I meet so many cool moms! This series gives them a chance to share their stories – to inspire others and to sometimes give us all a chuckle.
Parenting is not for cowards and parenting abroad can be next level. If you want to share your story, please get it touch with me. I’d love to feature you.
Have you heard the term “Trailing Spouse”? What do you think of it?
What about the term “TrailBLAZing Spouse”?
Meet Michelle Scully. A trailblazing spouse if ever there was one. Years of tagging along have come to an end of her as she grows her businesses and continues on a journey of learning and reflection. She shares some of this with us here: from admitting to not having wanderlust to understanding the importance of rituals for her children to processing the complex feelings we often have as US-Americans living abroad, her honesty and perspective are refreshing and gave me food for thought. I hope you enjoy it, too.
How did you get to where you are today?
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
My name is Michelle and I am an American living in Brussels, Belgium with my husband of 12 years and our two kids. I have been a “trailing spouse” for almost our entire marriage (long before I even knew that term existed). We have lived in 6 cities in the past 12 years mostly within the US until we moved to Brussels almost 3 years ago. We currently have no plans to move but we have never lived anywhere for longer than 3 years… so we shall see!
I freelance as a brand and web designer and I especially love working with other women who are trying to build businesses for themselves or their families. I have also just started designing products specifically with women who are living the same uprooted lifestyle that I am in mind.
In the 3 years I’ve been living abroad I have had so many instances where I was looking for a gift to give someone – either for a new friend to show them “I get it” or an old friend who is moving away. I just could not find the sort of thing that said what I wanted it to say. So, I decided I wanted to start creating my own products that other women like me might be looking for also.
What is something you recently learned that really surprised you?
I recently realized that, unlike many expats, I just do not have wanderlust. Life and circumstance has led us to a life where we move often but (maybe for that reason?) I don’t crave the adventure of seeing the world like many do. More so than ever with the pandemic I thrive in focusing on the small moments of the day-to-day. When I’d get questions about where we’d like to travel, I used to feel shame in my lack of excitement around all the places we have gone and will go (when there aren’t travel restrictions). I am still working on removing my own judgement of myself and embracing the simple fact that I find comfort in things that are familiar. Perhaps it’s because I have so often had to push myself outside my comfort zone and learn to trust that I can figure things out… I am a homebody at heart and learning to embrace that about myself.
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What is the best advice you ever got?
“Taking care of yourself first is the best thing you do for your kids.”
Within the ups and downs of this lifestyle I have not always been an example of a happy, healthy, functioning human being. Putting the kids first and thinking about meeting their needs took priority over thinking about mine or meeting my own. I think a lot of moms fall victim to that. I wasn’t trying to lose myself but I certainly did for a time. Once it was explained to me that being a healthy, functioning, happy, productive person in this world is the best thing I can do for my kids… my perspective on so many things shifted. The irony is that it had to be framed in a way that my kids are still my priority 🤪…
Whenever I am hesitant to prioritize myself, I try to remember this advice. Someday I want them to be whole, healthy people. So being a roll model of that is just as (or even more) important as anything else. It’s very empowering for me to think of it that way.
What do you do for yourself? How do you make time to do it?
I love spending time browsing at second hand shops, antique dealers, flea markets, etc. I like just looking at all the curiosities and occasionally I find something that I connect with to bring home. I don’t like too many bits and bobs around (especially when it comes time to move), but I do love to add things that give our home warmth, personality and connection to the lives we’ve lived.
In that same realm, I really love to refinish furniture and I am always working on some crafty project in order to try to create a meaningful and beautiful home. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I have turned a piece of furniture from something I dislike into something that is both useful and beautiful.
I know many people who live a transient lifestyle do not see value in investing time and energy into their space, particularly when they will not be there for long. While I completely understand that, I personally think creating a home is even MORE important because we move often. The little familiar touches that make it ours and the effort put into making it both functional and beautiful always pays off for me.
