For the eyes of expat wives only: A lament

Women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic around the world. Even privileged expat women like me are suffering. (But please don't read this if you think we shouldn't be whining because we have it better than most!)

The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting women around the world. 

In developing countries, women are more likely to be working in the informal sector with fewer social protections and in the industries most affected by COVID-19 (e.g., tourism, hospitality). They have fewer savings and less access to credit than men (so they can't tide their small businesses over difficult times) and are more likely to have to take on unpaid caregiving work, which eats into their capacity to do work that brings them income.

Women in industrialized countries are also disproportionately affected by the lockdowns. Women are more likely to lose their jobs, cut down on hours, or forego promotions.

The physical and psychological toll on women can be tremendous, especially if there are children who are remote schooling and suddenly need to be supervised and fed.

Even though men are stepping up to take on more childcare duties and household chores, women are still taking on more. 

(There are many more articles on the pandemic's impact on women in the US and other OECD countries.)

It's especially tough in societies where the household is already considered women's territory and responsibility, even if they are employed outside. In Japan, the past year saw a disproportionate increase in suicides among women. I can only imagine the isolation and stress that drove these poor women to end their lives.

If you are going to find it offensive or irritating that a privileged expat woman is going to whine about not being able to work and how life is tough under the pandemic, please stop reading. This post is not for you. Please move on, thanks.

So, to continue.


Those of us women living our privileged "expat" lives abroad are affected too.

Yes, an expat spouse's life can be privileged. I only have to think about the household help I can get in Thailand to see my privilege — even if we're not on a fancy expat package. And believe me, I am grateful every. single. day for this privilege because I am utter crap at housework and, given my energy levels, interests, and skills, I don't see how I could raise three kids and have a profession at the same time without this help.

But living abroad has its own challenges.

☘ We are told we are of secondary importance in society.

If we are dependent on our spouse's visas, we are...well, just that: dependent.

Especially in tough times, the spouse with the employment visa must keep their job because we need that to live and to stay in the country we call home.

And the rest of us must adjust — cut down our work, take up the slack. Whatever it takes.

☘ Even if we do have jobs as foreign workers, we are dispensable. 

When we were living in Singapore, I was thrilled to find employment for the first time in years.

But in March 2021, the government decided to stop letting dependent visa holders work. If dependent-visa holders wanted to work, we had to get employment visas — but many of us had part-time jobs that would not meet the requirements for employment visas.

Not surprisingly, this ban predominantly affected female spouses of foreign employees. So yet again, we find that society finds us dispensable.

(We ended up not going back to Singapore.)

☘ We're reminded all the time that our lives are not so important. 

We are dependent and therefore not as important as the main work visa holder. 

If we lose our jobs, it's not as significant because we don't earn as much anyway.

If we do volunteer work (often because we're not allowed to work for pay), well, "it's only volunteering."

☘ We are expected to take on any extra burdens related to children's education, because that's our job.

If we have kids, expat spouses tend to already be responsible for the kids' education.

So any extra burdens the come from school closures and remote learning are directly assigned to us.

Have young ones who can't follow along online by themselves? Or, like me, have a brand new first grader who has no clue how to study plus a brand new middle schooler who is expected to suddenly take on a full load of intense studying with no live support from the school?

Well, then, guess we have to buckle down and help the children.

Our own work? Well, we will somehow have to take up that slack without a complaint because, well, what else do we have to do in our privileged expat lives?

☘ But we aren't allowed to complain.

And if we complain, we're being privileged and spoiled....

I fully recognize that as an expat, I am living a life of privilege. I use the word "expat" on purpose to reflect that privilege; it's a reminder to me that even though I'm an international migrant, my life is not comparable to the hardships that people we call migrant workers face.

But even if we are privileged, we have our challenges.

So please, be kind. Tell us that we matter and let us rage sometimes.

Image by josunshine from Pixabay.


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