True Story: 4 Lessons To Prevent Burn-Out Or Depression In Your Expat Family

Ashley is the leading spouse — (aka the expat employee) — of an American family. Ashley Fisher

I met Ashley on LinkedIn a few months ago when she commented on “3 Myths About Self-Care That Make You Gamble With Your Life”.

She wrote:
“I’ve been living and working in France for almost four years and between moving, setting up a new life for my expat family, working, and dealing with the pitfalls of French administration, I’ve completely neglected myself. This has mostly come in the form of not going to the doctors when I should have and also, never taking a vacation from work. I’ve racked up 18 weeks of leave!”

“About two months ago I burned out.”

We often talk here about the challenges of the trailing spouse. So why look at the leading spouse’s point of view?

Because it can help you

  • better relate to each other
  • acknowledge their struggles
  • make sense of the expat experience as a whole
  • shed light on your dynamic as a couple

Warning: I’m extremely mindful that over time, it can become tough for us as accompanying partners to maintain compassion for the hardships faced by our employed partners. There’s a huge imbalance in the appreciation of both partners’ work contribution.

The difference is that their job earns money while ours doesn’t.

Because of the central importance of making and having money in order to live, money has become the measure of the value of one’s job. Most of the couple’s decisions are made to accommodate the one with the biggest paycheck at the end of the month.

It goes from: “I’m earning the money, you don’t. My job is more important than yours” to “My needs are more important than yours” ending up in “I’m more important than you!”

This reasoning causes immense suffering among trailing spouses.

Beware: the derived sense of unfairness that ensues may blind you.

I deeply care about this issue. And it’s why I believe that emotional support for the trailing spouse is essential to address those feelings and get a more balanced perspective.

Now back to our story…

Ashley first came to France in 2003 for a two year study program in Aix-en-Provence. She was accompanied by her husband and her four children.

The whole family had a wonderful experience in a city where they found lots of English speaking expats. Unfortunately, after two years, they had to go back to the US. Ashley needed to complete one of her last senior classes in the US to validate her degree.

In their home country, the family suffered a significant reverse culture shock and kept dreaming of going back to France.

Ashley, her double degree in International business and French intercultural studies in hand, applied for a job in a company headquartered in San Diego, but having an office in France.

After one year, the good news finally came: she was relocated to the French office! Hurrah!!

But she didn’t know was what was yet to come…

1. Nothing ever goes as planned

When she arrived, Ashley was thrown from day one into a full-time position. The former managing director had left a few months ago. No chance for a smooth transition.

She had complete responsibility of an office with several employees and a tight deadline to meet: ten weeks to run all the tests before their ERP system — managing supply, production, orders, customer service — would go live.

She spent day and night at the office living on a few hours of sleep because she was the only person competent to do the job. The language barrier and time zone difference between France and California required her constant presence on site.

The clock was ticking. No delay was possible. The pressure was huge.

Lesson: Don’t underestimate the transition period and the requirements of the job.

They’ll have a huge impact on the whole relocation process, adding to the stress of living in a new environment.

A small company doesn’t have the same level of staff, services and financial means than a bigger one. Support on the job may be minimal, leaving no time for the expat employee to take care of himself/herself, let alone support accompanying family members.

Anticipate as much as possible and prepare all you can before your arrival.

Try to have your employed partner negotiate at least the first week off to
1)/ help their body adapt to jetlag, weather changes, and diet modifications; and
2)/ get and provide emotional support to the family

Figuring out the new job and settling your family at the same time is a herculean task.

2. Accompanying family members can quickly become dysfunctional

On the family front, the situation was not easy: Ashley’s husband couldn’t speak French. Her three other children, already adults, remained in the US. Her 14 year old daughter was 8 when they previously left France. She didn’t remember the language.

Without Ashley, her family was lost.

The company is small. They helped with providing a lawyer before leaving the US. That’s it. Ashley is the one who has done all the paperwork, legwork, inquiries and numerous runs to the immigration office for the last four years and counting. She organized housing, phone, car, insurance, schooling for her daughter.

Lesson: Don’t underestimate the language barrier for all family members (adults and children).

Many of us have (had) the experience of losing the ability to speak, understand and read in the blink of an eye.
By losing your independence, you’re vulnerable. You lose your self-confidence, launching a downward spiral that may be filled with self-doubt, isolation and despair.

Emotional support and language course are not an option. They’re both mandatory.

