Who am I now?

My partner was posted to Indonesia and within 6 months he was gone, leaving me to continue with work and life for what we thought would be 6 months; it turned out to be a year.

We were both excited by the opportunity (one more than the other I expect) to live abroad. Although I had spent 12 months living, working in the UK, this would be different. We’d share the next few years facing the world as a team living in and travelling throughout Indonesia and most likely exploring parts of South East Asia.

What we didn’t really consider was how my new life role of ‘trailing spouse’ would impact on me; I thought we had, but no. And seriously, isn’t it an ugly term? I’m yet to come across better ones other than ‘Accompanying spouse’ of ‘Plus1’ both don’t have positive connotations for me. Anyway, I have put my life and career aspirations on ice to willingly follow my partner to another country to fulfil his work ambitions, so I guess if the shoe fits (for now)…

We had discussed the challenges faced when residing in another country and particularly a developing country such as Indonesia including language barriers, expectations of women in a Muslim country, security concerns and so on but we never discussed how life would change so significantly for me as the stay at home spouse.

At times, I must’ve resembled Chucky or Jekyll and Hyde. My god the roller coaster ride of feelings and emotions I experienced during the first 3 months especially, was a real challenge for the both of us. Frustrations such as loss of independence, lack of control, social isolation were all magnified because I now had time on my hands to dwell on things. Many times I asked myself ‘why am I here?’ or ‘Is all of this stress really worth it in the long run?’ Of course I knew why I was here and that this is where I need to be for now and I knew that ‘this too shall pass’. But I had no real purpose or so I thought.

Taking Spousal Leave (leave without pay) from my job meant leaving behind my professional identity and financial independence.  In Australia, I earned a very good salary which allowed comfortable living, travel and money at my disposal, no questions asked. I had established an excellent professional reputation and I’m fully aware that I’ll need to start from scratch when we return home.

Relocating to Indonesia, we found that securing work (on my passport) was difficult and so with no employment came financial dependence. Now just know that my Suarmi (Indonesian for husband) was totally understanding and at no point have I had to ask for money, quite the opposite. However as female child raised in the afterglow of the ’70s feminist movement, I grapple with this dependence daily.

Leaving family, friends and our dogs behind was a serious ‘oh my god I can’t believe I’m doing this’ moment. I had to just breathe and shift to autopilot to get through it. I detest goodbyes so much; it’s acknowledging that you won’t see these people for a long time. It’s at these times that I also detest the agency who posted us far from home. My family is terribly close and it kills me sometimes that I can only see them via Skype. Having your social networks around you at home is a luxury not afforded when you first relocate.

Meeting people can be such a random process; give yourself time. My partner had the advantage of going to work each day and his social needs were met by being around like-minded colleagues and going to team building events like ‘virtual golf’. He had structure to his day and in the evenings just wanted to chill out and relax.

For me, days were lonely so I was completely dependent upon him socially and therefore emotionally. I wanted to talk about things and go out and see things and grew resentful if he din’t reciprocate.  I dreaded being asked about my day. ‘Nothing much,’ was usually the reply and I hated that I had been reduced to this boring woman with nothing interesting to talk about, who does nothing interesting and who waits eagerly for her SO to arrive home like a puppy dog. I was growing sick of myself.

For me, knowing no one made simple things like buying groceries or having my hair done very difficult. Where should I go? How do I get there? What if I can’t get home? And then it creeps up on you slowly. You get brave and get out and about and that’s when it happens. You meet people, you swap numbers you catch up for coffee and through them you meet more people.  This does take time as authentic opportunities to meet people aren’t as common as people think. Look at me, after being here for 9 months I can count my friends on two hands. And I am a social person. Though I have learned that not everyone is a good fit and you owe it to no one to be friends if they don’t ‘lift you higher’.

Having time on my hands for the first week or two was wonderful. I could decompress after the stress of pre post experience of inventories, issuing new passports, uptake, settling dogs into the care of grandparents, farewells, crazy hours at work wrapping things up, securing a property manager for our home etc.  It was like a holiday; I could read, sleep, bake, swim. But then reality sets in and you realise that this is real life and then I started dwelling on my frustrations. I was bored, lacked structure to my day, had no social outlets, felt stuck at home.

The silver lining is that nothing lasts for ever.  Somehow life finds a way of providing structure, friends, study opportunities and social engagements. Say ‘yes!’ to invitations and new experiences and a whole new world will open up before you I promise.  .

Why I detest the term ‘trailing spouse’.

So the term ‘trailing spouse’ conjures up quite confronting images, in my mind at least, of a 1950s housewife with perfectly coiffed hair, a face full of dutifully applied make up, beautiful tea dress and heels.  She has completed the housework, grocery shopping and has created a delectable three course meal while waiting patiently for her husband to arrive home from his busy day..

Now I realise that many decades ago, the ‘trailing spouse’ was a highly sought after role and a role that required the spouses be assessed for her ability to entertain. Can you imagine?! These days however a ‘trailing spouse’ may also be a man but I will continue to refer to ‘her’ for now. She needed to be very social and adept at serving cocktails and buffet dinners- and her performance sometimes impacted upon her husband’s career opportunities!

Even if one does manage to fill their days with study or social gatherings or outings, there is a nagging feeling of wanting more, of being able to contribute financially of wanting some control in your life.  Sometimes I feel like the little women who does nothing of great importance, more like a social butterfly flitting from one coffee morning to the next as my brain turns to mush.

My experience when attending ‘spouse functions’ is that we each introduce ourselves as ‘D’s partner’ or ‘A’s wife’ and quickly follow that up with a summary of a past life.  There are so many women who have sacrificed their careers for their partners. Teachers, solicitors, physiotherapists who have impressive CVs. We speak with such affection of old colleagues, hectic work days, balancing work and life commitments and of missing friends and family. We are very aware of the opportunity to ‘see the world’ and realise that ‘we are well taken care of for the most part’ and hate when well-meaning people as ‘So, what do you do all day?’

This loss of identity is difficult to swallow and I must admit to still grappling with it after 9 months at post. My generation benefited from the feminist movement so placing my career on hold and ‘trailing’ after my partner to post is an image and role that I grapple with very much. Post doesn’t recognise the spouse as anything more than an appendage to the staff member; a Barbie doll, ditz with no voice and that’s why I hate the term ‘trailing spouse’.

Sometimes the barriers to overcome to seek employment are just too challenging and many times spouses are not legally allowed to work. Study seems a great option, but then one finds that after the challenges of fulfilling the housewife tasks of grocery shopping (and sitting in traffic jams for hours) in the morning, a spot of housework in the afternoon and preparing tonight’s dinner in the evening, there really is little ‘me’ time for study or the very important exercise! Mental health alert..

There are perks to the lifestyle. We employ a part-time pembantu (maid) and a full-time driver to help out, but even the world of managing local staff brings with it many challenges; that’s for another time. Expat spouses are generally a friendly and supportive bunch and there are established Women’s Associations to join for a sense of community, to volunteer or simply to drop and have a chat over a cuppa. There are opportunities to travel and explore the host country and neighbouring countries for vacation times and mental health breaks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to start to prep for dinner..

Indonesia: Why do Australians know so little about our neighbour?

Indonesians are such a lovely, respectful people. Why do Australians know so little about our neighbour?

http://www.smh.com.au/world/indonesia-a-complex-country-we-only-think-about-when-we-want-something-20150228-13hecg.html?eid=socialn%3Afac-14omn0583-optim-nnn%3Apaid-25%2F06%2F2014-social_traffic-all-postprom-nnn-ebaby-o

thesmult- life is what you decide
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