Expat Wives, Lean In, and the One Question Feminism is Afraid Of

The recent “Lean in” debate that has roiled its way through the media seems to rest not just on arguments about, as the description of Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg  puts it in her book, the challenges and “bias[es] surrounding the lives and choices of working women,” but a predetermined belief about the two biggest choices women today face: between career and children, motherhood and professional motivation.

When, in the New York Times, Princeton prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter jumped into the debate, Slaughter summed up Sandberg’s argument as,

[B]elieve in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” — which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby…. Still, after the start [of every woman’s career aspirations] comes a very long road, with lots of bumps and what the law professor Joan Williams calls “the maternal wall” smack in the middle of it. Sandberg’s approach, as important as it is, is at best half a loaf.

So there you have it, the one point on which both Sandberg and Slaughter (and most of the media covering the fracas) seem to agree: the debate about women’s choices and fulfillment rests on the glass ceiling being, in its essence, the ‘maternal wall.’

Are We Afraid to Admit What We Give up for Men, and If So, Why?

But what about those of us working women, or even just women who want to be passionately engaged in our lives and work and communities, for whom the choice, or the first choice anyway, has been between our husbands or partners and our careers? Those of us who have followed our counterparts to new countries or cultures and had our careers challenged because of it? Or who have never had children, either because—like me—they failed when they tried, or because they never pursued parenthood, but have still had to face major choices for their marriages that have impacted their work?

Is this whole debate about Leaning In covering up another debate that seems almost too antifeminist to bring up? And if so, why? Why are we somehow more embarrassed to say we made life choices based on our husbands (or partners) than on our kids?

The org InterNations reports of the 2010 Brookfield Global Relocations Trends Survey, “only 9% of previously employed women held a job during their time as a trailing spouse,” a statistic echoed by UN Special about the vast number of women who relocate for their partners.

Much energy has been expended by the feminist movement, by individual men and women trying to carve out answers in their lives about meaning, family, and sacrifice, and even by some corners of corporate America to de-stigmatize women who choose children over career, or face maternal responsibilities that challenge their professional ones. But it seems no one really wants to talk about women who make family-related choices when they don’t involve offspring—and especially when they involve just husbands.

So I’m asking now:

  • Is it legitimate, for smart, passionate, ambitious women, to give up or compromise our careers for their husbands?
  • Does it make us anti-feminist or failures when we do?

My answer:

I struggled for many years—and still do, sometimes—with all I’ve given up for my marriage, especially since it’s an international one. But I know that facing, surviving, and then capitalizing on the challenges my marriage has presented, has in many ways made me stronger, smarter, and even more fulfilled, in some surprising ways.

I’ve developed skills—and grit—that I bet are harder than even some of the ones Facebook’s boardroom requires. Among them:

  • The flexibility to toggle between to diametrically opposed cultures and lives—the world of Boston’s leftist academics and writers; and the world of a foreign housewife in Japan. And to do this, if not always gracefully, at least with spirit.
  • The courage to look at my life denuded of any of the professional or academic accomplishments I’d gathered in my almost 40 years in Boston, bereft of even of the identity of one who belongs (for, as a foreigner in Japan, I’m told in dozens of tiny ways throughout every day that I don’t belong), and ask, what do I really want for myself, for my life, for my family, and how to I build that in a world where I don’t even speak the language, where I can’t even read the street signs?
  • The determination to say, I am a woman who, in some ways, gave up her world for her husband. And I am still a feminist: a passionately engaged and motivated woman with enough persistence to keep trying, day by day, to build a new world and life for myself on top of, and even because of, the one I sacrificed for a marriage.

So how would you answer these questions?

9 thoughts on “Expat Wives, Lean In, and the One Question Feminism is Afraid Of

  1. All good questions. I think you are spot on that immigrants are almost never recpgnized for what they’ve achieved elsewhere, and that has to be difficult. I think the question about what feminists can’t or don’t ask is also important. I realize men give up things too, but I see many more women making difficult choices. Good questions to ponder; thanks for asking them.