Look at all the possibilities and reach out for help if you’re don’t have your needs met.

3. Catch 22: Find a house first and then settle in? Or settle in and then look for a house?

Ashley’s husband, fond of construction work, wanted to buy a house that they would renovate.
But looking for the relevant property kept them from settling into their new life abroad.

From October 2010 till February 2011, their daughter didn’t go to school: they didn’t know whether they would still be at the same place in a couple of weeks.

When the family finally found their dream house, all the negotiation, the sales contract and the administrative formalities were another job for Ashley (because of the language barrier).

She had to mingle with building companies when they performed the renovation of their house and was the one again needed to arrange schooling for her daughter, making appointments with the relevant teachers and staff.

And when her daughter fell into a depression, Ashley had to be the interpreter with doctors and healthcare professionals.

Lesson: Two significant changes in eight months was extremely stressful and exhausting for the whole family. The search for a house sucked up all their available time preventing them from making friends and reaching out for external support.
Each family has its own set of priorities.
But in the list of priorities, not all actions are equal. Look for the consequences on all family members.

Emotional well-being is essential once basic material needs are covered.

4. Uprooting is isolating

It took the family two years to finally find a few friends and enjoy the burgeoning of a social life.

At first, they didn’t socialize, not knowing where they’d end up living. Then they were busy settling in.

Isolation and loneliness are extremely painful.

Man is by nature a social animal, said Aristotle, 350 BC. It still rings true today.

Lesson: With modern technology, relationships change. Establishing a real friendship no longer requires physical proximity and face to face encounters. Of course, it’s wonderful to be able to meet people and share a meal or a drink.
But it’s not necessary for creating meaningful connections.

It can be even more comforting, helpful and heartwarming to connect with like-minded people, people with whom you can share your doubts, your joys, your fears without judgment. People who understand you because they’ve been through the same experience.

Thanks to the web and powerful search engines, you can find at the click of your screen, communities of people whom you can engage with, whom you can invest time with, whom you know they’ll always be there for you, wherever you go. Because they’re online, they’re location independent.

That’s is exactly what we do here at Expatriate Connection: create a supportive community for fellow expatriates.

By the way, Ashley is doing fine now. She went to see a doctor who ran some tests and found out she was severely anemic. Some simple iron pills did the trick and she finally took a long overdue vacation with her family. Her daughter completely recovered as well.

And guess what? The whole family has decided to become French!

And you, what did you find most difficult about adjusting to your expat experience?




  1. Anne, very interesting story! You know how I suffered to adapt to my 4th country but eventually everybody finds a way to survive!
    I leave you a suggestion: a story about how to survive when finally you get a really close friend at your new country and suddenly this new friend, after some months or years, has to leave… it’s my new nightmare now!

    • Heartbreaking news, Carla! Dealing again with loss or in that case, ambiguous loss. Let’s reach out to our community at large and see what suggestions we can come up with. We keep in touch!

  2. Wow, what a powerful story. So often we neglect those we love (and ourselves) only to find out how important just spending time with eachother can be. It’s so easy to forget this as we get caught up in the busi-ness of life. I hadn’t thought of online forums for others in the same boat…but now that you mention it, what a great idea!

  3. Pamela Leach says:

    Thanks, Anne, that is a really good story with some excellent reminders. I think, three and a half years into my latest expat experience, that the problem of being homesick when there is nothing left there for you is perhaps the hardest. The honeymoon is over and I love my new country, even if finding work is hard. I have friends here, no language problems. But my roots back home are being cut more and more. Both relatives and old friends are moving on, going through life changes and it is very painful to realise that I can’t go back to anything. If I returned to Canada I would have to start almost like an expat, all over again, even though it is my home country. So becoming an expat is a ONE WAY TRIP. Maybe others have this experience too. There really is no return ticket for most of us. We have to give up the houses, cars, jobs, social situations and even sometimes the family status we had before. Nothing will ever be the same. Maybe that is life. We are not the people we were when we left. Anyway, it is a thought that your story brought up for me as I reflect on my own situation just now. Thanks for caring for us all!

    • Thanks a lot Pamela for your insights that are always very powerful. Becoming an expat in a one way trip: this resonates with me. It reminds me of this quote from T.S. Eliott “We shall not cease from exploration
      And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


  1. […] with emotional turmoil caused burnout and depression in her family. Luckily, Ashley shared with him four lessons she had learned so he wouldn’t make the same […]

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