Lipstick and purpose.
I used to be big on titles. I particularly liked telling people I was an Account Director — even if it meant that anybody outside of the advertising industry assumed that I had a role in the agency’s accounting department.* Almost as much as I enjoyed the work itself, or truthfully even more, I enjoyed regaling (subjecting?) those close to me with stories of the very important things we had made or the very important people I had worked with. I didn’t mind that my mother (or anybody else for that matter) never seemed to fully grasp exactly what I did all day at the office. And I didn’t mind putting client deadlines and “emergencies” ahead of friends and family time and time again. I hadn’t grown up thinking that I was going to work in advertising, but I also wasn’t surprised to find myself suddenly a grown up eleven years into my career. I don’t suppose I had ever given it too much thought — I simply fixated on the target ahead and just kept moving.
But something changed in early spring 2017. After years of autopilot, I realized I was heading towards a collision of the existential crisis variety. I’m not saying that the ad industry is entirely to blame — there are plenty of factors that contributed to my near-miss. I am, however, saying that I needed to get out.
When Joe and I reconnected while I was on a business trip to London in May 2017, I was already starting to daydream about what it might be like to shed my Account Director title. As we sat on the Tube riding back into the city from Kew Gardens, I told him all about my (mostly half-baked) plans to break out on my own as a strategist. I didn’t tell him that I was actually afraid I didn’t know who I was anymore because I had wrapped up almost every fiber of my identity into my career.
I don’t think the real terror struck until I quit my job in August. I found myself title-less for the first time in a very, very long time. More than a few tears were shed as I mourned the loss of an identity I didn’t even want anymore but didn’t know how to define myself without.
When it became clear that Joe and I were going to get married at some point in the not-so-distant future, I started flirting with the idea of what I would do when I arrived at post. And by “do,” I — of course — meant BE. Because do and be had never been separated in my head. Why would that change when I moved overseas?
I arrived in July 2018, four months after we eloped to my St. Paul living room. With my arrival in Brussels, I suddenly had a title again. Several, in fact: Trailing Spouse. Accompanying Partner. Or, in Government parlance: Eligible Family Member.
But what, exactly, was I eligible for? Certainly nothing in my own right (or so it seemed). Even my official ID card stated that I was here in country as a privilege of being his spouse.
I may have found a title again and there was an identity available to me if I wanted to claim it, but I wasn’t entirely sure that I did. After all, there was no doing in my new being.
Luckily, I met our Global Employment Advisor at a welcome coffee while I was still shaking off the jetlag of moving across seven timezones. Meeting her when I did was the type of blessing that you can only truly appreciate in retrospect. I quickly learned that she could help me navigate the ins-and-outs of working here in Brussels and was available to answer questions and provide career resources. More than that, she didn’t look at me like I was crazy when I over-enthusiastically and perhaps a bit too emphatically said “yes, yes, I would very much like to help” with coffee meetups for other family members interested in professional development.
(I was not-so-secretly excited to find others like me. Or, rather, I hoped that maybe I wasn’t the only one struggling with figuring out who I was supposed to be now. Plus, I was happy to share some of the tips and tricks I had used back when I led networking coffees for the Twin Cities Ellevate chapter.)
Most days, I stay busy between part-time remote work, French classes, and figuring out life in another country. But I often miss leaving the house to head to an office. I miss prepping for and running meetings that take place across a conference room and not over Slack. And, if I’m being really honest, I miss picking out outfits that can’t double as yoga wear.
So I was excited last Friday to need to borrow a play from my agency days as I put on my “very important meeting” uniform (jeans, tee, and a blazer). I was headed to a very important meeting indeed: those professional development coffees had finally gained some traction and we were expecting a full(ish) house.
As I sat at my kitchen table prepping a couple of icebreaker questions to help foster dialogue, I realized I was almost as nervous as I used to get before a big presentation. Would the attendees get something out of coming? Would everybody be glad they came? Was the red lipstick I decided to wear just a little too much? Was I completely overthinking everything?
Three hours later, I was heading back home again. Exhausted but pleased. Connections had been made, advice had been shared, and more than a few laughs had filled the room. My contributions were minor in the grand scheme but I had been back in my element helping connect people and ideas. It had been, as they say, a win. (Getting to rock the red lipstick? Gravy.)
*For the record, getting confused with the angels that staff an agency accounting department is actually a compliment — Lord knows I wouldn’t have made it up the account services ladder if not for the patience and tutelage of a few whip smart folks who taught me what’s what.