Although almost 90 per cent of people living in the UAE are expats, something rarely discussed is the dilemma of the trailing spouse.
This is the partner who often sacrifices their career to move to an overseas posting with their partner and enhance the family prospects.
According to a survey by the global mobility specialist Expat Research, two-thirds of partners gave up a career to relocate for their spouse’s overseas move, and half were left unable to work because of work permit or visa limitations, even though the overwhelming majority had a tertiary qualification or college degree.
Clara Wiggins, 47, was the child of a British diplomat, an expat singleton and now a trailing spouse, and has turned her life into a book, The Expat Partner’s Guide.
Born in Cuba, she lived in the Philippines, Nigeria, Venezuela and Gibraltar as a child before being sent to a UK boarding school. Having worked as a journalist, she joined the Foreign Office, meeting her husband Keith, a law enforcement officer and civil servant, on her first posting to Jamaica; they married in 2005 and she worked as a diplomat for seven years.
Together they have lived in Islamabad in Pakistan, St Lucia and, since 2015, Pretoria in South Africa with their two daughters, Martha, 10, and Emma, eight – but with Ms Wiggins now a “trailing spouse”.
“No one wants to think of themselves as ‘trailing’ but the phrase is just so evocative,” Ms Wiggins says. “The word ‘trailing’ brought with it associations of following behind, of somehow being the lesser of the two in the partnership.”
She talks about the isolation and “overwhelming loneliness” and of feeling like a “spare part”. Of her first move as a trailing spouse, she says of her husband: “His life carried on as before, but in a different office”.
The accompanier is the one organising schooling and finding the local doctor, she says, adding: “While the worker will have a routine, a structure to their day, the accompanier will be left with hours to fill, often stranded without transport, sometimes with no one to talk to until their spouse arrives back in the evening”.
St Lucia was where she had the idea for the book; there, most expats worked in tourism and partners had a limited support network. “People think St Lucia will be a fantastic life and on the beach every day, but that wears off after a few weeks.”
But while Ms Wiggins is brutally honest about the struggles of an expat partner, she is ultimately positive about the opportunities it can bring.
“Think of it as a joint venture that you are going through together but in different ways,” she says, adding that when relocating, non-working spouses should consider whether work defines them – if it does, can you work? If not, what will you do?
While many women in the UAE are happy to fill their time with childcare and hobbies – a photography course, a blog or a local cooking course – others pick up work along the way.
Briton Hayley Morath lived in Islamabad with her husband and three children, aged 10, nine and six, moving to Abu Dhabi in 2009 until 2011 and then heading to China.
“I had the opportunity to work in the visa sections for two of our postings,” says Ms Morath, whose husband works in the civil service. “Now the children are at school, this gives me an identity and something to structure my day. It’s always good to have something on my CV for when I do return back to the UK.”
Former Dubai resident Elizabeth Gover also found a work niche of her own – setting up a business as a doula and antenatal educator. She had lived in Saudi Arabia for three years before moving to Dubai in 2013 with her doctor husband and two daughters. then aged three and two. “Our move to the Middle East provided me with the opportunity to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum, finish my studies and start a business,” she says. They have since moved on to the US.
Ms Wiggins suggests working remotely or volunteering, perhaps at your child’s school. Even a low-paying job might be worthwhile, she points out, to keep your CV and skills up to date.
Along the way, she retrained as an antenatal teacher, a job she calls a “portable career option”‘ she currently works 15 hours a week, remotely managing a journal about birth and parental education.
But with a return to UK on the cards, she acknowledges that her career days may be over – certainly as far as the Foreign Office is concerned.
However, the author says she is financially secure, having agreed with her husband he would pay her pension while they were abroad and also having savings from selling her own flat.
The book, first published in April last year, has thrown up enough conversation for an accompanying blog.
One of her top tips comes from her hardest period – moving to Islamabad in 2008 in the height of summer before realising all other expat families had gone home for the holidays.
Her most reassuring piece of advice: know that however bad it seems now, it will get better.
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