Marie’s Expat Journey:
How my life-on-the-move has helped me reinvent myself
My life as an “expat wife” started more than 20 years ago. Newly wed, we left our home country Belgium for a first posting in The Netherlands, where we stayed 18 months. Having just graduated in Art History in Belgium, I found a part-time job in an art gallery. I also followed a training course in 17th century paintings at the Mauritshuis, which allowed me to volunteer as a French and English guide at the museum.
After a year and a half, we went back to Belgium where I worked full-time for a publishing company. I held several positions there in their free publications department, their claim department, their event department and eventually their advertisement department.
We stayed home for 4 years, after which we were sent to France. As we had 2 young boys by then, I decided to attempt the full-time mum adventure. Going from full-time work to full-time motherhood was a bit of a shock and demanded some adjustment and redefining of who I was. I realised that pursuing a career in art history would be difficult as an expat, as it required to take exams for each new museum and needed the right connections. Instead, I decided to volunteer in my children’ s day care centre, helping them with their admin and logistics and organising art workshops for the children. I also worked as a volunteer to welcome new foreign families in our neighbourhood. We had our third child during that time, and as it turned out to be a difficult pregnancy, I was glad not to be working.
But by the time we left Paris and moved to London however, I had had enough of being a stay-at-home mum. I realised it wasn’t fulfilling all my needs and that I needed to work in order to have a better balance in my life. Having already moved countries several times by then, I really wanted to do something I would be able to take with me when we left. I wanted a portable career and that is when I decided to go on a coaching course. I had always been interested in psychology and had been wanting to do a training course in that field for quite some time. I initially did it mainly for my own personal development but as time went by, the idea to use my newly acquired skills to help others started to emerge. I did further training and started coaching, albeit not officially as once again we were about to move. Which means that by the time we left London to be posted back in The Netherlands, I knew what I wanted to do professionally. As soon as the kids were settled into their new home and school, I started to brainstorm on the question of entrepreneurship. I decided that what I most valued and wanted were independence, autonomy, flexibility, learning and development, variety, creativity, contribution, result-oriented, and that I was more likely to find those attributes if I had my own business. So I went ahead and I set up my coaching business.
I started with my existing clients from London, whom I was coaching by phone, and slowly developed a The Hague-based clientele. I made an internet website and developed a network to promote my work. It took me about a year to be fully operational and officially registered as coach with the Chamber of Commerce. We have been here for 7 years now and the business is going really well.
It hasn’t been an all easy and smooth journey of course. I have had to face and overcome many challenges and difficulties. One of the biggest challenges of setting up my own business and working as a coach from home has been to work alone. It is not easy to be the one who makes all the decisions and to have no one to share with or acting as a sounding board. I discovered that surrounding yourself with appropriate support and like-minded people is of tremendous importance. To solve the problem, I created an entrepreneurs’ support group, which consists of five people meeting on a regular basis. It has proved to be a great help. We share our ups and downs and help each other, set our goals and implement them. In this respect, I find it so important to be generous, to connect and help others without expecting anything in return.
Patience is another paramount condition to success. It does take time to set up a business. When you plant a tree, you have to wait a couple of years in order to receive its fruits. The same goes for your dreams and wishes to come true. I would say that passion, self-discipline and perseverance are the 3 key qualities that you need to nurture in order to create your own business.
As for expatriation in itself, one of the most difficult things to overcome as an expat wife is the lack of certainty about your posting. You never know the “where, when and for how long” and it makes it difficult to make plans and go ahead with your projects. But I always tried not to be put off by the fact that I didn’t know how long I would be staying in a location. My advice to clients always is: do not limit yourself in your projects or wishes simply because you may or may not be leaving soon. Although, it is hard to make plans and projects when you constantly move, it is important to live in the moment and not think too much about the future. Our first posting in the Netherlands was supposed to be for 4 years and we stayed 18 months and our posting in London was for 18 months and we stayed 4 and a half years. I did hesitate to do my training there as I wasn’t sure to have the time, but I am really glad I did it as we ended up staying much longer than planned. Looking back, I am extremely glad that the uncertainty didn’t stop me.
I have found that the best way to enjoy expatriation is to have no expectation. Each time, I see it as a new adventure with no defined outcome. When there is no expectation, there is also no disappointment. I have much enjoyed our 20-odd years of expatriation. It has been a blessing for me both personally and professionally. Expatriation has opened our horizons, has made us grow. And after all this time, I am still willing to move if such a possibility arises.
When I look back, I think that my greatest accomplishment has been to be able to raise a family and develop my own business, while being an expat. Having managed all of that at once is something I am quite proud of. I am happy to have pursued my dreams. I love my job as a coach. I love to be able to help people move forward and unlock their potential. I love being in touch with such diverse people. I feel blessed to be able to do a job that I love and I am grateful to my family for their wonderful support. My children are happy to have an expatriate life and a working mum. It has nourished our conversations, relationships and experiences as a family.