Dominique White works in-house at an international law firm as head of translation, and in her spare time writes blogs for a wide range of clients whilst also enjoying unforgettable moments with 1st Madrid British Scouts. She is a regular contributor to MumAbroad.
No matter how long we were married, whether we had children or not, returning to being single as a foreigner who has settled overseas, the first questions we inevitably face are: who have I become and what does it mean to be me in this context?
When married we find we are like everyone else with the same civil status, but when we divorce we soon find out that each divorce is unique. As divorce coach Nadege Fayard Bourdin told me recently in an interview, the shock to the fabric of your being can be seismic. Each divorcees’ circumstances are different. We cannot compare ourselves with anyone. Two divorcees may recognise common characteristics such as struggling with shared custody, money worries, cultural and language issues or career pressures; but divorce is a process that unfolds over time and in private. An important aspect of overcoming divorce, says Nadege, is not to become paralysed by focusing on the things we don’t have and can’t do.
Fewer than would be expected actually move back “home” after a relationship ends, especially as European legal systems encourage co-parenting. The very concept of home gains new poignance as we admit that our bicultural children are rooted in a different land to that of our childhood. The chances are, we will stay put.
Whether we remain in our adopted homeland due to an unwillingness to face the stark reality of reverse culture shock or we battle an anti-relocation farce as a “stuck Mum”, the fact is, this place where we began raising our family is, actually, home. We have made a foreign country our home. We are familiar with the routines, the habits and the ways to parent our children there. Now it is time to learn how to be a divorcee in this context.
I firmly believe that we make more of an effort to make our marriages work when we live as a Mum abroad. When the marriage doesn’t work out, it is easy to blame cultural differences. Although these certainly do play a factor, they are not the reason why relationships fail. At most, cultural differences are an aggravating factor. But we must not forget that they also provide much richness to a relationship.
Whilst married to a foreigner and being a foreign spouse ourselves, we spent a lot of energy nurturing a special connection in a strange land. We jointly constructed a cultural identity unique to our particular relationship. As MumAbroad partner Jane Mitchell said in the ground-breaking book on expat life Living the Dream , decisions are made according to the wellbeing of you both as a couple, sometimes at the expense of career and personal development. Stepping aside from that ground and treading a solitary path requires carving a new identity.
Many Mums abroad would prefer not to stay in the foreign land that they made their home during their relationship with the father of their children. They feel that there are fewer job opportunities for them as a foreigner and that it would make better career sense to move home to the country where they began their working lives. Furthermore, the support network of being close to parents, siblings and friends is an attractive prospect.
However, a growing majority of Mums abroad stay rooted overseas after divorce for the core reason that, on balance, this is the best decision to take for the family. Then comes the task of accepting that we are staying for ourselves, that we are doing the best for ourselves, that we belong in this country as a foreign Mum and as a member of the local community. Our children go to school there, they have formed friendship groups, they play sports in local teams, they are an extension of us and yet they are growing up as citizens of a land different to the one that nurtured each one of us as a child.
Finding our feet as divorcees stranded abroad takes a good deal of determination. Language skills definitely help fight the isolation of being single again. Having a job also brings structure. But the sense of exile is ever keener since the pillars that kept us away from home have shifted. As newly separated foreigners, we immediately feel self-conscious. We turn to online communities like MumAbroad and Costa Women to seek advice on how to belong, how to blend in and how to integrate. We keep our heads up high and focus on our children’s needs. Whether we are stuck or have been set free by divorce, we find that we can indeed settle into new routines, and we do indeed succeed.
Main photo: engin akyurt @unsplash
Read more about divorce and separation in Italy: What you need to know about navigating divorce in Italy
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