Show Less
Open access

Doing Family on the Move

Highly-Skilled Migrants in Switzerland and Germany

Florian Tissot

This book focuses on the coordination between family life and professional career under the condition of repeated mobilities. It analyses the division between the labour force work and the care work of couples of highly-skilled migrants settling in either Switzerland or Germany. A mutually exclusive model provides an innovative understanding of gendered hierarchies in career achievement. The male partners operate three parallel elements: an upward professional career, a family-life implying child(ren), and maintaining their availability to further unplanned relocations. The female partners can only coordinate two of these concurrently. In fact, the male partners combine the three elements by taking advantage of specific, and mostly invisible, care work that the female partner provides.

Show Summary Details
Open access

7 Representing Migration: Between Motilities and Anchors

←182 | 183→

7 Representing Migration: Between Motilities and Anchors

In the previous chapter, I described different types of moves and I showed that they emerge through a relational process which considers the partners rather than solely the relationship between the employee and the employer. The shift away from a professional and individual approach acknowledges the way in which the partners coordinate two professional careers when at least one of them is mobile for professional reasons. In the current chapter, I will focus on the narratives that the partners develop when they settle in a new local space. Most importantly, I will show that the “primary-mover”, whose continuum spans between an “expat-move” and a “local-move”, orients the ways in which the partners narrate their experience of settling in new local spaces, as well as their ways of “displaying family” (Finch 2007). By “displaying family”, Finch (ibid) refers to ways people communicate what they believe to be distinctive about their family, while relying on and (re)producing a “repertoire of what family means” (2007, 78). In this context, I will show how the notion of being “motile” (Flamm and Kaufmann 2006), which I understand as having the capacity and the will to be mobile, influences the way the partners “display their family” (Finch 2007).

Hannam, Sheller, and Urry (2006) speak of a “dialectic logic of mobility” (2006, 2) to emphasise that mobility must be conceptualised with the spatial anchors and artefacts it implies. Following this logic, I will pay special attention to the ways the partners talk about their “modalities of settling”. “Modalities of settling” are the set of practices and representations highly-skilled migrants develop when arriving in a new local space as they rearrange their “family-strategy”. For example, nomads have tents because the tent, the central artefact in their way of settling, enables the nomadic way of life. A Mongolian ger76 can be built (and unbuilt) in a few hours. It is because of the ger that the Mongolian nomads maintain their “motility”. This process is quite similar in the case of highly-skilled ←183 | 184→migrants – even if I do not understand them as contemporary nomads. Hotel rooms and corporate flats enable faster and easier moves than other kinds of accommodation, such as owned property. However, when the partners describe their “modalities of settling”, they also talk about their decisions concerning their “care work integration” – that is, how they divide the care work between them, often relying on external support like day care services.

This chapter has three parts. First, I will clarify the concept of “displaying family” (Finch 2007), as it plays a central role in my argument. Second, I will demonstrate how the narratives accepting the state of “high motility” contribute to justifying the process by which women give up work in the labour force to do care work. Third, I will analyse the narratives of partners who refuse the “constraints” of “motility” and are consequently able to share the care work more equally. The perceived need of “motility” contributes to justifying a traditional “care work integration”. Thus, I propose the following questions: what kind of “meaning patterns” do the interviewees produce when they talk about settling into a new local space? Do these “meaning patterns” guide them while they make decisions on their “care work integration”? If yes, how do they orient their actions while making these decisions?

7.1 Displaying Family

Human beings do not live in a “cultural vacuum”; “family-strategies” are embedded in our values and the ways in which we represent them. The concept of “displaying family” (Finch 2007) underlines “the stories which people tell to themselves and to others about their own family relationships” (2007, 78). Drawing on this concept, I analyse the system of meanings and values developed by the respondents while “doing family” (Lutz and Amelina 2017). The theory of “symbolic interactionism” (Blumer 1969) offers an epistemological background to ground an analysis focusing on the narratives of the respondents. It is rooted in pragmatic philosophy (Dewey 1925; Mead 1932), but is further refined. For Blumer, “symbolic interactionism sees meanings as social products, as creations that are formed in and through the defining activities of people as they interact” (1969, 5). Scholars analysing the various “doings” (“doing gender”. “doing family”, “doing migration”, etc.) all underline the primacy of human actions and interactions on the constitution of meaning. Thus, the respondents develop and attach meaning to what they call family, and live accordingly as their “family life”. Blumer (1969) argues that interaction, signification, and interpretation form a fundamental triad. This is the heart of “symbolic interactionism”, as the signification that humans give to things first comes from the interactions among ←184 | 185→individuals, and is subsequently reworked in an interpretative process. This idea is at the core of the three famous premises of “symbolic interactionism”77. In the context of studying families on the move, “symbolic interactionism” offers a way to understand the link between narratives and practices. I use the concept of “displaying family” as a tool to see how people imbed what they consider to be “family” into a system of signification – what I called earlier a “meaning pattern”. For Finch (2007), “displaying family” refers to “the process by which individuals, and groups of individuals, convey to each other and to relevant audiences that certain of their actions do constitute ‘doing family things’ and thereby confirm that these relationships are ‘family’ relationships” (2007, 67). This concept offers a way of analysing how the notion of family is constructed as a “category of practice” (Brubaker 2002) by the family members themselves, by exploring the ways in which the respondents describe it . While as a “category of practice” the term family is meaningful for the respondents, the “category of analysis” must be explained and corresponds to the process of “displaying family”. Thus, I understand “displaying family” as a processual and dynamic “category of analysis” to be explained rather than an explanatory concept in and of itself. “Displaying family” is the strategic social operation occurring when the actors deploy particular means of categorisation to show that their family “works well”. Finch (2007) underlines that “a fundamental driving force in presenting families to an external audience is to convey the message ‘this is my family and it works’ ” (2007, 70). In other words, while speaking of the family, the partners construct a discourse to valorise and/or justify their practices; it is not just a neutral discourse in which the partners give a sociologist a description of how their family works.

The moment of the interview is a Goffmanian moment in which the interviewee creates a description of his or her family for the sociologist (Goffman 1990). It is a mise en scène. Thus, the “deconstructive tools” presented in the “methodological premises” (Chapter 3) are not only useful in assessing the scientific literature on the topic but also in analysing the discourses of the respondents. One of the main objectives of my work is to “decentre the discourse” of the respondents to stress which norms about the family are depicted as legitimate and which require ←185 | 186→justification. For example, I will show that frequently the respondents “display a family” in which the two partners work in the labour force, offering only a vague understanding of what “working in the labour force” could mean and blurring the distinction between hobby and professional activity. This often leads to discrepancies between their practices and their discourses. When it is obviously not possible to provide such a display, the respondents provide a justificatory discourse explaining why one of the partners left the labour force. In turn, this tells us something about the normative aspects of doing and displaying family: “dual careers couples” seem to be the discursive norm.

I not only aim to “decentre” the discourses of the respondents. I also intend to “decentre” the approach of the study itself, through the way in which I assess the interviews. In the previous chapter, I discussed the unique challenges that “secondary-movers” face in gaining access to the labour force. In so doing, I shed light on a long forgotten topic: the “trailing-spouse” [sic.], who has been considered primarily as a “burden” in many studies and certainly not as a partner with a tertiary education struggling to maintain his or her own professional activity (for a discussion of the topic, see 2.4.3 Expatriate Adjustments, 49). In the present chapter, I propose to “decentre” the approach by focusing – with one exception – on how the “primary-movers” display their family and more precisely their coordination of the care work and the work in the labour force. In other words, this chapter analyses how the partner who works in the labour force coordinates his or her professional activity with the care work. This is also a forgotten topic as studies analysing the work in the labour force of the highly-skilled migrants traditionally focus solely on the “masculine side” of the “gender binaries”, namely the “productive, economic activity” (for a discussion on the topic, see 3.2 Methodological Individualism, 73).

7.2 Motile Narratives

The way the partners perceive the move of the “primary-mover” shapes the “family-strategy”. The terms “primary-mover” and “secondary-mover” explain not only who initiates a move but also the reasons for the move. This point is absolutely crucial as one of the partners very often believes that they have moved because of the other. The key to understanding the effect of the move of the “primary-mover” on the “family-strategy” is the perceived need of “motility”. Through three narratives, I will show that the perceived need to remain “motile” (re)produces gendered hierarchies. The narratives stress how the constant need of “motility”, for the sake of one professional career, implies an uncompromising focus on the prioritised career, reinforcing gendered hierarchies in ←186 | 187→the “family-strategies”. This configuration is very often to be found when the male partners perform an “expat-move”; they become an “assigned expatriate” according to the professional approach of Andresen et al. (2014), and usually the reaction of the female “secondary-mover” to the mobility and the “motility” of her partner corresponds to the type of the “partner-initiated mover”.

7.2.1 Structural Constraints

The story of John and Aurelia highlights the development of care needs within a couple, a process by which the partners maintain and deepen a relationship of dependencies and responsibilities while relocating regularly. In the following section, I will analyse John’s narrative. I conducted an interview with him at his office in an empty conference room, which he arranged for the interview. It lasted one hour. Aurelia and John are married and have two young children of one year old and three years old. Today, John is a senior manager in a consumer goods multinational company, while Aurelia seeks employment in the labour force following their last relocation. In addition, they are trying to find a day care solution for their children. So far, they have not found anything satisfactory. Since having children, John tells me, it has been even more complicated for Aurelia to seek employment. How is it then that it is more complicated for her to seek employment and not more complicated for him to fulfil his professional activity? How did this situation develop and how does John display it?

John finished his studies at the beginning of the 1990s and started working for a marketing company in Chicago. After three years working for them, he asked his supervisor for new challenges and was given the task of opening an office in Boston78. He undertook this work for one year before moving back to Chicago. During these first years in the labour force, John was in his late twenties. Young, ambitious, and without care responsibilities, he was able to respond quickly to any professional opportunity. In that sense, he was the quintessential “motile” professional. Thus, when his previous manager called him to ask if he would accept a position in Hong Kong, he did not hesitate:

My previous manager called me and said “Hey, we got this opportunity in Hong Kong, would you be interested?” and I said “We pack on Thursday, let’s go”. I mean [snap fingers] that was literally: “I’m in, Hong Kong, never been there, done anything about it, sounds great. Let’s go”. I was really just right and ready for change. You know quite ←187 | 188→literally, the next week, I was on the plane to Hong Kong. … I was single at that point, in a relationship but not a serious one and was not worried whether that relationship was going to make the trip or not (John, 50yrs, married).

In this quote, John recalls his first international relocation and constructs a narrative in which the possible constraints that could hinder the relocation are not important enough to dissuade him. The use of the personal pronouns stresses how the decision to relocate led him and his former girlfriend to end their relationship. “We pack on Thursday. … I’m in” (ibid). In fact, what happened is that he packed on Thursday. At the end of the quote, he clarifies the situation as he says that he prioritised the relocation over the relationship and/or she refused to follow him. He was going to relocate regardless, as he did not perceive the relationship as serious enough, meaning that he could make this emotional sacrifice on the altar of his career.

