Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Jumping into a cold lake every 3 years ...

Tanya Mohn has The Dislocated Americans (NYT, December 1, 2008) in Monday’s issue of the NYT on how more and more Americans have relocated overseas but where family issues remain a major factor in the failure of overseas postings. The article points out that “The initial excitement of an exotic new posting can turn to culture shock, loneliness, identity loss and depression, and it is often the employee’s spouse and children — without the familiar routine of work — who are most affected.”

A couple of Foreign Service spouses are mentioned in the short piece: Francesca Kelly, who now lives in Bethesda, Md., who co-founded The Sun (The Spouses’ Underground Newsletter) as a way to create their own support community in the FS. She used to write about the hilarious fictional adventures of Rebecca Fairchild (I think that’s the name), the Foreign Service Spouse who was that “highly flawed, complete disaster of a diplomatic wife.” In 2000, The Sun became Tales From a Small Planet, a nonprofit Web site where members can read real post reports on some 350 cities written by expatriates (website is free but requires registration).

“I thought it would be an adventure, and it was,” said Francesca Kelly, who moved 10 times in the first nine years as a Foreign Service spouse, living in places like Belgrade and the former Soviet Union during the cold war. But it “was much more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.”

Patricia Linderman, another Foreign Service spouse is also quoted in the piece: “She said there had been an explosion of resources in recent years that support expatriates and many now also “focus on the personal and emotional aspects of cross-cultural living.” Patricia now lives in Guayaquil, Ecuador — edits Tales and is co-author of “The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad” (Nicholas Brealey, 2007).

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

As one expat spouse who moved to Torreón, Mexico when her husband was assigned there puts it, the experience was like “jumping into a cold lake.” She added: “There are times you are fed up and depressed. Sometimes you are in shock and the only person who understands is another expat.”

All true, I supposed. But I think when the honeymoon period concludes, usually around your third posting - that’s when it really hits you. A male spouse once told me that he understood how important the FS career was for his spouse. So he was willing to put his career on hold, and follow her wherever she wanted to go for 10 years. After that, he would lead and she would follow. I found the concept admirable but how does that work in real life? Ten years, that’s probably 4 diplomatic postings with tenure. And then she’d walk away from the FS, follow him and start over again and they’d both be happy. Or she could convert to Civil Service, stay stateside and he could have a career and they'd both be happy. Or she’d continue on the adventure, minus him, and they'd each be happy but separate. I know, I know, not really the happy-talk that you're hoping for. But I’ve seen this happen and it gets tricky with kids.

The most common advice I've heard for spouses is for one to be "flexible," and to view each relocation as a chance for "re-inventing oneself." But what I wonder, is the threshold for that reinvention and flexibility before you meet one fragmented self in the mirror? There is no doubt in my mind that this lifestyle comes with a wear and tear for our FS men and women. I believe that's one reason why there is mandatory retirement at 65. But there is also a unique wear and tear that claims the spouses and partners who follows them around. And that's something no one could put a dollar figure on. In any case, jumping into a cold lake every three years has some upsides. Yes, it's a shock on your nerves but - you get to redecorate every three years! And they'd even let you paint your house with whatever color you like, just as long as you put it back into its original shade when it's time to pack and move again. Then you jump into another cold lake, and paint another house - the possibilities - all 277 locations to be exact, are actually quite exciting unless you get picky.

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