Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat author, writer, researcher and economist. She has lived in ten countries as both a TCK and an expat adult: The Kingdom of Bahrain, the United States, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Ghana and Portugal. She is the author of the expat guidebook This Messy Mobile Life: How a MOLA can help globally mobile families create a life by design (Summertime Publishing 2019) which equips international families to navigate a life abroad. She is also the blogger behind the expat blog And Then We Moved To in which she explores expat life and raising multicultural and multilingual children in her East-meets-West marriage.
In This Episode:
- Mariam’s life as a mum of a globally mobile family. Her experience of this lifestyle with young children and children of differing ages.
- The unique struggle living and coping in cultures where one partner is entirely dependent on the travelling partner, with very little rights of their own (visa, finances, etc.)
- The need for flexibility when one partner travels for work, as well as working together as a team.
- The importance of asking for help, having a backup adult, and good self-care. To have realistic expectations of yourself.
- Mum vs Dad travelling: the upsides and society’s double standards.
- Navigating the return of the travelling parent and how to reintegrate them into family life and routine.
- Ideas and strategies for keeping the travelling partner emotionally present in the home/with the kids.
- The importance of good communication within the couple, sharing each other’s experiences.
- How knowing all the travelling partner’s travel details can be vitally important, especially when dealing with high-risk situations
Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad, the podcast for expats with traveling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter. I'm a speaker, writer, researcher, and your host today. In this episode, my guest is Mariam Ottimofiore. Mariam is the author of ‘This Messy Mobile Life’. You can find her online at ‘And then we move to’, she speaks around the world on moving as a family and also living as a multicultural multifaith family. And to me, she really highlights the beauty of this life. Today, we are going to talk a little bit about that, but mostly about her experience as her husband traveled a lot, and then now that they both travel. So, Mariam, welcome to the show!Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Rhoda Bangerter (:
Anything you want to add to that? I know that you've lived in many different countries. How many countries have you lived in?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
I'm currently living in Portugal, which is my 10th country to move to, hence, ‘And then we moved to’ you know,
Yes. Yes. And another move.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
I think the last time we spoke I was still living in Ghana and so yeah, a lot has changed. One more and one pandemic in the middle of it all.
And so this is a life that you know very well as well the challenges and the opportunities and the joy of moving countries and moving children, but also the fact that then your husband or your partner is gone a lot. So can you tell me a little bit about what it was like when the children were smaller?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Mm-Hmm. Yes.Rhoda Bangerter (:
And maybe some of the lessons that you've learned over time.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Sure, sure. I think when the children were younger, and keep in mind, I currently have a 10 year old who's almost 11. She's turning 11 in a in a couple of months. I have an eight year old, and I do still have a two and a half year old, so I kind of have all
And of course, I was at home with my daughter who was born in Singapore and we spent the first three years living there. The hardest part was based on the fact that we were living in Asia, and I had almost no rights to do much by myself. So that's the biggest challenge I faced when he was traveling, because in Singapore, I was my husband's dependent in every sense of the word, Rhoda. I was on a dependent visa, and I kid you not, I literally could not call up the phone company
That's a very good, I'll stop you there. That's a very good point, because I've experienced that and other people have experienced that in other countries as well and it's something that could be important to preempt, just because sometimes it's difficult to do if it's the name on a bank, to have access basically, or to have your own bank account with your own money on it.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
And that's a whole other can of worms, right?Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, totally, totally! But I think there are things there where it gets very frustrating when you cannot speak to the person because your name's not on the contract, you don't get the salary. And so they just don't want to speak to you. And when your partner's away, there's no way that you can get them to sign anything or call anybody. So I think maybe one of the ways is to brainstorm with your partner.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
I have a contingency plan in place. And the thing is, and this is something you learn as you go along and with experience, right? Unfortunately, nobody tells you these things in advance. And before Singapore, we were living in Denmark, which of course, you know isa more
And the companies that are sending you abroad have an equal responsibility in terms of duty of care that they need to also provide and at least give you information that would be relevant to how things are done, right? I mean, there's a lot of things that can be done to help make the process easier. At least half the battle is knowing what things are like, and then you can come up with a plan, but sometimes it's still not that easy. Unfortunately, Singapore was one of those places where I literally was my spouse's dependent in every sense of the word. And, you know, it caused a lot of frustration on my part because it was the first time I had given up a job, I was a new mom and a new identity. And I felt half the time, like, what is my identity? What's left of it? If I need his approval to change the internet plan,
