Career? What Career? Musings on what it means to be a trailing spouse...

Stéphane and I made the decision to become career expats while visiting a friend, who worked for Caterpillar, in Ivory Coast West Africa in 1986. Here we are standing in front of a massive termite hill.

What do you think - Is blogging a profession? And by blogging, I don't mean the big fashion and food bloggers who are paid for what they do. I'm talking about bloggers like me who spend their days taking photos and writing about whatever pops into their heads.

In case you're wondering why I'm sitting around pondering this rather mundane question when I could be out exploring Paris, it's because I have an important decision to make. One that I had hoped would resolve itself if I procrastinated long enough. But no, it reared its ugly head in the form of an email from Stéphane yesterday reminding me to register for the upcoming Paris International Dual Career Network in September.

Perhaps I need to back up and explain. In expat lingo, I'm what's called a "trailing spouse". This used to mean that I was viewed by Stéphane's company as a somewhat useless appendage that occasionally had to be appeased with dinners and morale boosting speeches by visiting executives. As the gender balance shifts and more women employees are asked to move abroad, multinational companies are starting to realize that they need to offer actual incentives to trailing spouses. Men's careers, after all, are much too important to be left to rot and wither on the vine in foreign lands.

Am I bitter? A little bit! But that's only because I've witnessed the brain drain caused by smart, ambitious, hard-working women who couldn't work because their husband's company offered nothing in the way of support. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, human resource departments are scrambling to do something. And that something is the Paris International Dual Career Network organized by ten leading multinational companies based in France.

As Stéphane's spouse, I'm invited to attend. The only problem, as I told him last night, is that this assistance is coming a little bit too late for me. I'm long past the stage where I have a career to develop. According to the email that Stéphane forwarded to me, the network organizes events throughout the year allowing international employees’ partners to:
  • Collect useful information on the employment market in the region;
  • Meet directly with the HR teams of the member companies;
  • Receive practical tips and hints on how to organise a job search in a most effective and impactful manner;
  • Share success stories, exchange experiences and challenges with other international employees’ partners;
  • Build meaningful relationships helping you to move ahead.
I can't help but imagine the scenario where I introduce myself to someone from the HR department of L’Oréal or Société Générale during the networking session and they ask about my profession. Should I respond "blogger" or tell them that I used to be a financial analyst 25 years ago, the owner of a small handicraft store 16 years ago and a teacher of English as a foreign language 10 years ago? After all, recreating ourselves whenever we're transferred to a new country is what female trailing spouses have been doing for years.

Disclaimer: In spite of my venting, I am and have always been pleased that Stéphane and I jointly made the decision to become career expatriates.

Edit: It's not all champagne and foie gras! Click here to read Gwan's post on what it's takes to be an expat in France.

The lure of foreign lands is too strong to resist...
Ivory Coast

Comments

  1. MK....My only advice is to do what you love and love what you do....regardless of what anyone THINKS that you should be doing.

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    1. Good advice, Nancy! One of the challenges faced by trailing spouses is that they often have to stop doing what they love in one country and find something new to love in another country because of the inability to get a work permit, etc.

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  2. So interesting. Have you seen Most Exotic Marigold Hotel? You remind me of the Judy Dench character here. I love this movie, I think it's my favorite this year, thus far.

    It's a challenge to change who we are/what we do, but sometimes when given the opportunity, I think it's necessary to test the waters. Of course, you could always blog about it.



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    1. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the Most Exotic Marigold Hotel but I really want to. Heidi and both of our children have seen it and highly recommended it to me as well. I just checked and it's going to be released on itunes on September 18!

      Blogging about the networking event is what Stephane had in mind when he sent the email to me. I was planning to go until I realized that they may expect me to come with a resume in my hand looking for work. Another reason that I feel that I should go is because they won't offer it again if they don't get a good response.

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  3. oh, and I love the bridge photograph particularly. and I might be frightened to stand in front of a termite hill--how do you know it's empty?

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    1. I almost posted some photos of Stephane and me crossing the bridge but we didn't look nearly as graceful as the woman carrying the baby while balancing a basin on her head. I just remember telling myself to step carefully and not look down when we made our way across.

      The termite hill wasn't empty but it's no problem to stand near one. We've even eaten termites before. They taste a bit like carrots. Guides will usually break a hole in a hill and scoop some out for people to try.

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    2. oh no, that would not be for me. nope, not doing it, uuun, no.

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  4. Oh, how I'd love to be a trailing spouse! I say that, but of course I haven't experienced it. And being a freelance, I've always been able to increase or decrease my workload according to what else is going on in my life (such as babies). I agree with Nancy: to do what you love and love what you do. And hey, we bloggers are writers and photographers! Just look at those photographs. The bridge one is very scary though.

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    1. I consider myself very lucky to be a trailing spouse....but it has also meant lots of sacrifices and soul searching over the years. I'm not sure how it is in Australia, but people define themselves by their jobs in the USA and telling someone that I'm not actively employed is an automatic conversation killer.

      But I'm not complaining - I love blogging!

