8 years… that’s how long ago I decided to shelf my career to follow the man of my dreams. I still worked during those eight years, popped out two lovely daughters in the meantime, but 8 years ago was the last time I really considered myself a ‘career woman’… until recently.
I used to work 60+ hr weeks as a psychologist, worked in a joined private practice and delivered a number of training workshops to other professionals. I didn’t have children, my husband (then boyfriend) was working overseas and I had only myself and the dog to look out for. Shelving that career, to leave Australia and follow my partner’s, has never been a ‘sacrifice’ to me – far from it! But I won’t say it didn’t come with some major adjustments. After leaving Down Under, I took to more flexible and less demanding jobs. It worked perfectly moving around the globe, and when we started our little family, it was the ideal setting to balance work and family… and it has been for the last 8 years. All that changed, a month ago, after being offered a great opportunity back in my professional field, here in France.
The excitement of jumping back into a career (one I had secretly been missing for some time) propelled me through the first few weeks. I started researching additional childcare, looked at ways to expand my professional network and got up to speed with current research and trends. The hype was real and I was ready to dive in, fully clothed, without ever looking back.
But, then came the gut… a little knot that reminded me this was going to be a major change in our family dynamic and affect my time with the children and my partner. The occasional Wednesday afternoon of secretly wishing I was at work instead of arts n’ crafting paper plates, evenings where I felt slightly resentful that I was always the one home for bath and dinner time; were now going to be things of the past. The reality of spending less time with my girls hit me, and rose-coloured glasses made me forget all the tantrums, spilled food and rainy indoor days. Suddenly, I viewed my children as flawless angels I was leaving behind with an after-school nanny, and I was hit right in the face with a nice, big, juicy guilt trip. On top of that, for the last 4 years in France I had been predominantly speaking in English at work, which was now turning into working fully bilingual.
I’m most definitely not the first, or the last, woman to have taken a career break post-kids; nor I am the only person in France who’s diving back into their careers in a new country. There are so many of us who have gone through the emotional rollercoaster of taking up their careers again in an entirely new setting, which has made things easier knowing this.
Below are a few of the challenges this little writer is currently dealing with in trying to find the best possible work/life balance, re-defining her ‘professional self’ and setting up a new network in a country that is not her own.
- Admitting the need for extra help
I’ve come to realise that it would be nearly impossible to commit to a full-time career, settle into a new work environment, and be home for all the little things with the children. Many of us who followed our partners here, don’t always have the same support network like we would back home. Our families don’t necessarily live nearby and not everything can fall on the shoulders of the in-laws. Some sacrifices (from both ends) will need to be made and one of them is hiring the extra help to do so. Here in France there are a number of ways to go about that including: expat Facebook Groups, Nanny agencies, babysitter applications, and local ads. There are enough people hiring help for us to get good references and not be forced to choose some random person off the street. Honestly, at this very moment, I’m kind of looking forward to not having to deal with the dinner/bath time routines anymore; but I know the second it all sets in, I’ll miss it like crazy. (I’ll need to remind myself I said that, as I chase my naked 2-year-old around the house tonight, trying to get her cheeky butt into the tub).
- Learning to let go a little
Getting extra help comes hand-in-hand with letting go of some of the control. In our household my husband and I work well together as a team, but I’m no stranger to being a bit of a control freak (I’m even kind of proud of being one). With a husband who often travels for work, a full-time job and two young children; I’m my own worst critic in trying to have everything in order. My goal to ‘have it all’ has sometimes lead to a very full bucket (figuratively speaking, my real bucket is dried off, clean, and stowed away in the garage ;p) and I’ve had to learn to let go of a few things for the greater good. The idea of what ‘having it all’ means, seems to have a very individual response for everyone and changes for me on a daily basis. Some days ‘having it all’ for me means my family still had a healthy home-cooked meal after I spent the day at the office and I’m on top of the laundry. Other days ‘having it all’ means I managed to take a shower and go to the toilet on my own…you know … it changes with the tides.
- Dealing with the Guilt Trip
Moms have guilt trips about pretty much everything… yes…e.vry.thing. We’re mom-shamed whether we breastfeed or formula feed, sleep train or co sleep, use a dummy or thumbs, work or stay at home – you name it. We can never win and being subjected to the occasional guilt trip is simply part of the game. Of course, how we respond to said guilt trip, and how we let it influence our lives, is what matters most. As a working mom, I’ve seen enough judgmental glares at the school as I drop my daughter off in a rush to catch the train and condescending comments like “oh so you can’t come to the 11 am parent breakfast …on a Tuesday?” are now met with a blank stare. What keeps me going more than anything is my daughters seeing their mom kicking butt at work and being home for them after for some quality time together. I want to role model strength, confidence and independence to them; which I believe can be done by both working or stay-at-home moms alike. So the guilt trip (although still deeply felt) will not influence the choices I make for myself and for my family.
- Re-defining your Professional Self in a new place
It takes time to build yourself up professionally. Many of us may have left behind a very strong professional network, where we made a name for ourselves, and past achievements might not always be recognised the same way in a new country. For me, re-defining my professional identity has been about regaining confidence after a career break, brushing up on new skills and identifying boundaries that have changes dramatically since the last time I was in my field. Skills acquired during a career break are still valuable competencies, that can be transferred into the workforce, and we should be confident using them. Moving countries, adapting to new cultures, learning a new language, and raising children so they don’t end up a crime lord or high end stripper (no judgement, just not my cup of tea); are already great skills that not every John or Jane Doe can master.
- Connecting with the local professional network
One thing I have found very useful in diving back into my career in a new country, has been connecting with other like-minded individuals. There is an abundance of Facebook groups that include Expats in your area, expat parents, expat working mothers, career-seeking expats and what not. Professional clubs, seminars, conferences, and events link people from all over the globe and are a great way to get back into your career and make some valuable connections. Like I said earlier; I’m not the first, nor the last, to do this, and why not access a community of people who’ve been there for advice or support?