WORKING ABROAD / JUN. 05, 2014
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How to be a 'Trailing Spouse'

You may have talked at length about the dream of living abroad with your partner and family. Or your partner may have just had a bolt from the blue offer of a position in a far flung place. Whatever the cause, that vague notion of perhaps-maybe-moving-somewhere-someday, just moved from a fuzzy 'sometime' to a clear proposition. You'd better take some time to think about how you really feel about the prospect.

There are some really big questions to consider, which I have more fully discussed elsewhere  in this series, but to summarise - Be clear about what you are leaving behind and make sure you know what you are moving towards. Think about how you will keep in touch with your professional life, how do you keep contact with family and friends. Now you have a definite location for your move, is it somewhere you can relatively easily travel to and from, and if not, is this an issue? Whilst you are away will you work, if so, how, and what support do you need to make this happen? If you have children how will you arrange a network to allow you to work or keep up your own interests and your relationship with your partner?

Assuming you have committed to the decision to move, some simple steps could help you make the most of the opportunity, as well as putting up in the best position to offer the support your family may need whilst away.

Be Realistic About how Long it Will Take you and the Family to Settle

Perhaps everything will go swimmingly in the planning and execution of your move. Or perhaps you will hit bumps along the way. If your move has necessitated a period of the family being split up before reuniting in the new country, then perhaps simply coming back together will resolve any nagging issues.

It is vital that communication channels are wide open during the weeks and months before and after a move. With children and teenagers, this can be particularly challenging, with younger children unable to adequately articulate their feelings, and older kids perhaps unwilling to. Find a fit for your family - keep asking how the children feel about the move, what they're looking forward to in particular, talk about the opportunities there may be in the new country that would not otherwise arise, learning new sports or visiting new places. Talk about how you will keep in touch with home, using FaceTime and Skype, email and instant messaging, the world really is a small place.

With proper supervision even smaller children could have their own email addresses and write independently to friends and family back home. How long you will need to bank on before feeling 'home' will depend hugely on the age of your children, whether this is the first move, how alien the environment feels, not to mention the individual personalities involved. The most important thing is not to put unnecessary pressure on yourself and those around you - time and effort will help everyone feel at home, and before you know it you will have your moment of a little hand pushing into yours and saying, out of the blue, "Actually, I quite like it here, mummy".

Choose Your own Anchor

If you have kids, naturally your focus, to an extent, will be on them, finding a school, smoothing the transition, helping them through the difficult moments when they miss their family and friends left behind. However, don't forget yourself. In times of change you need an anchor to get yourself through. This might be a person, a routine, a hobby, or a goal. You need to keep yourself strong and motivated to make the transition, and one great way to do that is to have your own personal routines, hobbies or goals set. If you particularly love playing tennis, or painting, for example, find out about opportunities to practise these hobbies when you arrive. If you are supported by a corporate relocation team, they may be able to help you with this. If you are not, the internet is your friend. Use Google search, ask people you know in the area (new colleagues will go out of their way to help), or post your queries on relevant sites or blogs for people to support. If you are reading this before leaving, it may seem like a luxury in the middle of many practical demands on your time. I can assure you, however, that time spent now on researching ways to find your own normality in your new setting, is an investment that will repay.

Choose Your 'Oasis' Goal

Even if you do not have an obvious and immediate hobby to take up to help ease you into your new home, you may consider choosing, and working on a goal that is only your own. Be realistic - the time for challenging goals may be later; if you've never run a mile before, don't make a marathon your first target. Choose a fitness or health goal, pick a new craft to learn, even commit to set aside a certain length of time every day or week to pamper yourself. Just make sure whatever you do, you're doing it for yourself. In the middle of all the other things you will need to do to support everyone around you, and those left home, your own goal can become an oasis.

Don't be a stranger

Make an effort - if this is your first time abroad you may be surprised by how welcoming the expat community is. There are plenty of other people who remember that first time away and all the questions and challenges they had when they arrived. From the silly (where can you buy baking powder in this country?); to the crucial (which medical professionals have you used and would you recommend them?); the answers are out there. Talk to your neighbours, colleagues, school mums. Arrange play dates and cultural trips to involve new friends in. Join the local International Women's Club, the PTA, a sporting club. Sitting at home can be tempting, but isn't going to help you settle in any quicker. If you have not yet embarked on your trip, promise yourself you will do some of these things. Set a reminder on your phone for a month into your time away, ask your friends and family to nag you - just don't sit at home!

Remember, Time is a Gift, not a Burden

Keep a check, once you arrive in your new home, and particularly if you do not have the distraction (and satisfaction) of work, that you are not slipping into isolation or boredom. After the settling in whirl, and the honeymoon of your new life, the time spent settling everyone else; may come a point when you need to consider (and indeed perhaps reconsider multiple times), how you feel about your new rhythm and routine. There are ex-pat spouses who slip, without noticing into a twitchy, luxurious loneliness. It feels petty to complain about doing little or nothing, and yet, doing little or nothing can be tiring and frustrating in itself. If you do not work, but are used to doing so, be prepared for the early signs and nip this phase in the bud. If you are struggling for things to do then revisit the options you considered in your early days of planning - how do you feel now about the option of studying, working for a local charity, or setting out on your own as an entrepreneur or freelancer? If you are finding the experience isolating, what might bring you together with like minded people? This might be taking a more active part in school or church, taking a hobby class that interests you, or joining organisations such as the International Women's Club. Talk to your partner and family about how you are feeling: the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence and hope that the feeling will pass.

A move abroad is exciting, enriching, nerve wracking and terrifying. But so are all good adventures. If you plan to move, and are forewarned of the pitfalls as a 'trailing' spouse, you are in control of your own adventure and can make the most of the fantastic opportunity you have been granted.

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