Men at work and wives at tea: Felicity Mulgan learnt that joining her husband on a posting to Africa meant a frustrating life of small talk and cooking

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT SHOULD have been a warning. Take up embroidery? New hobbies? I expected new challenges in Ivory Coast, but learning how to thread a needle and manage servants were not among them. So I laughed off the outdated notion of expat wives presented at a pre-departure briefing. The advice from Canada's Overseas Development Organisation, which funded my husband's new job, seemed more attuned to the Fifties than the Nineties.

We arrived in Abidjan two years ago, as the hottest season was beginning. The real shock was not the weather, but that once UN bureaucracy had arranged for the delivery of our belongings, the rest was up to us - or rather me. It was clear why they preferred spouses to accompany employees overseas. Not only did we provide stability, but we enabled our partners to devote all their energy to the job, unencumbered by trivial domestic worries.

I became a prime target for the various rogues who knew exasperation when they saw it. Our concierge persuaded me that in order to get a telephone we must bribe key officials at the telephone company whom he happened to know.

Navely, I handed him the equivalent of pounds 50 so that he could make an application on our behalf. Several weeks later he reported that our application had been accepted, but we must now pay further bribes to have the line installed. Now desperate for a phone, I gave him more money. Four months into our stay it finally arrived. By then I was wise enough to know that my 'bribes' had probably never left the concierge's pocket.

As I compared notes with other wives, I began to realise that my experience so far represented only one end of the spectrum. With my husband working for a financially squeezed humanitarian organisation at a non-diplomatic level, we were pretty low down the expat social hierarchy. Others, whose husbands worked for private companies or embassies, lived in luxury villas with pools and servants and all the perks that money can buy.

An English-speaking women's club advertised itself as a good place to meet others, so I ventured along. It functioned mainly as a glorified coffee morning and a nucleus for various satellite clubs: bridge, sewing, cooking, golf, French conversation and a little charitable work - in other words, the traditional pursuits of traditional wives.

The members were a mixture of nationalities, though British and Americans predominated. We were all accompanying spouses, and it was with the other wives, one woman asserted, that I would spend most of my time. The advice of the Canadian experts no longer seemed quite so ridiculous.

For one woman, the obligatory dinner parties were terrifying affairs, with all the traditional protocol of seating plans, guests of honour and servants waiting at table. Yet even though this woman played an essential role in her husband's business life, she received no remuneration for her efforts and was completely unprepared. It still seems true that a man is ranked by the importance of his job, his wife by the perfection of her cuisine.

Nor is it any easier for diplomatic wives. They represent their countries as others are seen to represent their husbands' companies, and have to consider the political and social implications of all their activities.

As I came to know more wives, the picture broadened, but remained essentially unchanged: by and large we were a community of working husbands and non-working wives.

Employers often prefer to post married couples, yet persist in seeing the wife, sans career, in the stereotypical role of helpmate and hostess. Certainly, maintaining a career with a husband who is changing location every few years is virtually impossible. Wives must therefore either stay at home or, at best, work in a string of non-career jobs that fit in with their husbands' movements. It's a vicarious sort of existence, and one that can put a lot of strain on a marriage.

Trying to find some form of employment yielded little more than sporadic work with a development organisation. Jobs above clerical level are usually filled from overseas or else one is expected to work for a meagre local salary. Few even find voluntary work an option. I was not alone in my frustration.

My own circle of non-working wives represented a large untapped pool of talent, including a doctor, two lawyers and other professionals. Multiplied the world over, the waste of resources must be vast. Although some organisations are waking up to the demands of modern wives, few bother to help them make use of the skills they have to offer.

So time is filled with tennis, fitness, golf and ladies' clubs, as well as coffee mornings and tea parties, complete with cucumber sandwiches, meringues (awfully difficult to make in a humid climate) and silver cake forks. Complaints about the servants, the weather and Africa, and reminiscences of home, are favourite topics of conversation.

What saved me from giving up was becoming a mother. When I returned to Abidjan with our first baby my social circle widened considerably and I began to enjoy the luxury of living in a country where domestic help was affordable. Yet even at our weekly mother and baby group the pervasive social formalities have penetrated - the mums chatting over tea and cake while the little ones are dispatched with their nannies to another room.

When children grow older, however, parents must make the difficult choice between sending them to local schools or boarding school back home. I know of mothers who live for the next school holiday, and dread each painful separation from their children.

Soon it will be our turn to leave but, unlike many of our acquaintances, we won't be going on to another posting. After much thought, and not a little regret on the part of my husband, we have decided not to continue with this way of life. The constant uprooting and the lack of possibilities for me seem incompatible with our ambitions as individuals, as a couple, and now as a family. Working for an organisation in which the divorce rate is said to be 45 per cent, we fear the strain and disruption that the future might bring.

It is a shame, because my husband's new career looked promising and he found the work fascinating and important. But the personal sacrifices that come with the job exact too high a price.