The sentence “I’m in, Hong Kong, never been there, done anything about it, sounds great” (ibid) depicts an adventure of someone free from constraints (“I’m in”) and happy to jump into the unknown (“never been there”). Retrospectively, he has some good reasons to depict it like that, as this relocation was going to be a crucial step for his professional career. It would allow him to take on a challenging position, to develop key professional skills, and to create a professional network, which would support him when he experienced difficulties. But that is not all. John also narrates a high availability to mobility, i.e. “motility”; by snapping his fingers he expresses the high pace at which changes happened in his life: “quite literally, the next week, I was on the plane” (ibid). He could respond almost instantly to any opportunity around the globe, because he did not see any need to integrate his career with that of a partner, and neither did he have any care responsibility as he did not have children or relatives requiring care work. A separation from one’s partner and the absence of care responsibilities enable direct actions in the labour force: an unconstrained “motility”. He speaks not only about a frictionless mobility but also about the speed of his agreement to relocate. Thus, John moved to Hong Kong as an “assigned expatriate” who was supported by his company, as “the notion of being left alone [is] not on the table” (John, 50yrs, married). He worked for a company which was experienced in sending employees abroad, and the “expatriate package” he received was formalised and comprehensive and contributed to his frictionless relocation.

After a few years in Hong Kong, John switched to another company, this time in Italy: a fairly bad experience for him as he felt that this new company had significant management issues. He accepted this position because it was “the best job on paper” (ibid), but it turned out to be “the worst job in reality” (ibid). Yet ←188 | 189→this was where he met Aurelia, whom he would marry a few years later. Aurelia was employed by the same company but in the North European market. She is Swedish, and was working and living in Scandinavia, and he is American, working and living in Italy. For a year, they dated each other across the continent, “where EasyJet would take us” (ibid). Eventually, they wanted to give a real chance to their relationship and they decided that she would resign from her position and move to Italy to live with him. At this point, they tried to find a position for her in the same company. She should have received a position, but the arrangement did not work out as planned. This is how John recalls the situation:

So, my job was the bigger of the two in *** headquarter in Italy and she was a label architect at *** in the North European region. So, a lot of conversation happened before, and when she arrived that job never materialized and that is another reason that I was very happy to leave ***, that is just a company that was very willing with bracket promise and I don’t think that was ok, good organizations don’t work that way (John, 50yrs, married).

The circumstances of John and Aurelia’s life changed as soon as they decided to live together in an atomic heterosexual partnership. At that point, they had to coordinate two labour force positions, though they only had minimal care work because they did not have any children. The decision to move in together took a specific shape: Aurelia moved to join him because his job was “bigger”, according to him. In John’s narrative, they made a rational decision, but it can also be interpreted as the construction of a gendered hierarchy in the newly created partnership. John is aware of this, now, and produces a justificatory narrative to contextualise the specificity of their situation as he explains what she did to maintain her position in the labour force. Expressing his frustration, John actively insists that it was not he who pushed Aurelia out of the labour force but rather the incompetency of others. The couple planned this relocation: they were not reckless, and it should have worked out; but some people were probably not frank, or were at the very least incompetent, and their plan did not work. John’s argument displays two types of justification for a (female) partner’s departure from labour force work for the (male) counterpart, while denying a patriarchal organisation of their partnership. These two types of justification are the hierarchy of the positions and the incompetency of others.

As John had the “bigger” job, Aurelia resigned to join him: this is the hierarchy of positions. In the interview, this crucial justification is very briefly mentioned but expresses a strong power relationship: the one with the better position maintains that position. In their case, as in so many cases, the men have the “bigger” positions. This configuration corresponds to general social ←189 | 190→and structural trends, as women still often have worse positions in the labour force, and receive less pay than men (Hausmann, Tyson, and Zahidi 2009, 64). Structural inequalities are (re)produced in John and Aurelia’s partnership because their rational calculus (re)produces them. This corresponds with the Foucauldian argument in which the big strategies of power become embedded in micro-relations of power (Foucault 1994, 66). John neutralises the gendered argument, however, suggesting that he and Aurelia made a rational decision in a difficult situation, where there was no good choice. His narrative implies that it would be unfair to pejoratively assess their choice because they were coping with heavy structural constraints. In this way, John refuses to be seen as yet another patriarchal male.

John provides a second justification to underline that he was not trying to create a patriarchal partnership by stressing that Aurelia managed to find a position in the labour force before relocating. However, the company betrayed them as it did not keep its promises. This is the second argument that sees the partners struggling against what could lead to a traditional division of tasks. In sum, John underlines the external circumstances which led Aurelia to lose her professional activity once in Italy.

Later in their story, they married and Aurelia became pregnant with their first child. John resigned from his position in Italy and took up another position offered by one of his former employers in Hong Kong. He underlines that this decision took her perspective into account:

She was personally very unhappy and that was having an impact on her and therefore on our relationship and I knew that she was the one that I wanted to marry. So, that wasn’t going to be able to continue, so we both decided we go to Hong Kong. When we arrived in Hong Kong, my wife was three months pregnant, so she started looking for work again with the assistance of the company. The way that Hong Kong and I think China and part of Asia work, a lot of employers said ‘Great, we’d love to hire you, come back when you are ready to work after your baby. We are not going to hire you while you are pregnant, because we know you are going to go on maternity leave. So, great but later. Yeah, no offense, but kind of we don’t want to talk to you right now’ (John, 50yrs, married).

In the first part of the quote, John underlines that Aurelia wanted a job in the labour force as being out of it was a painful shift: she refused to leave the labour force permanently. John emphasises her unhappiness by adding the adverb “personally”: he did not say that we collectively are unhappy. Here, John actively displays family as he implies that they were not unhappy partners; they were happy to be together. By specifying that she was personally unhappy (while he was not) and suggesting that this impacted their relationship, omitting to ←190 | 191→mention himself, he stresses that Aurelia’s unhappiness came from the fact that she was unemployed. Her unhappiness was directly linked to the fact that she did not hold a professional position in Italy. Contrarily to what happened with John’s former girlfriend in the United States, this time he took Aurelia’s needs into consideration as “she was the one that I wanted to marry” (ibid). Thus, they decided to move together, but not just anywhere: to Hong Kong. At that point, I believe there was little doubt that John had to convince her: “You have to trust me on this one. It is going to be great” John told Aurelia (ibid). He asks her to rely entirely on his credibility, with no evidence that things will indeed work out. This explains his irritation when he recalls why, at first, she did not find any employment in the labour force in Hong Kong. Furthermore, for Aurelia, this new relocation is similar to the one that led her to resign from her position to come to Italy in the first place. She was – once again – going to be the one out of the labour force, which allegedly scared her. She left a familiar place and a good position in a multinational company to join someone she met a year ago in a foreign country. But that is not all: as the initial plan did not work out, she was now unemployed and their collective answer to that, if she would agree, was to relocate to Hong Kong. It took a lot of courage for her to accept the move, but she ultimately did so. John, unlike Aurelia, would not move without securing a position in the labour market, which explains why they decided to move to Hong Kong. It was important for him to secure a job, but not for her. Here is another inequality revealed. He managed to get a position in Hong Kong by relying on his professional network. Arguably, they could also have moved back to Northern Europe, but they decided to relocate to Hong Kong; clearly, John was once again going to be the “primary mover”.

In the second half of the quote, John explains how it became more complicated for Aurelia to find an activity in the labour force as she was pregnant. He displays his reaction to the deepening of their relationship as that of someone who did what he could to make it possible for her to continue to work, refusing once again the patriarchal narrative in which he would push her out of the labour force. As he wanted to live with her and seemingly did not want to make her unhappy, they made the decision to move to Hong Kong. Yet this is not the logical answer to her need for a position in the labour force. Logically, to do that, they would have had to move to a place where she could find a job, which was not in Hong Kong. John acted again according to his needs and his professional career. When they arrived in Hong Kong, Aurelia sought employment in the labour force, while pregnant, but did not find anything: nobody wanted to hire a pregnant woman. Here, John justifies Aurelia’s inability to find a position by underlining structural constraints: namely the sexism of employers who did not ←191 | 192→want to hire a pregnant woman. The reported speech of the potential employers who could have hired Aurelia highlights a position that he considers to be inappropriate. “We do not want to talk to you” (ibid) implies John’s critique of these employers, thereby transferring the responsibility for Aurelia’s unemployment to others.

After the birth of their first child, Aurelia found a position in the labour force, and she later took a maternity leave for their second child. John expresses his relief and, for once, his narrative describes the situation accurately:

Everything went very smoothly and after the birth of our first child, my wife found work and she was hired by one of the companies she had spoken with previously. We were in Hong Kong for a little of two and a half years and she worked for the last year and a half that we were there. She took a short maternity leave when our second child was born, so we had two kids while we were in Hong Kong and then moved with two young children here (John, 50yrs, married).

There are two moments in this quote: the first one corresponds to their situation when the “order” was restored, and lasted for the time they stayed in Hong Kong. The way he wants to display his family aligns with their objective situation. The statement “Everything went very smoothly” (ibid) expresses, in John’s view, this sense of normality – of what corresponds to normality in his view – where the two partners work in the labour force. It expresses his ideal display of family and reveals how he would like to live if things were only the way he wanted. He proposes a model in which both partners should work in the labour force; yet, when it comes to the care work, the narrative is more univocal. He mentions Aurelia’s maternity leave but there is no sign of a paternity leave. Hochschild and Machung (2012 [1984]) show that women mostly do the care work in addition to their work in the labour force, which is not the case for men. When the two partners have a position in the labour force, it is most often the women who take up the “second shift” (2012 [1984], 24) of care work. The patterns of what family means also include what is unspoken, unquestioned, taken for granted. In John’s case, the fact that only Aurelia took a maternity leave is one of these assumptions. Furthermore, his “order of things” – in which both partners had a position in the labour force (as Aurelia was still employed even when she was on maternity leave) – did not last long, as it was disrupted by a new relocation: “and then [we] moved” (ibid), he says. Indeed, then the company asked John to move to Switzerland and Aurelia resigned and the whole arrangement had to be created again, for Aurelia to have a paid position and for John to be able “display family” (Finch 2007) in a way that suited their situation. He does not mention the fact that he could have resigned too, so that she could have continued her activity in ←192 | 193→the labour force; thus he creates again the “hierarchy of position” that led Aurelia to resign in the first place. According to my former conceptualisation, John does an “expat-move”, with Aurelia following him and reacting as a “partner-initiated mover” for the third consecutive time.

When they arrived in Switzerland, the circumstances had changed, as there was more care work to be done to raise their two children. Thus, this relocation implied not only coordinating two professional careers but also integrating the care work required by the newly arrived children. Under these conditions, Aurelia struggled to find enough time to seek employment in the labour force as they could not find a day care arrangement for the children. The situation was frustrating, according to John:

We are technically repatriated but in reality we are expatriated and the way that we’ve been/ the way that we need to come and manage our life here is basically like we are Swiss, like we have lived here before, like we do have family that can help us to take care of the kids while my wife is looking for a job and maybe while my wife starts working while we are waiting for our number to come up on the day care list and we don’t have that facility available to us. So, this move has been more personally challenging for us, but we are managing through it (John, 51yrs, married).

