Welcome to the fourth post in my Male Trailing Spouse series – this time all about Chris, who lives with his partner in Norway. Chris contacted me after reading one of my earlier posts – saying that he thought it would be useful to hear from men like himself who hadn’t been able to find work when they moved overseas with their partners. Naturally I encouraged him to be the one to share his story – so read on to find out what it like for the male partners when they CAN’T find a job and why learning to home brew might provide an answer:
Hi Chris and thank you for being part of this series. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your partner?
My name is Chris Schwark and along with my wife Jessica, who is a geophysicist at a mid-sized American oil and gas company, and our dog, Max, we began the expat adventure in 2011. We are both from the US, but have both lived in many places across the US growing up, which I think made the decision to move abroad (and our ability to cope with it) a much easier thing for us to do.
Home currently is Stavanger, Norway and this is our second posting. We moved here about 2 ½ years ago directly from our first posting, which was 2 years in Perth, Australia. Houston, Texas is our “home base” from a company perspective and our last US residence.
As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?
Before we even left Houston and with the Perth, Australia (our first posting) move confirmed, the first thing I did was look for a job in Australia. My job as a supply chain manager in Houston wasn’t really portable with the company I was working for (well, my boss didn’t think it would / could be), so I had to look for a new job with a new company. After many phone interviews, I had a job lined up that started one week after arriving in Australia.
After initially arriving in Australia, I was amazed at how beautiful Perth was, and how energized I was to explore my new home. So many places to visit, things to see, places to eat, culture to soak in, and sunsets over the Indian Ocean to enjoy. On hindsight, as I had never been to Australia prior to our move, it was stupid to not give myself time to adjust to a new country, new continent, 12 hour time difference, new home/house, and all of the things that happen with moving around the world.
Luckily, living in Australia is culturally very close to living in the US, so my cultural adjustment was quick. Given that and I had a job from which to make friends, we never really found ourselves feeling like “expats” nor did we struggle with the typical homesickness that you might expect. Just had to remember to get in on the OTHER side of the car and drive on the OTHER side of the road! The biggest adjustment was the seasonal switch with Christmas at 40C and friends / family back home asleep when we were awake and vice versa.
As for Norway, it was exciting as we were glad to have secured another expat assignment. The first few weeks were filled up with “to-dos”, such as unpacking boxes, finding new stores to shop at (groceries, regular stuff), learning the area, enjoying the sights / sounds of our new area, etc. So many mountains and fjords that weekly hiking / driving outings were a must! This country has unbelievable beauty, and I was glad to have yet another place to explore, even though it was one which required more cultural adjustment than Australia had.
But once the newness wore off and my wife was back into her work routine, the isolation of Norwegian culture for outsiders kind of started to get to me. Norwegians don’t really talk to outsiders without lots of prying (introverted / respect privacy), and given my lack of Norwegian skills, there wasn’t much conversation happening. Being an American and also coming directly from Australia, (Aussies are very outgoing people), the reserved Norwegian culture was quite a shock. Even while out walking the dog, people don’t say hi or even make eye contact – it’s the same with our next door neighbors. And after talking to other expats, this isn’t really out of the norm.
This was where I looked more to the expat community, which is more “expat wife” centric for the non-working spouse – especially in the oil and gas industry. Luckily there was the internet and our dog to keep me company for the first few months of adjustment!!
Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?
Yes. I was okay with giving up the job I had in Houston prior to leaving for our initial posting, as the prospect of moving to Australia was so much more exciting than what I had going on at work. I would have been okay staying if we hadn’t had the opportunity, but didn’t want to pass this opportunity up.
Getting a job in Australia prior to leaving made me feel like I was just going to continue my career as if we had never left, but with some international experience on my resume / CV. I had gotten a one year fixed term contract and expected I could easily renew that or turn it permanent (at least until we left). But when my contract ended, the headcount at my company had been frozen and I was unable to get on permanently. While I had several interviews, the biggest hurdle I noticed was my visa – with the first question being “how long do you plan on being here”.
Honestly answering ‘a few more months’ or ‘until my wife’s company sends us home’ didn’t really make it easy. During my interviewing time we were told we were leaving at the end of our 2 years, and so began the large-and-growing gap in my resume / CV.
