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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  1. Evelyn Simpson says

    Spot on Kirsty. It’s true that we can be pissed off at our partners, their companies for not supporting us, governments for not giving us visas or recognising our qualifications but at the end of the day when we move internationally, we’re making a choice (just because the consequences of the other choice are unpalatable, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a choice). It’s up to us then to take responsibility for our choices and create the lives that give us purpose and meaning and some money too. Will share this on our networks 🙂

  2. Man, this post is like you got into my brain, read my thoughts and gave me a bit of a shake.

  3. We were just told that we probably have to move soon to another country (they are not sure where to and when (who need to know anyway)) Panik in my head. 5th move to another country. 16th move altogether. Can I do it? Yes I can…I have too. When somebody asks me now what I am doing I say: Oh I sleep in everyday, watch TV or play golf. That’s what they think we do anyway. 😉

  4. Just what I needed to hear today, many thanks, Kirsty.

  5. Thanks, Kirsty. Again.

  6. There is a price to pay for having children, but I think one well worth it. Sometimes it does cause us to have to make real sacrifices. As an American woman who always had a career, and lived overseas I learned that often we cannot have “it all.” If we do, try as we may, somebody of something is going to have to be relegated to second place, and I do not think it should be our children, or husbands.

  7. Thanks for the little reminder!!! 🙂

  8. Nicola McCall says

    I always hated the feeling of being a rat in someone else’s experiment i.e his business and their awful planning for what to do with him and when which would impact on our family annually… so glad now repatriated and that my experience has helped in getting me back to work after nearly 12 years out – that was always my plan whilst away to work – keep going

  9. When people ask me what I do I like to answer, “Whatever I feel like.” It doesn’t matter if I feel like a paid job or a volunteer one or full time parenting. That answer makes people jealous.

  10. You have this incredible knack for reading what is in all of our minds. It’s uncanny & spooky! I really needed to hear what you had to say, thank you.

  11. This is not just relevant for expat women. As mothers and wives we all make sacrifices for our family. As we draw near the end of a manic term 3, I am totally shattered and wondering whether this is all worthwhile.
    Yet, I know it is. I want to work, I want to be someone other than Mum to 3 wonderful boys and to do that means I have to juggle and reinvent myself.
    Since having children I have run cafes, taught new immigrants about democracy, managed markets, designed and sewn bags, been a relief teacher and now a permanent teacher… However only 4 years in am I starting to feel like I might be able to focus more on my career and hopes for what I want to achieve.
    We manage, get by, support each other, cry, laugh, shout, cajole and get through. Life is challenging, the sooner we accept this and just try and make the best of it, the better it is. Thanks Kirsty for the reminder that it is the same whoever, wherever you are.

  12. Ann Semes Lynch says

    Ah – we do it for The Adventure! Love my husband. Left my admin job ($50k) in Pittsburgh in 2008 for 3 years in Shanghai. I was a princess. Coffee, tea and Wine. Slept in – learned culture, did volunteer work. LOVED IT! Traveled to Korea, Thailand, Australia, Taiwan. Love my husband. Came home, my job didn’t wait for me. Boss was let go and the people who had come in to run the company SCREWED IT UP ROYALLY. Love my Husband. Went back part time (4 days-week) boy things had changed BIG TIME. Moved to to full time job but boss was a BITCH. Left after 13 months for a job with more $ but no IT support and poor communications from boss who was traveling 90%. Decided to leave with no job – got unemployment – no worries – daughter getting married – had lots to do. Spending down savings. Love my Husband. Found part time job at a company 20 minutes from home at a 50% pay cut. Love it but I’m poor – leaving on a jet plane tomorrow for Ireland for 12 days (35th wedding anniversary). Love my husband. Next month – 5 days cruise with friends I met in Shanghai – then I will be back to reality – I call it LIFE. LOVE MY HUSBAND.