Now, with two children, they need external help – day care – if Aurelia wants to have the time to seek employment in the labour force. John expresses his frustration about the lack of day care opportunities in Switzerland; they are number 41 on the waiting list, he told me. He emphasises the lack of support that they have received. Since he already has a position in the labour force and because no members of their extended family live in Switzerland, Aurelia must, in John’s view, take up the larger share of care work. It is as if he is blinded, as if he does not see that he could help, too. For John, they are stuck in a vicious circle, since the only way to be prioritised on the waiting list for the day care solution is if the two partners work in the labour force, but they need this day care solution so that Aurelia can properly seek employment. Thus, John shows his irritation during the interview as he remembers arguments he has with the company over spousal support. He wanted his company to pay for language courses or professional memberships for Aurelia: “You guys seriously have to put your money where your mouth is” (ibid), as he puts it. On top of that, Aurelia works in a sector which is not really developed in the city where they live in Switzerland; she would have a better chance of finding something in a larger city like Geneva or Zurich, which would imply daily commutes. Several times during the interview John emphasises that he hopes she will find a job, but the combination of ←193 | 194→constraints they are facing, and his blindness to the help he could provide, make this seem very unlikely.

His narrative shows, nevertheless, what kind of external constraints appear when it comes to integrating care work within a partnership. When they arrived in Switzerland, many challenges arose, especially regarding Aurelia’s involvement with the care work and her difficulty in finding a position in the labour force at the same time, as, apparently, John does not think about reducing his working time in the labour force. Besides, the next move is never far away:

I don’t expect to be/ we don’t expect to live here for all that long. You know, this is a two to three years assignment, just like my last one and at that point we’ll move out of Switzerland to another geography where we’ll be on an expat package again (John, 51yrs, married).

For Aurelia, the next relocation can be expressed as a “sword of Damocles” over her potential for employment in the labour force, as they will both move when the company employing John asks him to do so. On the one hand, John’s narrative is the one of someone justifying himself, as his professional career is, at least partly, responsible for Aurelia’s unprofessional situation. The conditions of “motile” relocations create gendered constraints, as it is very often the women who lose their professional activity in the process, and John’s narrative is one example of how this is sometimes justified. On the other hand, at no point during the interview does he mention how he could help; he is blind to his scope of action. The conditions of his professional activity in the company seem to be an unspoken priority, something that cannot be touched. They came to Switzerland for the sake of his professional activity and to reduce the time he spends at the office, supposedly in order to give Aurelia more time to seek employment – which seems to contradict the actual reason for their stay. The narrative is defensive because he knows well what kind of interpretation their situation mirrors: the pejorative display of a “trailing spouse” and a “breadwinner”. He refuses (and at the same time reifies) these “membership categories” (Sacks 1972; Watson 1983). The “membership categories” are common-sense designations for entities within the social world. Through them, the actors can identify individuals and social groups and attempt to (re)define a situation, while giving meanings to these individuals’ or social groups’ actions. The “membership categories” (ibid) of the “trailing spouse” and the “breadwinners” refer to a patriarchal organisation of a partnership, which John continually reuses in his narrative. “We are not like that” captions his argumentation. However, for him, Switzerland is only a temporary assignment. Why should they invest time and energy in a position in the labour force that she will have to quit anyway? Because, of course, they will ←194 | 195→leave for his purpose. This situation expresses a tension, if not a paradox. In the discourse developed through his narrative, John proposes an alternative to the traditional and patriarchal “repertoire of what ‘family’ means” (Finch 2007, 78), but he practices the very opposite. He does not accept this repertoire and thus proposes another categorisation in which structural constraints are the central elements to understanding why Aurelia does not work in the labour force. The key to understanding the tension, in his discourse, between how he wishes to display his family and their actual practice is an example of the (gendered) impact of “motility”. The fact that he is the “primary-mover” blinds him to any kind of negotiation with regard to the division of the care work with Aurelia because he has to perform for his company, being an “expatriate” and being paid “top dollar” (ibid). In order to display “his” family, he provides a discourse focusing on the constraints they face and describing how the family struggles against them while, at the same time, he is inflexible regarding the prioritisation of his career. This is one way of displaying a traditional family while refusing the discourse that comes with it. John’s case shows the discrepancies between discourse and practice. The narrative stresses that structural constraints – which hinder the capacity of the “secondary-movers” to find a position in the labour force after a relocation – are omnipresent. This narrative also responds to the challenges of the “partner-initiated movers” that I developed in the previous chapter, when one partner resigns from her (or his) former professional position and agrees to relocate for the sake of the “primary-mover’s” career.

7.2.2 Career Men and Career Women

Stressing the structural constraints is a first element of narratives “displaying family” under the constraints of “motility”; it places the responsibility for women’s loss of professional activity on the context. Some, like John, develop their whole narrative around these constraints. Others rather take these constraints for granted while “displaying family”, naturalising them and thus creating a “no alternative narrative”. Kim, for instance, develops this “no alternative narrative”: he stresses that there is no alternative to the decision in which the female partner leaves the labour force. I interviewed Kim at his office and he started the interview by telling me that he married his company before marrying Sandra, which already offers a clue as to his priorities. Together, they have four sons and have relocated to seven different countries within the last 20 years. In fact, he has worked for the same company for more than 25 years now. He is Dutch and currently the director of the recruitment program of a large multinational company in Switzerland: a senior manager in a big organisation. His career is that of an ←195 | 196→“assigned expatriate”, as he has worked the whole time for the same company and relocated many times to different countries. He accepted higher and higher positions with more and more responsibilities, being sent abroad either to develop new markets or to supervise existing subsidiaries. In other words, he, Sandra, and their children relocate at least three times per decade. How does he display “care work integration” then? Kim is very straightforward: he does the paid labour force work while Sandra does the unpaid care work for the household. In contrast to John’s narrative, in which he explains Aurelia’s difficulties in finding a position in the labour force, Kim focuses his discourse on the value of family and the trust needed between the partners:

A relocation is certainly a stressful time. But the great thing is, I think it makes the family bonds stronger because the only thing which is always consistent is the family unit. No matter how many times it moves, or where it moves to, it moves together as a team, and I think you kind of go through the different challenges together in terms of picking up new languages and yeah dealing with new cultures. But I have to say that I have been very fortunate: my wife is very much very organised, and she does most of it (Kim, 49yrs, married).

The family is the sole consistent unit in a context where everything is subject to quick modifications. The stress generated by a relocation reinforces the bond within the partnership, according to him. For this equation to work, he adds nevertheless a condition: the family needs to work as a “team”. The metaphor of a “team” is striking, as it refers to different players having different functions, such as defenders, midfielders, and forwards. The analogy implies a traditional division of the tasks between him and Sandra, though he does not explicitly name care work, referring to the latter instead as “it”. Indeed, in a team, the players know what they have to do and how to play. Furthermore, the analogy stresses a strategic vision of the family able to function under the constraints of “motility”. He explicitly links a high “motility” (“no matter how many times it moves, or where it moves” [ibid]) and the strength of a family organised along traditional lines (“it moves together as a team” [ibid]). Kim offers a narrative in which it is clear who does what. In other words, there is no “care work integration” between him and Sandra, as she does all the care work while he focuses on the labour force work.

For him, this way of not dividing the tasks offers advantages when it comes to multiple relocations. He speaks about a traditional division of the tasks, as he knows that the only way of having such an uncompromised focus on the professional career while, at the same time raising four children, is to have a spouse doing all the care work: “my wife is very organised, and she does most of it” (ibid). He needs someone to do the care work, so he can focus exclusively on his professional activity right after the relocation, as he explains it:

←196 | 197→

When you move, it tends to be the most stressful time in your new job. You have to go training, you have to go to the market, so it’s just not the right time to be spending a lot of time with the family and integrate things. That is, I think, the challenge. I think the work takes on the front role and it is going to be/ hum/ very busy at that time (Kim, 49yrs, married).

He contrasts doing “training” and “going to the market” (ibid) – which is a professional term implying doing the “real work” to increase the profits of the company – with “spending time with the family” (ibid). The latter is a euphemism, as he phrases it in a way which could imply spending free time having fun with the children. This devalues Sandra’s care work, because she does not simply “spend time with the family” (ibid), but rather invests her time in a vital, yet unpaid work for the “elementary family” in order to be able to live in the new local space while her husband is absent all day long. She needs to arrange the children’s integration into new schools as well as doing all the care work for them and Kim. The time just after a relocation is the busiest time in terms of care work, too. In other words, he depreciates the care work because he refuses to explicitly compare “going to the market” to sell digital marketing products and finding a school for the children. The difference of value attached to the different types of work is another way to create gender inequality, for the care work is very often underappreciated when it is compared to the labour force work. It is, nevertheless, of at least the same importance, because Kim’s life would be simply impossible without the dedicated and constant support of Sandra. His discourse suggests that he does the important labour force work and Sandra does the less important care work:

We decide on a house and the rest she can manage it there. And it works for us like that in terms of/ because I have, you know, I have full confidence in her and she is actually very decisive and knows what she wants and it works better that way when you decide, one person should focus on it because if you do it all together you get just more stressed, I think. She is the one who does most of the logistics (Kim, 49yrs, married).

“She can manage the rest” (ibid) – except buying the house, which, he implies, is a male thing, after all – is again a clue of the different values he attaches to labour force work and care work. Kim develops a patriarchal argument to display the organisation he has with Sandra. A patriarchal organisation is not only about a clear division of the tasks between the labour force work and the care work within the partnership, but also about “the domination of women and younger men by older or more powerful men. Literally the ‘rule of the fathers’ ” (Levy 2007). Thus, it refers to a difference of rank and power within the partnership, which Kim expresses by stating his confidence in Sandra. “I have full confidence ←197 | 198→in her” (ibid) reveals the hierarchy between them; it is as if he delegates the care work to a subordinate. It shows once again his devaluation of care work.

This hierarchy reinforces (and is being reinforced by) a patriarchal organisation of the family: the labour force paid work is synonymous with financial capital, rarity, and power which outclasses the care work, which is categorised as devotion and abnegation. Thus, the father, the pater familias, makes the decisions, is the one who leads; this is not only about the choice of the next relocation but the choice of of how much care work he wants to assume, leaving no choice to the other partner but to agree to take on the rest – except in the case of a separation or divorce.

