Transitioning to become a stay-at-home spouse in a foreign country can be isolating. One expat shares her story of how volunteering helped her find a new community and settle in.
By Ema Naito-Bhakdi
You’re living in a foreign country because of your spouse’s job. You don’t speak enough of the local language, and your visa doesn’t allow you to work. And you’ve taken on a new role as a stay-at-home caregiver.
The transition from “working” to “stay-at-home” (often used as a synonym for “unemployed”!) can be tough, even if you weren’t in a foreign country. But that foreignness can add another layer of isolation—linguistically, culturally, physically, and professionally.
My days as a stay-at-home mom in Thailand revolved around nursing and feeding, potty training, sleep training, transporting the kids to/from kindergarten, and planning/supervising/joining play (I’m eternally thankful for our household help!). They were all worthy activities to grow a functional human being—but I was bored.
Deprived of adult conversation and thought, I felt stagnant. Even when I had an adult to talk with, all I seemed capable of was to babble about baby poo and sleep. I bored myself.
Breaking out of my comfort zone
LESSON: You might have to go out of your comfort zone, but taking the plunge may lead you to unexpected places.
Seasoned expats know that volunteering is one great way to get out there, make new friends, earn the satisfaction of doing something meaningful, and find one’s sense of belonging.
But sometimes, it’s not easy to take that first step. Inertia, shyness, the sheer exhaustion of parenting young children, fear...there are so many reasons that can keep you back.
My biggest mental block was fear—of having to meet so many strangers, of adjusting to yet another world, of not being good enough to do the job.
It took me until the post-birth high of baby no.3 to muster up the courage to volunteer for an English-language parenting support organization, as assistant editor for their monthly magazine.
A year later, I found myself editor in chief, responsible for producing a 60-page magazine every month for our over-500 member families.
Once again, fear stopped me. Despite enjoying editing and knowing how to manage projects, I didn’t think I had the professional background to be the big EDITOR IN CHIEF. It took a bit of encouragement from my husband (who probably later regretted it) before I could go once again out of my comfort zone and give it a go.
The payback was more than I could ever have imagined. I got to try out new skills and develop old ones, gain experience to add to my resume, and earn acknowledgment and respect from my peers.
And seeing many of my fellow volunteers pursue their interests and passions through and after their experience with the organization in new, reinvented careers gave me the courage to strike out into a new career too.
Digging in, finding my new community
LESSON: Volunteering can give you a sense of belonging—the more so, the deeper you engage.
Being the editor meant I had to attend monthly managing committee meetings, and the introvert in me recoiled at the prospect of meeting so many new people.
But then I discovered we were all in the same boat: we were professional women (men were also welcome, but it was usually women) who couldn’t work in Thailand and who were keeping our professional selves alive by running the organization. Volunteering gave us an outlet for our itch to make use of our skills and experiences, for the good our community of expat parents.
I came to look forward to the committee meetings. To be in the room with women who were passionate about their work was stimulating and inspiring. And this energizing component was entirely missing from my first, lighter role as an assistant editor working remotely from home.
Expat knowledge tells us how important it is to find a community to which we can belong. Full-on engagement with volunteering gave me my new community and the chance to reconnect with my professional identity.
Giving and receiving: A two-way street
Volunteering isn’t all about altruism or pure self-fulfillment. There’s plenty of that, but we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging what we “get” out of volunteering as well.
In my case, in exchange for contributing my skills through many hours of labor, I got practical work experience to beef up my resume, created a portfolio of work, secured references for future jobs, and built my network. And made friends!
(I also appreciated that the organization gave practical privileges to volunteers, such as free entry to their events and invitations to semi-annual appreciation luncheons.)
A note: volunteering is great but like anything, “fit” is important. If you’ve given it a fair shot but you’re not enjoying your work or it’s not what you had in mind, then I think it’s perfectly ok to step away (but try not to burn your bridges in the process).
I’ve now left Bangkok but I’m forever grateful to the organization and the wonderful volunteers I’ve got to work alongside there.
ATCK Ema has found her new volunteering “home” as FIGT blog editor. Now based in Singapore, she is an independent scholarly editor who enjoys classical singing and blogging about raising three cross-cultural, multilingual kids.