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Mrs Wife (is very, very cross with Mr Wife)

In My Marriage on July 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

There is something wonderful & unique at the centre of most expat lives; a marriage. Certainly you can’t be an ‘expat wife’ or a ‘trailing spouse’ without one.

Having trawled the blogosphere for a comforting voice on the trials of expat marriage and not found one, I am left to conclude either that;

  1. no other expats couples get p*ssed off with each other;
  2. that there is a conspiracy of silence or;
  3. bloggers are sensible enough not to blog when they are actually furious with their partners and when that passes, they have forgotten what all the fuss was about.

Well I was recently in just such a position of emotional turmoil: Dean had said the wrong thing and to such an extent that I wondered who he’s been married to for the last year because it couldn’t possibly be me.  I was so angry with him that I just wanted to leave.

When Dean does not ‘step up to the mark’ to provide the comfort and support I need, I feel very lonely. I don’t have an obvious person to talk to; the people who know me best do not fully understand the expat life and other expats don’t know me well enough to be trusted with unadulterated Dean-bashing (they might take it seriously!)

While I generally find expat blogs and websites very helpful, I couldn’t find much on domestic disharmony (certainly for the key words I was looking up) so I decided to offer this post as my contribution to the canon.

To recap, this was the situation:
I had explained, on a number of occasions, over several months and in various degrees of composure, that I find expat life challenging. My husband said something that revealed so little understanding of my position that I was left to conclude that he hadn’t been listening to me at all. I needed to talk to someone but the obvious choice (i.e. my husband) had already failed me.

So, was the solution:

  1. get on that plane;
  2. sulk and feel sorry for myself;
  3. murder on the Aravali Hills or;
  4. talk to him anyway

Well it was a fair amount of 2) followed by 4) – although I was seriously tempted by the airport.

I felt isolated and hurt and I blamed Dean. I have read somewhere in the blogosphere that one of the guiding principles of a happy marriage is, always blame the situation and not the person.  It’s good advice. We talked, I made it very clear to Dean what I needed from him in our situation, I even devised a mnemonic – more another time, Dean has agreed to work on it. So it turns out Mr Wife isn’t that bad after all (until the next time).

Being a domestic goddess ain’t all it’s cracked up to be!

In Being Ma'am on July 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm

So how about plans to replace the housekeeper? Well there aren’t any. What? An expat wife cleaning her own toilets? … Er no, there’s still someone to do the cleaning, but I have decided to do the rest i.e. cooking and laundry. Sounds easy right? I mean who doesn’t do that in the UK? Well it turns out it’s not!

Following the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, school of thought and to appease my husband, I have started to cook Indian food. Dean likes a curry and takes a tiffin to work each day. It’s the deluxe 4 tier model which means 4 different dishes; protein (usually meat), veg, daal or beans and a carbohydrate (chapati or rice). Forget sandwiches and a drink – this lunch is in a league of its own.

Next there’s the washing up: I don’t have to do the washing up, I could get the maid to do it but there’s a lot of it and she has other work to do. If she did the washing up, she would either do less of the other stuff or have to spend more time working, neither of which suit me. Because I’m cooking I need my pots and pans ready when I want them and I don’t like dirty dishes sitting around, she would only do the washing up once a day so logistically it doesn’t work either.

Hmmm the pile of ironing is rising before me like a Gurgaon skyscraper. Most of our clothes need ironing because they are mainly cotton or linen. I had convinced myself that it was possible to wash and iron everything in a day because drying is not a problem in India. Of course it is possible but only if you have nothing else to do.

So why am I putting myself through all this. Especially as I don’t have to?

Domestic staff is a way of life in India. Most expats in India have domestic staff. It also seems the norm for expats globally. However expat life is also generally dependent on one member of a couple (usually the wife) giving up work. So here’s the rub; like many other expat wives, I became a housewife at the same time as having no housework to do.

For me that statement is literally true; I moved into a home that was already set up so I have always had a full contingent of staff. There have been a few reshuffles but I have never not had a housekeeper, until now.

I knew I would need some help on my journey here. So I packed what I now consider to be a piece of gold, a book, “A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas” by Debra Bryson and Charise Hoge. They offer practical tools for dealing with the most significant change that occurs when you follow your husband overseas; your change of identity or “Who am I?” It strikes me that being a housewife with no housework is something of an identity crisis.

I think ‘home making’ is something I’m pretty good at and, apart from washing up (which I detest), I quite enjoy. In the UK I wouldn’t have put it right at the top of my list of priorities but it was something that I did. When you follow your husband abroad the familiar goes out the window; it’s disorienting and challenging. However this is a familiar role that I could have pursued, but I didn’t. I can’t change what happened then (and I don’t want to) but I am ready to reclaim the role now.

One of the things that occupies me is the potential lack of achievement in my expat life, both day-to-day and over the assignment. As an expat wife nothing I do is strictly defined (unless I define it). By contrast cooking a meal is definite. In a life where achievement is rare, that is a big deal.

I struggle with scheduling my time. Housework has to have a schedule otherwise it mounts up. My ironing suggests that I need to do some work on this! I have a theory that settling into the routine of housework will add structure to the rest of my ‘working’ life.

I have a year’s worth of experience of being a Ma’am. One of the things I have learnt is that it only works if I have things my way. It sounds harsh because I am talking about other human beings but there is no room for creative decision-making in domestic staff. They can’t place your vase over the other side of the room because they though maybe it would look better over there or play around with the timing of dinner to achieve greater efficiency. It has to be what, when, where and how you want it. It is directional management. I think doing it myself will make me clearer about what I want and therefore better able to pass this on to my future housekeeper, if there is one.

So being a domestic goddess is hard but good. However I still reserve the right to give it all up in favour of G&T drinking at some future date!

Chartered Institute of Ma’am

In Being Ma'am on July 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm

As I sit here labouring away at my Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) qualification I am distracted by the realities of my real life at the coalface of domestic staff management: I have just sacked my housekeeper: I am uneasy about the situation I find myself in: If only there were a qualification I could take to help me deal with its many challenges.

It seems likely that my housekeeper fabricated the delivery of three tankers of water, over the space of nine days, and pocketed the Rs800 (£11) per delivery. In total that’s about 30% of her monthly salary. As a result I have let her go without salary or severance pay and with no reference.

I quizzed her extensively on the circumstances of the ‘deliveries’ and concluded that she was not telling the truth. However, who am I to decide whether she is telling the truth?  I am not independent and there is room for doubt; the matter was brought to my attention by another member of staff, the evidence against her, although considerable, is circumstantial and she continued to protest her innocence right up to me asking her to go.

Asking someone to leave your home if you do not trust them is a matter of personal protection; not paying money owed or writing a reference is a punishment. So now I am jury and judge. There is a clear power inequality in this situation but in reality there is no alternative (there’s no domestic service arbitration service in India.)

I have all the power. I’ve decided to punish someone even though I have some doubts about her guilt. This is what makes me uneasy. On the other hand, no one said the exercise of power was easy. I had to deal with the situation, I had to make decisions. I did all I could to assess the situation fairly. As a result, I came to the conclusion that she did it. Having come to that conclusion I punished her: I hope that she is clear of the consequences of her actions and is dissuaded from doing it again. With regards to not writing a reference, in reality, I think this may do her a favour as she escapes the possibility of getting a bad one.