In 2011, I was living and working the typical black millennial experience in Chicago. My hobbies were limited to brunch, happy hour, and networking. I had a great job, a nice apartment by the lake, and my career trajectory was on a steady upward angle. When my then boyfriend proposed not only marriage, but also a transatlantic move to London, I jumped at the chance. I pictured my life being a consistent stream of Travel Noire type photos as I traveled around my new home and the rest of Europe.
I quit my job without as much as a second thought, packed up my apartment in Chicago and followed my now husband to London. When I first touched down, I was too busy trying to settle into a new culture to really think about the ramifications of what I had done. After the the dust settled though, I found myself in the terrifying, uncharted territory of an identity crisis.
The first several months in London were fabulous. I was enjoying my new husband, a new culture, new travels, and new friends. Instead of thinking that I had sacrificed both my professional and personal life to be in London, I saw it as a new adventure not only for myself but for my husband. We were not only exploring each other in a new marriage, but also discovering an entirely new culture together.
In many ways, it was one of the best things that happened to my marriage even though it was one of the most challenging things that ever happened to me. In the five years that I spent in London, my friends back home were starting businesses and climbing the corporate ladder. More and more articles were being published about black women leading the way in education and entrepreneurship. What started out as FOMO suddenly turned into a full blown crisis. Black millennial women were getting PhD’s and building brands while I was just rolling around literally barefoot and — by this time — pregnant.
I was a black millennial woman, but I wasn’t the black millennial woman that people wrote about. I was an expat spouse, and for the first time since I moved to London, that bothered me. My whole existence was relegated to a term that made me a peripheral character to my husband’s status, and I didn’t like it.
I resented it. It made me think about all of the things that I had given up to become an expat spouse: my family, my friends, my career, my bottomless brunches in the city, and my confidence.
As I connected with other expat spouses expressing similar sentiments, I quickly realized that my experience was not unique. Feelings of insecurity, isolation, and homesickness run rife in the expat spouse community. These feelings were only exacerbated by the birth of my first child leading to a hiatus of my freelance styling. It was when I stopped working that I realized how much of my identity was tied to it. Upon meeting someone new, which seemed like all the time, the very first questions are, why are you and what do you do. Explaining time after time that I was here “for my husband’s job” did quite a number on my previously healthy ego.
Once I identified the catalyst for my little crisis though, I was able to take steps to overcome it. Instead of worrying about others perceptions, a thing I hadn’t done before I took on the role of expat spouse, I started focusing on my own goals again. I focused on the experience of living abroad and exploring a new culture, and finding ways to make each day productive and meaningful on my own terms. I launched an e-newsletter to coach other expat spouses through the experience.
While talking about my experience has helped others in similar situations, it’s been therapeutic for me. I made some sacrifices for this life, but after five years, I can safely say that the positives far outweigh the negatives. I’ve built a truly global network essentially from scratch. I’ve experienced a totally new country and culture. I’ve traveled extensively, and the isolation from the things that were familiar to us brought my husband and I closer together. While I still haven’t exactly gotten used to explaining my role as an expat spouse, I no longer feel defined by it.