The constraints of “motility” and of multiple relocations become a way to justify a traditional model of the family in which everyone knows what he or she must do. Kim presents the way of dividing care work as a rule, something they have tested, which works best like this for them: “one person should focus on that” (ibid). This way of presenting the division of the tasks corresponds to the analogy of the team he developed earlier. For him, this is the model that best serves his career, as there is no need to compromise between two professional careers. Furthermore, he does not have to bother about the care work as “she does most of the logistics” (ibid). However, he does not take the last step and does not accept the full implications of such a family organisation, as he says that Sandra works in the labour force, too. In that sense, the traditional model of the family, even in a family strongly organised along traditional lines, does not seem to be fully legitimate – especially doing an interview with a student in sociology working on the topic. A sign of his discursive discomfort is the way he narrates what Sandra actually does. Each time he speaks about it, his words fall short. In the first quote, he pronominalizes her work without giving a concrete subject (“she does most of it” [ibid]), in the second quote he depreciates it (“it’s just not the right time to be spending a lot of time with the family” [ibid]), and later he simply does not mention it, interrupting his sentence: “it works for us like that in terms of/ because” (ibid). When I asked him if Sandra works in the labour force, Kim provided a shaky argument:

The company during our expat assignment supported her to become a yoga instructor. Throughout these moves she always has been able to find, I would say, employment. That is not financially that lucrative but something that she is passionate about that she loves to do, meet new people, in particular local people I would say depending on which country. Japan is very difficult to meet with new people but in Mexico … So, for her, finding a supporting profession which is flexible/ I mean if you want to be a career woman and you both want to have a career it is much more difficult I think if you want to be able to move (Kim, 49yrs, married).

←198 | 199→

In this excerpt, Kim blurs the lines between a hobby and a paid activity in the labour force. He suggests that Sandra should be thankful for a company that is kind enough to pay for her training to gain a certificate to teach yoga. Kim is not really convinced about the first part of his argument: “I would say, employment” (ibid) he told me; but this implies that others would not say so. He offers here a politically correct answer. He proposes what he thinks I want to hear, namely that the partners of “assigned expatriates” (Andresen et al. 2014) can find a position in the labour force even in the context of multiple relocations. Is not his company “a dual career friendly” company after all? At the end of the quote, however, he rejects the possibility of a dual career while being “motile”, expressing a central tension between the “care work integration” and the “labour force work integration”. His clause “if you want to be a career woman” (ibid) emphasises this perceived impossibility for him; yet, as we have seen in the case of John, he does not raise the possibility of supporting the care work himself. In other words, he is creating the very impossibility he refers to in order to explain why Sandra does not work in the labour force. The meaning of “career women” is central here, as it expresses a perceived impossibility. The “career woman” mirrors the “career man”, the female version of the professional, uncompromisingly focused on her professional career. For Kim, these professionals do not do the care work: they focus solely on their professional advancement and do not (want to) have the time for care. Because he wants to be a “career man”, he needs someone who will agree to compromise her career as he, certainly, would not do so. As his company asked him, his partner, and their children to move from Lithuania to Switzerland to the Philippines to Australia to Mexico and so on, it is difficult to see how Kim and Sandra could have developed a dual partner career without him agreeing to negotiate a larger space for Sandra to develop an activity in the labour force. Concretely, this would probably mean staying longer at one place or accepting a move for the sake of her career, maybe even resigning from his company. Would he accept such a compromise? He probably would not; after all, he married his company before marrying Sandra, as he told me at the beginning of the interview.

Without considering the “career women” option, just maintaining any activity in the labour force seems complicated for Sandra, especially when Kim depicts how fast they have had to make the decision to move: “We have a job for you in Mexico, talk to your wife about it, we’ll call you tomorrow” (ibid). In this case, the time between the decision to relocate and the actual relocation was so short that they had to cancel their holidays to do an exploratory trip to Mexico. Under these conditions, how can she maintain an activity in the labour force? She does not, because her husband prioritises only his own professional career, letting her ←199 | 200→do the care work. He tries to justify his position as he mentions that the income is not so important compared to the advantages of teaching yoga, which allow her to “do something [she] love[s];” (ibid) and to “meet local people” (ibid). So, what is the purpose of this activity in his narrative if it is not to earn money? I would argue “to keep her happy” (sic). This notion represents another aspect of these narratives that I will analyse in the next section.

In sum, Sandra has sacrificed her professional career to keep up with the pace of her husband’s relocations. Kim’s narrative offers an assumed division of the tasks, as having a dual career was never an option for him, and even if it was, is not really an option for Sandra anymore. This contrasts with John’s narrative, which proposed a different line of argumentation, underlining the way he and Aurelia have fought against difficult circumstances, trying to reverse them. Kim accepts nearly the whole package, as he admits, at the end of the last quote, that it is not possible to develop a dual career in their case. Thus, he develops a narrative valorising a patriarchal model of the family, which implies a lack of respect for the care work, coupled with an uncompromising focus on his career. Such a narrative eliminates other ways of organising the family, as the intensity of his investment in the labour force work is non-negotiable, and only his willingness to compromise could give Sandra more time to seek employment in the labour force. Furthermore, they have integrated work and family following that pattern for decades now and it is very difficult to reintegrate into the labour market. While Sandra struggles to find a position, Kim is a director, displaying a “no alternative narrative”. When there is no other option, there is no reason to feel responsible for a one-sided “care work integration”. In fact, it is a confirmation that the choices made in this respect were the good ones because they are the only “realistic” ones: a self-fulfilling prophecy. The drawback of such a family organisation is that it requires the female partner to agree to sacrifice her independence. That point is central because it underlines that the price of successful international careers is not paid by “primary-movers” but mostly by their female partners. This traditional family organisation takes years to become engrained, and one or both of the partners might decide to change things later. At a certain point, the (female) partner – being ejected out of the labour force by the uncompromising focus of the (male) partner on his career – can refuse to continue to follow such a scenario, in which she risks losing her independence and may divorce. I will deal with the consequences of divorce and separation in the next chapter.

←200 | 201→

7.2.3 Paradoxical Family Men

Besides the discursive elements stressing a fight against the external constraints and the ones underlining a “no alternative” scenario, I see a third way of putting into words a traditional division of the tasks within a partnership: the male partner working in the labour force underlines that he, in fact, prioritises the family. The narratives of the interviewees who mobilise the “paradoxical family men” element, in fact, combine the two former elements, showing that the narratives are dynamic and that their constitutive elements are not mutually exclusive. The “paradoxical family man” takes the external constraints for granted and develops a “no other alternative narrative”, yet he does this by emphasising that his priority is the family. It is paradoxical: while the “secondary mover” and the children follow him for the sake of his professional career, he emphasises his status as a “family man”. Dennis develops a narrative of that kind. He is married to Katia and together they have relocated several times. They have moved to many places including Germany, the United States, and Hong Kong, before relocating to Switzerland. Dennis told me straight away that he is a “family man”. When I asked him how it is possible to combine his professional career with his family life, he provided me with the following answer:

It is not difficult. I am a family man anyways, so I like to have a job, it’s fun, but career is not everything for me. … I do my job as efficiently as I can, I try to be home for dinner at the latest. Dinner time at home is religion; so, we try to always be there, all the family. So, I just try to work as quickly and effectively as I can; so, do not let the organization suck me (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

Here, his argument in favour of the family is related to their organisation of the daily life. The explanation he develops is curious: he stresses that he comes back in the evening for dinner. Leaving in the morning and having a full-time job and then coming back for dinner in the evening is what apparently makes him a “family man”. He starts by asserting that for him working in the labour force “is fun”, implying that his job is a game, compared to the family which is the serious matter. He develops a discourse in which he diminishes the perceived importance of his activity in the labour force. He underlines that he easily achieves the integration of labour force work and family because he prioritises the latter.

However, many elements in this quote show that there is once again a tension between discourse and practice. “Dinner time at home is religion” (ibid) is the statement on which he builds his argument. Yet this is, analytically speaking, a sign of the discrepancy between discourse and practice as he uses a figure of speech: namely, a hyperbole. He implies that family is central to him and being back at home for dinner is one of his priorities, but the use of such a figure of ←201 | 202→speech is designed to increase his credibility. In fact, when he says he comes back home for dinner time, he uses the verb “to try” (ibid) two times. It may be not as easy as it seems. Though he presents “being at home for dinner” (ibid) as evidence of his prioritisation of family, one can wonder if it is not, in fact, a daily fight for him to achieve it. Maybe he even wishes he could be a more present “family man”.

His words “not letting the organisation suck me” (ibid) reveal the pressure that “primary-movers” face in their labour force work. Many narratives of employees of multinational companies underline the pressures they face to invest a lot of time in the labour force. The employees’ incomes are high and the benefits mentioned in their contracts are numerous, meaning that they (the expats) are expensive for the company, the pressure on them to work hard and to “perform” is strong. During the interview, Dennis differentiates himself explicitly from the “stereotypes that high level managers are terribly busy and important and that they do not have time for their family” (ibid). He deploys a narrative in which he emphasises being a “family man”, and yet his argument is more oriented towards his colleagues than his family: he is actively comparing himself to his colleagues. He speaks of being a “family man” compared to his colleagues who are “career men”. The “paradoxical family man” captures this element in his discourse. He cares more about his family than some of his colleagues do; yet for him as for them, the family is subordinated to professional activity – something he does not see or mention. He does not speak, for instance, about a fairer division of the care work: the topic he raises is coming home for dinner. But who cooks the dinner? He develops a discourse which provides an answer to the pressures of the workplace and displays his struggle to safeguard his modest objective to be at home for dinner. In sum, the explanation of his daily practices and his discourse – the meaning he attaches to them – do not align, and this reveals the difficulties he faces in finding time with his family. It seems that it is not as easy as he would like me to believe.

This first excerpt is about the daily organisation of time and the way in which Dennis positions himself compared to his colleagues rather than his partner, I argue. In a way, he is telling me: “I try to be a little bit better than some of my colleagues who are at the office all the time”. In the second excerpt, Dennis still positions himself in comparison to his colleagues, but this time he is referring to a broader organisation of time. For him, it is important to control the pace of his professional relocation for the sake of the family and at the expense of his career. He argues:

←202 | 203→

So every time you look at getting a different job, it also probably means that you move in the company and for me personally I think I’ve made a much slower progression throughout the organization than many other people have because I like the stability more, because moving family as you probably have heard from many other people is very difficult, that is why for the sake of the family, I’d rather move much more slowly and hence six years in Indonesia and five years in Hong Kong which is way over average for much of the people (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

In this excerpt, Dennis says that he relocates less frequently than his colleagues. While his discourse superficially focusses on the family, the competition he faces at work is obvious, too. The conditions of the labour force work not only have an impact on the daily organisation of time but also on the organisation of time in the long run. In this respect, Dennis, while aiming to control the pace of the relocations, perceives himself as disadvantaged compared to his colleagues who do not seem to have such priorities. His prioritisation of the family explains why he refuses to move when the company says so. In that sense, the organisation of “motility” is again at the core of the narrative. The higher the “motility”, the more difficult it is to combine labour force work and care work: this is Dennis’s argument. Conversely, the lower the “motility”, the slower the progression in the company. Thus, the tension between care work and labour force work is exacerbated by the organisation of time at two levels: at the level of the daily life – when it comes to the organisation of the day – and at the level of the family – when it comes to decisions regarding a possible further relocation. So far, I have shown how Dennis “displays family” compared to the one of his colleagues, but how does he concretely display his children and his partner?