  2. This is an excellent post! Some of the questions about putting careers on hold to follow a spouse overseas are common ones in my circle, and in my household, as twice my husband has done it to allow us to pursue my international public health career aspirations. We spent two years in Indonesia before kids, and then another two years in Ethiopia with kids. In both cases, my husband left high powered domestic jobs, to do less appealing consultant work overseas. International jobs do inflict unusual choices and conflicts in marriages. I was surprised to hear the 9% figure, as this has not been my observation from couples I have come across in my field (perhaps because the pay in global health or development is not on par with corporate jobs overseas?). It would be interesting to see the equivalent figure for men as trailing spouses. I do suspect it is higher, but then the next question is whether the job overseas is as fulfilling as ones left behind at home.
    In any case, many of your thoughts and questions are consistent with what my spouse has experienced and are true regardless of sex. So I would argue, no – not anitfeminist.


    1. Thanks so much, Anne, for your thoughtful response and for sharing your own experience. I bet you are totally right that global health development is probably *not* on part with corporate jobs. I also bet that the 9% figure came from a survey that surveyed expats in developing countries, which would exclude a lot of people in your field. But it’s so interesting to think about your situation and how your husband has faced choices a lot of trailing wives have faced. Sending my very best to both of you!


  3. This discussion is so timely Tracy! Actually some of my beta readers pointed out an aspect of my manuscript that initially never occurred to me — the career versus love conflict, which is inherent in what you’re writing about. In the end, I actually end up making a choice that hurts my career prospects because I wanted to remain close to my own husband. And I never regret doing that, even though it might seem anti-feminist to do that. I just feel like a better person when I’m around him — he is the one person in the world who understands me, who supports me and motivates me to be the best I can be. Without him, I would never have ventured to write my manuscript or even start up Speaking of China, my website. So I can say with confidence that I gained far more than I might have seemingly “lost” in giving up the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder in a multinational company.


  4. Good point! I think a lot about what I’ve given up and traded off as the trailing spouse/parent. Some of the choices have been made with my kids in mind surely, but others are choices that as a spouse I might well have made anyway. I think you raise a great point Tracy. What about love? Or dare I say it, world peace? Okay, that’s a little ambitious. 🙂 But at what point do I get some credit for enhancing cultural understanding and appreciation? Not just between me and my partner, but my in-laws and everyone else who lives around us and gets to know us and learn more about our respective cultures and all that goes with that. Is this not valuable? Is “contributing to the workforce” somehow measurably better or just a different set of values? I don’t want to say that I’m with my partner to promote cultural relations, but in an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic world, those of us on the leading edge have certainly taken a leap of faith that plenty of people wouldn’t even consider and it seems like that should count for something too.


    1. Hi Jill. Thanks for your message. I too have thought a lot about how to value, and even sometimes quantify, the work we do for and with our families. I think about all the challenges of caring for Shogun Sr with his Parkinson’s, about the work and caring and meaning involved in just simple moments, like helping him stand up from his wheelchair to put his coat on so we can go for a walk, or balancing helping him in the bathroom while working to maintain his dignity at the same time, or trying to communicate with him about what he wants/needs and sorting through what’s incomprehensible b/c we speak different languages and what b/c of dementia, etc., etc., and I can’t help but think that this is all more valuable–and a lot harder–than what goes on in an office or even boardroom. But I guess that’s just not quantifiable. Or, really, that it needs to be, I suppose. I guess it all just adds up to things, in some way, I’ll value more than work, or my professional work.

      And the same, I suppose, must go for you and much of your ‘work’ being part of and supporting your husband’s family, too.

      Anyway, sending you all my best from Osaka!


  5. As an American who moved to Sweden to be with her Australian husband, I have struggled with so many of these questions in my 9 years abroad. On my good days, I tell myself that giving up my wonderful career in the US was the right decision. On the bad days–mostly in winter when it is so dark in this part of the world–I question every choice.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    1. Thanks, Sandra, for mentioning your experience. I think so many of us expats are always re-evaluating our decisions, wondering if we’ve done the right thing, etc. But I always have to remind myself that I’d probably be doing the same thing (although maybe about different choices) if I were still living at home. Sometimes I think it’s so easy, at least for me, to either credit or blame (or do a little of both) being an expat with/for the way I feel at certain moments, as opposed to crediting/blaming the experience of just being human and thus always a little lost, always a little prone to ask “what if?” Although I imagine that, during Sweden’s long, dark winter, it’s pretty clear that things would at least look really different back home! Sending you all my very best…


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