Powerless and Pissed Off


I met a woman called Deborah when we lived in Kuala Lumpur. This was years ago when I was a mother of one and investigating going back to work. I was struggling to find someone who would employ me part-time and couldn’t find child care options that would work full-time. The company I’d worked for in Australia had an office in KL but they were quick to tell me it was full time or nothing. It was my first foray into labour law outside of Australia. This was back in 2001 when job advertisements in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur read “Secretary wanted, must be woman, pretty, and under 30 years of age.”

Deborah lived just down the road from me. She had two young children and her husband worked for the same company as G did. She was a hairdresser and had set up a salon in her house. She’d also trained to be a fitness instructor and was working at a busy apartment complex as an aerobics teacher. She was making a fantastic (cash in hand) salary. I envied what she’d set up for herself.

“I’m jealous at how you’ve got your own thing going on. I wish I could do something from home.”

“You know what I hate though” she said. “I have no power in this situation. The company could come and tell us we’re moving tomorrow and they’d be nothing I could do about it. I’d have to pack up and start all over again. I hate not being in control, I hate that they have the power to stuff it all up for me and I don’t even work for them!”

She was right. We were both gone within the year.

Feeling powerless is a common conversation in the expat world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “the contract could finish tomorrow’ or “who knows – we could get kicked out of the country next week if the government decides to change the rules”.  I’m not just talking about the Middle East – this can happen to expats anywhere.

I know many women who have started new study, new careers, and new businesses, solely because they’ve found themselves needing to be mobile. Qualifications are often not transferable, work permits can be restricting. A girlfriend of mine is a qualified speech therapist who cannot work in Jakarta due to the conditions placed on her husband’s work visa. Another British friend of mine is a qualified GP and struggled to work in Houston for the time they were there, the paperwork overwhelming, the process too involved. I’ve watched cottage industries sprout; women who have self published books, designed stationery, provided catering, and developed websites. All of them began their careers through the frustration of needing to find something more flexible.

For those of us who’ve been pregnant at the end of one move and settling in with a new baby on the next – finding a new job often comes after finding a supermarket, house, car and school. Throw in an extra move and it dawns on you one day while you’re doing the school run that you haven’t put together a powerpoint presentation or attended a breakfast meeting for over three years. At parties when people ask you what you do, you find alternative answers, change the subject and wonder when you’ll have the answer you’re happy with.

And while mutual decisions are made on what works as a family now, that niggle continues in the back of your mind. The concern over the blank spot on your resume, the waste of time, the passion that once was. That’s the piece that leads to powerless, and just a little bit pissed off. You’re a stereotype, a desperate house frau, you’re a prozac away from a gin fizz for breakfast.

Except you’re not. You’re not like that at all . You’re just a woman who’s trying to keep it all together while working out how this new country works.

Of late I have thrown myself into a few different projects. I’m studying, I’m working, I’m starting a business, and I’m a mother of four. I am not making anywhere near the money that I made when I worked full time but there’s a plan in the background. What would I do if we moved? What would I do if something went wrong?  How do I find something that works for me?

When I look back over my past 15 years of travel, there’s not a thing that I’d change. I’m glad we had four children, in fact, I’d probably be happy with five (!) I’m glad we went from place to place. I’m glad I went back to work full time in Calgary and I’m glad I stepped back when we got to Qatar.

If I met Deborah now I’d tell her that she was amazing, that she was the most driven, inspirational and powerful woman I knew at that point in my life. She was a woman who just got shit done.

Make your plan, even if it has to stay parked in the back of your mind for a little while, get thinking.

You have the power.

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