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Thoughts from an expat spouse

I’ve heard the question so many times now, but it still catches me by surprise, makes me feel about 5 inches tall and like a blubbering idiot.

“So what do you do here in Paris?”

My answer has changed and evolved since arriving in March 2013 when I left my career as a chemical engineer at Canada’s largest oil & gas company. Looking back, the decision to start a new adventure overseas with my husband wasn’t hard at all. With the promise of Paris before us, everyone would take the opportunity, right? Wouldn’t you?


I decided to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to live a “life of leisure” in Paris. I quickly made friends in the same boat as me. We kept each other company during the days while we explored Paris, learned French, and helped each other navigate this foreign world. The biggest surprise was how the simplest of chores: grocery shopping, going to the post office, crossing the city, figuring out where to buy this necessity and that… everything took a lot longer than it ever had before. I also dove right into a multitude of classes, hobbies and small jobs.

My days filled quickly. Even without a full time job.

When someone asks what I do in Paris, there are three general types of answers:

  1. Oh… nothing much.
  2. Just enjoying life here.
  3. Well… I was an English teacher for a year. I also coach Crossfit, but only a few hours a week. I go to French school. Umm… I do a lot of things. I take cooking classes. I blog. I work for a friend at his design company. Oh and I manage an apartment… Sometimes I translate documents…

And then the list of excuses explanations why I’m not conforming to the expected life of full-time work… We thought we’d only be here one year. I couldn’t speak French when we first moved. There are no refineries in Paris after all. We’ll keep moving so I can’t continue my career. To add to that, no I don’t have children.


I can see the look in people’s eyes… they don’t quite understand. They think I’m bored all day or have nothing valuable to do. While the other person falls somewhere between pity and jealousy, I feel embarrassed. Judged. And then really low in self-confidence and full of self-doubt.

Is this what an identity crisis feels like?

I had an identity linked to a career title once. I could easily have answered the question “what do you do?” and carry on a conversation confidently. I’m still the intelligent, motivated and interesting person just without a job title.

I traded a stationary, routine life for one that involved immersing in a new culture, learning how to live in a foreign country, traveling around the world and supporting my husband in a good career that will provide for us. I had nothing to lose and still don’t.

I am an expat wife. A trailing spouse.

But what does that mean? It’s not the glamourous, carefree, sitting-in-a-café-with-a-drink-every-afternoon kind of life.

Life as an expat spouse isn’t all about travel and stories about living in a new country. It has exposed me to an unconventional, unknown road with detours in self-discovery, bumps in self-confidence, through hills of happiness and valleys of restlessness. I see great examples of trailing spouses who changed careers, became entrepreneurs and harnessed the opportunities that a life overseas provides them and I want that too.

At the risk of being vulnerable, I hope by writing and sharing these thoughts, something is revealed to me. And in the process can help others too.


For me, I know there is something more. Something more I can do in my life. A passion that is waiting to be revealed and harnessed. Some good I can put out into the world. And one day I will have an answer to that question.   And when I do, you bet you’ll hear about it.

I still don’t have an answer for the question, “what do you do?” and that is ok. I’m still figuring it out.

This is a lifelong process.
Have you left your career to follow your spouse? What has that meant to you? I’d love to hear about it and connect on the blog.

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  • Steph De Melo

    Great post Lill! I can’t relate 100%, but I understand. I absolutely hate the question, “What do you do?” It’s intrusive, personal, and rude, especially for those who don’t have a job. I avoid asking people at all costs “what they do”. It’s none of my business and maybe they don’t want to talk about it. Jobs and job titles don’t define people unless they want it to (which is fine). If it’s brought up in conversation by the person, then I’ll engage, of course.
    For me, when people find out that my background is in teaching, yet I don’t currently teach, I get the “don’t give up” line. Excuse me, but I didn’t give up on anything and I love my current job, not everyone has to stick to one dream/job/path/etc. Things change. I personally embrace change. It’s exciting, I love learning to adapt, and it keeps me on my toes. The next time someone asks me ‘what I do’, I think I’ll respond with, “Lots of things”
    #PeopleForTheEradicationOfAskingWhatSomeoneDoesForALiving — I’ll come up with something more simple and catchy later.

  • This was a super interesting read for me! There has been some talk lately of my boyfriend taking a job abroad in the near future, and I’ve been having serious back and forth thoughts about whether or not I’d be okay with uprooting my career to go with him. Obviously I *would* go with him, but would I be able to find work? Would I be okay if I didn’t? Glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with these thoughts! And if we do ever end up moving abroad, I’ll definitely be searching through your whole blog for coping tips!

    • Hi Kelly! Thanks for the comment. I wish I had an answer for you but it really is something you may not know until you try. When I first arrived, I was thrilled to be free and try new things without a full-time job. But as time passes and I see friends and other people advancing, seems like I’m stagnating in a way. I’m still in the process of figuring myself out and what I really want to do. I have lots of ideas and passions and working on the tools to make something out them. 🙂

  • I can relate to this so well. I did the same thing when I moved to Paris – left my job in HR to seize the opportunity my husband had with his job to relocate. I remember it was so hard, especially in the beginning, as I realized how much I regarded my job as a part of my identity. Then not to have it, and to have everyone asking “what I did” did not help! I even had a woman in one of my French classes forward me an article from a newspaper about how women need to have a job/career for security – her way of telling me in case something happened to my marriage, I needed to be working. I can look back and see that during my time abroad, I slowly developed a self-confidence in who I was was/am apart from a job and had the freedom to pursue passions with the extra time. But you are so right – daily tasks take so much longer and fill up the days easily! I think trailing spouses are really trail-blazing spouses because we have the burden of figuring out life in a foreign country alone while the other spouse is at work in his/her comfort zone! 🙂

