The majority of trailing spouses or partners has a university degree and most of them have had to relinquish their own jobs in order to pursue their partner’s move abroad. Yet relatively few of them end up working during their time living overseas.
Some partners choose not to work, instead relishing the opportunity to take a career break or to explore other interests and experiences. Then there are those that try to find work, but are unsuccessful. There are particular barriers to finding work as a trailing spouse. Setting up a family in a new country takes time and energy, so many expat partners in a primary caregiver role may initially have little time to work. Children need more support and attention after a move, and there are numerous practicalities to sort. Let’s face it, most of the family and household tasks are done by the stay-at-home partner. The working partner is also likely to be doing long hours, perhaps traveling, and working flexibly may not be an option.
Once the family is settled in a new country, it’s not uncommon for the trailing spouse to start thinking about working again. Many are put off however, and make the assumption that finding work and becoming effective in a new culture will be too tough. China does have the added challenges of a difficult language and a tricky process for obtaining working visas. While it’s important to be aware of these potential challenges, they can be overcome.
While it’s likely you can’t just pick up where you left off in your old career, you may end up finding an entirely new one, just as rewarding and satisfying as the career you left behind. I spoke to four expat moms, who all agree that working here has led to a more fulfilling expat life.
Australian Kate Godde moved to Beijing in January 2012. “My very first weekend in the city was an AQI day of 800+. Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m working in that industry now!” she says. Godde has been an expat for 14 years, always the trailing spouse. “I always managed to find something to occupy my mind and my time,” she says. Having a degree in marketing has enabled Godde to work in a variety of roles; for the Australian Chamber of Commerce Shanghai, for a relocations company, and managing a psychology practice.
She is now working for gams, a Shanghai-based company focused on delivering air quality monitoring for indoor and outdoor spaces. “I work with the best and most advanced particulate monitoring devices,” explains Godde. “My work takes me into homes, schools, and office spaces around the city to conduct air quality testing. Sometimes I feel like the Tupper-ware lady, always talking about my products!” she laughs.
It’s a very new direction for Godde’s career, but one she is relishing. “The people I meet and the conversations I have are amazing some days. I think I could be turning into a science geek… a big departure from marketing.”
From the US, Lundy Clark has lived in Beijing since 2011. Clark worked as a landscape architect back in Philadelphia, before moving to Germany in 2005. In Stuttgart she spent a year learning the language and worked with an American company as a purchasing agent. She now teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) with the German Industry & Commerce Greater China, and teaches spin and circuit classes at Human in Motion (HIM) Fitness Studio.
“Both opportunities kind of fell into my lap,” explains Clark. “I started personal training sessions with HIM founder, Ruben Payan, and later he approached me about joining the team as a fitness instructor.” As for the ESL, a German friend was teaching students, and when it came time for her family to move back to Germany, she introduced Clark to her supervisor. “I now teach six students,” she says.
“The biggest challenge for me is time management, although my work does enable me to create my own schedule.” Clark makes sure to prepare a lot more things ahead of time now. “I also delegate more to our ayi and driver, which has cut down time I spent running the kids around to after school activities, birthday parties, and sporting events.”
"I immediately felt more at home in Beijing,
once I started working again."
Annabel Gaywood is from the UK. She moved to Beijing in 2014, and has two young children. Her professional background is in business risk, but since March 2015 has been working as trade services director, at the China Britain Business Council (CBBC). “It didn’t take me long to realize that most compliance positions here in Beijing require detailed knowledge of Chinese regulations and fluent Mandarin,” explained Gaywood. So she widened her job search, to include roles where she could bring her broader management skills.
The first six months of any new job can be a steep learning curve; but Gaywood feels very fortunate that her team has been so supportive. “I immediately felt more at home in Beijing, once I had started working again.”
With regards the cultural and language barriers, Gaywood says; “Initially I expected more difficulty around communication, due to language and culture. But I have been surprised by how easy communication is – despite my very basic Mandarin.”
Gaywood ensures she commits enough time for rest, making sure she has the energy to deal with challenges both in the workplace and at home. “This helps maintain a sense of humor, which is essential to daily living in Beijing!” she says. “My children are in good hands, both with a reliable ayi and supportive friends.” Although she admits it’s a challenge getting her son out the door on time for school.
Swedish native Camilla Ojansivu Underhill is a qualified lawyer, sports professional, and mom of three. In 2001 she moved to Beijing to work at a Chinese law firm. In 2013 her career took a different direction, and now she manages the sports facilities and after school programs at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB). She is their in-house figure skating coach and runs the school’s ice rink and skating programs.
Underhill didn’t meet any major barriers pursuing her career in Beijing, although cultural challenges remain. “No matter how long you have lived in a country, there will still be cultural differences that will impact on your work,” she says. Underhill’s kids attend DCB, and balancing work and family life can be a challenge. “I spend a lot of time with my children doing stuff at weekends!” she says. “But they understand how hugely rewarding my job is, especially seeing happy children learning to skate on the ice.”
Our moms’ advice on finding work:
• Just because you change country, does not mean you need to dumb down your career
• Be flexible and open-minded, take into account other interests and hobbies
• Upgrade your résumé and Linked-In profile
• Network and give out business cards
• Use the hours when the kids are in school to apply for jobs
• Don’t give up, even if you get a few rejections
This article originally appeared on page 54-56 of the beijingkids October 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email email@example.com.
Photos: Uni You, Sally Wilson, courtesy of Camilla Ojansivu Underhill, and Kate Godde