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Balancing Two Careers - Dual-Career Couples in the International Development / Humanitarian Aid Sector

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by Yuki Gotanda
Career Coach

The international development / humanitarian career can be challenging for dual-career couples. Some organizations have mandatory mobility rules and regular assignments to non-family duty stations. Even in the so-called "family" duty stations, finding two jobs in the same location at the same time is not always easy. One may find a position first, and the spouse may follow, hoping to find a job there soon. Or they may accept living separately until the spouse secures a job in the same location. In some cases, each needs to keep a job in separate locations for a prolonged period. If living apart is out of the question, that usually means one will hold off their career for some time. If one person maintains reasonably well-paid work, the arrangement may work out financially. However, for the accompanying partner, filling gaps in the CV and finding a suitable job when the right time arrives is challenging. Some couples who cannot secure their respective careers simultaneously may choose to pursue their careers sequentially by taking turns with each move and trying to strive for balance in the long term. 


Each couple's situation is unique. As a couple, how can you balance two careers and family life? Moreover, as an accompanying spouse, how can you plan your career long-term? Here are some tips.

Creator: Ariel Skelley Credit: Getty Images
Copyright: Ariel Skelley

1. How does it fit the bigger picture (think long-term, think holistically)? 

For the accompanying spouse/partner, the challenge often seems to be finding "what I can do" within the contexts they are in. However, limiting yourself only to the available jobs in each destination may result in a sense of resentment in the long term. How can you shift your mindset from "What can I do?" to "What do I really want to do?"? Rather than just reading through the open vacancy announcements and trying to fit in the available options each time you move to a new country, I suggest you take some time to reflect on your longer-term vision - Where you would like to see yourself (in your career) in 5 years and beyond. Understanding your long-term vision will provide you with better perspectives and help you move towards creating a meaningful career rather than finding random jobs in each place you land.


Once you have some ideas on your longer-term vision, try to understand ''why'' it is important to you – your underlying values. Also, remember, life is not all about work - In addition to your career values, you need to understand your values across different domains of your life (for example, family values – which can be complicated due to repeated relocations). Are they all aligned? Or, are there any conflicts of values across different domains of your life? If the latter is true, what do you need to prioritize? Understanding your values will provide clarity in your journey and inform you when your values change along the way, and you need to make adjustments to your goals.


2. Creating your own opportunities aligned with your vision and values 

Considering your long-term vision, what would you choose as your next project (job) in your next destination? Even if the couple moves to the "family" duty stations, often, the destinations offer limited employment opportunities for the accompanying spouse. The only option for the expatriate spouse in some countries might be working for humanitarian/development agencies, the embassy, etc. Would you try to find something among what is available out there, or would you create something of your own, like starting your own business, which you can carry with you wherever you move next? Building a portable career has become easier than before, especially with plenty of remote work opportunities. Portable jobs include:

  1. jobs that you can perform remotely (telecommuting arrangement with the employer, working from a home-based office, running a home-based business, etc.)
  2. occupations that are in demand regardless of location (however, in some of the locations, local visa requirements might be a hurdle)


Portability will make you sought after across borders (even more so if you are multilingual) and, in some cases, across sectors. For example, if you are mainly meeting your clients remotely, you can keep building on your established clients rather than finding clients in each location or finding a job each time you move. Of course, not every career is portable (for licensed professionals, transferring credentials from one jurisdiction to another is not always easy).


Career transition is an excellent opportunity to reinvent yourself. Be open to creating your own opportunities rather than just relying on opportunities others created (e.g., vacancy announcements). It is up to you how you build your skills/capabilities/competencies, choose the next project (or job – either within the same company or elsewhere), and create a portfolio of your career profile aligned with your vision and values. Of course, building credibility and a personal brand takes some time. Initially, you may need to take any clients to make ends meet and gain experience, but over time, you will be able to work with your ideal clients/companies.


3. Building your support systems

If you or your spouse work for an organization with regular reassignment, there's often no guarantee your next destination will be a family duty station. That means taking care of a family may fall more heavily on one person. For same-sex couples, the challenge might be even more, as in some cases, accompanying their spouse or partner might not be allowed by the host country. Even in the family duty stations, there are challenges. Back home, you may have social support from your friends and family, but you may or may not find the kind of social support with people who share the same obstacles among other trailing spouses or local social circles. Getting housework support or a nanny may be relatively easy and affordable in some countries. But even with extra resources, you still need to manage expectations and decide who will do what outside your professional time.


Building a quality social support system (even remotely - trusted family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.) helps us cope with difficult times during a career/life transition. Similarly, if you are starting a business, surrounding yourself with like-minded service providers would help keep your morale up. For example, if you are looking for a lawyer, try to look for someone with experience in your industry or someone happy to learn about your industry. Try to meet several service providers (lawyers, accountants, website providers, etc.) to see if they are a good fit for your business. Working with service providers who are not a good fit would be draining. Although a relationship with a service provider might be somewhat transactional, we would like to have as many people supporting us as possible during the start-up of our business.       


What's next? – Finding your next step

Transitioning from one assignment to the next (for example, from full-time worker to accompanying spouse) takes some time. If you know your next move (either accompanying or being accompanied), my last piece of advice is to start preparing for your dual-career transition early. The coaching can also facilitate a reflection process to increase your self-awareness (your career/life vision, values, passion, strengths, interests, and preferences) and provide better clarity in your long-term vision and where you might fit in a new environment. This will benefit both you and your loved ones. Some of the Impactpool coaches have experience as accompanying spouses/partners (including myself!) and have a good understanding of the challenge you may have.   


How can we get started? I can provide career coaching through the Coaching Package for Transitioning Professionals / Coaching Package for Professional Development.


Book Coach Yuki

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