School pick-up at an International school looks much like school pick up anywhere in the developed world. Apart from looking like a Benetton ad or maybe morning tea at the United Nations. And sure, there are a disproportionate number of drivers and nannies, say compared to a regular public school in Australia or the US, but the majority of people hanging out in the school yard before the bell goes, are mums.
Mums just like me, and maybe just like you. Women who were brought up and educated to believe that we could do whatever we set my minds to. Highly educated, well travelled, sophisticated, urbane, and overall a broadly privileged set.
We women who came of age in the 80s and 90s, we reaped the rewards of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. We are old enough to remember the cat calls, but young enough to remember them becoming culturally inappropriate. We were generation who could be and do it all. Until we had families of our own and ‘do it all’ became ‘compromise it all’. For working and parenting is a juggling act few people can admit to doing both well. Sure we can do it all, just not all at once.
When an expatriate position becomes available, the opportunities and experience shine like a beacon of excitement on the suburban horizon. For long term expatriates, another overseas move is a fundamental facet of life. In that first leap we put aside the concerns about our careers, and take the plunge.
We have become the dreaded trailing spouse. When the honeymoon period is over (and before the G&Ts kick in), in this age of female empowerment (in the developed world at least), the harsh reality of a spouse visa signifies all we have left behind.
spouse of Mr. R…no occupation or business for reward permitted.
A pharmacologist who worked on one of the first malaria vaccines, now mum of young, demanding toddlers, clad in tracksuits finds escape in sewing club.
A corporate lawyer, commuting between Tokyo and New York, now mum of three, develops cooking and African drumming skills.
Training spouses get a bad rap. Between tennis, coffee mornings, ladies who lunch and the (inevitable) G & T hour, what we actually do, is keep the show on the road. Not only, like millions of other stay at home parents (more the power to you I say!), keeping track of the usual after school activities and homework and keeping them reasonably clean and reasonably well fed, we’re navigating cultural differences and doing our damndest to keep life as happy and normal as possible. Sometimes it’s funny: we’re expounding the virtues of a bucket bath when the water goes off, we’re explaining why it’s ok for mum to swear at the lunatic taxi driver and why sometimes mum needs to pay the policeman. Sometimes it’s hard: why do people argue about Israel when my Israeli friend is really nice? And sometimes it’s so beyond my experience I have to laugh: when my youngest feels inadequate that he has only lived in two countries, when his friends at school have lived in four!
My husband routinely volunteers to be the stay at home parent. He daydreams of French lessons and days at the beach. School pick-up, after-school activities, days traipsing around supermarkets, hours spent sitting in traffic and waiting for tradesmen don’t seem to factor too highly in these daydreams. And what about the trailing spouses who are dads? They’re out there, keeping a low profile. Mostly diplomatic families, some of whom have found a better balance than us more commercial expats. Sometimes it is the woman’s career which brings them abroad, or in a few wonderfully balanced partnerships the postings are alternated between partners, taking turns in whose career takes precedence. Sometimes connections and diplomatic passports provide a window into a world of work more accessible than those of us stamped ‘SPOUSE’.
There was an apparent small furor over at Mamamia (a very popular Australian news–pop culture website), over an Indian woman in Australia wanting to set up an Indian mothers group. Despite Australia being one of the most multicultural nations, some mothers deemed it racist. I read it with a wry smile after attending our Australia and New Zealand coffee morning here in Accra. It’s what we do. We touch base, we ask for advice. Sometimes it’s about being around people who share the same culture as us, who laugh at the same jokes. It’s about asking for advice and simply sharing our frustrations and concerns. It’s about creating a life, outside the work we’ve all come here for.
Some women love being a trailing spouse. “I’ve done it for 20 years and love it”, others (quite rightly) take it as their job, some throw themselves into volunteer work, others take a very active role in school life. And some, like myself, have a more ambiguous relationship with the role. I’ve just enrolled myself at university. Freaking out, nervous and excited, it’s been a long, long time since I took to a text book (but these days I’ll just be taking to a screen).
When I was 14 my mother said to me “never be financially dependant on a man”. Wise words, which I took to heart. And while I love being a mother, I’ve always struggled with the idea of abandoning my career at the feet of my family. But here, in the 21st century, in this age of female opportunity, it is what I, and countless other mum’s, have done.
I’ve met wonderful women from all over the world; intelligent, smart, funny. And across the oceans various well-meaning friends and family have asked us all the same question: What do you do all day?
I’ll tell you what we do.
We keep the show on the road.
Happy International Women’s Day everyone!