The Weight of (Moving Around) the World on Your Shoulders

Atlas 2I write a lot about my life as an expat, but usually through the window of my own experience: that of the non-earning partner.

It’s not often I delve into what it must be like for the catalyst expat. The one whose job brings you to another country, whose carefully negotiated package determines everything from where you live to how many times a year you get to go home. The one upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world, quite literally at times.

We first packed up and moved with the peacekeeping arm of the United Nations. We bypassed all the shit postings you often have to get your feet mucky in on the UN circuit. We skipped the war zones and zipped past the just-finished war zones. We circumvented the countries without stable governments and landed, pretty softly, in what’s generally considered the cherry on top of the whipped cream atop of the UN peacekeeping cake: Cyprus.

I hated it, at least for the first year. I hated it so vehemently and vociferously that it became a running joke at my husband’s office, where they would often great new staff with a variation of the following:

Welcome to Cyprus, the posting everyone’s trying to get into, expect for X’s wife, Dina, who’s trying to leave.

I was so far up my own ass for those first twelve months it took me a long time to realize how my unhappiness was eating away at my spouse, who had assumed responsibility for my misery. It wasn’t a question of letting him as much as it was simply not being aware that it was going on. Yes, my head was that far up my ass.

There’s plenty of expat guilt I carry with me, but not the guilt, worry, and stress shouldered by the one responsible for pin-balling a family around the globe. My go-to joke is that starting work in a new country means a new office, a new cafeteria, and maybe a new stapler, but that essentially going to work is going to work, no matter where you are. That’s oversimplified, of course. Getting used to working in a new environment can be terribly stressful. Add in a spouse who is unhappy, kids who are crying because they miss their friends and eating unknown cuts of meat every night and well, is it any wonder expats seem to drink as much as they do?Atlas

Good friends who moved recently tallied the stress levels involved in picking your family up and repositioning them around the globe. Three months of packing up/leaving/worrying stress on the old end followed by three months of unpacking/settling in/worrying stress on the new one. Six months of feeling unsettled and a lot of the time, unhappy. If you move every two years, that’s a quarter of your life navigating the sea of stress with nothing but a flight home to paddle your way upstream.

That’s a lot of stress. It’s not good for your heart. Or your liver if you self-medicate with wine. Or your marriage.

I’ve joked (and been serious about) the anger some feel toward the working partner, most often as a handy stand-in for companies who like to toss employees around the world like rag dolls. But I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like to be the one on the receiving end of that anger or unhappiness and how much it has to affect the quality of their life.

Though we generally (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) don’t have to worry about cutbacks and layoffs as much as some (there’s never any shortage of war or disease), it’s a legitimate and sobering worry for other expats.

Redundancies are uncommon in the international civil service game, but Copenhagen is a hub for the oil industry, which is experiencing major cut-backs and lay-offs and sayonara, we-can’t-afford-you-anymores. We’ve watched families step off the plane get turned back around, a package and a pat on the back, others made redundant just as they were settling in. Some have been here for years, considering it home and suddenly they’re out of a job.

Obviously losing your job sucks whether you’re an expat or not, but the added of stress of losing your job, or potentially losing your job, when you’ve carted your entire family overseas is not something to be sniffed at.

Sometimes it’s the hard-to-shake worry you’ve made the wrong decision. Feeling as if that decision rests squarely on your shoulders, shaken-not-stirred with watching your partner and kids struggle to settle. Those things are HUGE. To absorb responsibility on one set of shoulders is enormous. And usually, unfair.

Atlas 3As much as I like to wax on/wax off about our crappy health insurance or paint the fence with the layers of common sense which are sorely lacking when it comes to expecting families to move around the world in 8 days, the sole responsibility should not be placed at my husband’s feet or on his shoulders, regardless of how broad they may be.

We are partners. In marriage, in parenting, in the topsy-turvy world of living outside our countries. We went into this beautiful mess together and we’ll shoulder the responsibility together. In the nearly eight years we’ve been doing this, I’ve pulled my head out of my ass long enough to see that.

