You feel at the same time excited by the adventure and guilty for this opportunity some will never have.
You find yourself filled with joy at the prospect of broadening your horizons and loaded with sadness when you’re missing family and friends.
You’re both anxious for the unknown and intrigued by the possibilities it entails.
The expat experience triggers a lot of conflicting emotions. And it can get pretty stressful dealing with those opposing feelings that bubble up simultaneously.
You may think you look weak. Emotional at best. Immature at worse.
You hate it.
You believe you’re going crazy.
You wonder what’s wrong with you.
You worry you need to be fixed.
And each day, wrestling with these painful dilemmas undermines a bit more the remnants of your self-confidence, your self-esteem, your sanity.
Today, I have good news. There’s nothing wrong with you.
You’re just… human.
Already in the XVI century, Michel de Montaigne, French philosopher and fine observer of daily life, described these contradictory trends present in the human mind:
“That’s why we can see that not only children, who artlessly follow Nature, often weep and laugh at the same thing, but that not one of us either can boast that, no matter how he may want to set out on a journey, he still does not feel his heart a-tremble when he says goodbye to family and friends: even if he does not actually burst into tears at least he puts foot to stirrup with a sad and gloomy face.”
Why do you experience so many conflicting emotions?
Your reactions come from the very nature of each situation that contains time and again upsides and downsides, advantages and drawbacks, positives and negatives. In short, each situation has its own set of contradictory features or qualities, its own set of paradoxes.
Those paradoxes are all good reasons why you weep and laugh at the same time.
Here are 12 such enigmas I found in the lives of the accompanying partners.
Paradox #1 Highly educated / Unemployed
You’re highly qualified. Your could even say, after several postings where you decided to further your studies, that you’re overqualified. But you don’t have a paid job. Language barrier, credentials recognition and family commitments are common reasons for not being able to pursue a career abroad. Worse, in some countries, you’re not allowed to work!
Paradox #2 Stamped as not-working / On duty 24/7
You’re categorized as “not working” — the term officially mentioned in your family income tax form — but raising a family and caring for loved ones is an endeavour that never stops. You’re on duty 24/7, 365 days a year.
Paradox #3 Self-reliant adult / As dependent as a child
The trailing spouse is quasi self-reliant. The best proof? Whether your partner is home or not doesn’t make a big difference in your daily tasks. You run the household, manage the kids, handle the paperwork, book the holidays, keep contact with family and friends, deal with life emergencies, renovate the house. You’ve learned to be a jill-of-all-trades. While you’re a highly independent individual, you’re totally dependent on your partner for money, visa, access to health care insurance: 3 essential elements for bare survival in this world.
Paradox #4 Relieved from the stress of working professionally / Stressed from not working outside of the household
There’s no doubt that the workplace can be stressful: deadlines to meet, budget cuts and downsizing measures, rivalry among colleagues, frequent travels. The list is not exhaustive. But it has its rewards: a sense of control on your life and contribution to the household and the wider society. This is exactly for the lack of those reasons that stay-at-home mums (or dads) can be even more more stressed than professionally engaged adults! Can you believe it?
Paradox #5 Surrounded by people / Feeling lonely
By definition, the accompanying spouse isn’t alone. You’re in this adventure at least with your partner. A few children are often thrown in the mix. You may be living in a big city. You have dozens of friends on FB. You’re surrounded by many people.
Yet, you feel you can’t talk openly to anyone.
Your partner is stressed and feels guilty when you air out your frustrations, the children are too young or too fragile, your family is too emotionally involved, your friends can’t relate. As to the expat community and the locals, concerns about privacy prevent you from any confidence. Who can you finally turn to?
Paradox #6 Valuing the care of your children / Feeling they’re holding you back
Family is one of your core values.
Your heart bounces when you watch the first steps of your children: whether they utter their first words, read their first sentence, run their first race, play their first game. You cherish those walks to school every morning, those evening meals all gathered around the table, those confidences made because you’re the one that’s always present when they need it.
You feel privileged to attend these precious moments that can never be retrieved later.
You enjoy teaching them new skills, inspiring them with your values, debating with them in passionate arguments. You treasure this complicity built one day at a time in sharing the daily grind. But there are days when your heart quivers: spending 20 years of your life changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, volunteering at school, following homework, driving around for ever more demanding activities, rushing from place to place, organizing play dates becomes a burden when there’s no place for you to breathe.
Paradox #7 Modern woman / Living an antiquated life
You view yourself as a modern woman, embracing new technologies, convinced of gender equality, having big dreams. You find yourself sucked into a traditional role equivalent to the one your grand-mother experienced! One where you depend on your husband to open a bank account. One where you’re not “adult enough” to sign the lease on your house, being considered an “approved occupant” because you don’t earn any revenue.
Note: this paradox for male trailing spouse is slightly different. While you may consider yourself as progressive and modern, you’re not back in time. Quite the contrary. You’re propelled to the next century. You’re too advanced and thus considered weird.
Paradox #8 So much free time / Not enough time
People marvel at all the free time and the freedom you’ve got when the children are at school. No boss to report to, no endless meetings, no jet lag to deal with. But how long does it take to do all the tasks that nobody sees and values even less except when something is missing. “Honey, how come we don’t have any orange juice today? That’s a shame.” And what about having time, but not having any personal goals to live for? You don’t know how long you’re here for. Living in uncertainty can be just as paralyzing.
Paradox #9 Agreed to move / Sad to have left
There’s something that really bugs you: you agreed to leave, nobody forced you. Your logic even recognizes that this experience is the best for your family. But no matter what, you’re getting bouts of sadness. You’re nostalgic about a place, a smell, you miss a friend, the comfort of speaking in your own language, a particular sense of humour. You’re suffering from expat grief.
Paradox #10 Essential piece / Not valued
Without your consent, the expat life wouldn’t have been possible as a family. You’re the key pillar holding everything together. But what kind of recognition do you get? Your work is rarely acknowledged (neither by the company nor the society as a whole, sometimes not even by your partner!). As you feel invisible, you wonder at times if this is really how ghosts live.
Paradox #11 Opportunity / Mistake
There are days when you ponder your choice and you’re thrilled by this opportunity before sinking into despair and wondering whether this isn’t the worst mistake you made in your life.
Paradox #12 An external discovery / An inner journey
You’re lured into an experience that’s all about discovering new landscapes, learning a different language, getting in touch with other cultures, tasting varied foods.
The real journey you’re embarking on though is the discovery of your Self by first losing it.
Because you’re thrown into life situations equipped with skills that may now prove to be useless, your inner world is shaken to the core.
As you know it, all these paradoxes create a lot of tensions.
Holding those tensions is extremely painful. In fact, it’s heartbreaking, as writer and activist Parker Palmer beautifully described it in his book “A hidden wholeness”.
But this word — heartbreaking — has two meanings.
The first meaning is negative: it relates to the despair of a heart broken in 1000 pieces.
The second meaning however is positive: the outcome that emerges from this incredible effort of holding tensions is growth through “a heart that cracks open,” reaching then an unexpected new dimension of ourselves.
Why does it matter? The heart as defined by Parker Palmer is the “place where intellect, emotion, spirit and will converge as the human self”. The more you’re in harmony with yourself, the more peaceful, compassionate, wise, authentic, and ultimately happy you are.
Now, your turn. Did I forget anything? Which paradox are you currently struggling with most?