'My reference point for others
was suddenly not to me,
it was to my female spouse.'
In Love and Diplomacy, I wrote of the toll that this diplomatic life can take on our relationships. This post continues exploring that theme. You're about to read words written by Simon - a fellow male diplomatic spouse.
Simon's experience of being a male diplomatic spouse is sure to resonate with many. His descriptions of the loss of identity that came through his work and his wife's work, will strike a chord with anyone who's living the diplomatic life with their other half.
For all the joys of seeing the world and living in another country for a few years and experiencing it with your loved one, being a male diplomatic spouse can be a lonely, isolating experience - at least initially. While male diplomatic spouses are ever more common, the support structures for diplomatic spouses often still feel skewed towards women. It can take some time and some effort to find, or create, your place and feel settled.
This can be discouraging; but as Simon notes, patience is needed.
Enough from me. Here's Simon.
* * * * *
I was first a male diplomatic spouse about 15 years ago.
I was in my mid-30s and perhaps getting ready for some more senior management roles, when the first posting hit. It came from nowhere, really. Shortly after the birth of our second child, my wife was approached for a posting, and I felt like it was a great opportunity, a couldn’t-say-no-opportunity for adventurous spirits. It was a big decision point in our lives.
I really felt like I was at a crossroads: do I keep on the capital treadmill and push to move up? Or do I take a diversion to a different life of global experiences? While I couldn’t pass the opportunity up, it was personally a very tough decision, and stressful too. This was the type of opportunity that had presented just a few times previously in my life, but for various reasons, was not pursued. In truth, there’s never a perfect time to decide to go on your first posting, you just decide to do it regardless.
A few relatives and acquaintances remarked at the time that it was perhaps unusual for mid-career men to be following their wives' career. They were saying that this was a good thing, but that it didn’t always happen. I was a little surprised by this, as I didn’t really recognise the gender aspect of my decision at that point. Looking back, they were correct in that there were probably quite a few men (and still are) who may turn down such an opportunity, due to the conflict with their intended career path.
I had to adjust to being referred to as a ‘spouse’. This happened even before I left home. ‘Spouse’ is diplomatic shorthand that is perhaps not meant to offend, or to pigeonhole. But it struck me as a crude label, at least until I got used to it. Like any labelling, it did not encompass the identity I felt I had built to that point.
For many men, one’s identity can be firmly tied to what one does and losing this can be destabilising. You know what I mean: “Oh, I’m a doctor”; “I’m a lawyer”. In other words, “I’m somebody…”. In my case, I became “a dad who was taking time out to accompany my wife on overseas posting”. My reference point for others was suddenly not to me, it was to my spouse.
Men often have their work or career locked firmly into their identity, such that if it is significantly disrupted in any way, they can feel lost and maybe challenged about what face to present to the world. Of course, this can happen at any time due to accidents and illness (as examples), but to voluntarily give it up can, in times of struggle, feel so self-inflicted.
The loss of identity provided by a job challenges the sense of self. I wondered how I would justify my role in the family to the world. The career treadmill is not an easy thing to jump off. If you lose your position and your currency, you think that it will take a long time to get back to that point, if at all possible. But is this such a bad thing? After all, we are more than human rats speeding up on the work treadmill, flogging ourselves mercilessly, possibly to wear out and succumb to myriad conditions, such as burn out, long before even hitting retirement.
This identity issue is confronting for many men. We have been influenced by powerful signals from society about the traditional male financial breadwinner and provider role for the family.
For me, the effect of not being a breadwinner was the emotional equivalent of hitting a brick wall at high speed. One day I’m at work in my senior management role, dropping off the kids to day care along with my wife. The next day, I’m at home all day looking after a one- and a five-year-old, out of a job and in a new country away from my family and friends, with limited working rights, while my wife is busy furthering her career. This was a difficult realisation. But I was consulted; I made the call; I agreed to do this; so I had to make it work.
For me, the immediate challenge was adapting to our new environment. I was far from where I had always called home, operating in a different language where I could only really say ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?” Add to this, a much colder climate than I was used to, and being tied to the home caring for two children, the challenges were real.
At this early point in the posting, I’d say it’s understandable when your wife comes home from work, complaining of work stresses in the new job, for you to feel the need to get some issues off your chest too!! This is a combustible combination, so tread carefully is my advice! Ideally, having a forum for a neutral discussion where you can each explain your issues and feelings enables you to get things off your chest, while appreciating the other’s situation and enabling the inevitable adjustment process to take place.
I remember feeling frustrated with the travails of developing a new life in a new country. When a sales assistant asked me what I thought of her country, I said something along the lines that I was not really coping, and her response was spot on. She said, “It takes time”. Like a lot of life’s challenges, patience, persistence and determination get you there in the end.
