I'm an American expat, writer. photographer. and old-fashioned romantic in love with celebrating the simple joys of daily life. I appreciate timelessness, the natural world, and a slow life lived with simplicity and intention. When I'm not photographing families or  slowly traveling the world and writing about it in a little notebook, I'm happily grounding myself in nature and cozying up with my sweet husband.

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expat wife looking at building in Paris, France

As an expat wife, am I automatically a “lady of leisure”? It sure feels that way. What they don’t often tell you before following your spouse across the world to a new country is that, you’ll encounter loneliness, a loss of identity and plenty of leisure time. 

As a 24-year-old artist with little money in my bank account and an eager heart lusting for adventure and worldly experiences, I leaped at the opportunity to move to Europe. When my husband was offered a job teaching at the University of Strasbourg in France, I didn’t think twice about it. We didn’t hesitate and that week, we bought the flights.

I imagined a life of afternoons sipping cappuccinos in coffee shops, window shopping and wandering ancient cobblestone streets, far-flung adventures hitchhiking and climbing jagged cliffs along the glittering seas. 

And I lived it all.

But the immensely privileged and freeing life I have now comes with its own set of challenges.

expat wife and lady of leisure reads at cafe in Paris

An Expat Wife or a Lady of Leisure?

During the first 6 months, I proudly titled myself “a lady of leisure.” In the beginning, I basked in my newfound freedom. I spent my schedule-free days reading in coffee shops, snapping photos of the perfectly manicured French gardens, finally learning Photoshop. 

But those long days of empty space led me to a feeling of deep isolation and a loss of my own self, my own identity. I often questioned myself:

What am I doing here in France? How Am I “Moving Up” in My Life? What is this temporary life pause giving me?

It might be similar to what a housewife or stay-at-home mother feels after giving up a job or career. 

Just like the U Curve Hypothesis states,  I initially found myself at an all-time high after quitting my day job and moving to France. But after six or so months of living what felt like, at the time, a purposeless life, I slowly and inexplicably began losing what once lit me up.

I forgot what I privately yearned for.

french bulldog chai latte at farm girl cafe in london

Society Cafe in Bath photographed by Helena Woods

Losing Your Identity When You Move Abroad

There is joy in having a free schedule, in having time to create, play and sit back.

But too much of one thing isn’t a good thing.

The ambitious drive, the fiery heart and scrappy nature that I once so closely velcroed to my identity had quietly whistled his way out.

While I was sitting back and enjoying my cappuccinos in cafes, taking personality quizzes and browsing Art History textbooks, I didn’t notice what quietly exited my life: my grit.

It’s easier than you’d expect to lose your identity when you follow your spouse to a new country.

It’s easy to forget your dreams and private ambitions when you don’t have pressures or stresses, deadlines and bills to pay. Without a working visa and a spoken language, I felt I had given up control over my life.

I surrendered. 

A Loss of Control

On bad days, it felt like I gave up my freedom, the spirited part of me that I swore to myself I’d never lose.

On happier days, I couldn’t care less. I don’t have to pay rent: I’m grateful. Most days, I don’t care less about it: about losing my identity, losing the egoic part of me that simmers on my shoulder, screaming that I am a traitor, that I have given up control over my life. 

But losing your identity is, I have found, a rather freeing feeling.

There is now more space in my heart, more joy, more room to create and ponder and sit absentmindedly. 

Ideas come when one is bored: staring out a window on a train, watching the wind blow a twig, petting a cat. Fresh inspiration and creativity arrives in this moments of peaceful boredom. 

With empty space comes inspiration.

I have embraced this boredom. And I have found my lost and wandering identity – the artist – come back, poking her head in knowingly, every once in a while. 

Experiencing Isolation and Loneliness as an Expat Wife

Being an expatriate wife means stuffing your most beloved belongings in a few suitcases and beginning a new life, in what seems like a new world.

It means readjusting to a new culture’s language and customs. It means not being legally allowed to work and overtime forgetting your strengths, your passions, your “purpose”. 

You forget what it was like living in your home country. You’ll forget about the struggle. The bills, the credit card debt. 

Following your spouse to new countries results in months of loneliness, especially in France, where understandably no one speaks English. 

And even while you do enroll in French class and win your prizes on Duolingo,  you’ll never really understand – not really. You won’t catch the slang, the insiders among the locals. You’ll ask people to speak slower until you’ll avoid speaking to anybody at all. It’s just too fast. It’s just too hard. 

There will be days you’ll give up socializing and isolate yourself further, forgetting what it’s like to have a “ladies night,” what casual friendships are like. 

You’ll miss the style of humor in your home country. So, you watch funny Youtube and TikTok videos to stay up to speed.

You’ll miss the stereotypical personality traits of the people back home. Because whether you want to admit it or not, personality is absolutely created and affected by culture. 

You’ll make new friends on the streets and in the cafes, but their eagerness for a new American friend will result in you shying away because you know you’ll have to move again in a few years. And what’s the point?

lady of leisure and expat wife at paris cafe chairs

Accepting and Treasuring my Time as an Expat Wife and Lady of Leisure

While there is a specific set of challenges to being married to someone who moves to different countries for work, I would never trade this chapter of my story. 

But we chose this. And we continue to choose this because life has been so sweet abroad.

Yes, I feel cloudy and unrelatable due to having too much leisure time compared to most people in the world. Yes, I’ve somewhat lost my drive, my ambition, my scrappy nature due to my comfortable and safe circumstance. And yes, I’m lonely not having in-person friendships. (My close circle of friends and I chat on the phone and through the brilliant app Marco App – a must for my fellow expats who want to keep in touch with their friends back home!)

Even still, I have a pleasurable and joyous life. I am basking in the simple pleasures of spending time with my partner and our foster kitties, of traveling across Europe and hiking mountains on the weekends.

I have never learned more than I have during my time living in France.

Never have I written so much or read as many books or had the time to master Photoshop or build my website’s SEO like I have being an “expat wife.” Never have I dug so far deep into myself: into growth, into maturity, into transformation like I have during this “lady of leisure” chapter.

I’ve been endlessly whispering my appreciation to the heavens that be for allowing me this gift of time.

I chose this, and I love this. 

For my fellow expat wives and husbands that have followed their partners across the world and in the process sacrificing careers and friendships and community, here is to celebrating time. Cherish it, bask in it, enjoy it.

Live fully, present in the world, which is so beautiful.

This is our only purpose, our only identity. Our only job. 

Cheers to that.

newlywed couple kissing in pumpkin patch in fairfield connecticut

 

 

Leisure, Loneliness and Loss of Identity as an Expat Wife

December 1, 2019

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I'm Helena! As a creative storyteller, I document magical, emotionally honest family and children's portraiture. A lover of childhood, fairytales and natural light, I photograph families across the world. I'm the ultimate Disney nerd, and I'm obsessed with cats and expressing my love for the simple joys of slow, daily life.

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Helena Woods is a destination newborn and family photographer based in France and New England and travels worldwide. She is known for her natural light, modern classic, and emotive photography style.

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