When we learned of our move to Norway, I decided to wait until we moved to start looking for jobs. There are a lot of expats / immigrants here due to the oil industry, so the local chamber of commerce has many job assistance seminars. After not finding that many jobs in my field that suited my previous experience, I started to go to some of the seminars. Three things were stressed: 1) you must know conversational / fluent Norwegian to be competitive in the interview field 2) expect to be paid less than you were 3) expect a lower position as a local “foreigner”.
I’ve decided to take this time to simply pause / leave my career and focus on doing things I want to do, although it’s not the sterotypical life of shopping, constantly going to the gym, and being lazy. I found doing household work, investing, and expat paperwork (US taxes don’t stop if you move overseas), took up some of my time. But then I decided to go out and find others to bond with. In fact, it kind of happened by accident.
Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?
In Australia, we had other expats we know from Jessica’s company and I had several friends from work, so it was pretty easy there. Everyone speaking English was definitely a benefit, as I found out when we moved to Norway.
Here, I have found meeting people due to not having a workplace a bit more challenging. But I am an avid homebrewer and this has been the thing that has allowed me to have a good social life and friends in the community. It is here where I unintentionally made some of my very best friends.
Luckily Norwegians speak very good English. When I went into the local homebrew store, they spoke English well and we had a great conversation about brewing. The people that work there (a couple) have become some of our greatest friends, and that friendship has led us to make other friends and a whole community here!! Having a common interest (other than just chit chat) is key for making friends across cultures….
As for other men accompanying their partners – I have found some, but only ones that also have a career in their location or are expats on their own right. I have never, ever met another male who has given up his career (voluntarily or not) for his partner.
Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?
Yes. Pride. I think it’s hard for many men – including. at times, myself – to not be the primary (or any) bread winner. Especially when in society that’s often measured by a more typical outside the home job and pay cheque. I think the other thing is that there are fewer support structures for male expats.
Males often can’t really show up at events that are geared towards expat wives without causing awkward friction, at least in my experience. You really have to be okay with spending a lot of time by yourself (although you can obviously find friends / activities to do) to not go crazy sometimes.
If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?
We don’t have children at this time, but from reading the various expat Facebook group chats / messages about play times, I’m pretty certain I would be very uncomfortable showing up to a playgroup as a male. These groups seem very “mom” oriented and I don’t know how they’d react to a male showing up at one of these play dates / outings. The wording is very definitely “mother”, not “parent” oriented.
Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.
Nothing really positive or negative. Mainly the struggle of how to answer “what do you do”, which I touch on in the next question.
What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?
Be prepared to be asked what you do for a living, as it’s often (always) expected that you’re the working expat. This happens to me regularly, even in small talk. If you are a non-working male spouse, have your answer ready. The stigma / reality of giving up one’s career to accompany your wife / partner around the globe becomes much more real when someone asks “what do you do” and you aren’t sure what to say because you don’t have a corporate title / job description to give.
As for meeting others, whether expats or locals, have some interests and hobbies. The best way to meet people without a workplace to do so in is to find people who have interests in common. That way you can focus on a topic that you love and know rather than struggling to find ways to connect or focusing on your lack of local language skills. For me it is home brewing, and I’ve been fortunate to become involved with many local home and professional brewers to talk about the craft and budding craft beer culture here in Stavanger and Norway. All of my friends here, not associated with my wife’s company, have come in some regard from this community of people (volunteering at craft beer festivals, pro / home brewers, common interests, etc).
If you were previously heavily identified by / involved in your career, be prepared for that change. If you find a new job, you might have to start at a different career place than you left off – often in a different work culture. If you give up your career, plan ways to keep yourself occupied and keep you brain sharp and busy. Exploring the “newness” of a place will soon wane and you’ll crave that brain activity that you might be missing from your previous life. It’s still there, just in a different form and often adjustment takes a while. The longer you’re out, the more important this is.
Finally, even though I say to “have an answer ready”, don’t feel bad at all or regret your decision. You will have experiences that 97% of people will never have or will always dream of but never do. Enjoy your time. You can always go home, but you can’t always “stay out”.
What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?
I think making expat spouse support / social groups and resources, less “expat wife” centric. Expat support groups, often locally formed, are often groups of women and mothers who, as Ian said in a previous column of yours, aren’t too keen on a man joining the group..
This was such an interesting read for me as Chris really does reflect a life that many of us female expat partners know very well, but from a male perspective. He is very right that much of the support out there is very much aimed at us ladies, making life for the non-working men potentially even harder than it is for us women. What do you think?
And remember, if you are a male expat partner and wish to add your own story to my series, please let me know. Add a comment below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.