How Do You Name a Journey?

Anyone’s journey is as unique and valuable as anyone else’s journey.
iPEC coaching principle #21
I thought about this a lot while attending the Families in Global Transition conference in Amsterdam last March. The expat “sectors” represented included missions, education, corporate, diplomatic, Non-Government Organizations, arts, entrepreneurs, and a few members military families.  I was among Third Culture Kids (TCK), Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCK), Cross-Cultural Kids (CCK), Romantic Expats (Lovepats), Missionary Kids (MK), Third Culture Adults, Third Culture Parents, Accompanying Partners, and service providers.
I thought about how I’ve lived all these years as an “expat”, but never identified that way. I moved to England to be with the man I loved.  It was our “third culture”.  A place where we both could be professionally successful.  Later, when we were moved to Italy, my husband’s home country, I became a “civilian employee” and then a “contractor working overseas”. For some reason “expat” had never been part of my story; I hadn’t thought of myself as leaving my country, but of moving toward life and love.
Not until I found myself among this dynamic, talented, intelligent, organized, creative group of “expats”, did I feel like I needed a label.  I played around with expat and lovepat, bi-lingual household, mother of a TCK (wrong), and expat transition coach. What am I anyway??
At first, I really felt like I’d found my long-lost tribe:  stories of brief romantic encounters, long distance relationships, and then the struggle of raising kids outside a home country with an unfamiliar, overbearing extended family and a language barrier. Stories MUCH more challenging than mine, some heartbreaking and still fresh and unfolding, some totally triumphant: language fluency, financial independence, thriving husbands and wives.
Later in the weekend, there were discussions about how women must preserve their fiscal independence, identify and use their assets, and then the disgust and disdain around the term”trailing spouse”.  I’ve never been called that, but I did do that; I left my career, my assets, my financial independence, language-dependent hobbies, and social network to follow my husband’s career opportunities in a places where I didn’t speak the language.  I’d followed him three times for his career advancements, each place with a different dominant language.
No one called me a trailing spouse OR an accompanying partner, so I didn’t feel the stigma nor the indignation.  Instead, I was la moglie americana–the American wife. Somehow, that doesn’t seem much better.  There was no recognition that I’d arrived, one way or the other. No welcome center, no coach or mentor helping me through the transition, no women’s club.  But, at the time, I wasn’t expecting that.  I dove in, an optimist, proud of my husband’s accomplishments and new job, excited for the next chapter of our lives as parents.
Was my face red, when at the conference, I confidently introduced myself as the “mother of a TCK”, thinking I’d gotten a handle on the lingo, but was told by a distinguished participant that she didn’t think of my child as a TCK.  Turns out, according to the program glossary, I’m a mother of a CCK–a Cross-Cultural Kid–because he has two passports and has lived most of his short life in one place.  I’d thought a 3rd culture kid was someone whose parents came from two different cultures and were raising their family in yet a 3rd culture.  It made sense to me, but I should have studied up a bit. I went from feeling like I’d found my tribe to feeling like maybe I’d missed the memo.
One person told me she didn’t think of someone like me as an expat because I was “settled” in one country, implying that staying in one place is somehow easier.  I certainly hadn’t felt settled.  I’d never planned on staying in Italy.  It wasn’t what I’d agreed to when I left it all for love.  I thought we’d move back to England after his “five years” in Italy, where at least I wouldn’t have to struggle with the language or credential conversion.  In fact, I spent those years in Verona, waiting and imagining.  It was the thought of moving again, that allowed me to stay.   At the time, living in limbo was much more desirable than the thought of staying in Italy for the rest of my life.
When preschool started (8 years an expat), I felt the urge to “go back to work”, but the opportunities in my career field were zilch. My language skills hadn’t progressed. I was not able to earn a comparable wage and my credentials were not valid in Italy.  Even if I could have returned to work, in the traditional sense, there was no childcare in my town that would have supported this agenda.  Most women with children in my town spend their days cooking, cleaning, and shuttling their kids to and from school.  School gets out at 12:30 most days.  The system does not support the idea of a financially independent wife and mother.
About four years ago, it all caved in one morning after watching the Oscars on SKY TV.  I woke up and realized this could be it.  We might never return to England, or the US.  This life could be for the rest of my life, not a cultural experience,  a global adventure, or even a romance at this point.  So, yes, technically, on paper, I have settled, an accidental immigrant who followed her heart.
It brought to mind this question:  What is the difference between “settled” and “settling” for something?
Words and labels are important sociologically, for research and academic purposes, but in our every day lives I sometimes wonder if by focusing our energy there, we lose sight of the essence of the issue. After all, when it comes to terms like “trailing spouse”, we know it’s not the label, but the story behind it that’s really where the pain is.  It’s about feeling degraded, undervalued, disrespected, unseen, and sacrificed.  It’s about feeling a lack of control, acknowledgement, and competence.   It’s about wanting more, and being more than we appear to be on paper.  Fascinating, how important words become. They tell whether or not you belong. They package assumption and make us think we understand each other.
The FIGT conference was wonderful, mind-expanding, friendly, rich, inspiring; I will go back to learn and share more….AND this experience with labels piqued my curiosity. This Accidental Immigrant-Lovepat-Accompanying Spouse-3rd Culture Parent/Adult-Mom of a CCK-Child Life Specialist-Expat Health Care Creativity Coach wonders…When we are struggling to feel at home, do we become more sensitive to differences rather than our commonalities?  Of course each sector has its unique advantages and challenges, but the CORE of our issues are absolutely the same.  Where do I belong?  Who are my people?  Where is home?  Are my core values in alignment with my lifestyle or the culture around me?  What will happen when it all changes?  How can I stay/When should I go?  How can I live up to my own expectations of what it means to be a “good” spouse, child, parent?  What do I need and want? How will I be able to do the work I came into the world to do?  
We are all traveling, “settled” or not.   The journey to belonging doesn’t have a name.
Anyone’s journey is as unique and as valuable as anyone else’s journey.

3 thoughts on “How Do You Name a Journey?”

  1. Brava!

    The labels bother me a bit as well, but the older (and wiser) I become, the less attention I give them. I’ve learned that a label is usually another person’s perception or opinion, and I don’t have to accept it. It’s been a long journey, believe me. I am trying to teach M to disregard the labels as well…as she gets all sorts of them because of her differences. And she also gets told that she can’t claim certain labels. I hope she learns that she has the right to define herself and that she doesn’t give others that power over her. She is not easily defined…neither am I or any of us, for that matter.

    Best wishes for success with your new venture! You are the perfect person for it.


    1. Thank you for your comment, D! So true…we are not easily defined and that is now becoming more comfortable to me than relying on a clear “identity”. How liberating to simply be.


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