The Trailing Spouse. It’s a term I’ve only recently come to know, describing a reality I’ve only recently come to experience.
Learning this term from a dear friend of mine was one of those moments when in an instant, the entirety of your experience just seems to make sense. As humans, we’re constantly searching for meaning. When we learn a word or concept that seems to make sense to our souls, we grab it and we clutch it tight.
That’s the feeling I got when I discovered this one: The Trailing Spouse . Now, I don’t want to keep you here all day, so I’m going to employ a good, old Australian acronym: let’s refer to it as a TS.
Ladies and gentleman, I am a TS. There’s no doubt about it. And here’s why.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, TS is a term used to refer to a person who, because of a work assignment, follows their spouse to another city, often internationally.
If you’ve been following our relocation journey, you’ll know that we made this move because Cam received a once-in-a-lifetime job offer from a major firm in Silicon Valley. The same day he received his offer, I was made redundant from my banking job. So, given travel and living abroad were two things we wanted for our family unit, we jumped: both at the opportunity, and onto a plane. With three under four. I’m sure you remember it well! We do.
The last couple of times I’ve moved countries it has been as a single, child-free woman. Oh, the freedom! The choices felt exciting and entirely self-directed. In 2006, I packed a backpack, quit my job, sold or gave away pretty much everything I owned, and went travelling around Europe, eventually settling in London. Then, six years later, I left my amazing life in the UK to return to Australia with the excitement of a new relationship brewing, plus the added bonus of a long-due return to my home city and dear friends and family.
How simple life was!
If you’re up-to-speed with my blogging efforts, you’ll know that I struggle with the whole stay-at-home mum thing. I grew up working and studying hard but since arriving in the United States, I’ve found myself facing life as a full-time stay-at-home mum. I’ve written about that conundrum, and about how I’m coping in general, but I still feel like there’s a whole other level of depth to what I’m feeling right now; stuff that I’m not entirely processing just yet.
Anyway, rewind a few weeks… On a Facebook expat group that I joined, someone posted something like this: why is it always women complaining about their experience as expats?
I mean, wowee. What a loaded question.
But it really got me thinking, and I’m feeling now like the answer is this: because of the deeply engrained societal expectations we place on people, their lives, and their associated gender roles, I think that statistically it is women – in the large majority – who have, in a way, been taught to ‘trail’ their husbands and give up their careers for the sake of the family. Why should women always feel happy about this? I mean, each to their own, but surely this life doesn’t come without its challenges (I know this to be true), what with feeling like your identity is bound up only in your family and husband’s job, and all.
Of course, this isn’t a situation applicable only to heterosexual couples. Gender roles and normalised expectations of what any person should do based on their sex, gender, or anatomy are completely restrictive, IMO.
In my particular context as TS, my husband – Cam – has received an opportunity where he gains professional experience and opportunities for career development. He feels confident and secure in who he is, and in what he is achieving.
Me, as wife? Well, it’s sounds grim, but I have, in a way, lost my own support network and financial independence. I generally have to keep the family going, and it’s largely me who’s to experience the cultural shock first-hand given I spend most of my time in the community and navigating local bureaucracy.
All this culminates in a feeling that you have been the one to make the sacrifices. But for what? For whom?
In getting to know the concept of the TS, I came across this incredible article by Claire Litton-Cohn, a woman (and another Claire) speaking the truth of my situation. I see it in everything she’s written.
What do you think? Here are some excerpts that really resonate with me:
We sent a cargo shipment of our furniture, irreplaceable art, and my favorite cast iron frying pan. Every day, my husband drinks coffee, brushes his teeth, and leaves for work…and there I am, at home. In a totally new place, with no real resources except my ability to cope and hope that the local Facebook groups won’t be too petty.