And keep in mind, our next location was Dubai
I felt like we were still pretty equal. But once you've got one spouse who's holding down the fort, taking care of everything from the kids to trying to change the internet plan, it can feel like you are in a different world than your spouse who's out there traveling. And so there can often be this disconnect, which you really need to actively work on. I think that would be the main
Yeah. It's so important. What kind of things would you do to prepare for a trip then? Logistically, I imagine, but also one of the things that comes up a lot is this uncertainty of return dates, right? And changing as well. And sometimes just being aware that to hold the dates and return dates a bit lightly can sometimes help as well,Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Rhoda Bangerter (:
What would you do to prepare? I know one of the big things that we've spoken about before is asking for help, right?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
You need a backup adult. You need someone who's there in your corner to stand up
It was a huge learning curve for us. And I think it's something important to point out that there is a lot of stigma sometimes attached to asking for help or even admitting that you need help. Sometimes friends and family back home don't understand why you're so vulnerable and they can't possibly understand, because remember, they're on their home turf. They know what to do, they speak the language. If something goes wrong, they have the emergency numbers to call. They've got the support system in place to pick up, you know, if they can't do something, if they can't get their children that day from school. And more than that, it's just knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it, all the social cues, everything that's under that cultural iceberg metaphor. And we are so vulnerable because we build everything up from scratch. We might need 30 minutes to prepare
Yeah. Yeah. That's such a huge, huge part of it. And we somebody this morning, I was talking to her mom and she said she went for a massage, and she said, it's my hardship allowance,
So I think that that's definitely a big part of being able to make this lifestyle work. Is there anything that you did or any mindset shift that really helped you kind of survive, make it work for you? Because at one point you were working full-time, you were working part-time?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Yes, yes. I was doing everything. I was moving, I was raising kids, I was writing a book. I definitely took on way too much. On the other hand, it was also a lot of fun doing those things. So I was happy
So it meant that you have adjusted expectations from yourself. How much, what can you get done during this time period? And I learned how to actually plan my work and my life in cycles. If your spouse is having a heavy travel intensive period, I pull back from commitments, I pull back from projects, I may set myself more realistic goals or more realistic deadlines. You know, and I think this was something that I learned along the way because I found that there were these cycles or seasons in our expat life. And when he was there, that's when I went full throttle, full steam ahead, because I wasn't the default partner handling everything from A to to Z. And I had more mental capacity, more physical, more emotional capacity to do my work, to go after those goals, to pitch an article, to attend a conference, to reach out to people, to do everything that you need a lot of mental capacity, right? You need to be in the right frame of mind to do that. So I learned to mimic the seasons, whatever his season was. I adjusted my season accordingly to make sure that we weren't feeling resentful and feeling unfulfilled and frustrated.Rhoda Bangerter (:
And it's not forever, is it? Because now you are traveling too, right? You both travel and it's more feasible I think sometimes when the children are a bit older, depending on which country you live in as you're more used to it as well too. Maybe you're not adjusting so much to…Mariam Ottimofiore (:rhythm. My travel exploded in:So I spent March:Rhoda Bangerter (:
You’re family, right? You're together, life continues. You might not be in the same roof but you're …Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Yes, exactly. I think it's healthy for the children to see that. And so that was something great that happened. What was not so great, and what I still struggle with is often society's perception and judgment. You know, especially when it was me who was traveling, I felt that the double standards were just so plain to see. Because if it's the man who's traveling, society expects the women to just continue, just carry on to not complain, to just do their job, to look after the home and look after their work and look after the kids and balls are dropped. But when it's the woman who's traveling
And this is from other women, right?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Yes. This is from other women. So it's up to us to change this mindset.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, I've fallen into that trap. We're ‘Oh, poor thing, are you holding up?’ I'm like, ‘Wait, hang on a minute,
Exactly, exactly. And I think that this is an important thing, and I hope that going forward we do, cuz oftentimes the worst thing is it's usually women placing these restrictions or judgment or criticism on other women. You know, usually it would be teachers at my kid's school or school counselors or you know, other moms be like, ‘Oh, you poor thing.’ And I'm like I think we really need to be kind to ourselves and know that well this is teamwork and if I can do it, he can do it. And none of us should be treated differently for doing the same job. Which by the way, is parenting and not babysitting.
