This week marks two years since I became an expat mom. Sure, we hadn’t actually moved (that happened in July). And I had been at home on maternity leave for four months already. But two years ago this week was my official last day at my law firm. And thus, the start of my new life.
In many ways, that I didn’t go back to work wasn’t (or shouldn’t have been) that surprising. A workaholic with no work-life balance, it would have been hard for me to continue working and be the parent I wanted to be. (You know, a perfect one.)
But actually quitting a job that had been so central to my identity for a decade was not easy. I’d tried before and failed, so what made me think this time would be any different?
As impossible as working and mothering seemed, when I closed my eyes, I could not imagine being a stay-at-home mom. Have you ever heard the expression “The days are long, but the years are short”? Well, that is doubly true for stay-at-home moms. As much as I loved my son, I was exhausted. And that was at a time in his life when he could be counted on to sleep most of the day.
So when Fernando sent me a text message saying that he’d finished negotiating his relocation to Prague, I was relieved. Excited, too, of course. But especially relieved. Because now I could quit my job for reasons that had nothing to do with my ability to be both a mother and a lawyer.
The Beauty of “Not Being Able to Work”
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder—how is my situation any different than it would be if I were a stay-at-home mom in the United States? Of course, I probably wouldn’t be a stay-at-home mom in the U.S. because it’s unlikely I would have quit my job. I needed the excuse of moving abroad to push me to where I needed to go. But there are other differences.
Even if I had found myself as a stay-at-home mom in the U.S., I strongly suspect that I would have been plagued by guilt in a way that I just haven’t been since we’ve moved. When we lived in Prague that lack of guilt could be explained by my childless friends who spent their days at the dog park, coffee dates, and art class. And the fact that I didn’t have a work visa.
But even in Norway where most of the “American Moms in Oslo” work outside the home and I have a work visa, I still don’t feel it. Finding a job—even one where you don’t need to speak Norwegian—is notoriously difficult if you don’t speak the local language. Practicing law isn’t an option since I’m not licensed here, and changing careers is quite challenging. So for all practical purposes, I’m not able to work, despite my legal status.
Once my son finally started barnehage, this gave me a tremendous amount of freedom that I desperately needed. Freedom to discover what I really wanted to do. And freedom not to work until I figured out what that was.
Of Course, It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows…
There are plenty of things about being an expat mom that I don’t like. While I have more time for me than I’ve ever had before, I also spend an insane amount of time on “household management” like going to the grocery store and taking the dog to the vet. (Lucky for me, my husband is a tremendous help—especially when it comes to cleaning, which I absolutely loathe. But since I “don’t work,” certain things do fall disproportionately to me.) Between my husband’s evening conference calls with Seattle and his almost-monthly work trips, I’m usually responsible for L’s nighttime routine. And until my husband started taking care of barnehage drop-off whenever he was available, the 2+ hours I spent doing pick up and drop off every day made me question whether it was worth it to send L.
But perhaps the biggest challenge has been what it has done to my identity. Work—and specifically paid employment—is still pretty central to it. When someone asks me what I do, I usually tell them what I used to do for work and that the reason I don’t still do it is that we moved countries for my husband’s job. And some days I feel very resentful that my husband “gets to go to work” while I’m stuck at home, having given up my career so he could pursue his. Plus, even though I don’t have to work right now, I sometimes feel the stress of figuring out what I’m going to do when I grow up (or more accurately, when we move back to the States).
…But It’s Pretty Darn Good
Becoming an expat mom gave me a fantastic gift: time. Yes, there have been challenges. Lots of challenges. But having the time and space to decompress from an all-consuming job and to start to figure out who I really am and what I enjoy has been priceless. I still have a long way to go, and I worry that if we were to move back to the U.S. tomorrow, I would find myself begging the administrative partner for my job back within a week. But since moving so soon probably won’t happen, I have the time to be the best mom I can be, a slightly-better-than-terrible homemaker, and an explorer of my true passions and interests. All of which, I hope, will make me a happier person when we do move back.
Have you quit your career for your kids or partner? How do you maintain your identity?