Speaking with Dennis about the children is a large part of the interview. He underlines a positive and a negative aspect of raising children while on the move. The positive aspect is that they are “colour blind” (ibid) and the negative aspect is that they do not have any “anchors” (ibid). These two aspects are deeply intertwined since it is the mobility of the family which allows the children to live and discover many countries while growing up. During the interview, Dennis speaks about the positive aspects of such a life for the children first:

I have three children, to grow up in an international environment, which means that they are colour blind, they do not really understand what racism is, they are open-minded, so that nationalities are a typically different concept than for us. That is a huge reward to see that people can grow up as if they do not see any physical, ethnical, national boundaries (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

More than Dennis’ career, the biggest advantage of frequent relocations is to raise the children in an international environment. However, he is afraid of not being able to offer them stability and continuity in their social lives. In fact, at the ←203 | 204→time of the interview, Katia and the children were on holidays in Germany, while he was working for his company in Switzerland. They had just left Hong Kong, but they had not yet arrived in Switzerland. They had no place to live; they were in an “in-between situation of homelessness” (ibid), as he told me. In Germany, they go to their parents’ place to spend the holidays. In Hong Kong, their accommodation had been terminated. In Switzerland, they still had not moved in as their pieces of furniture were somewhere on the ocean, on a freighter. This situation is especially complicated for the children, Dennis told me. In his view, the children are paying a price for their frequent relocations because they have lost friendships and have an unstable sense of where “home” is:

Stability for children is, I believe, very important and I can’t give them that stability. So, you need to be extra sure that you have a place for them where they have an emotional anchor and that can be very dangerous if you don’t have that because then they just go through life, never investing in meaningful relationships (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

Though Dennis has constraints because of his professional activity, he emphasises during the interview that he is in a better position because relocating is much more challenging for Katia and the children. Concerning the children, his biggest fear is that he will raise “superficial assholes” (ibid) who do not engage with anyone, since they know they are going to leave in a few years anyway. He is afraid because they do not have an “emotional anchor” (ibid). That is why Dennis tries to stay in touch with their former friends in Hong Kong, but it seems very complicated. Thus, they plan to go back to Hong Kong for holidays, so the children can see their friends and play soccer with them. “We don’t have an anchor. We don’t have a home base. We don’t have a place that we go to” (ibid) aptly summarises this intense feeling of uncertainty and fear that lurks behind the smiley, welcoming, and open Dennis I interviewed. He is aware that the price of his mobile career is high for the family. Thus, he has tried to diminish the pace of the relocations to offer the children a chance to build friendships, but in the end they have all had to move anyway. “When all options are exhausted, you have to go” (ibid): this emphasises the fragility of the social networks that highly-skilled migrants create when they arrive in a new place. As soon as the position in the labour force is taken away, there is nothing left and the “modalities of settling” that they may have enjoyed become part of the past. They tried to stay in Hong Kong and no doubt if they could have done so they would have stayed.

This case shows that “motility” is not always chosen: sometimes it is a “forced motility”. The children are not the only ones paying a high price as it is also complicated for the partner, as we saw in the first chapter. While proposing an explanation for the reasons that the couples find it difficult to maintain dual careers ←204 | 205→under the constraints of “motility”, Dennis’s discourse stresses the price of Katia’s sacrifice:

I think because [silence] it’s much much much more difficult now, so because at the time my wife also used to work for *** and she quit her job at the time. I know that we support dual careers and so forth, but it is very difficult to have two working spouses who put equal weight on their work life. … So, one of the troubles that I’ve/the discussion that my wife and I have before we move, every now and then, we go back 15 years: “I have to quit my job for you, so we can live this lifestyle, blah blah blah, you, never forget that” and those are unfortunately the worse moments that we have to go through (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

This quote speaks to the gendered inequalities that the prioritisation of one career can create, though the “expats’ narrative” displays it in a softer way. This excerpt offers insight into the way in which Dennis and Katia divide the care work and the labour force work: it is, as in the first two cases, a traditional division of the tasks, since Katia quit her position in the labour force to follow her husband. Not only have the children paid a high price for Dennis’s mobility, but Katia has also seemed to suffer a lot. Accordingly, Dennis implies that it is more difficult not only for men but also for women who want to work in the labour force nowadays (“it’s much much much more difficult now” [ibid]). The underlying message is that it would be so much simpler if they (the women) would not try to do so as it complicates the life of the “career men”. He repeats his implicit message in the next sentence when he speaks about the “dual careers and so forth” (ibid):79 these unimportant things that the company provides as if these programs were inadequate to face the challenges compared to the challenges that a high “motility” raises for the partners. He expresses a frustration which reveals the difficulty of maintaining two professional careers. A simple way to diminish the tension is when the (female) partner agrees to abandon the idea of working in the labour force. He starts the next sentence with “the problem that I have” (ibid) before correcting to “the discussion” (ibid). Dennis tries to rectify his discourse to fit an accepted narrative of what family should be. Thus, he actively “displays family” (Finch 2007) as he changes the term “problem” to “discussion”. Analytically speaking, the “problem” belongs to the realm of his practices, while the “discussion” belongs to the realm of his narrative. A discussion implies a shared division of power in which the two partners can express their interests equally, while “my problem” corresponds to his own professional perspective and the problem of coordinating his professional career with Katia ←205 | 206→and the children. This quote reveals the many paradoxes and tensions of Dennis’s narrative on the one hand, and his practices on the other.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see Katia as a completely “happy partner”; there are indications that it is not the case. First, the temporal markers indicate that Katia’s willingness to follow him and to give up her independence was not the result of a single discussion they had one time 15 years ago; rather, it is a recurrent discussion – a recurrent argument – because it is a recurrent decision to prioritise his career. She allegedly does not accept the division of the tasks. It seems that he never convinced her to fulfil the role he wants her to play. When she speaks about her pain, about what she did for him in order to enable his career, he undercuts her words by summarising them with “blah blah blah” (ibid). He answers her pain and sacrifice by mocking her. They have probably never quite agreed on this topic as she mentions that he should “never forget” it (ibid). In John’s narrative, the order of things was restored when he and Aurelia both had a position in the labour force; in Dennis’ case, I argue, the order of things would be restored if Katia tried not to discuss working in the labour force. This is an example in which Katia, the female partner, is being sent back to the sphere of the household, doing the care work for the family. Dennis mobilises a “no alternative narrative” to explain why Katia left the labour force:

I think it is becoming more and more difficult in a dual working spouse relationship to have one person who is not, who does not have to take the back seat, because one person always has to make a switch. Let’s say you are married and your wife gets the job and you move, so you have to start a new job, three years down the road, you have to quit your job again and start another one, which is more than suboptimal (Dennis, 49yrs, married).

Dennis underlines the tension inherent in the prioritisation of one professional over the other when mobility – and even more so, “motility” – is implied. He proposes an example in which the female works in the labour force while the male does the care work – a configuration I did not encounter in my interviews. The first sentence of the quote highlights the tension that arises when it comes to integrating two professional careers in a partnership but takes up an allegedly more accepted perspective in which the man stops working for the sake of the female partner. It is difficult for the interviewees to accept the traditional and patriarchal organisation of family within their narratives. As in the cases of John and Kim, the “accepted repertoire of what family should be” is in tension with Dennis’s practices. In their views, the “accepted repertoire of what family should be” does not correspond to the division of the care and labour force work that they develop in practice. John, Kim, and Dennis develop discursive ←206 | 207→strategies – discursive tricks – to emphasise that they agree with a more egalitarian integration of the labour force work between them and their partners, but these strategies also suggest that they have difficulty finding a way to legitimate their family organisation. The path-dependency of their previous choices explains why they continue to follow this path. After a certain length of time with the same “family-strategy”, they find themselves in a position in which it is difficult to change the organisation of the family. Thus, their discursive tricks reveal the difficulty of changing the “family-strategies”, as they have to keep up their professional activity in order to maintain the family’s standards of living. Nevertheless, the practices remain invariably the same; none of them seems to acknowledge that their partner would need support in the care work in order to achieve a more egalitarian integration of the positions in the labour force.

I have shown three types of narratives, three different ways of explaining and justifying why and how one of the partners – the woman – leaves the labour force to do the care work. All three of these narratives allege that mobility and dual careers are impossible to reconcile as the pace of the relocations is too high for the other partner to coordinate his or her professional career. Their discourse on “motility” orients their approach to settlement. The pattern they produce implies that a dual career is impossible, which leads them to impose a traditional division of tasks upon their partnership.

Up until now, we have seen narratives in which the openness to a next relocation is high, at least discursively. Another range of narratives actually refuse “motility”, or to put it another way, valorise more the localisation and the development of local anchors after a relocation. In the first part of this chapter I have shown the discursive construction of the concept of “motility” from an emic perspective. Through these discourses, I have stressed that the openness to mobility for the sake of one professional career reinforces inequality of gender roles. The respondents told me their stories in good faith, kindly agreeing to answer my questions; though I am critical, my goal is to show how gendered hierarchies are constructed while “displaying family”.

7.3 Anchored Narratives

In the second part of this chapter, I will analyse the narratives which express a lower availability to “motility”. These narratives focus more on long term settlement in a local space although this does not mean that the partners are going to stay permanently. When the perceived need and/or wish for “motility” is low, the choices in the “modalities of settling” correspond to a long-run perspective implying other kinds of narratives to display family. These narratives emphasise ←207 | 208→the challenges that the partners face in sharing the care work, their fear of losing their position in the labour force and running out of options in the local space, or their struggles in finding a new position in the labour force. In this section, I will still analyse narratives of highly-skilled migrants who display their families in a certain way after having moved, but whose perceived lack of “motility” creates another field of possibilities as, for instance, they may consider local public schools for their children. Contrarily to the partners who develop a narrative strongly stressing “motility”, the narratives emphasising localisation offer a wider range of choices in the care work integration. It sometimes implies– though by far not always – more room for the partners to manoeuvre in order to share the care work in a more equitable way.

7.3.1 Ignoring Motility

The practices and the discourses concerning “motility” may be contradictory: there is no need for coherence between the two realms; though actors aim to make them coincide, it does not have to be that way. In other words, when it comes to the frequency of their mobility and the discourse they develop the practices of the partners do not always coincide. Maria (Teleworking, 148) is a striking example of an interviewee who has developed a discourse a priori contradictory to her highly “motile” situation. She followed her husband, Franz, to many different countries as the company offered him positions across the globe. Maria and Franz relocated to England, to Italy, to Japan, and to Switzerland. While she found employment in the labour force after each relocation, she also resigned for the next relocation. She is an example of a “partner-coordinated mover”, who struggles to maintain her professional activity due to her husband’s relocations. As they do not have any children, their care work integration is quite straightforward; they did not have to deal with the increased load of care work that children create. Furthermore, she did not have to fight against the “housewifing” (Kanter and Halter 1978) pressures of her husband, in particular, and society, in general, when it came to raising children. The “housewifing” process is the process by which the female partner is pushed away from the labour force to the sphere of the household, doing the care work. Thus, Maria had time to look for paid work after their various relocations because she did not have to invest her time in care work. These circumstances, however, did not remove the “Sword of Damocles” of her husband’s next relocation hanging over her professional activity, for there is still a “hierarchy of position” within their partnership. He has never resigned, and she describes his career as the “steep upward career” (Maria, 51yrs, married) of a financial manager in a multinational corporation. ←208 | 209→Actually, the possibility that he could have left his position for her is not a topic in the interview: the “hierarchy of positions” is naturalised to such a point that it is simply not a question anymore. When I asked her about an earlier discussion, Maria told me that:

We always discuss it together, whenever the offer came. Well, we would have a discussion and see where we both stand if it the right time for us, if the job is interesting enough, if my husband wants to do it, if I would be willing to follow (Maria, 51yrs, married).

