“I won’t be coming back.” Those were the words my then-husband said to me after months of us going around in circles trying to make our marriage work. If I am completely honest, I already knew that, but hearing the words still floored me.
Eighteen years previously we had arrived in Barcelona on a new adventure. My ex-husband, an Italian by birth, had been offered a job there which enabled him to escape a position that he disliked and I was moving on from a previous relationship. It was a fresh start for us both. We were young(ish) and optimistic about our future. I was independent and doing a PhD, studying something I was passionate about. The following year, our first child was born and I completed my PhD soon after. I debated whether to travel back and forth to London once a week to teach, to keep a foot in the door of academia but, at the time, it didn’t seem worth it.
How we built a life together
Over the next six years I had two more children and an early miscarriage. I found it difficult to tell people I had miscarried, given no one even knew I was pregnant, so I relied on phone conversations with my mum for support. I worked for a while teaching English, I made quilts and started doing research a few hours a week for MumAbroad.com, an online platform for parents from the international community living in Europe. But back then, I saw my “real” job as a wife and mother.
It wasn’t what I had expected to be. Honestly, I don’t really know what I had expected, but I turned out to be good at it and it made me happy. I had always preferred to follow my path as it was revealed to me rather than plan my future. Happiness has always been more important to me than having a successful career. My parents never actually said that to me, but it was certainly the vibe I picked up from them.
Being a homemaker by choice
Not unusually, I feel a huge part of my identity stems from my upbringing and I subconsciously recreated that family life of my childhood – my father provided financially and my mother was a homemaker. That blueprint came to the surface as I created a safe, warm and relaxed home environment for my own growing brood and I relied heavily on my mother from a distance. She was my “go-to” person for anything baby or child related – and still is.
Being a full-time homemaker brought huge benefits to our family. It meant that I could be at home with each of our children when they were babies, look after them if they needed to stay home from school and allowed my ex-husband to easily keep his work commitments – long hours in the office and travelling. We both introduced customs, traditions and eating habits from our home countries.
Looking back, I can see why I defined myself by my relationship with the people closest to me – my husband and children. My role provided both the definition and also the limitations of my identity. My family are the centre of my life but I was, and am, so much more than a wife and a mother. I seemed to have forgotten that.
Who am I after divorce?
Couple’s therapy ironically didn’t save my marriage but it did teach me a huge amount about myself. My strength had become my weakness. Constantly caring for other people had meant rarely putting myself first and I had lost sight of who I was. I’ve lost count of the number of times I introduced myself as being married to an Italian, as if that was the most interesting thing about me. But now I’m divorced what do I say? Who am I now?
I am a fighter.
I am a mother.
I am an academic.
I am an eternal student.
I am a maker of quilts.
I am a business owner.
I am a loyal friend.
I am a homemaker.
I am a listener.
I am a sister missing her brothers.
I am a daughter grieving for her father and wishing she lived closer to her mother.
I am striving constantly to face the challenges of life in a foreign country.
How expats especially lose their identity in marriage
I’ve been those things for many years, but while I was married, I validated myself through my partner. I think it is inevitable in a marriage to lose part of one’s identity. Even moreso when your partner is from another country and you are living away from home, when you rely on each other more. I believe that my identity became watered down as I adapted to both my husband’s and my adopted country’s culture and traditions. I think this led to a relationship where decisions were made based on the wellbeing of us as a couple and the family rather than decisions made to further my career and personal development.
Despite my divorce and the soul searching that followed, I would not change the early years. I gave my children everything my mother gave me, in particular time, and I don’t regret it for a minute. Why then do I still struggle to validate myself? Because I don’t have a career or a traditional CV? Is this a judgment by society or is it a struggle only within myself?
The importance of a tribe post-divorce
As a first-time mother in a foreign country, finding my tribe was essential. Sixteen years ago, I didn’t know anyone else who was pregnant and there wasn’t the plethora of Facebook or WhatsApp groups in which to ask other parents for advice. I had to actively find women with whom to share my parenting journey.
That tribe has changed over the years as my children have grown and my needs have changed. When my marriage ended and I was facing my most difficult challenge yet, once again I found myself surrounded by a posse of amazing women. Women I admire, women I aspire to be like, women who understand me, women who support me, women who teach me, and also women who learn from me.
Some of them have been in my life since school and university, but most I have met since I moved to Barcelona. What is the common denominator? They all see something special in me. I see the extraordinary in the ordinary women I know and they see that in me. Most importantly we respect our differences and build relationships over shared experiences.
After my divorce, the prominent structure that defined my life has gone. It has been my girlfriends who have forced me to see myself in a different light. They had always seen me as an individual and not just as part of a couple. I have started to see myself through their eyes. The things that I thought weren’t enough are actually what makes me, me. Now it is time to embrace them. Now I see that being a homemaker was not a loss of identity, but an integral part of my developing identity.
Finding your authentic self doesn’t mean change
Following a major relationship change one has the opportunity to become someone new or to find one’s authentic self. I realise now that I don’t need to change – I just need to bring to the fore all the things that have been latent for the past 16 years.
Not too long ago, being a midlife woman meant disappearing from sight, but not anymore. Divorce, bereavement, living with teens and empty nest syndrome – the challenging events of these years – should be embraced as part of our changing identities. As David Bowie succinctly put it: “Ageing is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been”.
Many people ask if I would consider going back to the UK now. My answer is, not at the moment.
I was once a new mum, away from home, relying on other mothers to point me in the right direction. Now, with the increasing work I do with the MumAbroad.com network, it made me realise how much I have grown. Readers ask about anything from maternity concerns to teenage education. I am now the one giving the advice and, if I can’t, I know someone who can. The ever-expanding network of women I know in Barcelona is one of mutual support and collaboration, not competition.
Without a doubt this is the scariest time of my life but also a very exciting one as I carve out a new future for myself with a truly inspirational group of female friends supporting me. The loss of a sense of safety and certainty which I had felt for the length of my marriage has left me feeling vulnerable but now I see that the only limitations are the ones I set for myself. Now I take responsibility for my own identity and with that comes self-worth. I have come full circle and am rediscovering the person I was.
I am still mourning the loss of my family unit as I imagined it would be, but this doesn’t need to last forever. The acceptance of my new situation is a work in progress and I do now sometimes ask myself whether my divorce may just be the making of me, as I continue to put down roots in this place I call “home”.
Extracted from Living the Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare, edited by Carrie Frais. Available on Amazon.
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