‘Push… once more’, said the midwife.
Vickie, in pain, winced, gasped for air and braced for the effort.
Suddenly, she felt a release, the first in eight hours of labour.
A cry and the midwife held the baby in the air.
What are you going to name this little wonder?’ she asked, smiling while placing the baby on Vickie’s chest.
‘Laura’, answered the mum proudly.
That was 35 years ago.
The bank clerk repeats louder ‘Loooo’a?’ looking at her a bit unsure.
Since she moved to this new country, accompanying her husband for his job, nobody can get her name right.
It started with the real estate agent. He had them sign the house lease and misspelled her name.
It continued at the local school where her children go. It’s the same struggle with her neighbour.
No matter how carefully Laura articulates, people always pronounce her name differently.
Within a few hours – the span of a plane trip, she got a new name.
At the same time, Laura lost her ability to communicate, to get by in her neighbourhood, to find her usual ingredients to cook a meal. With the local currency, she struggles to figure out pricing and these are just a few examples.
The change is brutal.
From a world where she was a capable adult supporting herself, making informed decisions, interacting with her peers, she now finds herself in a foreign environment feeling extremely vulnerable, like a new-born baby.
Moving abroad is like a new birth.
With a new name and a brutal change of living conditions, there is a clear parallel with the physiological birthing process.
But in this re-birth process, if Laura has become a child, who are her symbolic parents?
Laura is fully dependent on Michael, her partner, for her visa, for money, for housing, for health insurance. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country.
Symbolically speaking, her husband fulfils the role of her mum.
You may question the redefinition of such a role! Can a man be considered … a mum?
Actually, this already happens in case of a young child raised by a stay-at-home dad while the mother goes out to work and earn money. The child calls his/her father ‘Mum’ because the mum is the person – regardless of gender – who takes care of them for their daily needs.
This redefinition of role in the couple relationship is no small change. Depending on the couple structure, it can be a make or break situation.
Laura is lost. The first few months in this new country are very disorientating. She doesn’t speak the local language. She feels in turn excited and frustrated, brave and helpless. The trip to the supermarket is her outing for the day.
She’s deperate for an adult conversation! She’s waiting all day long for Michael to come back home. As soon as he arrives, she wants his full attention, eager to unload her frustrations.
Michael isn’t prepared for such demands.
Laura used to be so independent and self-assured!
Michael lost his mum when he was three and was raised by a stepmother who favoured her two girls, Michael’s younger half-sisters. To cope with the painful emotional situation, Michael escaped into sports and work, becoming a workaholic.
He sorely missed his mum and found in Laura the caring nature he always longed for.
She was perfect in that role when they lived back home.
Suddenly becoming now the primary caretaker of his wife – materially but most importantly emotionally and symbolically – is more than he can bear. He sees Laura struggling. That makes him feel guilty.
The increased pressure at work is a convenient excuse to spend more time in the office.
While Laura grows more and more frustrated, Michael becomes less and less available, fueling a downward spiral in their relationship.
We’ve looked at the symbolic motherly role that landed on the shoulder of the leading spouse in expatriation.
Who is then in a fatherly role?
Francoise Dolto, a respected psychoanalyst and children specialist, observed that the father is the one who is responsible for separating the Mother-Child dyad.
Through the father figure, children understand that they’re not everything for their mum and this relationship allows them to avoid a merge altogether.
When the father is physically absent, it’s the society at large, and in the expat case, the society of the host country that will fulfil this role.
The attitude of local people and the policies enacted towards newcomers will thus have a direct impact on the accompanying partner.
But for Laura, there’s an additional element. Michael was sent on an assignment by his company overseas. His corporation also plays some part in a fatherly role.
Laura looks at her agenda. Empty.
Her kids are enjoying themselves at school with plenty of activities. Her husband is buzzing with meetings, projects and visits.
She’s at home. Alone.
Here she is, in this new country where she can’t understand a word and her credentials are not recognised.
During all the process, from the moment her husband received the proposal till now, Michael’s company never showed any sign of interest in her.
She feels neglected and ignored. Just like when her dad remained weeks away from home, travelling for his work and not even asking for her.
Luckily, Laura had a big surprise when she arrived in this new country: people are extremely friendly!
They usually smile at her and even random strangers greet her in the street.
That’s such a contrast with her home country where people are so busy, stressed and preoccupied that they often don’t even make eye contact.
She can’t understand the language but this positive attitude from the locals warms her heart. It feels so good.
She’s eager to communicate and has decided to take a language course. She wants to make friends and get more support.
How will this resonate with her real father relationship? This remains to be seen.
Over to you: How did the move change your relationship as a couple? How did the country you moved to, the attitude of locals, and the country’s policies affect you?
Reproduction of all or part of this article is permitted provided clear attribution is given to Anne Gillme and linked to Expatriate Connection.