Please, Don’t Call Me a Trailing Spouse

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Please, Don’t Call Me a Trailing Spouse

An expat’s reflections on labeling within the expatriate community.

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 17 | March/April 2015

In the expat world you can call me pretty much anything you like, within reason. Just, please, I beg you, don’t call me a ‘trailing spouse’.

The term enrages me slightly and evokes my feminist tendencies. I envision English women of the late 1800s getting off a train in India behind their husbands, with large initialed leather suitcases in tow as they struggle with their crinoline dresses and wide-brimmed hats. I feel that, while I am referred to as the ‘trailing spouse’ because I am only here in the U.S. owing to my husband’s job, the title, in fact, sits more fittingly with my husband because he learns all there is to know about the area from me. I am the one who knows where to go to post a letter, how much stuff costs, how to book summer camps, where to shop for what, etc. He just goes into the office with his chums and does his thing (and works hard, of course), and that’s pretty much that for his expat life, apart from going on vacation and finding good bars to drink in. I’m the one who really experiences day-to-day life here; I’m the one who begins to integrate into the community; I’m the one who has to make friends; and I’m the one who needs to ‘get a life’. Thankfully, I’ve managed all this and I have a fantastic expat experience as a Brit in the U.S., which I am grateful for beyond words.

But, I shudder at the title ‘trailing spouse’. It sounds so archaic, summoning up images of us women simply moping around the house, being busy doing nothing, waiting for our husbands to come home and eat the supper that we took three hours to cook for them while they drank port and had cigars in the office and played some snooker at the men’s club. I jest, of course, this would never happen…

The term ‘trailing spouse’ is often used to describe a person who follows his or her partner to another city or country because of a work assignment, and it is well-used in the expat communities. It’s since been recognized that the well-being of a trailing spouse has a strong impact on the success of a foreign assignment. Very true. An unhappy spouse equals a turbulent expat relationship.

007Expat relationships

Before I came to the U.S., a fortune teller (actually, she was just another British expat wife who’s lived in this area of America a while back) said to me, while sharing her expat pearls of wisdom, “I hope your marriage is stable because the expat life can take its toll on the best of relationships.” I nodded and made a mental note of what she had said, drank my Waitrose cup of tea and scooted out of there. I waited for our relocation to happen before I was tested in this area, and she’s right: it is testing, it is difficult, and you have to work at it. There is little equilibrium in the relationship at the start and, when each of you experiences new events and moments separately, you can begin to feel jealous or resentful, but once you’ve gone beyond that and found your balance, learn to live your own lives, and share joined-up lives, things begin to work out. That’s my experience, anyhow.

The earliest citation of the term ‘trailing spouse’ is attributed to Mary Bralove in the Wall Street Journal (July 15, 1981) in an article titled, ‘Problems of Two-Career Families Start Forcing Businesses to Adapt.’ The article states: “Another personnel man remembers the promising executive he lost because her husband was a dentist who couldn’t find a good practice to join in the area. To cope with this problem, some 150 northern New Jersey employers participate in an employer job bank. The bank is designed to provide job leads for the trailing spouse of a newly hired or transferred executive.”

Quenby Wilcox, founder of Global Expats, writes, “The term ‘trailing spouse’ has elicited much debate and discussion since it was coined back in the 1980s in the dark ages of the global migration of the modern expat family. Most expat spouses of today take offense at the term ‘trailing spouse’ and have opted out for ‘accompanying spouse’, ‘accompanying partner’, ‘STUDS’ ([Male] Spouses Trailing Under Duress Successfully), or ‘STARS’ (Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully) – the newest euphemism. Even those in the global mobility industry protest at the use of the word ‘trailing spouse’, under the principle that it is antiquated and derogatory towards the modern day woman.”

“However, my usage of ‘trailing spouse’ (in my blogs and elsewhere on the Internet) is not a slip of the tongue or in ignorance of the fact that the term implies that the expat wife is nothing more than an appendage of her husband, given no more consideration or appreciation than any other ‘article’ included in the transfer of her husband’s household goods.”

