Trials and tribulations of a trailing spouse
July 8, 2005 1 Comment
“When my husband was offered an overseas position with the U.S. Government, we all jumped at this chance for adventure. […] What none of us knew was that, at times, this dream could feel more like a nightmare.”
Mary Haggerty, who moved a year and a half ago from Denver, Colorado, to a small town in South Limburg, is not the first, nor alas the last expatriate wife to have gone through spells of despair while trying to get adjusted to strange and new surroundings, far from friends and family.
“How could I explain what it is like to feel so foreign? To set out to make a simple purchase only to come home exhausted and confused? […] To long for anything familiar?,” Mary asked herself. “Sometimes, I would break down and let myself have a good cry.”
Ulrike Heigl used to work as an architect in Germany. “After the first few weeks in Maastricht, I started feeling bored and lonely. I had come here because of my husband’s job, and suddenly I no longer had a life of my own, a job of my own, money of my own, and I was not important any more,” she remembers.
“It may sound stupid but it is difficult to settle in this life. It is hard to get acquainted with Dutch people because they keep their distance. The inhabitants of Maastricht, the “Maastrichtenaars”, are actually proud to be chauvinistic. I find it rather difficult to become part of Dutch society. I am a German and feel that for the Dutch I will always stay a German,” says Ulrike.
Ulrike recalls how she became a member of the International Women’s Club: “My next door neighbour, a British lady, said to me one day: ‘I know exactly how you feel. After work, expatriate husbands are tired and just want to eat and sit and watch TV. But you need a social life’. She invited me to the next “coffee morning” with the local IWC group and introduced me to its members.” Last year, Ulrike was elected President of the club.
After joining the IWC, Mary’s life also brightened up: “I recognised my good fortune in meeting people from all over the world. I didn’t feel quite as desperate to know exactly how long we would stay here.”
The IWC of South Limburg is one of the many IWCs throughout the world. It was officially founded in February 1985 as “a non-profit organisation, with the primary purpose of bringing together women of all nationalities living in the area of South Limburg, promoting friendship, sharing mutual interests and extending support and information to newcomers”. (source: IWC yearbook)
Ulrike briefly sketches the history of the club: “In its first year, the IWC attracted about 50 members. By the end of the second year, this number had doubled. In the nineties, the city of Maastricht and the South Limburg area benefited from an enormous economic growth. A lot of foreign companies chose to settle in and around Maastricht, bringing with them a large number of expatriate families. In 2001 the club had a record number of 237 members consisting of 44 nationalities. But after the September 11th disaster, many companies recalled their employees to their home countries and the IWC membership dropped down to 196 in 2002. Today the club has 216 members from 39 different countries.”
Compared to its sister clubs in The Hague or Amsterdam for example, the IWC of South Limburg conveys a more open atmosphere: instead of scheduling activities and social meetings only in the mornings, thereby de facto excluding working women, the IWC of South Limburg shows a greater flexibility in accommodating women from a larger variety of cultural and social backgrounds. Furthermore, membership is not based on income and meetings are more informal: “It wouldn’t be my cup of tea to have to go to the hairdresser’s before attending an activity,” reflects Ulrike.
Although some events occasionally do welcome male partners, the IWC admits only women. “Suspicious husbands find it safe that way,” chuckles Ulrike. ‘Dutch Internationals’, that is to say Dutch ladies who have lived abroad for a number of years, are also welcome in the club, according to a 33% ratio. The official language of the club is English although other languages are favoured during smaller gatherings such as the monthly lunches for French, Spanish or German speakers.
This year, the IWC celebrates its 20th anniversary. Looking back over the years, Carol Herman, one of its founding members, writes in a recent IWC monthly newsletter: “The IWC has provided support, practical and emotional, for its members. To use Oprah-speak, we have been ‘there’ for each other.” Lorna Teunisse, another founding member, reveals: “My dearest friends are members of the IWC.”
By Sueli Brodin, Crossroads editor
Source: Crossroads print issue, July 2005