      The bridge wasn't as bad as it looks. They advised us to take our shoes off and grip with our toes. Plus, the thought of the crocodiles lining the banks of the river was strong incentive not to fall!

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    2. Your first paragraph also talks to me - the first question I'm usually asked in a new places, is "and what do YOU work"... Are we REALLY being judged strictly by what we do in our professional life? How sad is that?
      A woman suggested to me within 3' of discussion upon my arrival here: Well, if you can't find a job you could mind children - so that WE can go out to work! When I told her that I am quite happy NOT to look after children unless they are my grand-children, she was pretty put off...

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    3. Oh, Kiki! I can easily imagine the conversation that you had with THAT woman because I've had so many similar conversations myself. When we were on vacation in the USA, people kept asking what I do all day. When I told them that I spend my time enjoying Paris, they looked at me like I was a crazy woman. I agree that it's really sad that we judge people by what they do in their professional life...but the only people who seem to think that are the ones who don't work!

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  5. Mary Kay, this speaks to me in no uncertain terms... and let me assure you that you're in a LUCKY position to be considered as 'worthy' of a get-together for 'trailing spouses' (I call ourselves sometimes 'corporate housewives...').
    I have given up my career to follow Hero Husband wherever he goes - and I have now put my foot down by stipulating that his next move has got to be the last one (back to our home country Switzerland) as I'm so fed-up starting anew every so often and creating a new HOME at every place we come to. HH is NOT working for an international outfit but always just happened to find interesting work in yet another country. When we returned to Switzerland for a while, I immediately thought of finding work again - and to my great dismay realised that apart from doing 'charity or worthy' work I had no chance of getting a foot into the job market - all of a sudden I was too old, too expensive, couldn't get into a pension scheme, etc.etc.
    Learn to be just happy and content being what you are my friend. You made experiences a 'normal mortal' can't make - you see places others dream of (and might get nightmares from) - but you won't ever again be a high-flyer business wise.
    Your blog is a very worthwhile project and you're really good at it. Keep at it and make your readers happy. And I'd really be all for meeting up once before we return to our home shores..... Have to sell our home first though!
    You wouldn't know anybody who's craving an 'English' country home on the outskirts of Paris? We just said good bye to a couple of English friends who stayed a few day with us and also couldn't believe that we're leaving this paradise we've created only 35' from the City of Lights.... oh well!

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    1. Kikki, your comment prompted me to view your blog.
      What an amazing collection of photographs and commentaries!
      Mary Kay needs to realize how many wonderful people and places her blog, and now FB have touched. She has a way of sharing her experiences and thoughts in such a way that many of us feel like 'friends' before any chance or planned meeting!
      As for your 'country' home, I would love it. If only........

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    2. Nancy, I just wanted to make sure that you were looking at Kiki's Photostream on Flickr. She takes amazing photographs but as far as I know she doesn't have a blog. Maybe you clicked on the blog that she follows, "Paris Through my Lens"? When you visit Kiki's photostream, be sure to view her galleries because there are some beautiful photos of Switzerland.

      Thanks for your very kind words. The people I've met, in real life or online, via my blog have enriched my life in ways that are beyond belief!

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    3. Kiki, If you're not too busy with your move and saying goodbye to all of your friends, I absolutely want to meet you. But for some reason, I feel secure in the knowledge that we seem destined to cross paths - if not here then in Switzerland when we're both finished traipsing around the globe. At some point, you'll have to tell me if your next home will be in the German or French speaking part of Switzerland. Or, perhaps even the Italian part! Secretly, I've been hoping that you'll return to Lutry so that you'll be close to where we'll live when we go back.

      So far, I haven't met any new expats who are looking for a lovely English home outside of Paris (although after seeing the photos that you posted on Flickr I think that it's more of a chateau!). Have you thought about listing it in the American Women's Group weekly newsletter? Let me know if you need their contact info. Otherwise, I'll be sure to mention it to new arrivals. Another idea would be to send a dossier to some of the relocation agencies.

      As always, thanks for your comment.

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    4. yes, MK I do believe I was looking at "Through My Lens"....my error. BUT, after checking out Kiki's phtostream...Loved it as well

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  6. An interesting time for you Mary Kay, but embrace the fact that you are the sum of your past experiences and don't underestimate the currency and value of those past experiences in the modern job market should you wish to pursue opportunities.

    The lure of foreign lands is perfectly illustrated by your photos...blog on!

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    1. Thanks for the sage advice, Baron Akers! Perhaps I need to spend some time in Ubud to reconnect with what's meaningful. But as I said on your blog, I'm worried that I would never be able to tear myself away from Bali again! That's one foreign land that has always had an overpowering allure for me.

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  7. Hi
    an idea !!! - if you feel a need to "work" find out how you can work for the people that are offering the conference!!!
    Since I am almost retired, your blogging is a lot more "work" that I am doing these days (-:
    Most of my work is getting ready to visit Paris in just under a month!!!
    cheers
    Conrad

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    1. Hello Conrad! You're probably going to be in Paris at the same time as either Joseph the Butler or Nancy. They're both coming in September, just on different dates. Your apartment (if I recall correctly, it's on the Ile St. Louis?) is perfectly located for enjoying your semi-retirement to the max! Let me know if your wife and you would like to get together for a glass of wine one evening.