  13. Don’t know whether you’ve heard of these authors, but they’ve written lots of stuff about this subject –


  14. I was forwarded this by ‘Debs” husband and she/they are still as amazing, focused and fun as they clearly were in KL. We have only been part of this ‘Expat roller coaster’ for 4 years but our time with them and many others has made our lives so much richer. I look forward to reading the rest of your blogs and introducing my wife to your site.

  15. Champagne Gillian says

    Thanks Kirsty, what a brilliant little shoulder tap to remind us. We DO have the power. Some days though you just want it to be someone else’s problem and for them to come and fix it for you, don’t you reckon hahahahaha. MWAH

  16. Eddy van der List says

    Deborah last name starts with a “L” ?? Friends of ours that ended up in Saudi and now in Houston.. Maybe not same, but our Deb was also hairdresser and into fitness 🙂

  17. I think my original comment got eaten as spam… so I’ll try again! Great post and even though I’m not a ‘typical’ expat wife, as in we moved through choice, with no work connections, no visas needed, just because we could, I still think I’m doing very different things than I ever would in the UK.

  18. Gotta love the women who “just get shit done.” Really have to embrace that attitude when one moves around through little choice of her own. Get it done where and when you can – you’ll be better equipped for the next place and project. Thanks for this piece. I can really relate.

  19. Nicola McCall says

    Why I hated expat life … I felt like a rat in someone’s experiment, you know the one where the rat goes through the maze to get food, the next day someone’s put another way to go in or moved the food, or put a wall in and every day it changes due to someone somewhere making a decision that affects you doesn’t actually involve or inform you. I am glad I started my own business, volunteered, school mummed and had the experiences I did. I’ve been repatriated 4 years now and it was slow to get the career momentum going again but I can say now I’m almost back at the level I was before expatriation and trailing. He’s still doing what he did and we work it as well as we can.

  20. Love this post. I so get it and relate, I just didn’t realise I felt like it at the time 😉 I wish I was an expat now with blogs like yours to guide me through the maze of unknowing. We moved internationally 14 times in 25 years, the children went to 9 different schools on 4 different continents. No help. No debriefing. Here one minute. Gone the next. All I seemed to have time for was finding new schools, new Doctors, new Dentists, calming ruffled feathers and keeping the show on the road, while friends and family imagined it was all gin slings by the pool for me. Of course I was powerless, I gave up any chance of a career when I married a geologist and his work offered more adventure than mine ever would. In the end I guess we all make choices, and just have to get on with it. Life as an Expat is not easy, but I would imagine neither is the 9 – 5 stuck in the same town for the whole of your life. I’m glad we did what we did, and I’m a stronger more resilient (and possibly more ingenious) person as a result.

  21. Friends have been angry with me over the years that I am a full time mum, wife, volunteer. They feel there is so much more I could be doing with my brain if I was working.

    I tell them not to worry or be angry. I have several jobs, just none earn any money.

    Moving internationally every couple of years is a full time job! We all know what’s involved in leaving and arriving then settling. Sometimes I feel we’ve just settled and we’re talking about the next move.

    There are times I’d love the extra income to help with holidays, or to be able to buy my husband a gift with ‘my’ money but hey, it is what it is and we all do our thing.

  22. Lucille Abendanon says

    Yep exactly. In our situation we have to push on ahead with our ideas and dreams, even if they could vanish in an instant…because the alternative of saying, ‘if only’ or ‘I wish I had…’ is much worse.

  23. Thanks for reposting this, it’s an important reminder, as we also need to remind ourselves how financially vulnerable we and our families become when we lose the ability to earn a decent second income. I’ve seen too many expat marriages fall apart, to say nothing of illness, disability or even death of the main income earner. Returning to work late in life after a long break, is not easy. It’s not just about self-esteem.

  24. Many a friend of mine has come to a stage in life where the kids are leaving home – and after a lifetime of moving and guaranteeing the family’s smooth transition every time – they have come to the point of asking themselves: what now? This is where you need to take the bull by its horns and start getting your stuff together. Make that plan happen! Focus and believe in yourself.

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