Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the officeย  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

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19 thoughts on “Feeling like a nobody.

    • Thanks Clara – sometimes these thinks get to you and you need to take a step back and think clearly. In the meantime I am dealing with a tantrumming 8 year old and my husband is at the Queen’s Birthday Party (the Pretoria version rather than her actual one!!)

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  1. This is so true sometimes!! I also used to work at the same company as my partner, and now feel a bit left out when the conversation inevitably turns to work at all expat social gatherings, and I’m left out of the conversation. Good advice!

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  2. It’s not a nice feeling, but ultimately I have to believe it’s their loss. …and I don’t think those people are looking for someone more interesting to talk, they’re looking for somebody more strategic who they think has more networking/career path power. This is a technique that can backfire horribly, which is called karma. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  3. At ‘That’ party last week, I was furious when someone totally ignored me and asked my husband how he’d worked out a ‘sneaky way to get your spouse in’. As you can imagine, I didn’t take that well! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • I’ve only just realised that you commented! Sorry didn’t see this earlier ๐Ÿ™‚ What a ridiculous comment! The party in my post was actually another one (nothing to do with our organisation!) – I was going to come to the one you are referring to but it was at such a ridiculous time of the day that I couldn’t juggle it around the children. I couldn’t really go instead of my husband as he did have some important contacts coming – otherwise I am sure he would have been happy for me to go in his place. Of the two of us, I am the one who enjoys social events more which makes it all even more ironic!

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  4. This can be so frustrating and I have noticed it creep in from time to time. I second your frustration about having to do everything through the spouse’s work, drives me mad. We are new in post so finding our feet as regards the ‘scene’ here. Some postings are harder than others and we have not yet had enough exposure to work out whether it will be easy here or not.

    Your suggestions on what to do and say are spot on. Other strategies that I have found help to prove ‘visibility’ are
    – talk about your professional background ie I am Mrs EE, I am a xxxx rather than I am Mrs EE here with Mr EE’s job, you never know when it will lead to work or something interesting. Someone I met in KZ through Mr EE’s work ended up using me as a guest speaker at a lot of his conferences which led to other public speaking opportunities.
    -Have other people’s backs, if you notice someone behaving twattishly, support the person they are treating badly either by rescuing them or giving them an avenue to rescue themselves.
    -As soon as you are introduced ask something relevant to the other person’s career/job in the context of the country you are in or other global developments ‘how interesting, what do you anticipate the impact of yyyy will be’,
    -help non prats network by facilitating introductions to people you know and they are at the event to meet, when talking to a twat move on to said person without making the introduction.
    -make friends outside of your/your spouse’s work circle, that way you can go to events as just ‘you’. This is particularly important the more senior you become in an organisation as it can be difficult to have friends (as opposed to being friendly) where you are the boss and have to make difficult and unpopular decisions from time to time.

    Ultimately these people damage themselves far more in the end. I know of plenty of people who have behaved boorishly who have been ‘found out’ by their superiors and made to look pretty twattish in the process.

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  5. I always try to make a life for myself outside the embassy/HC circle – my biggest triumph was meeting the Swiss Ambassador’s wife (who I knew in another context) at our QBP and she asked why I was there! Also having an interest in some local organisation gives you a topic of conversation.

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    • It’s not too hard to find a life outside the HC in Pretoria as you don’t really get included in it anyway! Luckily for me I’ve found a really nice group of friends through the kids’ school. I’ve just followed your blog, looks really interesting. My grandparents met in Sierra Leone during the war.

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