      As for needing to work, I already reconciled myself with perpetual unemployment years ago. My "status" only bothers me when I'm confronted with a situation where I think that everyone else expects me to be gainfully employed or at least actively looking for a job.

      Good to hear from you!

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  8. MK: You are such a talented writer and photographer! Your blog is proof of that and should definitely be part of your resume. It would be interesting to find out what job opportunities are available in Paris, but in the end, the best job one can have may be one that pays little or not at all... It should be something that makes one that much happier to get up in the morning for.

    Patricia H

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    1. Thanks for mentioning a very important point, Patricia. I've been telling myself that I should go to the networking event to learn more about job opportunities in Paris, not for myself but more for other people. It would also be interesting information to have in case one (or both!) of our children ever decide to re-locate to Paris/Europe. And what you said is so true - the best job is the one that we're happy to wake up to every morning.

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  9. I was talking to my mom last night and she told me a mutual friend (who is my age) told her that my life is "perfect." Being a trailing spouse is far from perfection but I can see how someone on the outside could see it that way. We get to see foreign places, experience local culture on a whole new level.... but it is still not "perfect."

    I'd tell them I was a social media writer. Maybe. Does that sound better than mom blogger? =)

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    1. "Social media writer". That's it! Thanks for giving me a more official sounding title than blogger. I knew that there had to be one but couldn't think of it.

      Being able to stay at home with our kids rather than going off to work every day is one of the main reasons why I've never regretted my decision to be a trailing spouse. As you said, it's not always "perfect" but there are definite advantages!

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  10. I love those photos! I would say go, you never know who you will meet - if nothing else, people in the same situation as you! Surely the whole idea is to reach out to people who have not had "traditional" careers, so I wouldn't worry about not having done the same old thing for 25 years!

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    1. After reading everyone's comments, I'm feeling more and more inclined to go...now that I've got the venting out of my system. Grrrrr! I wish that it was a "plus 1" event so that I could invite you. If I do go, I'll be sure to let you know if I hear of anything interesting.

      Thanks for your comment about the photos. It was lots of fun going through our albums and remembering our trip to Ivory Coast. It's what you'll be doing 25 years from now when you look at your photos from Norway, etc! :)

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  11. It's certainly true that people in France (I don't know about Australia any more as I've been away for too long) define you by your job. I saw the difference in people's attitude when I said "university lecturer" as opposed to "translator". My status definitely went up when I joined the academic world yet I consider my legal and technical translation skills to require much more knowledge and expertise than my teaching of the subject(I am not referring to anybody else's teaching here of course, merely my own and in comparison to my translation!). And maybe when people say "what do you do all day", you could say "everything that you never time to do!"

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    1. Sorry. Of course, you're more familiar with what happens in France than in Australia. Whenever someone asks me about something in the USA, I preface my response with "It used to be like ... but I'm not entirely sure how it is now!"

      I'm not surprised by the difference in the reactions to "university lecturer" and "translator". I've noticed that those people who work in academia are held in very high esteem here.

      My general response to what do you do all day is "Enjoy being in Paris". ;)

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  12. You are a social media expert, aka, online communications specialist and community manager. Wish I could find a group of people willing to help me find work...

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  13. I'm pretty sure you could develop a business from your blog. You're one go-ahead gal with oodles of talent, a lot of experience of expatdom and wondeful knowledge of Paris. Put them all together ...

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  14. Lots of interesting replies here. Of course I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a trailing spouse but it sounds like it has enriched your life and you have a lot of experience and contacts.

    We all gain something from our experiences in life and you share those experiences with your "public". The fact that you have a large following says a lot about your success as a social media expert. It doesn't matter that you don't earn a living from it. Your contribution to the pleasure of peoples lives cannot be measured.

    . Have you anything to loose by going along to the event?

    Nice pictures by the way.

    Love Denise

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  15. Great post, MK! Between you and Gwan this week, you ladies are reading my mind! I'm loving it.

    Oy vey. I'm about to experience this, as I will soon be expected to bring in some income to me and Seb's life that we are trying to build. Naturally.

    I'm not looking forward to this part of the new year one bit. What is it exactly that is holding us back from getting back "out there? I've bounced around a few concerns, are any of these yours?

    Is it that we don't want to and prefer blogging over job-hunting? Is it that we're insecure about picking up after a long hiatus from our careers to try and sell yourself to creepy and judgemental HR execs? Or is it that we know the job market is tough here and Americans don't exactly have an advantage, especially if trying to get work with a French company.

    I'm trying to figure out what my resistance is. I need to act fast though, the bank account isn't exactly reproducing over night!

    I say we go on that bike ride soon...we need fresh air.

    What the verdict on the event? To go or not to go? Despite my rant, it does sound interesting.

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    1. With 33 responses posted, I think the meassage is clear...WE NEED YOU HERE. 'nuff said

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