Marcie, an American serial expat wife, has a story unlike anything I’ve heard before, but one that many wives with husbands with a job overseas can probably relate to.
As a result, Marcie has had to face the “should I stay or go” question a total of 8 times. Each time the circumstances around the decision to be made have been a little bit different.
Having learned about and shared a number of expat stories by now, I can attest to the fact that Marcie has experienced pretty much every variation of having to decide whether to stay or go.
While Marcie recently published a book about her “tagalong wife” journey – “Em’s Awful Good Fortune” – in this post she takes us along on a short, but incredibly raw and honest take on when it makes sense to tag along and when it does not.
You can also follow Marcie on Instagram.
Please tell us a little bit about your story so far. Who are you and where have you lived during your expat journey?
For better or worse, I’m a serial “tagalong” wife. Before I began tagging along, I had been a successful marketing professional in the entertainment industry, but quitting jobs and dropping out the workforce for years at a time hampered that career trajectory.
Now, finally, I have reimagined myself as a writer, and it’s a completely satisfying pursuit. It has not been an overnight transition, but it is a rewarding one.
Originally from Detroit, I moved to Los Angeles to marry my husband (and because it was a good move for my career– I worked in radio and LA is the center of the music industry).
For a brief time, my husband and I were both based in LA working in entertainment. Then his career took off internationally and L.A. became more of a “home base” than home.
To sum up our expat experience: we have lived in Daejeon and Seoul, Korea for two years, Paris for four years, Tokyo for one year and Shanghai for three years. Always returning to Los Angeles in between posts.
Without me and the kids, my husband has lived in: Osaka for one year, Italy for eight months, Greenhithe (near London) for six months, New York for six months and he’s about to move back to Shanghai for a year and a half – without me. Due to Covid it is unlikely I will be able to secure a spousal visa.
What has your personal experience been with the “should I stay or go?” question?
The first time my husband took a job overseas (Osaka), it was a shock to me – he just came home from work one day and announced: We’re moving to Osaka!
“He assumed I would go with him. There was no discussion, not even a hint that something like this could happen.”
He was offered the opportunity at lunch and accepted the job on the spot.
Our daughter was 10 months old at the time and I was working for a music magazine. When I tried to quit my job, they made me a counter offer: more money, flexible hours AND extra vacation time to visit my husband.
I couldn’t turn it down, so I stayed in Los Angeles with the baby, my husband moved to Japan alone and our marriage fell apart. If you want the details, you’ll have to read my book!
The next overseas gig he got was working on an expo in Daejeon.
“I had no interest in moving to Korea, but I wanted to keep the marriage together and I did not want to be a single working mother with two small children.”
So we moved to Korea together, as a family.
Between Korea and Paris, my husband took a gig in Italy.
At the time, I was working as the marketing director for the LA Zoo, the kids were settled into elementary school, his gig was only for eight months, and I didn’t want to disrupt our lives.
But, of course, my husband’s being away for months at a time was a disruption!
With two children, a full-time job, no family in L.A. and an absentee husband, I was stretched to the max. Meanwhile, he was living in Italy! With hotel amenities like room service and laundry. He had one job to do, I had my job plus the full responsibility of our children and home.
So, a year later, when he was offered a gig in Paris, I said: YES! I thought Paris would be a blast. I was ready to change jobs, anyway. And a European break seemed ideal, like a gap-year between jobs!
He moved ahead of the family, and before I was even out of our house, but after I had quit my job, the one year turned into four years in Paris.
I was not prepared for that. Four years is a long time to be out of the job market, it felt like the end of my marketing career.
“I became financially dependent on my husband for the first time. I was frustrated by his default position to the patriarchy, always putting his career before mine.”
Lingering anger and resentment caused more problems between my husband and me. Expat marriages are not easy to navigate, and I do not shy away from these issues in my book. But, eventually, I fell in love with Paris. It was there that I discovered my passion for writing.
After four years, we came back to Los Angeles, a close-knit family unit. We had weathered the storm.
I took a throw-away temp job knowing that we would be moving to Japan in a few years. Figuring that, by the time I retooled my resume and found a professional job, I’d only have to quit it again.
“I had become a willing serial tag-along.”