Oh, how I agree, Quenby! How I do read those words and understand!

IMG_0001Homemaker extraordinaire

When I filled in the necessary forms to come to the U.S., I was told, because I did not have a job set up, that my title would be ‘Homemaker’. Homemaker?! Really?! How dare you! I can vote, you know (actually, not in America, but you get my point).

I do actually admire women who want to be homemakers, because they must be so content and happy at home doing the trailing spouse thing by the book, but I’ve tried to make my expat experience a trillion times removed from that of a trailing spouse. Sure, I need to do all the functional things to make life happen, but the opportunities as an expat are more than just homemaking.

Someone commented to me about my house here in the U.S. the other day: “It’s very, um, bare…,” they said. It is. It’s not really a home. There are none of our pictures from the U.K., nor our soft furnishings. The rented house is not in our style and it feels a little sterile. I have not created a home. I’ve been too busy to create a home. It’s temporary anyway, and I’ve always seen it as a rental property/hotel suite that we just happen to live, eat and sleep in. It’s because I am not a homemaker and I decided early on that I would not spend my time being one. My life was to be outside the house, living in the community, spending time traveling with my family, and absorbing all the experiences abroad that I could.

Let’s not forget that both men and women play the role of trailing spouse now, though it’s still more common among the latter; and many of these spouses pursue professional opportunities abroad. But like the term stay-at-home mom, trailing spouse still has a negative connotation.

It’s true that only a minority of previously-employed women hold a job during their time as a trailing spouse. I am sure the same goes for men. In fact, I wonder how many men would admit to finding it hard to adjust to the role of trailing spouse. My husband says he’d love it. He has no idea. Really, he doesn’t.

Male trailing spouses

The phenomenon of female expats and accompanying male spouses is a fairly new, but growing, population. Dr. Nina Cole, Associate Professor of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, has completed two major field studies of expat spouses. At a recent Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, Cole presented her findings from 33 in-depth interviews with trailing male spouses to identify specific issues they encounter during the adjustment process.

This study, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation, shows that these men are perceived as being part of non-traditional families, and so-called 21st-century men. However, there is little attention from HR departments to this demographic shift thus far.

Cole’s research probed whether male expat spouses have different needs than females from cultural, social and personal standpoints.

Specific male needs found were: 91% expressed a desire to receive more hands-on assistance with the settling-in process; 52% wanted more assistance to meet other male spouses; 45% wanted more information regarding associations/clubs and sports groups for networking and social activities.

The research showed that there were some differences between male and female trailing spouses, which included males wanting more recognition that they have given up a career. You know what? I don’t think it’s so different for the type of trailing spouse that I am. I kind of want that too, but I’m not going to wallow in it. I’m going to go and create my life and career. That’s what I did in the United States.

I have seen here in the expat community that the special circles are predominantly female-oriented. Book clubs, craft nights, coffee mornings, etc. The male trailing spouses are not included, though that’s not to say they couldn’t put themselves forward and organize something that would be more to their taste, because they certainly could. Fortunately, the title of the group has changed from ‘Spouses Association’ to ‘Support Association’, but it’s still a ladies’ world.

Men create social networks very differently than women, says Cole. Males tend to network around a common activity, usually something physical, and they are often discriminated against within female social expat circles. Males, she concludes, need more connection with other male spouses. I wonder how good they are at networking with each other? The research shows that the majority of female trailing expatriates often find themselves busy networking with other females over coffee, school pick-ups and drop-offs, or ladies’ nights out, but these networks are often less than optimal for male trailing expatriates.

One incident that Cole highlighted was about a male who attended a coffee morning in Shanghai. He was the only male attending and sat down at an empty table. Soon a female came by, but rather than sitting down, she asked whether she could use the chair for another table. Incredibly, more women came to the table to ask for the rest of the chairs until he was left sitting alone at an empty, chair-less table! Imagine how isolating that must have felt.

