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Q&A With Joyce Hooley, Author of Outside My Skin: My Midlife Detour as a Trailing Spouse in Ghana

Joyce Hooley, an EFM and AAFSW member, recently wrote a memoir about starting the Foreign Service lifestyle in midlife, when, after 25 years of having her husband follow her career as an American pediatrician, she became a trailing spouse at the age of 55. She wrote the book to share her experience with other trailing spouses and with friends who wish to better understand the unique Foreign Service experience. Joyce gave a few moments of her time to answer some questions for AAFSW’s Content Manager about her experience with this life and about the writing of her book.

More information about her book is available on AAFSW’s EFM Book List, found here, and on Amazon.

What is the most important thing you learned from your journey?
That being fully alive is about being willing to change, to grow in new ways.

I had been very happy with our life in North Carolina when [my husband] Bob decided he wanted to uproot, at the age of 55. I loved our home and community, and felt I had a true calling in my work as a pediatrician there. I did not want to go… but after much deliberation I decided reluctantly that I must, because Bob had followed me for twenty-five years and it was his turn to follow his dream, my turn to follow him. By the time I began writing this manuscript I had come to the very important insight that life, even in midlife, is always about change. One should not expect to coast along comfortably; there is so much benefit in pushing oneself to take on difficult challenges, in becoming a learner of something totally new, at least occasionally. It keeps one flexible, more adaptable, younger in spirit. And I learned that I am capable of so much more adaptability than I had believed myself to be.

Is there something you wish you had known going into this new lifestyle?
Oh boy… there is so much I wish I had known! Mainly I wish I had known how glad I would be eight years later, that we made this choice! It would have made it easier to let go of my former life, if I had felt assured ahead of time of how much the next eight years would enrich our lives. But also it would have been easier if I had known ahead of time that I would indeed be able to keep my strong bond with my community here at home as well.

What is one thing you want your readers to take away?
I hope readers will come away with a better appreciation of the psychological challenges faced by trailing spouses, and a better understanding of how these challenges are logistically complicated and compounded by an overseas setting. When I first arrived in Ghana, I was very much taken aback upon realizing how some of the diplomatic and international aid communities viewed EFM’s, specifically trailing spouses, even ones with professional careers: I have never felt so inconsequential as I felt initially on that first assignment.

I was, however, very determined, and I succeeded in furthering my career, but many people in the foreign service community just sort of expected me to sit back and ride along in the periphery of my spouse’s world. I think that women and men who are considering following a spouse overseas should make a serious appraisal of what they are getting into, and should be completely honest with their feelings along the way, and be faithful to their own vocational goals. My book is not a lighthearted humorous look at the experience of trailing spouses, but more of a frank sharing of how I struggled with that role. I hope my story will encourage other trailing spouses who also struggle, to see the possibilities and the rewards of following one’s authentic purpose in life.

When did you decide you wanted to turn your story into a book?
I have always enjoyed writing and am a lifelong keeper of journals, so while I was in Ghana, (and later Ethiopia too) I composed long email letters to family and friends sharing my observations of things that interested me… mostly nature and culture. So many of my friends told me that they loved reading these and encouraged me to put them into a book. It wasn’t until three and a half years after we had left Ghana, that I began working on the book.

At that point I was at home while Bob was still in Ethiopia, so I had a lot of uninterrupted time to write. And frankly, the writing was therapeutic for me, as some of my experiences working in medical settings in Ghana had felt quite traumatic. Writing helped me to process, to make some sense out of what I had experienced, and to reflect on what I had learned about myself, and about how I had changed. I realized then too, that I wanted to write more than just a collection of essays based on the email letters, but something more personal, a personal journey. I took an online creative writing class from the University of Wisconsin, which happened to be called “From Notebook to New Work,” which enabled me to take parts of the journals and the email letters and develop them into pieces of a storyline with a narrative arc.

How was the writing process?
Long and drawn out. I worked at it during morning hours several days a week, on and off for four years. At first, a lot of the writing was as much psychological processing as it was creative crafting. Despite the fact that I have been journaling all my life, the medical school years and medical career had given me no practice in creative writing, so I felt I needed to learn at least the basics of this craft and signed up for some online classes. Parts of this manuscript were developed as material for those writing class assignments, so I had the feedback of instructors which was very helpful to me. The last year of writing was mostly editing, tinkering. Getting it published allowed me to stop tinkering and get on with my next project.

What is something you didn’t include in the book but wanted to (or thought about or edited out)?
There was so much more material about our travels––birding and hiking––that were part of the letters home, so many beautiful scenes which eventually had to be edited out to keep from straying too far from the narrative arc of the personal journey story.

Outside My Skin: My Midlife Detour as a Trailing Spouse in Ghana is available on Amazon, here.

Images courtesy of Joyce Hooley.