What do you think of when I say expat? Ambitious? Career focused? A go-getter? Fearless, focused — yet adventurous and fun?
What do you think of when I say expat wife? An easy life of G&T’s with the gals post-brunch? Supportive of the spouse whilst also having a hot tennis coach on speed dial? Shopping habits to rival Carrie Bradshaw?
Of course all of the above are complete stereotypes. But there’s a big difference between moving to another country as the expat, and moving to another country as the expat wife. My husband is the expat, the visa holder, the breadwinner, the alpha male, the one we all rely on for everything. I am just the wife, the dependent.
Let me be clear, “dependent” is a hugely belittling term for a woman who up until fairly recently was anything but a dependent. We had a marriage built on independence, we were equals in every way. I drove my own car, I signed my own credit card, and I was able to pay my own phone contract.
My name was on the bills alongside my husband’s as well as on the legal documents of our home with equal responsibility, and legal rights. I had my own bank account in my own name, as well as equal access and rights to a joint account. I had a job and a career. I existed as a person beyond the wife and mother.
I liked that person, a lot, but she got lost during the move. Really lost. And then, in a rare moment of child-free socialising in this city I now call home, I found her hiding at the bottom of a glass of Champagne. I didn’t just find her, though, I found lots of women just like her. All here as dependants, all fighting very personal battles to readjust their expectation of independence. You see for all that there is on offer here, everything we create for ourselves, nothing can mask the silent feeling of losing yourself. And it is silent because who dare utter the truths of becoming an invisible housewife?
I have busied myself creating a home I have no legal right to stay in without my husband’s permission. I have to ask him nicely to sign the paperwork allowing me to have a mobile phone contract, because it’s in his name, not mine. He also has to pay for it because I’m not technically allowed my own bank account; such is the life of someone on a dependant’s pass. I am no longer the right sort of human for these things. I don’t fulfill criteria. I am not a box ticker.
At times I feel completely vulnerable, frustrated, isolated, bored and ashamed. I knew I was giving up a lot to move here, but I always thought I was giving up other people, not myself. And I’m ashamed to admit that truth. What would my fiercely independent friends and family think if they knew?
I know what I need to do of course, and I’m already on to it. I need friends, other women who get it, who understand the frustrations and don’t judge the tears when I need to mourn my old life.
I need a job to upgrade my dependant status to independent. I need to be my own person again. Except it’s not that easy, none of it is. The women who get it are the same as me — the invisible housewives and girlfriends holding it together to avoid laying guilt at the feet of our (now very) significant other. Most of us want to work, we don’t want to have to ask for pocket money to fund our existence, we don’t want to be dependants.
But we are for now, at least.
And so we seek each other out, requesting to join Facebook groups we’ve been told about by someone in the know, like some sort of secret sorority. And once accepted we realise we are not alone. Far, far from it. We are the oil that keeps the cogs turning in the great expat engine of Singapore. We are needed and we need each other.
The situation may be less than ideal, but the people are pretty damn great. And when everything else feels hideous, it is those people that make life bearable. So this one’s for you ladies, and your Champagne-fueled defusing sessions. Those expat wives? There’s much more to them than the stereotype suggests. We’re engineers, nutritionists, nurses, accountants, teachers, project managers, we have degrees and skill sets far beyond the old norm of an expat wife.
But most of all, we have grit and determination, and we will see this experience through. Not only that, but we will make it the best damn experience for ourselves, our families, and our newfound friends because will not be defined by our “dependant” tag. We are 21st century expat wives, the independent dependants.
5 Ways to Find Some Independence
- Get yourself on some Facebook groups for women in similar situations- there are so many people just like you facing the same day to day irritations about their new found social status, you might want to turn off the notifications to avoid being bombarded, but a dip in to the posts every now and again is a great comfort. I joined some groups not long after I arrived, wrote a post explaining that I’m new around here and what do you know? Only what felt like half of Singapore’s female population were inviting me for coffee! So get joining and put yourself out there.
- There are lots of things you can sign up for in your own name, from pay as you go phone cards, travel passes, and library membership to store loyalty cards. It’s all those little things that make you feel more like a normal human being and less like a dependant having to ask for permission/money/signatures all the time. A phone card with a local number and a travel pass was the beginning to me feeling settled here, to be honest. Being able to contact people to make arrangements to go out, and being able to get around like a local are two significant steps towards independence.
- If having your own bank card isn’t a possibility, and you don’t like the idea of a wad of cash for pocket money, how about some preloaded giftcards? I know it’s not the same as your old life, but still being able to wander into any branch of starbucks for a coffee whenever you want is a little help. It also means not needing to justify HOW MANY coffees on the monthly bank statement!
- Take this time for you. What have you always fancied doing but never had the time or opportunity to do? For me it’s writing and running a marathon (well, a half marathon to start with…), and when I was working full time there’s no way I could find the time or energy to do either, but as I’m not working here and now I don’t want this time to be lost or wasted thinking about what I’m not doing. So I’ve started a blog and signed up for a half marathon, what are you going to do?
- TALK. Seriously, talk to anyone who will listen. Taxi drivers are a wealth of knowledge on your local area so get chatting, find out the places to go and then GO! Likewise, make the first move and say hi to the other families you might see at your condo or at the park; smile at people and they will most likely smile back. Singapore is a really friendly place (I know, people say that all the time), but it really is, and most people (especially fellow expats) are only too happy to talk. If you’re at home with young kiddies, adult conversation is vital for your day to day wellbeing, and no one understands that more than other mothers! You are not alone, promise.