Expat isolation

Isolation in these groups is an interesting factor. If you just don’t fit into the homemaker world and don’t attend each social occasion, but rather you show interest in anything outside the expat community, spend time working, or find local friends, then your expat life can become suddenly very isolating. This is true for both men and women, and it’s something I’ve experienced within my own expat community here in the U.S. because of my desire to have experiences outside of the trailing spouse wives’ brigade. But hey ho, I’m not that bothered; I’d rather admit that it’s not for me than let it make my life miserable. I ostracized myself a bit by showing an interest in things outside the group, and it’s a natural occurrence for some expats to do this, I believe. You reap what you sow. My expat life has been nothing short of joyful, filled with rewarding experiences, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Experts say that to ensure truly enriching expat experiences you should participate in a blog and catch up on local happenings, share hobbies, etc. Athletic venues, such as sports clubs or organizations, may be another good option for networking and social support in the community. Connections to career groups or organizations, including online options, should also help by reinforcing a work-related identity, even for those not able to work in the new country. In general, the most important thing is to make connections; find friends to share the experience, and get the support necessary for an enriching and successful time overseas. I agree wholeheartedly. This all worked for me.

Living as a trailing spouse

Back to the poor, forlorn trailing spouse. Quenby Wilcox speaks my language when she says, “Clearly, the trailing spouse plays a key role in caring for, managing and supporting her husband and children in their daily activities and challenges as the backbone of her family. Unfortunately, her efforts and contributions are not often recognized, with HR personnel [of the husband or wife’s company/firm] all too often seeing her as nothing more than a do-nothing, pampered housewife. As one trailing spouse testimony in the Family Matters! Survey by ExpatExpert.com/AMJ Campbell International Relocation declares, ‘Although this relocation could have been a great thing for the firm, the firm has behaved at every step as though they are doing us the HUGEST favor in the history of man….’”

And judge you they will, as you turn up in your new expat community as a trailing spouse. At one expat party that I attended with my husband, a gentleman came up to me and said, “Oh you must be Mrs. Jeremy,” using my husband’s name. I turned to him and snapped back, “Oh, no – he’s Mr. Claire.” I think they got the idea that I was not trailing behind my husband in any sort of crinoline skirt.

Jessie Bryson, who was a trailing spouse for the military, writes, “Living overseas, I attend gatherings where fellow trailing spouses introduce one another as ‘Wife of X’ or ‘Husband of Y’, and then immediately talk about what we did in a past life. Former lawyers, media planners, environmentalists, teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers and scientists… Armed with impressive CVs, we begin new lives abroad as housewives, parents, volunteers, hobbyists.”

And many of the wives I know willingly choose this life, to be the trailing spouse, to be part of an expat community that promotes the homemaker role. Sometimes I wonder if I am living in the 1950s in our little part of the USA. Many, though, break free from the confines of the apron strings and the school runs and make a world for themselves that is based on their own experiences, expertise and their chance to find something new, different and exciting.

Still, someone’s got to bake all the pies for the expat events; it just isn’t going be me!

My aim as an expat spouse was to be the one leading, not trailing, and this inspired me to blog, work, volunteer and get involved locally. I’m lucky to live in an American community that allows me to do that. I’ve used my skills and credentials to do fun and amazing things alongside my husband. No matter where I live, as an expat I intend to find meaningful work, be a good parent and still be the backbone of our family’s life.

Plenty of spouses like me are assuming the role of freelancer, consultant or telecommuter, and I’ve noticed more spouses choosing to be at the opposite of trailing. I applaud them. Handling overseas life can be easy and it can be hard, but hard for me is cooking a perfect roast dinner and cleaning the house when there is a world outside the window above the kitchen sink that is begging to be explored.

Of course, my husband didn’t tie me to the plane to come here. I was very much the instigator of our expat journey, but we both knew I wouldn’t be able to sit still for one moment and trail behind him or just ‘homemaker’, nor should I ever complain about my expat life in a morose fashion while having my pedicure done.

My husband and I have independent lives, together lives, family lives, hobbies and interests, but we’re a team fulfilling and relishing our expat lives and, for the record, he doesn’t care for the term ‘trailing spouse’ either.

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