Trailing spouses, usually women, end up doing a vast amount of emotional labour, not just for their households and their children, if they have them (helping teenagers adapt to new countries or dealing with toddler jet-lag), but for themselves. In the rest of my life, I’m used to being independent, interesting. I have hobbies. This trip, I’m the addendum, the afterthought. I’m the extra box on the customs form, the “spouse of” instead of the reason for going. Because I’m the one staying home, I end up managing our household, buying replacement toilet paper and trying to figure out our budget with a whole new realm of unanswered questions.
I register the toddler for day care [and] find activities to take her to so I don’t just sit at home alone all day. I can’t join a gym or even check out library books effectively. Being a trailing spouse is a little bit like having postpartum depression: you’ve done this thing that everyone is so ecstatic about and is supposed to be amazing, and then it’s frustrating and hard and you feel even worse for finding it hard.
Rightly or wrongly, so much of our identity these days is wrapped up in what we ‘do’. Since I was legally allowed to do so in Australia, at the age of 14 and 9 months, I have worked. And now I find myself squirming when I meet someone new and they ask the inevitable ‘what do you do?’ question.
Ummm, I used to work in banking, I offer. I want to work, but I don’t yet have permission to do so and I’m not sure how I’d go about finding a flexible job here, you know.
The honest answer is that I stay home and look after my three not-yet-school-aged children. The honest answer is something I’m not comfortable with.
In my relationship, I’m used to a role as a main character. Cam, my well-cast co-star and I juggled things equally – jobs, kids, life. But now? I’m in the supporting role. And so it is that when another inevitable question comes along (‘why did you move here?’), I find myself cringing (again) when I have to give the answer: for my husband’s job.
And then, on top of this loss of identity, is the guilt that I carry. The guilt that even sitting down and writing this will upset Cam. That I’ll make him feel guilty. That expressing this in any way could ruin his dream, his career. Because I know that for him, family comes first. And he would 100% pack his bags and move home if ever I was sure that’s what I wanted. I envy him leaving the house every morning, doing meaningful, exciting work with intelligent people. Solving complex problems that impact the world we live in.
I even envy his job title!
Who am I, again?
Another thing that trailing spouses find challenging is the loss of financial independence. Moving abroad, even with a company funding airfares and shipping, is an expensive exercise. Not to mention the obscene cost of living in Silicon Valley! And so, with a single income that largely goes to paying rent, I find myself feeling guilty whenever I spend money. And how do I take care of myself when I don’t have any money? How do I start a new business of my own, or pay for extra support like childcare, without money? It’s less about the actual cash, though, and more about independence.
We are taught, everywhere we look, that having money is a sign of independence. A sign of less reliance on the system. A sign of freedom.
But not all expats find the financial strain to be an issue. For some, they make the decision to move because it’ll be a win for them, from a financial perspective. Accommodation costs are paid for, school fees are paid for, and the spouse receives an allowance from the sponsoring company. And for some women I’ve spoken to, the expat experience has even been a liberating one. The financial freedom and support they’ve found has enabled them to start their own businesses, to carve out time to look after themselves.
With this in mind, I know that I can absolutely make this move a success, for me, for my kids, and for our family unit. It might just take time.
Want to know the steps I’m taking to make sure that’s the case?
- Brainstorming business ideas and embracing my inner entrepreneur
- Writing this blog: it may sound funny, but setting myself a goal of writing one post a week to process how I am feeling is actually quite therapeutic. Although much of it is written whilst juggling kids, it’s a chance for me to focus on what’s going on in my own head. I guess it’s like therapy, without paying for it 😉
- Making friends: I am actively putting myself out there and meeting new people. And it’s exciting!
- Loading up on new experiences: whether that’s experiencing American culture and customs or seeing new places, we are not being at all passive here. We’re totally getting amongst it! Can’t you tell by the photos of our recent trip to stunning Napa I’ve decided to include below?
I’ve always been one to look on the bright side. All I can keep thinking of is this: when I’m 90 and possibly unable to travel, what will I wish my life looked like as a younger person?
Like this. That’s my answer.
So, in my books, this in itself is reason enough to keep persisting.