The first clause is all about “displaying family” (Finch 2007), as Maria underlines the systematic discussions leading to a common decision of the partners. They talk on equal grounds, though always at her expense, I argue. The crucial point of the excerpt is the kind of categorisation it implies. She does not question the division of the types of the “primary-mover” and of the “secondary-mover” in their partnership. It is as if it is inconceivable for her to accept a position abroad and to ask her husband to follow. And this is the case even though they met while working for the same company, though they both started in the same company at the same hierarchical level with a similar university degree, and though they do not have children (which is usually the excuse to explain why the female does not achieve such a “steep upward professional career”). While all the elements in their partnership suggest that they could focus on a dual career, she develops a narrative in which the possibility that she could move and he could follow is left unsaid. Her narrative emphasises how deeply incorporated the “hierarchy of the positions” is between them. The patterns that she (co)produces orient her actions; they offer her a certain field of possibilities. This field conditions her (re)actions, as the question of knowing whether they could relocate for the sake of her professional career does not seem to be a “realistic” possibility. Thus, she is vulnerable to the “sword of Damocles” of her husband’s career; this sword could be called “motility”. Indeed, she develops an argument that shows the disruptive side of “motility” and how she avoids its consequences:

We never considered any move, any move, we never considered it as being temporary. Maybe we knew, of course, it would be temporary, but in terms of integration, in terms of the job, in terms of me looking for a job, I never thought about the temporarily, about the time limitation, because otherwise, I think I would not have been able to really find the energy to start from scratch (Maria, 51yrs, married).

In this quote, she narrates how she purposefully ignores their “motility”, though the practice she develops is “motile”. She distinguishes between considering and knowing, which is an interesting way of depicting the situation she is in. She knows that they are going to move, but in order to “find the energy to start from the scratch” (ibid) and ultimately to get a position in the labour force, she acts ←209 | 210→as if they will stay in the same local space in the long run. In this quote, Maria reflects on how she managed to maintain her professional activity through the series of concessions – if not sacrifices – she had to make in order to follow Franz. For her, it is clear that arriving in a new local space while already knowing that she might soon leave it, would discourage her from seeking employment there; she would not have the energy to engage in this local space so much. The words she uses, “starting from scratch” (ibid), to describe each of her arrivals in a new local space, imply an exhausting process; therefore, accepting “motility” while relocating would be destructive for her motivation to continue seeking employment. The idea of being available to leave a local space at any time while trying to find a position in this specific local space creates a “double bind” (Bateson et al. 1956), I argue. A “double bind” refers to two conflicting messages, such as, for instance, “I give you the order to disobey me”80. Indeed, either Maria accepts that she is about to leave or she looks for a position in the labour force to stay: seeking a position in the labour force to leave it straightaway highlights the conflict between the two messages. In order to resolve this “double bind”, one of the binds needs to be removed. This is the same argument that pushes many “secondary movers” out of the labour force; it is the same dilemma, the same “double bind”, yet Maria has decided to ignore the other bind. She refuses to acknowledge the looming truth that they will eventually have to move as she steps in to find employment, in this way lying81 to herself about how long they will stay. Only this lie can reassure her that her efforts are not in vain, as she invests a lot of time and energy into finding a position in the labour force after their frequent relocations. This is how she describes her arrival in Italy:

I was quite excited to go to Italy, but I knew that I had to learn the language first, before I could actually approach the local job market. So, what I did in Italy: I moved and immediately went into a full-time language course for almost a year and then I started to/ well it was after 8 months, I started to look for a job when I thought I was quite comfortable with the language, and then after one year, I started working in the local market (Maria, 51yrs, married).

←210 | 211→

In this quote, Maria speaks about what she did to find employment after she arrived in Italy. It is as if she was taking the “integration express lane”, so to speak. She learned Italian in eight months, and after one year she began to work for an Italian company specialising in online translation, using her German skills. In so doing, Maria constructs a discourse to distinguish herself from the “membership category” (Sacks 1972; Watson 1983) of the “trailing spouse”. Following the logic of the “double bind”, the “trailing spouse” typically does not work in the labour force, thus removing the other bind: the need to seek employment in the labour force. Maria refuses this categorisation and its implications: instead, after one year, she spoke the language and worked in the local labour force. In this way, she creates a discrepancy between the narrative and the practice. Maria’s situation reveals the dilemmas that “motility” can create. It also highlights that “motility” is not an abstract concept: it contributes to (re)produce a power differential within her partnership along gendered lines. “Motility” is for someone and it is a privilege to be the “depository of motility” in a partnership. Maria’s discourse mirrors the “motility” narratives of John, Kim, and Dennis, yet in a reversed form. She implies that high “motility” in the case of two working partners in the labour force does not work; thus, she develops a discourse ignoring “motility”, while John, Kim, and Dennis acknowledge it. Yet they do not have to pay its price, as all three have the privilege of being its depository within their partnerships. All four of the narratives highlight a high practice of “motility”, depicting an incompatibility between “motility” and dual careers. Yet the “meaning patterns” they develop demonstrate several different possible reactions to that situation.

7.3.2 Refusing Motility

In other cases, such as Lynn and Alex’s (6.2.1 Primary-Mover and Secondary-Mover, 139; 6.5.1 Total-Move of a Partner-Initiated Mover, 158), the partners develop discourses corresponding to their (low) practice of “motility”. Lynn and Alex relocated once, but not again since then, even though they would have had the opportunity to do so. They both work for the same multinational company in Germany. They do not see how they could better coordinate their professional careers and the care work that their daughter requires. They both have a good position in the company while having developed a “care work integration” that allows them both to work in the labour force. To do so, they have hired a nanny and pay for a private school. I interviewed them separately and each interview lasted a bit more than an hour. When I asked Lynn if they have the possibility of relocating abroad, she gave me the following answer:

←211 | 212→

There were a few chances for that, all within *** [company]. … I mean either we changed our mind or the situation changed, or the position changed, and it wasn’t relevant anymore. So yeah, I mean but I think we’ve always consciously felt that in order to live here we have to have something really really good that makes a lot of sense for probably both of us and not just one of us. So, we both have a lot of earning here so and we, that would be obviously a prerequisite at this point and that does not come up every day, so I think that is why we are still here (Lynn, 51yrs, married).

In contrast to the narratives presented earlier, Lynn explicitly considers the two careers when it comes to deciding if they will relocate again. She emphasises that they “both have a lot of earnings here” (ibid) and that maintaining the same income is a condition to maintaining their lifestyle in Germany or somewhere else. Their “care work integration” requires two paid positions in the labour force as it is expensive. She focuses on maintaining what they have rather than considering where they could go. When she says that they need something that “would make sense for probably both of us and not just one of us” (ibid), she sends a message to her employer and to her husband. The message is directed towards the company, which offered them each different positions and asked if they would agree to relocate again. She wants something that would make sense for both of them, however, which the company did not propose. The message is directed towards her husband, too, as she underlines that a prerequisite for any move would be that they would not only both have to maintain an activity in the labour force, but they would also have to earn similar incomes to the ones they have now. Therefore, she argumentatively recuses the beginning of a “hierarchy of positions” between them.

Lynn also uses the first person plural (we) to speak about their professional careers, which contrasts with the other interviewees, who nearly all use the first person singular (I). In her eyes, to be convincing enough to be considered, a new relocation would need to be attractive for both of them: a situation that they have not encountered since their first relocation. It shows, once again, yet from a different angle, that frequent relocations create a context in which it is difficult – if not nearly impossible – for both partners to develop a professional activity.

The arrival of Mary, their daughter, emphasises even more the development of a sceptical discourse regarding further relocations. In Lynn’s narrative, the arrival of Mary corresponds to practical and discursive shifts on different levels. She has to face (1) the pressures of displaying “being a good mum”, while (2) continuing her labour force work at a high position – she is as an account director – and (3) explaining why she does not want to move higher in the hierarchy of the company, since this would imply a further relocation. This is what she answered ←212 | 213→when I asked her about the advice she would give to someone starting a career such as hers:

I worked really, really hard for a long time to, you know, to achieve that and I think I was on a good way all along to doing that and achieving that and I think I was living this success and then once you have kids – like they say – everything changes anyway, and you start to look at things a little differently, and now I am not sure anymore what success really means (Lynn, 51yrs, married).

The first sentence of this quote stresses the shift of perspective caused by the birth of Mary. Her use of the past tense is striking in that regard. Lynn is currently the account director of the European subsidiary of an American multinational company, but she speaks as if she has given up on success. What else could success mean to her? For her, living success is about continuing to climb within a company to reach the top of the hierarchy. It means aiming at the position of an executive director. When she speaks about working hard, she means more than 60 hours a week, and when she speaks about achieving and living success she means accepting the relocation that she was offered a few years ago, which would have led her into that race. Though she uses the past tense to speak about it, she still develops a narrative of the young and ambitious professional she was incarnating, just like her male counterparts, whose narratives I analysed at the beginning of the chapter. The difference between Lynn and them is their gender and children, I argue. The relocations of John, Kim, and Dennis allowed them to continue to climb up and, for some of them, it meant effectively reaching the highest position. Lynn refuses to do so, but is it really her choice? Yes and no, I argue. She ultimately decides that it is, though she makes this decision through the lenses of the “meaning patterns” she (co)creates and uses. She decides, yes, but who would decide against being a “good mum?” She decides, yes, but who would take care of Mary? Her husband is supportive, yes, but he works in the labour force, too. He will not resign to relocate for the sake of Lynn’s career and to take care of Mary. Thus, the fact that she is a woman and a mother, as well as the network of constraints safeguarding their lifestyle in Germany, orient her decision. To put it bluntly, her child limits her ascent; for Lynn, Mary was the glass ceiling. Many studies show that the arrival of children diminishes women’s participation in the labour force and their subsequent chances of achieving an upwardly mobile professional career (Gerson 1986; Slaughter 2012), as statistically the fathers systematically do much less care work for their children (Imhof 2015, 33). Accordingly, their careers are not so much at stake when they have children.

