Balancing two expat careers in the one family.
If someone tells you they know the definitive way for couples to manage the demands and needs of two global expat careers in the one family, they are clearly lying to you.
Every family is different, every circumstance is different. The only thing families in this situation have in common is that they are all managing a delicate balancing act. A balancing act that can change if a family moves or stays abroad and will probably change again, when the family comes home.
There is a lot of advice for couples balancing two professional careers, however often the advice assumes a couple are talking about careers in an environment with like-for-like opportunities. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consulting firm 20-first who advises dual career couples, told Fast Company that couples should spend time planning their career balance ‘without the interference of circumstance and assumptions’. Unfortunately for expats, circumstance can become everything.
While I can’t offer a ‘how to guide’ for families, having worked with many in this situation over the last ten years, what I can offer is the different combinations that have worked for the expats who have shared their stories with me.
Batman and Robin
Wittenberg-Cox describes the ‘lead career’ as the model where one person’s career determines the big decisions, while the other person might build a secondary career while still primarily supporting their partner’s career. This model will be familiar to many expat couples. While not unusual for both parties to work in their professional careers, it is usually one party’s career opportunity that has led the decision to relocate.
While circumstance largely drives this decision, sometimes opportunities can sprout for the person choosing the ‘secondary career’. My podcast guest Nicole Webb went to Hong Kong and Xian in China for her husband’s career opportunity and pivoted her TV journalism career into best-selling author, MC and media trainer.
This is the model of the global career ‘lifers’, the families where life is never going to be about that ‘one time the family lived abroad’, this will be a long-term life decision to live in multiple countries. Couples who are both diplomats may find themselves in this position. This is also the model that couples who are from different countries may sign up to like recent podcast guest Prue Clarke and her US-born husband.
Flip and Floppers
This is when you have one person who has flopped into the lead career role but unlike Batman and Robin, it is virtually impossible for Robin to find a version of their career – so they have to totally flip. This is like Mandy MIrghashini’s engineering husband who quickly realised in Amsterdam, without speaking Dutch, he would not be even able to build a ‘secondary career’. Instead, he took up full time, online university study in physics, an area he had always loved.
Whatever the combination, what’s clear is that those who make it work are those that realise that expat life can be fluid and revisit the balance frequently to make sure both parties are getting their career needs met – not necessarily at the same time, but over the longer term.
My biggest learning from career couples has been, never use the term ‘trailing spouse’.
For a person who has had a big career, to be labelled ‘trailing’ anything is giant rub up the wrong way! It sounds like the accompanying partner is walking three steps behind carrying the bags.
Myself and the network are open to suggestions!