What do you call an epiphany that does not stop? This morning I woke up at 5, healthy, with husband and kids being still asleep. I sneaked into the kitchen, made a coffee and sat down to take some notes for an article I intended to write later. I could not help but feeling privileged that I have time and means to do this.
I am aware of my blessings for a number of reasons. First, I rarely had the freedom to work on whatever I choose. In the Hong Kong world of expatriate privilege it is easy to forget that lots of women here are employed full time. Those of us who are trailing spouses may feel guilty for not generating any income. But many of us are able to recover from those thoughts as soon as we invest our time into meaningful projects, be they personal or professional, concerning children or charity. The point is, having a choice of what to do with a significant part of our time, is a gift.
We live close to others– mostly women – who do not have much spare time. The nurse that took my blood pressure the other day has a daily commute into Central from the New Territories, where she supports two school kids and two dogs. Or take the friendly old lady who sweeps Bowen Road every day from 8 am – 6 pm and then walks home to look after her husband, daughter and grandchild, or the receptionist at our club who always makes us feel welcome, whilst she herself is parenting two teenagers and has a husband who, like her, is working long hours. When I talk to these women, I find that each of them, like me, love what they do and, like me, are lucky to have the life they have.
Occasionally I envy women who have a career in medicine, finance or fashion because of their stimulating professional environment and their exposure to dynamic people, and I miss the satisfaction of running a creative project from my days as an advertising professional. And yet, being able to write and pursue what matters to me is priceless, and I know I could not do it all.
My ongoing epiphany concerns trailing spouses, mostly women, who get hurt when their life plan falls apart. This is a blind spot in Hong Kong – and I assume it equally concerns lives in other expat hubs. Don’t get me wrong: it always hurts when life falls apart, everywhere. But living away from an organically grown support network and having disrupted your capability to create an income to advance your partner’s career over your own adds to the complexity that comes with an expatriate family life, and it adds to the trauma when something goes wrong.
What do you do if you are a trailing spouse who has disrupted her or, less frequently, his own working life, have created a stable environment for your children in Hong Kong, when all of a sudden your marriage falls apart? What if your partner gets sick, dies or turns unstable in other ways? What if your spouse is not able to support you and the kids any more? How capable is your support network to help you stay afloat with dignity and rebuild your life? Who helps you with financial planning, your tax return, the banking nightmare of changing account holder’s names and securing the child’s spot at the school? Who helps you build an income when the other half is gone? What do we – as women – do for other women who are falling through the cracks of the locally assumed privilege? In moments like that, time, experience and attention become the most valuable currency.
Hong Kong has a number of mothers who successfully raise a family by themselves after a divorce, illness or death of their spouse. It is not something we see too often. But the fact that we do not see those women a lot is probably because they do not have that much time to socialize. They build businesses, careers or hold on to a job that secures a basic income. They work, pick up their kids whenever they can and compete with the parenting advantages of the many more privileged Hong Kong families, i.e. at least one reasonably well compensated breadwinner, money for extracurricular activities, involvement at the school and all those perks that come with a Hong Kong expatriate existence. It can work well. Hong Kong can be a good place for single women because of domestic help – a whole other topic – quality networks and its well-oiled infrastructure. But getting to that point after a setback is a long journey. There are moments in life when the conveniences and even friendships we have in Hong Kong are not enough. This is where we can help.
The point is that we sometimes need advice, be it legal, financial, strategic or psychological, when we are overwhelmed by change, sadness and setbacks. Years ago, when a psychologist shared with me that she sees a lot of desperately depressed people – women and men – I was ashamed about being surprised. I was new in Hong Kong, and I had fallen for the veneer of wellness and glamour. I should have been able to work out that there’s a price we pay for fast-paced, shiny efficiency of Hong Kong.
I grew up in a single parent family myself. My mom had a stable salary, a number of benefits including child-care until I was 12, a secure pension and health care. Extended family lived nearby. She was able to send me to one of the best local schools (free in Germany) and we traveled all over Europe. Despite missing a father figure and craving the two-parent normality, I was not a deprived child. But I felt humiliated by the need to explain the missing father at every social occasion, with every form to fill in, with every introduction to my friend’s parents or new teachers, and the label ‘illegitimate child’ quickly translated into a permanent coding of something is wrong in my life. It hurt when my mother had no time because she had to take care of all the administrative aspects of our lives. I was humiliated when men told my mother in my presence that she was certainly good looking enough to find someone who would marry her.
My mum chose to stay single. She found that being able to tick ‘married’ on the occasional application form was not enough reason to put up with having her dignity crushed. However, we could have used some unbiased advise and a regular ‘big picture talk’ about financial planning, my education, a few life strategies that would have helped me through the teenage years alongside a full time working mom. We suffered from my mother’s mental exhaustion when school became challenging for me or when I rebelled as a teenager.
Today’s Hong Kong presents different problems for the single parent family: job security for example. One particular divorced mother I’ve known for years is working hard to break into a career with hardly any child support from her divorced husband. The HK real estate firm she works for delays her commission payments in a way which makes it impossible for her to structure her well-earned income without running into cash flow problems every single month. Her employer expects her to show enthusiasm, commitment and a high degree of leadership qualities in her expat client relationships. In exchange they pay her a low base salary, she works six days a week and the firm sustains a volatile commission policy that could maybe handled by a second bread winner in a family, but not the main one.
Her story makes me think that women’s lives – with all the progress and privilege we collectively may have – are often still very vulnerable when it comes to career, income equality and basic financial security. Trailing parents may not choose to disrupt their working lives and give up the ability to support themselves financially for their partner’s career move, but they do it and make the best of it. Nowhere have I seen as much professional and creative talent roam free as in Hong Kong. But when things go wrong, as they do sometimes, we need specific major restructuring skills, time and emotional support all the same.
Hong Kong is a place where it is easy to forget that lives do fall apart – for whatever reason – like everywhere else. There seem to be fewer mechanisms in place that give people breathing space, perspective and time to pick up the pieces.
My epiphany is still only half finished, I feel. What is falling through the cracks is an understanding that when we perceive the world by ‘breadline vs luxury’ and dismiss everything in between as not worth dealing with, it’s like saying only ‘black and white, good and bad’ are the only criteria that count. In our daily lives we have to keep our eyes, ears and lives open and make Hong Kong – one of the most expensive expat places in the world, abundant with opportunities and yet merciless employment laws – a place where single parents can build quality lives for themselves and their kids. That is the diversity we need to make it a ‘real’ place.
The opportunities are here, and many women with diverse personal backgrounds succeed as entrepreneurs, professionals of freelancers. But to break in when life as planned falls apart is harder than it needs to be: there are abundant resources of knowledge and experience in Hong Kong, a great understanding of the power of networks and a willingness to help each other without judgment. I love that about the people I keep meeting in Hong Kong. It is what my mother never had. So let’s put that to work.
I want to make clear that I do not intend to create a single parent network. I want to create a resource for parents who need it when they are in distress, and who need support here and now. No matter what your status is, you can help:
If you are a lawyer, mentor, mediator, coach, counselor and passionate networker, a person with a little time and ideas, please register here. Donate some time, knowledge and expertise to those who need it.
This way we can help people in the expat and hopefully even local communities who do not have the time and mind space to negotiate, decide and research on their own behalf when their lives fall apart.
I have registered here as a coach to help. Please register if you feel you can contribute or share this article with those who can.
Read more on the subject on Wall Street Journal here.