Just about the time that I began to accept the expat lifestyle, problems cropped up with the kids. My daughter didn’t want to move. She resented being yanked out of school in 11th grade. My son had issues adjusting to his new school environment.
“The kids were over the expat thing.”
After Japan, I insisted that my husband get a new, LA-based job. We had a few years of relative stability in Los Angeles. I rebooted my career in marketing and publishing. And then…his new company sent him to London/NYC, back-to-back, for a year.
By then, I was doing well as a marketing consultant and had no interest in disrupting my life for him, yet again, so I didn’t accompany him.
After that year in London/NYC my husband was weighing two new offers – one in Florida and one in Shanghai. Shanghai was the better offer, but I was leaning towards Florida because I could spend time in Detroit with my aging mom and visit him for winters in Florida.
My mother passed away before I was able to put that plan in motion, so he took the job in Shanghai.
I closed my consulting business, moved to Shanghai and began writing in earnest. Subsequently I’ve written / co-produced an award-winning play and recently published a novel.
Your expat journey has been quite the whirlwind. Which decision to stay or go do you regret and why?
I’m not sure I would say “regret” but if I had a do-over– I would not go to Korea.
That move was before the internet, there was no expat community in Daejeon, no international health services, my husband literally worked 6 days a week. It was super isolating.
“The upside for my husband’s career did not compensate for the loss of mine.”
The kids were two and four, and they had been happier in pre-school in Los Angeles. I let go of my toe-hold in the music industry and when we moved back to LA, my next job was a step backwards professionally.
“Here’s the thing: I felt pressured into moving to Korea because when I didn’t go to Osaka (a few years prior), my marriage suffered.”
I had been exhausted working full-time with a baby and no husband to help out.
So, when the Korea gig came around, I agreed to move.
“Turns out it was exhausting being a stay at home mom in a foreign country with a husband who was barely around. All I did was exchange one hardship for another.”
Given the same set of circumstances, I would not quit my job and move to Korea.
Which decision to stay or go would you make again and why?
My decision to move to Shanghai made perfect sense at the time.
“I was transitioning out of my career in sales and marketing, the kids were grown, and I welcomed the opportunity to live overseas, travel and write.”
We were in Shanghai for several years and I loved it, except for the pollution.
My husband is moving back to China in the Fall and if I could get a visa, I would go, too. I’ve redefined myself as a writer and I can do that anywhere.
I’m not afraid of my marriage breaking up, but I would prefer that we live on the same continent! That’s a huge shift in perspective.
“When we were younger, I always felt like I was being dragged around, but now I’m happy to go on the road.”
Because it no longer impacts the children or involves me giving up my career to support his.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself:
- Be productive. Don’t just shop and eat with the tagalong wives.
- Set goals regarding what you want to accomplish during each expat experience.
The universe offered me a new life overseas. Through writing. Knocked me over the head with it, trying to get my attention.
My work was published twice during my first year living in Paris. But I didn’t take it seriously at first.
Instead I minimized the importance of writing by considering it a hobby, a “creative outlet,” something to keep myself busy while living overseas and not working. When, in fact, it was a seismic career shift.
That’s why I call my book “Em’s Awful Good Fortune”. Because, out of the loss of my career came my true passion in life.
“Now I see that being an unemployable tagalong wife was a gift – it gave me the free time and financial security to find and develop my true passion.”
So, yeah, I would tell myself: Girl! Pay attention. This is an opportunity to redefine your life. Be curious about where writing could take you. Don’t look backwards at job loss. Move forward with joy and conviction. And, purpose.
What advice would you give someone who’s husband has been offered a job abroad?
“An overseas job has to benefit both partners in a marriage. Don’t ever lose sight of that basic premise.”
Don’t just pack your bags. Think it through:
- What are you going to do all day while your husband is at work?
- What will you need to make yourself happy?
- What benefits does your husband’s employer offer the accompanying spouse? Career counseling, an educational stipend?
- Are there volunteer opportunities?
- Can you go back to school while overseas?
- How can you keep your resume viable?
- It may be fun to stroll and shop and visit museums all day, every day but at the end of the post-what will you have accomplished?
My advice is to have a plan and hold yourself accountable.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat. Based on her professional work, PhD research and personal experience, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, where to should settle down or whether it’s time to move back home.