • Workload varies and therefore income varies
  • Dependent on someone else finding work for me
  • Tiring if driving around for a full day
  • Some weekend work (although I can decline it)
  • Business calls can be at any time
  • Working alone

Requirements

  • Knowledge of the city you live in
  • Willingness to learn and research
  • Strong people skills
  • A 4-door car
  • Computer, printer, cell phone

In my former, pre-expat life, I was self-employed as a real estate appraiser, so in many respects the job and lifestyle are similar.  However for anyone used to working regular hours in an office it could be quite an adjustment.  My biggest problem so far is missing the interaction with colleagues because I’m working from home.  I probably need to find some kind of local networking group, but if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

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How Travel Can Change Your Life

Do you ever stumble around the internet, finding one great site after another?  I just did this morning and want to share a couple of websites I’ve found which demonstrate how being an expat can dramatically change your outlook and your life.

The first one is quite lighthearted, Where The Hell Is Matt? (which I came at through the website of a fellow Canadian expat, Susan Macaulay, Amazing Women Rock).  I had seen Matt’s “Dancing” video before but never read the full story.  He was a video game designer, working in Los Angeles who got an opportunity to move to Australia for his job.  Living there inspired him to start travelling and he took videos of himself dancing in various far flung spots as gag souvenirs of the places he’d visited.  When he posted them on his blog, they went viral and since then he’s been travelling all over the globe making more videos.  He’s an accomplished public speaker and who knows what kind of a career he’ll make from it.

The second, more serious one, is Greg Mortenson’s website, which I came across through reading his book Three Cups of  Tea.  He’s an Adult MK (Missionary Kid) who spent months living in a small village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to climb K2. In order to repay the help and friendship offered him he vowed to return and build a school.  Since then he’s built 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute.  His book is a combination of adventure story, travelogue and inspiration, I couldn’t put it down, and his second one, Stones Into Schools, is on my wish list.

These are very different stories but in both the experience of living in another country fundamentally changed not only the lives of these two people and but no doubt the lives of many others they have touched.

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