←213 | 214→

“Like they say, everything changes anyway” (Lynn, 51yrs, married). Who says this? Male interviewees never say such things. Actually, most of them say “she took a maternity leave” (John, 50yrs, married). Things stay the same for them, as they manage to develop a “(non-)care work integration”: a division of the tasks in which the female partner does all the care work, and which is actually free of charge, expect for their partner’s professional sacrifices. In Lynn’s case, blurred social pressures from her partner, colleagues, parents, me (a male interviewer), and society in general, push her to display herself as a “good mother”. She speaks a lot about the notion of success and she draws a distinction between success at work and success in life:

I think, you look at success in your job is one thing, in your career, and as you get older, I think you begin to start to think about success in life and so how you reconcile those two things. It is probably the biggest question, challenge (Lynn, 51yrs, married).

Thus, Lynn distinguishes between two scales of values which express the tensions between two opposing arguments. Such a narrative stresses the tension between the professional career and the care work. In cases in which the division of the tasks between the partners is clear-cut and patriarchal, these questions do not appear, as they seem to align. Since the female partner does all the care work, the male partner measures his success in life through the lens of his professional career. This is not the case for Lynn, who must struggle instead between these two contradictory scales of values. So, she actually has to maintain a contradiction. So, she has made the decision to give up “motility” in her professional activity. However, she speaks about a stronger attachment to the local space where they live, because under these circumstances, she can better manage the tension between paid work and care work. While comparing these two scales of value, she stresses that the price of an ambitious professional career is high. She has to be careful of the daily and the long-term organisation of time, which is practically the opposite discourse to the one I showed while analysing narratives valorising “motility”. They were saying that “it’s just not the right time to be spending a lot of time with the family” (Kim, 49yrs, married). Lynn has to find a compromise between these two scales of values and has to find the time to spend with her family, as she explains it:

Once, you’ve hit a point when you just kind of say: “Ok, my goal now is much more around maintaining, insuring, supporting, helping, growing versus having to be the one in the front line all the time”. It takes that shift today. … I am not willing to, that is just a no go, you know, if we were forced into a move which will significantly reduce my time with my family or increase the complexity of that time, I would say no. I’ve learned that, you know (Lynn, 51yrs, married).

←214 | 215→

This quote describes the compromise she made. It exemplifies the construction of gendered social pressures sending her into the household, what can be called a process of “housewifing” (Kanter and Halter 1978). She takes a defensive stance and refuses to aim at higher positions, as seeking a higher position would probably mean a relocation and/or longer working hours. In so doing, she expresses – similar to the narratives we have already seen – the narrated incompatibility of a “career women” taking care of her child. Narratives contribute to shaping reality, offering specific lenses to make decisions; yet they do not construct reality alone. In absolute terms, it is certainly possible to be a woman, have a career, and raise children. However, this requires the woman to overcome practical constraints, to organise time, and to manage the integration of the professional activity and the care work. Thus, the second half of the quote relates to my argument that “motility” has strong gendered implications. In contrast to the narratives in which the interviewees embrace “motility” – or at least take its constraints for granted – Lynn refuses it altogether. Her message could not be clearer, as she uses phrases such as “a no go [even] if we were forced … I would say no” (ibid). The tension between the two scales of values leads her to adopt a defensive position to maintain her current professional activity and to minimise the risks of a relocation which would considerably disrupt their “care work integration”: Lynn and Alex, her husband, both live and work close to Mary’s school, Mary has had the same nanny for more than five years, they have found a school which they both like for her, and they have just bought a house. A further relocation would disrupt this whole arrangement. Lynn and Alex’s choice shows – once again – the disruptive character of “motility” on the capacity of the partners to integrate care work and work in the labour force. Lynn refuses this as she perceives it as a threat. Their “modalities of settling” in Germany are more and more anchored, meaning that a further move would require important reorganisation, would be time-consuming and risky. They would, for instance, have to sell their house rather than simply terminate a lease agreement.

7.3.3 After Motility

So far, I have shown the narratives of interviewees accepting, ignoring, or refusing the pressures of “motility”, as well as the broad range of discourses attached to it. Chiefly, I have stressed that “motility” increases the complexity of the organisation of the care work as well as the “labour force work integration”. These two processes very often take place at the expense of the women’s professional careers. Furthermore, “motility” not only complexifies the organisation between the partners but it also implies an emotional price, for instance, in terms ←215 | 216→of losing one’s independence and friends. The partner and the children suffer these consequences. In other words, the situation of being “motile” is an uncomfortable position and it is usually only a matter of time before the partners want to settle somewhere. It often coincides with later stages of the “life cycle” (O’Rand and Krecker 1990) as circumstances change. The fact that the children are getting older and graduate from school or that the interviewee’s parents require care work are reasons expressed by the partners for the reduced pace of their relocations. Thus, discourses which emphasise the development of anchored “modalities of settling” are common, because they suggest a way to control the emotional and social costs of “motility”. Dennis’s narrative acknowledges these costs when he speaks about the fears and pains of Katia and the children, yet he is also saying that he and Katia do not want to stay in “orbit” their whole life (Dennis, 49yrs, married). Another interviewee, Julia, also speaks about “floating in space” (Julia, 42yrs, divorced) and the need to land. Kim speaks about “floaters” (Kim, 49yrs, married), too:

If you can do that, it is nice to have a centre, because otherwise you become a floater. I think some people are absolutely fine with that. Others, I think later on, well, all of a sudden, they say, well, I don’t even know where I would invest in real estate, where I would want to live and, yeah, to some extent you could say well, that is a shame. … I think it [silence] I mean, for us it [owning a house in Switzerland] is a key component, and also, we are a very close family. So, I enjoy, you know. Now, I also have the opportunity of living closer to my parents (Kim, 49yrs, married).

This excerpt underlines the need to develop a centre, a “home base”. Kim refuses to make this a rule as there are always exceptions – and he is “absolutely fine with that” (ibid) – yet he also speaks of this “moment” when people usually want to settle down. He is nevertheless very careful about not generalising his argument: he takes a stand and argues in favour of what he thinks is best. He develops a normative argument: the normal thing to do is to settle down at one point. The normal thing is to be “integrated” somewhere. In his view, being a “floater … is a shame” (ibid), because “floaters” miss many moments with their family and parents, moments they cannot buy back. Besides, they have nowhere to go back to: they are in “orbit”, as Dennis puts it. The “floaters” are not anchored to a particular place, as they stay in a liminal state between where they are now and an unknown next destination; they have nowhere to come back to, but merely the next place to go to. They have lost their sense of having a home. Metaphorically, they are like a kite whose rope is broken, having no guidance except from external constraints, such as the wind. In other words, Kim speaks of “floaters” as people who relocate where they are told to go. There is ←216 | 217→nothing bad about that, he says, until the notion that they are missing important moments in life becomes too important, and this is when the “tipping point” is reached. Kim describes this “moment” – which comes “all of the sudden” (ibid) – as the realisation of the losses that living far away from relatives implies. Later in the interview, he complains about not having been at any of the marriages of his cousins; he also missed many funerals. Thus, he implies that for him, the consequence of ‘floating’ between relocations has been a lack of contact with his relatives. Then, “all of the sudden” (ibid), he began to consider the price of living far away with a new perspective, no longer solely a professional one. A key factor in his decision to settle down in Switzerland was the possibility of seeing his parents more often, as they also live there. Kim implies that at a certain point, the “motility” that drove his professional career needed to be approached differently, as he and Sandra want to live closer to their relatives. Kim’s argument continues as he expresses the importance of geography, but also the complexity of narratives talking about “motility”:

Neither my wife and I are Swiss, I have a Dutch passport, but I never lived there, as I said, I moved all of my life with my parents. My wife is British and we all feel that this is home. That is why we invested our money in buying a house here as well, and that is why we wanted to move here, maybe there is an opportunity to go and do another assignment, but I enjoy coming back here and enjoy living here. I mean, Switzerland for me is home, so we may do another assignment you know (Kim, 49yrs, married).

The “sedentary bias” is to be criticised in migration and mobility studies (Wieczorek, 2018), and it is not as if Kim will now enter the “sedentary order of things”. His narrative is more complex and offers a reminder that there is no such a thing as settling for good (“so we may do another assignment, you know” [ibid]). Developing more anchored “modalities of settling” such as buying a house do not equal a “sedentary life” governed by immobility82. Kim’s narrative shows quite the contrary, as settling somewhere does not mean immobility: settling in Switzerland still offers the opportunity to visit Sandra’s relatives in England. Even though he has established a place to return to, Kim highlights that developing more anchored “modalities of settling” is not about being immobile. In sum, the binaries between “mobile/immobile” and “motile/immotile” are ←217 | 218→oversimplifications, as Kim’s narrative demonstrates that there is a full spectrum ranging between the supposed binaries of mobility/immobility and “motility/immotility”.

In fact, Kim’s case highlights that “motility” and mobility are concepts which only acquire meaning within a spatial and a temporal context; in abstracto they mean almost nothing. For Kim, the contextualisation about where to settle corresponds to a sense of proximity to one’s extended family. The temporal element corresponds to periods of the “life cycle” (O’Rand and Krecker 1990) and refers to choices related to the children and the parents of the interviewees. Kim and Sandra’s children are doing their baccalaureate and Kim speaks about living in Switzerland for a while so as to give their children better chances of success:

If you do the baccalaureate because, hum, that was ideal for my son, because then he had one year to start of preparing for the IB [international baccalaureate] and then you have the last two years where you do the IB. Those are the three years where you keep and stay at the same school, that is the most important and I think. At a younger age, it does not really matter that much. What is very difficult is when at the middle of your baccalaureate you change schools or if you come from a non-IB standard and then you want to do the IB, I think then it is difficult (Kim, 49yrs, married).

Kim emphasises that the period when the children are doing the baccalaureate is a risky time for a relocation as being in the same school for some years increase their chances of succeeding in their studies. Thus, he implies that the age of the children matters when determining the extent of the family’s “motility” (“at a younger age it does not really matter that much” [ibid]). Many interviewees corroborate his interpretation that high ‘motility’ is less risky with younger children. During the three years of high school – when children are usually between 15 and 18 roughly – the “motility” of the family needs to be controlled, he stresses. We have seen that it is not an absolute or final decision. However, as long as the children are doing their baccalaureate, he will not relocate, and only once the children leave to go to university might they accept another relocation.

Moreover, Kim talks about constructing a place to return to, in case they relocate again. He also speaks about periods when he considers it too risky to relocate for the sake of their children’s education. Thus, I distinguish a specific form of “motility” which is difficult to maintain in the long run: a “motility oriented towards the unknown”, which is different from a “controlled motility”. Essentially, the “motility oriented towards the unknown” complexifies the care work organisation as it implies spatial (where) and temporal (when) uncertainties. The “controlled motility” refers to a “motility” in which the partners have spatial and temporal restrictions. They know, for instance, that they are not going to move ←218 | 219→too far away, too soon, but rather are going to stay where they are for a while, in a local space that they have chosen (“that is why we wanted to move here” [Kim, 49yrs, married]).

