The privilege of staying home

Who has the better deal? The “left-behind wife” or the travelling, bread-winning husband? Reflections about a misconception on gender equality.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Maimmona is a beautiful women in her fifties. Dressed in a yellow skirt and red earrings, I feel her radiant charisma when I meet her for the first time in Dakar (Senegal). She seems to have all the time in the world taking a seat and enjoying the relaxed small talk between us. Maimmona explains to me her passion for beautiful clothes – which doesn’t surprise me at all.

Imagine the following scenario: A man leaves his home country – in this case Senegal – and travels towards a highly desired destination in Europe. He leaves his wife and his children behind in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He travels the world, gets to know new places, and learns other languages. At home, the wife is left alone with all the work. She is solely responsible for raising the kids, organizing the house, and for everything else needed. Instead of discovering new countries and enjoying the sweet sense of adventures, she is burdened with everyday sorrows and boring routines.

This – admittedly slightly biased – way of describing a quite typical life situation of an emigrant and his family could happen anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, it might conform with a widely shared notion of inequality between women and men.

A surprisingly different view

But things become more finely nuanced once one takes a closer look. When I ask Maimmona about her husband, who has been living abroad for many years, her answer is refreshingly different:

“When I met my husband 15 years ago, he had lived in the United States for about ten years. After we got married, the financial situation became more and more difficult. I wanted a decent house for our family and therefore a stable income was mandatory. Hence, my husband needed to find a job abroad. He asked me to follow him, first to Italy, later to Norway. Several times. But I didn’t want to. Why should I leave Senegal? I have everything here: my wider family, a good climate, helpful neighbours, my food and language. Here, our kids get a good education and I can accompany them while they are growing up.

Thus, my husband left on his own, continued his long career of a lonely working life abroad. The four children were born with quite some years between each other. Not very common here. But what can you do when the husband only comes home every now and then?

Several times he asked me anew if I didn’t want to join him together with the kids. But I always refused. And I don’t regret it! I have a good live in Dakar. And I got too used to my freedom. Nobody tells me what to do. I am my own boss. At the same time, thanks to Skype and mobile phones we still keep up a regular and close contact. Everyday the kids talk to their dad. All the important decisions we make together. And we are able to live in a big house with the necessary comfort. What more could I aim for?”

The other side of the coin

It took me a while to understand the quintessence of Maimonna’s explanations. Instead of confirming my negative perceptions of couples that don’t live in the same place due to economical circumstances, she depicts a fulfilled daily life where autonomy and independence stay in focus. Wealth and stability for family life are the compensation for the absence of the father.

Although my misleading conception of the left-behind-wife is fading out, I still think that elsewhere there are indeed other examples of separated families, where spouses are suffering badly under the detachment from their partners, where life is tough, the much-needed money is not sent, and the relationship between the extended family members is painful.

But nevertheless, Maimonna’s insights open up a different way of analysing life concepts of migrants, who move often from south to north in order to make a living. In this case, staying at home is not a synonym for being left behind. It is the self-confident decision of a woman who acts according to her own needs.


Postscript: While editing this text, I came across Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim book “Distant love”, which lately was translated into English. In chapter VII the discussion focuses on the fact of how the women’s position is getting stronger in the global family. That might be an interesting link when doing further research on the topic. 


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