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I moved to England and became a housewife

Facts illustration July 17-09

The choice that faced me on the bank forms seemed to foreshadow the next 12 months of my life. Under "employment details" I had two options: unemployed or housewife/homemaker.

Once upon a simpler time, to be a wife was to be a homemaker. But having been born in the dying days of the seventies to a mother who donned a pantsuit and commuted to Bay Street, I was taught to gaze beyond the kitchen. You never know when one or more of the three Ds will befall a marriage. Death. Disease. Divorce. My generation was raised to have a backup plan, a safety net. A job.

When I married the love of my life in 2005, I didn't adopt his last name. I pursued a career, proud to bring home bacon as an equal partner, and maintained an identity and social life apart from my husband.

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But all that changed the day he got a job offer from the University of Oxford. We pulled up roots, cut our ties and moved across the pond.

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One of the discarded ties was my job as a marketing and communications manager for a health-care charity. But my 9 to 5 in a cubicle seemed a small sacrifice when faced with my lifelong dream: living in England.

How to describe the pleasure of a British postcode? My yearning to possess one was sparked at 13 during a holiday with my English relatives. I envied my cousins and their smooth West London accents. They had rucksacks while I had a backpack. I wanted trainers and jumpers instead of running shoes and sweaters. Everything about England just seemed better. Even the weather.

In university, I spent a summer studying in South Essex. Away from the capital, a different side of the country revealed itself. This was farmland where lambs cavorted in the fields and milk by the pint was still delivered to the door in glass bottles. I was hooked. Two-week vacations would never suffice. I had to live here, experience the country as a local.

But two days after touching down on the solid terrain of what was once a pipe dream, I was faced with an identity crisis: unemployed or housewife/homemaker.

There I was, a 30-year-old with retired man's syndrome. I had never realized how closely my sense of self was tied to my job.

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The bank refused to give me my own credit card because of my employment status. For the record, I chose housewife/homemaker. Welcome to the 1950s.

"I'll have to learn to iron a shirt and stir a martini," I quipped to my husband, outwardly joking but inwardly appalled. I had done what I swore I would never do: I had become dependent on a man.

When we meet new acquaintances, I dread the previously innocuous question: "And what do you do?"

"I'm with him."

Suddenly I have no existence outside my husband. Our social circle consists of his friends and colleagues. Our calendar revolves around the school terms. My visa - spouse of a citizen (he's Canadian but holds British citizenship) - means that without him I have no right to be here.

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Determined to make new friends, I joined a club for spouses of new academics. The First Wives Club, I privately dubbed it after seeing only one man in attendance. On my first day, I was given a nametag. It listed my name, my husband's department and his college affiliation. I had come in search of a modicum of social independence. The irony was not comical enough to comfort.

The room was peopled with women like me: intelligent and talented expats from Asia, North America and the Continent who had left behind careers (and much more besides) to follow the men in their lives to this wet, grey island. I met a sleep therapist from the Netherlands who now works in retail on the High Street for pocket money. A German clothing designer who quit her job to be with her husband after 12 years of long-distance marriage.

Why is it always we women who sacrifice our careers? Why isn't there an option on the form for househusband? Not that I sacrificed my career - 2009 is a gap year. I'm test-driving retirement but not planning to buy for a long, long time. Next year we will move to St. John's.

And this life is divine. Time - once a scarce resource - I now have in droves to do everything I always wanted to do. Travel. Write that book I've been putting off. Attend lectures without the pressure of finals and papers. Research in one of the world's premier libraries simply to satisfy my curiosity. Stop and appreciate what this city has in abundance: beauty.

Sunday nights pass untroubled. When I hear horror stories from friends about office politics and tedious co-workers, I feel relief. It wasn't so long ago that I lay awake worrying about budgets and presentations. And it won't be long before I am racing on that wheel again.

So I have learned to let go of the labels and enjoy the gift that is this year of our lives. Although abundant, time is not unlimited. And I still have a lot to accomplish and experience before my identity is tied once again to a desktop computer, an uncomfortable chair and interminable staff meetings.

Sharon Bala lives in Oxford, England.

Illustration by Elisha Lim.

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