Love it. Love it. What about transition times then when he'd be gone and then he'd come back? How was that? Because that's always another topic of them then them coming back into the family setting when they've been away. How did you guys navigate that? What was it like?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
I guess we were lucky. He usually traveled for short periods of time, maximum a week or 10 days. So we didn't have extended periods apart, which I know is the case for many families, which could make that adjustment harder. I think while he was gone, Rhoda, you know, I was just like, ‘Okay, I have to handle anything and everything that comes my way.’ Sick kids, I got it leaky pipe, I got it. You know, the ceiling's gonna fall down, I've got it
And he puts the wrong cup in the wrong drawer or the fork in the wrong drawer and you lose it. And what you end up having is a fight as soon as you know your partner is back. And I hate to say it, but this is sometimes the reality, you know, because you just need that safe space to be yourself. It’s like when you pick up your kids and they're fine in school, but then they act out when you are there. That's because they know you are their safe space and they can tell you exactly how they feel and be exactly what they want to be. And it's a little bit similar to that, right? And so I think the best thing to do is to give each other space and to ask, ‘Okay, now we're gonna sit down and you tell me how things have been for you. And I tell you how things have been for me’, before you get into an argument over why a fork has landed up in the wrong drawer,
Yes, yes. There's that period of adjustment of sharing the space physically as well, of going from being in total control of the space to then sharing it with someone who then moves something and you're like, ‘Why are you moving that, that I wanted that there’, you know, it's an adjustment and I think you're right, giving yourself space, understanding where they're coming from as well, because they come back tired. And it's also something that when we are the parent at home, we don't realize that yes, they've had a long train, a plane trip, but maybe they've worked during it. Or often when they're away, when they're working, they're working massive periods of time because it's nonstop to make the most of the time.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
That's a very important point that you bring up. They are working nonstop, usually working on the flight on their way there, prepping and all the time they're having a conference or whatever it is that they've gone for or whatever the work they're doing, they're falling behind on emails and they're sitting late in their hotel room at night trying to catch up with just day-to-day operations, day-to-day emails. And I realized that when it was me traveling, I didn't have time to process anything. I was just go, go, go, go, go, you know, get done with today, prepare for tomorrow, get done with tomorrow, prepare for the next day. And you know, you are exhausted. You are really, truly exhausted. So to have empathy for what your partner is doing and to support them and say that you take care of whatever you need to do, I'm here, I will handle whatever comes or whatever happens here or whatever comes up. Understanding and empathy is very important.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah. And I think people knowing that this is, this transition time is normal and that it takes a little while and to adjust expectations. And I've learned over the years not to kind of, as soon as he walk through the door, to go, ‘Oh great, he can take over.’ I'm like, ‘No,
Yeah. Yeah.Rhoda Bangerter (:
So it's not handing over everything to him as soon as he walks in, but just letting things equalize slowly. Right? And I had to build in margin for that. Yeah. So the day or two days before kind of not go, ‘Oh, okay, it's fine. In two days I'll have space.’ No, maybe two, three days after he comes back, I'll start having space, but not to expect it straight away and not to plan things. But then I get frustrated because I can't do them because I thought I was gonna have space.
So it's fun because so many of these are common threads in so many families. And no matter the circumstances, no matter the country we live in or the cultures we're part of, these are the common themes.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think, and that's what really surprised me because, you know, I thought maybe this is more based on your culture or your partner's culture or where you're living
I love that. I really, really love that. And I think that is the key to making this life work. And it's what I've seen as, again, as a common thread is emotionally, they’re present. How do you make them emotionally present? How do you support that? How do you guys do it so that he, his presence is felt at home in different ways?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Now that the kids are a bit older, he can talk to them. To be honest, when the kids were very young, I almost didn't have time or energy to schedule FaceTime calls. It was just another thing to then try to organize and I just didn't have time for it. My only goal used to be pure survival
But now that they're older, it's different. He's very much a part of their lives. He knows, okay, he might be in Cape Town, but his daughter has a volleyball tournament. He'll call to wish her good luck. He knows what's going on with their world and he'll find different ways to stay in touch and to make sure he can be there for them. Whether he does something before they leave, does something after they leave and stays in touch while he's gone. There's so many ways of doing it that, so I think that's something that we are doing now, and it does help. We still have a very young child who's two and a half who obviously doesn't get it. So that's the challenge now that you're dealing with different aged kids, kids who understand you're away, kids who understand but might not like you're away. And then kids who just don't understand that you're going away. So sometimes you need three different strategies for each kid,
That’s a really good point. Oh, my word, Mariam. I think you brought up tons of really, really important points. I'll put all the different bullet points in the show notes. Sure. Is there anything you want to add before we wrap up?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
No, I think that the best thing we can do is to share honestly and openly our experiences with spouses who are traveling or gone for shorter or extended periods of time. And I do think that this is now very much a part of the reality for many expat families, for many globally mobile families. And one thing I didn't address is when your spouse is going to what's considered a very dangerous location, because that adds a whole different layer of complexity. If he's going to a war zone or he's going to someplace where there's a huge security risk and he or she, let's say, needs armed personnel security guards just to transport them back and forth from the airport, you know, there's so much happening.