If Atlas shrugs, shaking us from one continent to the next, we’ll shoulder the weight equally.

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24 thoughts on “The Weight of (Moving Around) the World on Your Shoulders

  1. A Girl with Geography May 19, 2016 / 5:53 pm

    It’s interesting to see how the partners feel, thanks for sharing. I have never followed anyone fully: even when I did follow someone, I kept by flexi-location job, or my studied, or my dreams (which did not fit the move). Following someone 100% is an act of love and an act of trust. Thank you for raising it!

    Like

    • Dina Honour May 19, 2016 / 7:29 pm

      It is….but, at the same time, it was a decision we both made and not one we took lightly. And oddly, by moving (and following), it’s allowed me to follow my dreams. (Although it took the 2nd move to get me there!)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Amanda Afield May 19, 2016 / 6:27 pm

    As a follower, I’m guilty of taking out my frustration at the indecision of my partners employer on him. (As if it’s his fault governments suck at making decisions!) It’s good to have perspective though.

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    • Dina Honour May 19, 2016 / 7:18 pm

      I hear you. International org., but same old story! It’s hard NOT to take it out on them sometimes. I do, even when I know I shouldn’t.

      Like

  3. Elyse May 19, 2016 / 6:29 pm

    Wait! It wasn’t all his fault?

    The funny thing is, I really wanted to stay, and he really wanted to come home. I get comfortable… (Coming home when we did was a good decision, though.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina Honour May 19, 2016 / 7:16 pm

      As I said to someone on FB, I was feeling magnanimous today ;-). It’s easy to blame the one who has the job isn’t it? The next post though will be about how addictive the lifestyle is.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Elyse May 19, 2016 / 7:19 pm

        Oh, how I miss the traveling!

        Like

      • Dina Honour May 19, 2016 / 7:36 pm

        Pah, they must have been paying you more back then! ;-).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Elyse May 19, 2016 / 8:13 pm

        No. We were just more centrally located!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Kay May 19, 2016 / 10:30 pm

    Just read your piece and I had flash back to 3 months in when I thought what the hell had I done to my husband and children. Life felt like it was coming crashing down around me. I would say this but I felt even more responsible as the mother, I should understand my children’s feelings and what they would go through and how could I take my husband away from his career. The burden was overbearing but I had to hold the smiling face and worst of all I had no true friends to share the burden as I was too busy trying to navigate a job to make any. Thank goodness time changes everything and we made it through it and out the other side. Thank you for sharing and making me feel normal in what we went through.

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    • Dina Honour May 20, 2016 / 1:35 pm

      Thank you for sharing YOUR story. And yes, absolutely, 100% normal. In fact, it would worry me if people didn’t feel this way! It’s never an easy decision, which is why now looking back, I can see why it was so devastating to my husband at first. That said, it’s also probably been the single best decision we’ve made in terms of our own family. It’s not right for everyone, but the opportunities it has (and will) afford us (and they range far and wide) have outweighed all else. It just took me a while to get there 😉

      Like

  5. Melanie McNeil May 20, 2016 / 1:49 am

    Whether the moves are international or not, moving frequently for a job must be stressful for all involved. My son is in the Air Force with a minimum of 8.5 more years. Yep. That’s the contract, not optional. And moving happens every 3-4 years, max. Because of what he flies, all his postings (for now) are likely to be US. Or Japan, perhaps.

    His current stress and unhappiness is that he feels rootless. He loves where he lives now, would love to settle there “some day.” But in the meantime he’d like to meet and fall in love with and marry and start a family with some special woman, and that feels quite difficult given the work constraints, including moving around. Within the military you have to be married to assure postings at the same base. So … timing … It’s hard to meet someone outside of the military who will go for the “I can’t see you because” and “I know we had a date but I have to break it again…” and “I can’t actually tell you where we went …”

    Well. Didn’t mean to go on. My real point is moving a lot, wherever, is pretty hard for anyone who would actually rather stay put. Thanks for the post.

