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Expat Exchange - The Trailing Spouse as Chameleon
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The Trailing Spouse as Chameleon

By Francesca Kelly

AGS Worldwide Movers
AGS Worldwide Movers

In the Foreign Service, as we routinely move to a new country after two or three years, we are given that rare opportunity to live many lives. If one doesn't appeal, chances are the next one will. With this opportunity comes the temptation to re-create ourselves, the idea that "this time, I will be different."

One can immediately see both the good and bad sides to this unique lifestyle. That neighbor who talks your ear off every time you pick up your mail, the principal of your child's elementary school who doesn't seem to share your enthusiasm for your child's "learning style," the house with the leaky pipes and the drafty windows and (perhaps the main complaint) the mortgage or rental payments -- before long, you can just walk away (well, fly, actually) from these and other problems with a sigh of relief, heading to some new, even exotic locale to start a new life. How many people can do that?

And yet ... it's not quite that easy, is it? Perhaps you go from that talkative neighbor to ones with whom you can't communicate at all; your child may hate his new overseas school; that house still has the leaky pipes but your new tenants aren't willing to just "stick a bucket" under them the way you were. Can you really run away from life's little annoyances? Actually, you're too busy unpacking to really think of this as "an escape" anyway.

But we do learn some things each time we move. This time, you're holding off on the volunteer work, instead of being the president of every board in town; or, this time, you'll actually do some community service instead of hiding in your apartment. This time, you'll arrange a job before you go overseas so it's locked up; or, this time, you won't start working right away so you have time to get settled. This time, you'll try to meet native citizens instead of always being with Americans; or, this time, you'll make an effort to meet more Americans so you garner some community spirit. Every post is different and everyone wants something different out of it. Sometimes, we don't have control over the challenges a post brings with it, or the community it provides -- or doesn't. We do, however, have control over our own response. Sometimes, that's the only control we have.

One of the biggest factors affecting spouses' identity in a new country is the job we have, if we are lucky enough to have one. "What do you do?" is still the primary way that people identify you, and even how you identify yourself. In the seven different countries in which we've lived, I've found a slightly different identity in each one depending on what jobs were available (or, more likely, what jobs I created for myself).

But in all countries there are certain parts of my identity I will never give up, that always remain the same, and that's comforting. I will always be a mother, first and foremost. Until I get too old to sing, I will always be a singer, and as long as I can put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I will always be a writer. These constants are just as important in moving from place to place as the things that we decide to change in ourselves.

I'm not sure I'll ever feel anything but a mixture of emotions about our comings and goings. I dread going through yet another packout and all the stress that entails. But then, there's that new post, full of history and culture and possibilities -- beckoning, drawing me in, generating excitement. And, next time, I'm determined to meet the challenges of moving with calm, directed energy, instead of frayed nerves, frazzled temper and uncontrollable weeping. No, really -- next time, it's going to be different!

c. 1999 Francesca H. Kelly
This article first appeared in an abridged form in the Spouses' Underground Newsletter (SUN). For more information or a free sample issue of the SUN, please e-mail [email protected], or check out our website at www.thesun.org

First Published: Jun 15, 1999

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