    • It’s too bad we didn’t cross paths while in Paris! I think I would just cry if someone sent me an article like that. Seems like quite q fragile time period and working on building self confidence and an identity. Thank you for the kind words. I love that: trail blazing spouse! Just perfect

      • I know, it’s too bad – I just moved back to the States last June. Crazy how fast that time has gone! I’m missing Paris lots – hoping to get back and visit at some point this year 🙂

  • Good read!
    Well, writing a blog, managing apartment, coaching crossfit and many other activities which you mentioned seem more than enough to me 🙂 Living out of 9-5 routine is often very responsible and challenging.

  • Ashley Tinker

    Hey Lillian! I could also easily occupy myself with random jobs and hobbies. I wasn’t working this winter and I also had that same identity crisis. Also, the jobs that I’ve been doing since I’ve moved to France are not jobs that I would have been doing in Montreal. I’m constantly filing through excuses but really it boils down to that I care too much what other people think…I’m working on it! Enjoy your opportunities! I’m still figuring it out as well. -Ashley (CuriousProvence)

    • Thank you for the comment and happy to know you can relate. It’s hard to let go of caring about what other people think. It comes in ways, sometimes I don’t care, other times it consumes me and my decisions. Le Sigh… 🙂

  • I love this post Lillian and can relate completely as you already know!! It’s so hard to let go of my engineer identity because I was so proud of it and felt like that it gave me worth. I still don’t know what to answer when people I meet ask me the question (right now, I just say that I do some work for my boyfriend’s business… and while that is true, it’s also not a career).

    But why should we be ashamed to live such a wonderful life of travel and discovering new cultures? It’s so true that even though we don’t technically “work”, the day fills up fast! I’ve really enjoyed being able to spend time on other hobbies that I didn’t previously have time to do. If only I can figure out how to make some money from that, haha! I’m sure we’ll both figure it out at some point as we explore new interests :). Though to be honest, it sounds to me like that you do a lot of things, with managing an apartment and teaching crossfit!

    • Thanks for the comment and for perusing the blog 🙂 As I read your comment I’m like “oh yeah”, “I know,” nodding my head non-stop! Really nice to know there are other women out there that feel the same way. I’m sure even some men too. We’ll figure it out… one thing I’ve come to realize is to be patient with myself and also to just do and try things… everyone starts off somewhere. Just have to keep moving forward and not be afraid to fail and we’ll find that thing.

  • I was working as a chemist before my husband got the offer to move to Germany. I really miss working and I dislike that lost feeling I get when I have to say I’m unemployed / a housewife / or whatever I chose to say on any given day. I appreciate your insight and encouragement on the topic.

    • Hi Ava! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and liking my Facebook page. I hope to discover the answer to this feeling we share some day, but in the meantime, hope you can find some joy and inspiration from my other posts. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Marty Robin

    We had been married for a while and things were OK, I was in love with her, she was crazy about me, but later on everything changed and by complicated exterior circumstances which did not have to do with us, we decided to pause for a while, but still remain friends. But in the end, she started getting cold: she treated me as if she did not know me, she acted too immature to the point where she did not even say hi to me when we bumped into each other (we had the same circle of friends). Of course, it hurt so badly, I wanted to kill her. Then out of nowhere she disappeared. I wrote her for her birthday and she replied little. Some of my “friends” saw she had left and started going cold with me too, as if it was my fault that she had left. The few that were still my close friends and still hers, told me she had moved on, that it was best not to make contact with her. Then out of the blue some months later she reappeared, but still acting like a douche. I was suffering emotionally of course, because we had never even had a divorce, it was just supposed to be a pause, so I did not know how to react, what to feel, what to do… anyway, she kept coming over and over on the weekends, and I had to deal with my “friends” who the moment they saw her, immediately left me and went over to her. Eventually, I decided to give up trying to restore anything with her as she was showing no signs of wanting me back, and started healing. Around four months after we had ended our relationship, I find out she is with another guy! That’s when I knew I had not gotten over her, because I cried, I was mad, it was just a feeling of “oh, poor me”. I could not stand losing her to some other guy, I decided to go diabolical (i.e. via spell). I got involved with a lot of fraudulent so-called spell casters on the internet who ripped me off my money without getting a result as to what I wanted. I almost lost my sanity. Just as I almost was giving up, one faithful morning, I received a mail from one of the spell castes I had applied for spell with but never got a reply all along. He made me to understand that he could not attend to all his costumers then because it was that time of the year for his annual fellowship with his ancestors for the renewal of his spiritual and supernatural gift. I told him not to worry about the spell anymore, that I was done with all of them fake spell casters. He assured me of his 100% genuine work of this gift which he possessed. I decided to give it a try. After spending about 2500 USD (which was due to my inability to provide a whole lot of materials which he needed for the spell process), I am happy to announce to the world that I have gotten back my wife and we are expecting our first baby. All thanks to Dr. Kene Dilli. All you out there tired of all these fraudsters that call themselves spell casters (seeking to rip were they have not sown) and you require legitimate spell for whatsoever purpose, contact Dr. Kene Dilli on his email address; kenedillitemples AT yahoo DOT com.

  • Just found your blog and I am loving it!!! I can totally relate to everything you are saying!