Making friends as a male spouse is another issue. In our first posting the vast majority of spouses were female (this is thankfully not the case now), so while they were friendly, it was not really an option to be their best friend. They tended to have different interests to me, had done previous postings and were seemingly content. Looking back on it, I do wonder if they were content with their role.
I was fortunate to meet another male spouse from a different diplomatic mission, who was a bit older than me and had already been a diplomatic spouse before. He could relate to my issues and give me a framework against which to explain things and do some exploring and hobby and exercise activities together. He was able to mentor me as a male spouse. What this also meant for me, was to have some respite from the home routine, and develop a new interest or hobby that my friend was into also. Taking up a sport, hobby or activity that you enjoy and getting to spend some time on it is an opportunity that may not come along too often.
The ongoing challenge for me was lining up some gainful employment. I wanted to get back into the workforce to provide a more familiar and regular structure to my life. Like a lot of diplomatic spouses, the options for formal employment are limited due to visa restrictions. This means working in the local diplomatic mission, or for an international organisation are usually the only options. And, of course, you compete with many others who are also seeking the opportunity. I got to the stage where if I didn’t find work, I would have enrolled in a study course out of desperation for more intellectual activity. This is notwithstanding that after some seven years at university previously, I felt no need to study ever again.
After almost a year of searching and being interviewed, I finally won a temporary part time contract working two days a week in the UN. I still remember sitting down at the computer on my first day of work and letting out a sigh of relief. I was finally back at work - a bit strange looking back now, but true!
I was used to working in an office. Work allowed me some freedom from the tyranny of a two-year-old and I was able to have adult contact, exercise my brain intellectually and earn some money again. My identity as a male breadwinner was restored.
While work continued, I was always the primary carer for our children. This did put me under pressure when the kids were sick and also hemmed me into childcare drop off and pick up hours. This is routinely what many mothers do, but for a man in those days it was rarer than it is now. Thankfully times are changing, and men are increasingly playing this role nowadays.
Looking back on my first experience of being a male spouse on posting, I have to say I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But I certainly will never have to think that I could have spent more time with my children when they were small, and I know I bonded closely with them. In that sense I will always remember it as a very special time as a father.
Currently, I am again a male diplomatic spouse. I can see that I have now made many adjustments over time, mainly to my own expectations. I have come to a greater realisation of what it means to be a male diplomatic spouse. For example, I don’t mind so much that as a spouse, the attention is not on me at official functions. This is something that has taken time to accept and I acknowledge that I did not always feel this way. I now understand that official diplomatic functions are primarily for transacting business. Diplomats are busy, and that time spent talking to a spouse is just not the main game. If you take it personally, you will experience no end to your grief! Accordingly, I’m often happy to miss official functions, unless it is something that I am expected to attend or personally want to attend because of the event or people I know that will be there.
Similarly, sometimes when my wife and I arrive at an official function, those welcoming us assume that I am the posted officer and greet me accordingly. I quickly and discreetly point out that my wife is the senior diplomat, and I’m her spouse. This can be slightly embarrassing for my wife, and for the person making the faux pas. Undoubtedly, the reason for the mix-up is an underlying assumption that as a male, I am the one occupying the senior position, and the female is the spouse. This is however changing, and I feel that people are generally less willing to make these assumptions. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve learnt to put myself more in the background, and make sure my wife is seen to be in the lead in such situations. The adjustment to this role took me some time.
I would say to my younger self that this experience of being a male spouse is not going to be easy. It’s going to take patience, and it’s going to test you. It’s going to cause you to ask yourself questions that you never previously did. But in so doing, it’s also going to expand your horizons in ways you had not previously contemplated.
Finally, following my wife a number of times over the past 15 years has certainly been very different, richer in some ways, but also tremendously challenging. I don’t have any particular regrets, as it has made me who I am, exposing me to more of ‘life’s rich pageant’ than would have otherwise been the case.
Here is what I've learned about being a male diplomatic spouse:
- males can have a strong part of their identity which is tied into their work life;
- role reversal can be difficult for males, but awakens us to different ways of seeing things;
- patience is needed to adjust to new roles and a new environment – it doesn’t happen overnight;
- create a safe space to discuss your concerns with your partner and for your partner to discuss their concerns.
* * * * *
I want to acknowledge the wisdom and strength that are evident in Simon's words, and the bravery in which they've been shared.
It is never easy to put your words out into the world. I know that Simon's words and insight about the patience needed as we learn how to function away from home will resonate with many, irrespective of our own personal situation.
Simon, thank you for bravery and being willing to share your words and stories with us.
Just like in 'Love and Diplomacy', 'Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite!' and ''Finally, I can eat garlic!' Life as a diplomat's daughter', the challenge after reading this blog post is to have further kind and honest conversations with your partner and the important people in your life about what diplomacy requires from you and those you love.
As dedicated readers of my blog, you know that every conversation can be improved with an abundance of kindness and honesty, with yourself and those you love.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.