Staying professional on the move

Moving abroad because your partner got a new job will bring many changes, also in your life. Maybe in your life more than in anybody else’s. Your partner will still be working. And if you have children they will most likely still go to school. Your life on the other hand might end up being completely different. If you, like me, leave a working life behind, most likely at some point you will end up asking yourself: Can I, and do I want to, keep my professional life while being an accompanying partner?

For the better part of this world, working and staying professional is a means to survive and earn enough money for one’s family to have the life they dream about. But where I am from, working has become about so much more than survival.

I am from a country where many people will ensure you, that winning the lottery would never make them quit their jobs. We love our jobs – or at least we truly believe that we cannot live without them. It is assumed that everybody works, because that is what you do, and it’s considered a very big part of who you are, a very big part of your identity.

Does traveling partners become non-professional?

When my family went on our first assignment, I had to quit my job, and I knew that I most likely  would not be allowed to work in our new country. Some of my colleagues were shocked. They all asked me: What are you going to do? One concerned college even came to my office and said: You’re a very diligent person, I am not sure you will survive three years without a job…. are you sure it’s the right thing to do?

I became a traveling partner after having worked, studied and worked again for more than 15 years. I had been building, maintaining and developing my professional identity all that time. Actually, I have been a professional person for much longer than I have been a mother or a wife. Imagine how much I would give up, if I left my professional identity at home.

But I was sure, it was the right thing to do, because adventure won over the need for job security. And I reassured myself and others that I would find something meaningful to do without knowing what that could be. Looking back on some of the conversations I had with colleagues and friends at that time, I now realize, that we all – myself included – assumed, that being a traveling spouse without a job meant that I would somehow stop being a professional person.

When a professional identity is more than a job title

Moving abroad is a new beginning. Opportunities are new, people are new. All the people I met in our new country knew nothing of my professional life and most of them never asked about it. For some time I actually did stop being a professional person. In the eyes of my new friends I was a Dane and somebody’s wife and mother. After a little while I think to them I also became the outgoing person who likes to engage and organize, and I became the ambitious amateur photographer and the go-to-person for travel ideas and restaurant recommendations.

One of the things I love about the opportunity to become a traveling spouse is, that it gave me the time and space to develop all these other sides of myself. At first, to be honest, I didn’t even miss the old professional me.

So when did the need to be a professional person come back? I felt it, when I talked to people from home, who would still ask the same question: So, what do you do? And it came sometimes when I looked at my children and felt the need to also be a professional role model. It also came, when I thought about the education and skills I knew I had but felt were now no longer being put to the best use.

Definitely it came, when I got inspirited by other traveling partners I met. The physiotherapist who found a job at a local clinic. The marketing director who started writing article for a business magazine. The engineer who became a jewelry designer. The project manager who used hard work and determination to learn a new complicated language better and faster than anybody else and the technical designer who changed course completely and became a yoga instructor.

What all these people showed me was, that keeping professional on the move is about so much more than the job title you hold. It’s about finding ways to use the skills you already have and develop new ones.

Professional partners on the move

For me staying professional on the move included engaging in my children’s school’s steering committee, writing travel blogs and adding a degree in communication to my resume. Eventually, when we moved to a new location, where I was allowed to work, it also included starting my own business offering workshop facilitation. I know that the opportunities will vary from location to location, the interest are as many as there are traveling partners and every single person need to find their own path. And I am not saying that it is easy. On the contrary I am saying that it takes determination and intent.

To maintain and develop a professional identity – or any identity for that matter – I believe you need to interact with others. When you have a job, keeping professional is easy, your job title, functions and people around you help you maintain and develop your professional identity every day. When you move to a new location without a job you need to make a much more conscious choice and you also need to be the primary driver in finding people and functions that can help you maintain and develop the identities you want.

Going abroad as a traveling partner did not take away or force me to leave behind my professional identity. It forced me to reevaluate it and seek new opportunities.

Mette Lindgaard Seligmann is a workshop facilitator and strategic communication consultant currently based in Cleveland.

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