Another issue when it comes to more anchored “modalities of settling” is the emergence of care work directed towards the parents of the interviewees, as new care responsibilities appear when the parents of the interviewees get old and require attention. In the case of Lynn and Alex, for instance, the couple arranged a room in their house in Germany so that Lynn’s mother can visit whenever she wants. They hope that she is going to come more often. It is rare that the parents move to join their children, but it is still a possibility, and under these conditions, relocating every three or four years becomes extremely complicated. More often, the children, i.e., the interviewees, aim to live closer to their parents, i.e., the interviewees’ parents, which implies relocating to a place where they can integrate this new care responsibility with the labour force work and the care work they already have. These new circumstances lead interviewees to be reluctant to accept new opportunities for relocation as they try to stay close to their parents and relatives: a “controlled motility”, I argue.

I will use Hannah’s narrative to show how “motility” can be encouraged or, on the contrary, hindered at different stages of one’s life; for her, the matter has grown pressing now that her parents are getting old. She is British and arrived in Frankfurt 24 years ago. Since then, she has relocated to Kiev, Moscow, and Istanbul. Hannah is one of the few female “primary-movers” I interviewed. She is now in her fifties and a group account director in a multinational marketing company. She married Hans and they relocated together for a decade. Now, they have both been back in Germany for six years. They do not have any children. They separated after they returned from Turkey, their last relocation. When I asked Hannah what motivated her to accept the relocation, she speaks of adventure and offers a discourse similar to the one I presented at the beginning of this chapter, in which the career seems more important than the relationship:

My husband … was studying architecture actually in Frankfurt but his studies were taking longer and my career started taking off, and then in 2003 the company asked me if I would move to Kiev. … He gave up studying and he came with me and for me that was actually quite/ I would have done it without him. Well, no, I wouldn’t have divorced him but if I’ve been single. If I have been single, I would have done it (Hannah, 52yrs, separated).

Here too, the “hierarchy of position” plays a role in the decision to relocate, as the one with the higher position acquires power in the relationship to impose his or her views. However, there is a narrative “ping pong”, as a straightforward ←219 | 220→statement is directly followed by a sense of reluctance to expose the power. The discrepancy in the discourse often highlights ways of “polishing power”. She actively “displays family” (Finch 2007) by highlighting a discourse focusing on the mutual agreements based on a rational choice (“his studies were taking longer and my career started taking off” [ibid]) over a pure imposition of power (“I would have done it without him” [ibid]). Thus, she corrects herself, saying that she would have done it if she were single, emphasising her reluctance to “display family” through the lens of power imposition. Nevertheless, her statement reveals her intention not to compromise and her attitude toward relocating, too. In the narratives, “displaying family” is about coordination and mutual agreement; in practice, it may be more often about power relationships. As John did with his girlfriend before his first relocation, Hannah prioritises her career and convinces Hans to come with her. They had a lot of discussions about the possibility of relocating to Kiev. Contrary to John, she was not ready to end the relationship, but similar to John, she was still very keen to relocate there as her “career was starting off” (ibid). Allegedly, the fact that her partner was not very “motivated to finish his studies” (ibid) and had no deadline to finish them convinced him to follow her, which he did for a decade, supporting Hannah with the care work. In Hannah’s narrative, the challenges they faced together while abroad strengthened them as a couple. It was only when they came back to Frankfurt that they separated. Single and without children, Hannah still has care and emotional work to do, as her parents are getting older:

My parents are very elderly, my father died 18 months ago and I just felt that it would be wrong to be on the other side of the world, because my parents are in England/ My mum now/ and for me, it just felt kind of the wrong thing to do, to go to the other side of the world, but honestly, I think if we had gone to Melbourne, we would be probably still together, because I think that the unit that you feel, like to get through life (Hannah, 52yrs, separated).

In this quote, Hannah points out that she developed a “controlled motility” so as to be able to care for her parents in England. Thus, developing a certain stance toward “motility” may change throughout one’s “life cycle” for different reasons. In her narrative, it also comes with a consequence: namely, a separation from Hans. Fifteen years ago, Hannah’s parents did not require any care work as they were much younger, which allowed Hannah and Hans to accept relocations to Kiev, Moscow, and Istanbul. After Istanbul, the company offered Hannah a relocation to Melbourne. At that point, she decided to refuse and to take control of where she wanted to live: Frankfurt. Her decision shows the distinction between “motility oriented towards the unknown” and a “controlled motility”. ←220 | 221→In Hannah’s and in Kim’s cases, I highlight the need for modifications toward “motility” throughout the “life cycle” (O’Rand and Krecker 1990); the idea of a continuum expresses the way the interviewees narrate their mobile and “motile” backgrounds, as there is no “either/or” situation. Hannah, for instance, mentions having two homes and constantly travelling between England and Germany. This situation stresses that going through the challenges implied by living abroad reinforce, in some cases, the feeling of commitment between the two partners. In sum, Hanna’s narrative shows different stances regarding “motility”. While younger, she agreed to move and convinced her partner to accept this “motility towards the unknown”, and as her circumstances changed, she decided that she needed more control over where and when to move.

7.4 Gender and Motility

The objective of this chapter was to analyse the narratives of highly-skilled migrants in order to assess the role of “motility” in their “family-strategy”. I started this chapter by asking the following questions: what kind of “meaning patterns” do the interviewees produce when they talk about settling into a new local space? Do these “meaning patterns” guide them in making decisions on their “care work integration” and once the decisions are made, how do they orient their actions?

To answer these questions, I have distinguished two stances regarding “motility” which influence the “modalities of settling”, and by that the “family-strategy”. These two stances correspond to two constellations of narratives: while the first one accepts and even valorises “motility”, the second one stresses the disruption an acceptance would cause on the “care work integration”. Furthermore, while the first stance refers to a “motility towards the unknown”, the second stance concerns a “controlled motility”. Yet these two stances both deal with different “meaning patterns” and both have concrete consequences for the “care work integration” of the partners. A strong availability to “motility” disrupts a more equal “care work integration” and offers little opportunity to the (female) “secondary-mover” to develop her own career in the labour force. A controlled stance towards “motility” is often the basis of a narrative emphasising the wish of the partners to maintain a more equal “care work integration”.

The first stance is conveyed in narratives accepting “motility” and, at the same time, denying it, as under its constraints the partners find it difficult to maintain an equal division of the care work and the paid work. A fruitful way to engage with these narratives is to spot the discrepancies between the narratives and the practices. Thus, the interviewees emphasising a narrative in which ←221 | 222→“motility” is “oriented towards the unknown” all, in one way or another, refuse the possibility of strong dual career couples, while distancing themselves from the “membership categories” (Sacks 1972; Watson 1983) of the “trailing spouse” and the “breadwinner”. They do this in a paradoxical way, acknowledging that two careers should be possible but failing to see that the prioritisation of their own professional career hinders their partner’s career, they do not step in to offer support in the care work. This point creates, in the narratives, the impossibility of developing a “dual couple career”, as frequent relocations force the partner to continually reorganise her professional activity – keeping in mind that she has to do the care work, too. The paradox lies precisely here, between the practices preventing dual careers and the narratives acknowledging its importance. This insight corroborates the results of studies in sociology of family emphasising that the parity in terms “care work integration” as well as “labour force work integration” in families and couples “exists in the minds but not in the family practices. Notwithstanding these transformations, the couple remains protective of a traditional gendered hierarchy” (Déchaux 2010, 49)83. In other words, the change in the discourses is a cosmetic change which does not seem to affect the practices.

The second stance comes across in narratives that adopt a more critical view of “motility”, trying to control it and to reduce its impact on the partnership. A “controlled motility” usually implies a strong need for coordination between the partners, whether it be between two professional careers or in the division of the care work. Some interviewees purposefully ignore “motility” in order to find the energy to start from zero after each relocation, thus creating a discrepancy between their narratives and their practices. In Maria’s case, for example, she distances herself from the “membership category” (ibid) of the “trailing spouse”, as she underlines having been able to find a professional activity after each relocation of her partner. In so doing, she offers another perspective on the “no other alternative narrative”, too. The question of whether dual careers are possible becomes, in fact, irrelevant, because the way that reality is shaped through narratives orients the realm of possible reactions. Maria manages to find a position in the labour force after several relocations because she was “lying” to herself, trying to convince herself that this time was the last relocation. Thus, she creates a specific way to give meaning to her settlement in a new local ←222 | 223→space: Maria will probably relocate again for the sake of her husband’s career. In other words, “motility” is a concept oriented towards the future: it is practiced in the way it is narrated.

In that sense, the interviewees’ subjective interpretation of their situation creates “meaning patterns” based on what they perceive to be possible, in a given context, but always tomorrow. Metaphorically, “motility” can be seen as a “horizon concept”, one that is always perceived ahead but can never be reached. Thus, one can only act by relying on today’s interpretation of what tomorrow may be. The narrative guides the action, because it creates the possibility of acting when the outcome of the action is seen as realistic. I also presented a case in which the practice and the narrative tend to align, yet not without tensions, as refusing “motility” also means maintaining the status quo, keeping two professional activities in the same local space. Through Lynn’s narrative, I showed the effects of the tension between two scales of values, as she has to simultaneously deal between “being a mum” and “being a successful professional”. Furthermore, I underlined in this section the changes that occur during the “life cycle” (O’Rand and Krecker 1990), and the ways in which these affect one’s attitude towards “motility”. Having a high “motility” today does not mean having it forever, as the children and elderly parents of the interviewees usually are or become reasons to aim at a “controlled motility”. Thus, I argue that it is necessary to assess the concept of “motility” through the “gender lenses”, as dividing care work in a “couple” or an “elementary family” becomes increasingly complex when accepting a “motility oriented towards the unknown”.

←223 | 224→

76 “yurt, also spelled yurta, Mongol ger, tentlike Central Asian nomad’s dwelling, erected on wooden poles and covered with skin, felt, or handwoven textiles in bright colours. The interior is simply furnished with brightly coloured rugs (red often predominating) decorated with geometric or stylized animal patterns. The knotted pile rug, first known from a nomad burial at the foot of the Altai Mountains (5th–3rd century BC), probably developed as a fur substitute to provide warmth and sleeping comfort in the yurt”. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2016, “Yurt, Shelter”)

77 Blumer defines “symbolic interactionism” through the following three premises: “The first premise is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them. (…). The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” (Blumer 1969, 2).

78 I have already presented a “mind map” of the story of John and Aurelia in the methodological chapter (4.2.3 Analysing the Interview Corpus, 63).

79 Own emphasis

80 Example found on the blog “la boite à outil du montieur éducateur”, retrieved April 13, 2018, from paradoxale-ecole-de-palo-alto/

81 I use this expression to underline how Maria copes with the “double-bind” that I spot in her discourse. As for the rest of my analyses, my goal is to critically assess an interview as a discourse, not to judge a respondent as a person.

82 State power and (im)mobility is a crucial but understudied topic. (Im)mobility is a tool to govern. Karl Polanyi, for instance, describes the relationship between the British Victorian Laws on geographical mobility of workers, industrialisation processes, and the action of the legislator to provide “social services” – the “Poor Laws” – while not obstructing the economic development of Britain.

83 La parité existe donc dans les esprits à défaut d’exister dans les pratiques familiales. En dépit de ses transformations, le couple reste le conservatoire d’un ordre sexuel traditionnel (Own Translation).