How do I make time to do it? See answer to the question above. 😋
When and how did you realize you were raising TCKs/CCKs? What changed for you?
Like “expat partner” or “trailing spouse” I didn’t even know the term “Third Culture Kid” until another mom introduced it to me about a year after moving to Belgium. It really helped me to know that the concepts I was feeling about how my kids are floating in-between cultures had a name.
I became more thoughtful about the traditions that I took for granted when I was a kid. None of the traditions felt particularly important or meaningful to me… until I realized that my kids will not experience them in any way unless I create those experiences. I think I was even a little bit anti-tradition before moving abroad.
But now I see the footprint that those traditions had on my childhood and the stability it provided for me to know they were coming each year. I am working now to create those yearly traditions so that my kids can have some part of that same sense of stability even though it is in a completely different context.
What do your kids think is “normal” that children in your passport country wouldn’t?
My children think it’s normal to never assume that anyone you encounter on the street will speak your primary language. They never assume that they can approach a vendor or shop attendant and speak in English. We just visited the US this summer and, not only do they think it’s wild to be in a public place and be able to understand what everyone is saying, they think it is completely bonkers that so many strangers will speak to you. Taking my kids to the grocery store in the US was a highlight for me.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your globally mobile life?
If I could wave a magic wand I would use it to be able to share our current life experiences with the friends and family we love dearly who are all an ocean away. Especially because of the pandemic, we have not had many visitors and I generally feel disconnected from family and friends in other time zones. What I know about myself is that I enjoy every experience more when I can share it with someone – whether that’s a movie or a trip or a dessert. With a magic wand I’d bring family and friends closer way more often.
What was your most embarrassing or funniest expat moment?
My first time going to the post office to pick up a package I had very little French language skills (self taught by audio book! Yikes!).
I rehearsed and prepared and thought I was ready for the interaction. I went in and the man greeted me with a very long question in French. Having not understood a word, I handed him the slip with all the details of the package.
He rolled his eyes, took the slip and went to look for my package.
“Votre nom?” He asked when he picked it up.
I was excited because THIS I understood! “Scully” I answered.
To my surprise he rolled his eyes again and in exasperation he shouted in English: “WHATS YOUR NAME?”
I was so confused. I knew he’d asked me that… and I already answered… so startled and confused I said again “…Scully…?”
He looked at me, looked at the package, handed it to me and turned his back.
I muttered “Merci” as I left and dissolved into tears the whole walk home.
I realized later that when I said our name “Scully” I pronounced it in English.
He wouldn’t have recognized it and, in fact, with his assumption that I understood no French, he may have thought I said “Excuse me?”
Since then, whenever I am asked for my name I pronounce it as one would in French. There is much less confusion.
As far as the man at the post office… It was almost a year before I ran into him again. At that point, I had completed 10 weeks of intensive language classes. I am sure he did not remember me, but I certainly remembered him and took a deep breath before requesting his attention.
I then had a full, professional interaction with him in order to pick up a package and pay the taxes and fees for it. All in French. It was very pleasant. After leaving I again dissolved into tears on my walk back home but, this time it was because I could see so clearly how far I had come from those early days. It was a real indication of the changes I have gone through. It felt good.
What was a big culture shock for you? How did you handle it?
I think it’s been most difficult to adjust to people’s perceptions of what it means to be an American. I generally am inclined to make fun of myself or my country and our culture, but there is something stinging about someone who is not American poking fun, even in those same ways. I am always trying not to take it personally and, at the same time, remembering that the interaction they have with me will further shape their impression of what an “American” is… There is a weight to that I didn’t expect and it was overwhelming at first. I now know that I can only be who I am and hope that I can connect with kind and open minded people where ever I am.
I do not always feel culturally connected to or proud of what’s happening in my country. But in a weird way, now that we don’t live there, even when it’s a complete dumpster fire… it’s very much MY dumpster fire.