And some things that I learned was to always have my spouse's information at hand. You know, because when one person travels so much, you almost get so used to it. It's almost like this is part of day-to-day life. So you stop thinking about it. You take it for granted, you know, my spouse is always gone, he's always in one country or country X or country Y country Z but I realize that especially when they're going to countries where there is a security risk or there is a physical safety risk, you really need to make sure you've got all their contact details. I make sure that my husband gives me all the details, not just of where he's staying, but who to contact if I don't hear from him. Who is the person on the ground in the Congo that I can reach if I don't hear from you? You know, who's the person at the office there who's picking you up? What's the driver's name? And this may sound extreme or over the top, but we did have this experience where one of our friends couldn't get in touch with her husband who was on a business trip. And the next thing we knew he'd had a heart attack and he was on the floor in his hotel room and nobody could reach him. And so you learn from other people and you learn from other people's experiences. And sometimes that's what we need to share, is that always know where your spouse is gonna be. Always have the contact information of at least somebody else on the ground in case you cannot be in direct contact with your spouse so you know of their whereabouts.
And I also make sure I know which passport my husband's traveling on, you know, he has got two passports. I need to make sure if I need to call any embassies, I should know which embassy I'm calling. You know, all those things. And sometimes have our documentation in a shared Google Drive. You know, when he went to India, he's married to a Pakistani, of course, he got pulled over by security and asked, ‘Oh, you've been to Pakistan 15 times.’ And then he has to explain, it's my wife you know, and share my details and my id. So, you know,
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It sounds over the top until you actually need it.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Rhoda Bangerter (:
Unfortunately, when he was in Kabul, we did tell the school that the teachers knew just in case the kids were a little bit distracted or something because something had happened or that something was going on or that we weren't able to contact him. And the teachers needed to know that we were in a family situation where potentially it could be disturbing, that the kids would be maybe not attentive or something, or that they would need to react fast and know what to say or know what to do because if they just say random things that are more hurtful, it doesn't help
No, it doesn't.Rhoda Bangerter (:
It doesn't hurt to be prepared even if you don't want it to happen.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Yeah, none of us want it to happen, but I do think it's better for your own peace of mind just to be prepared, just to have all the information. You just never know when you might need it. And it does give you peace of mind. I know my husband has amazing colleagues and I know they'll do anything for him when he's out there traveling. And so I do have that peace of mind. And I do know that if I need, I can get in touch with anybody. I have the names, I have the contacts, I have the email addresses. So in terms of just being prepared, I think half of the thing is just your mindset and being prepared. And hopefully you don't need to use it, but as long as you know that you have it, you feel okay. If something goes wrong, I know who to call. I know what you do. And that I think is priceless. That's worth, you know, half.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Are you still running, are you running workshops? Are you, I know you still speak on the topic of multicultural and multifaith multiracial families.Mariam Ottimofiore (:which is where we moved to in:Rhoda Bangerter (:
Because a lot of expat families are also multicultural, multiracial multifaith. And that creates, like you say, a beautiful tapestry. So I love the way you approach it. So how can people contact you if they want to be more in touch?Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Oh, sure. You can email me and you can have my email on my website as well. My website is andthenwemovedto.com. You can message me on there or send me an email. And I'm very active on social media. My handle is @andthenwemovedto
Super. Thank you so much for sharing of your experience and your life with us today. Thanks. Thank you, Mariam.Mariam Ottimofiore (:
Thanks for having me.
Rhoda Bangerter is a coach who has lived abroad with a travelling husband for over 16 years. She helps home based mums and dads live an intentional life and build family togetherness even when their partner is away a lot for work.
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