    Like

    • Dina Honour May 20, 2016 / 10:34 am

      I liken military life to expat life–same sort of nomadic existence–harder in some ways I think being isolated on a base than in the swing of the country you are in. It must be incredibly hard to meet someone, as you say–I’m guessing there is a lot of cross-pollination between military families for many reasons, one being that you know what you’re getting into and used to the separation from time to time. And the moving. And you’re absolutely right, moving, whether it is down the street or across the ocean is stressful. In our case, it was never so much that we wanted to stay put, which i think made my husband feel even worse. It was a joint decision and then I was really unhappy. Looking back now I can see there were reasons for my unhappiness that had nothing to do with the country we landed in, but it took me a long time to see that. And to see how much my unhappiness affected him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Melanie McNeil May 20, 2016 / 1:08 pm

        And I’m sure you’ve since discussed this all with him, and much has healed.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Kelly May 20, 2016 / 7:27 am

    A related issue is that sometimes the employed spouse takes it personally when you criticize their employer. And let me tell you, after nearly thirty years, I have some things to criticize!

    So, I’m sympathetic that there is a burden, but on the other hand, the trailing spouse has a right to his/her well-earned opinion and to express said opinion appropriately. Always being careful to direct blame at the actual problem, not the employed spouse.

    And sometimes, the employed spouse just has to put up with that. Part of the contract.

    Like

    • Dina Honour May 20, 2016 / 10:36 am

      That’s true, Kelly! Sometimes I forget that we all need to vent and when my husband vents about something that happened, I immediately start to criticize–not him, but everything else. He has told me on more than one occasion that he doesn’t want me to solve it or make him feel better by criticizing, he just wants to vent. So now I try to vent about our crappy health insurance to my friends who know what I’m talking about. But yes, part of the contract. It’s funny–we should do a piece about the side contracts we all have going on!

      Like

  7. Ersatz Expat May 23, 2016 / 3:05 pm

    It is a horrid burden for the initiating spouse and very easy for them to feel guilty even when the trailling spouse does everything possible to assure them that it is not their fault.

    Re cyprus – some postings just don’t suit people. I have loved postings that most other people have hated and really not got on at all with supposedly popular ones.

    Like

  8. Emily Cannell- Hey From Japan May 23, 2016 / 7:02 pm

    Having come out the other end- we are serial movers, in the last four years we`ve lived in in three countries and four locations, I would say worth it. Prior to that- another 15 over the last 30 years. Some were great, some sucked. However- our kids- believe it or not- are much better off for the turmoil. They`re incredibly flexible, make friends more easily, and understand that “home” comes in many forms. They`re not afraid to move for a job, they understand that “This too shall pass”.

    It is the road less traveled- and hard- but for us, it`s been worth it.

    Like

    • Dina Honour May 26, 2016 / 11:52 am

      Yes, to all of your points. And I come back to them whenever I’m feeling typically sorry for myself or angry or homesick. It’s been worth it for us too, and as I’ve recently concluded, probably the best decision we’ve made. But…it took me nearly 8 years to say that.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. vinneve May 25, 2016 / 9:55 pm

    So true. There are times I feel so angry with hubby but yes it is not really his fault as we agreed on this together for the future of our family. I have a new post about this sort of “phase” if you could have the time to check it. Thanks.

    Like

    • Dina Honour May 26, 2016 / 11:53 am

      Definitely. Please feel free to link it up here in the comments for others too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • vinneve May 27, 2016 / 9:07 pm

        Thanks it’s my new post under the daily post/prompt challenge, feel free to check it out 🙂

        Like

  10. RB June 6, 2016 / 9:20 pm

    Excellent. And in our case, sometimes the see, saws, but somehow it works out when you manage it together.

    Like

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