The Trailing Spouse…
The first time I heard that term being used to describe an expat husband who had followed his wife to India I thought it was a joke… I laughed heartily until I realized that people were looking at me strangely… I swallowed hard and said “you’re not joking are you, that’s an actual term?” I guess the joke was on me as I soon came to be intimately acquainted with the reality of living my life as a “trailing spouse” (the non working half of an expat couple).
I have since googled the term (as we all know that nothing is true if it doesn’t exist on google) and found out that it is in fact a real term, with it’s very own entry in wikipedia , and was as far as anyone knows, first coined by Mary Bralove in the Wall Street Journal (July 15, 1981) in an article titled “Problems of Two-Career Families Start Forcing Businesses to Adapt” (Thank you Mary for this delightful addition to the expat dictionary)
Aside of hating the actual term, living life as a trailing spouse, is not exactly a cakewalk either. Sure your friends back home think it’s very exciting to be able to step outside the mundane nine to five routine that defined most our lives before we took on this role, the international travel, meeting new people, eating exotic foods in faraway locales and being able to experience another culture from inside out… and yes, for sure that element does exist, but for many there is another very real side to living life as a trailing spouse.
For those spouses that came from a two career family there can be a very strong sense of displacement… once the last box has been unpacked, the furniture all placed and the curtains hung, it comes home to you that this is not a vacation… can’t just repack the suitcases and head home once the adventure has worn off. You send the husband / wife off to work… the children head off to school and you look around the house and wonder… what now? You bravely head to that first assembly at school determined to make new friends, get involved in some meaningful activities, perhaps have an opportunity to make a difference… but the fact is that suddenly the days don’t have the structure that you are used to and the places which used to provide social outlets (office, church, community groups) are no longer available in that old familiar way to you.
Perhaps prior to accepting the assignment you had viewed this as a great adventure that would envelope you and your family in a great bonding experience but the truth is that while your partner goes off to the office and participates in some form of social / professional bonding there, which more often than not does not include you, and the child / children are forming their own structures and social groups in school… you are most likely bonding with your driver, (or taxi drivers) local tradesmen, the building security, google translator and a Mumbai guide for dummies book.
I must admit the first six months were a challenge for me in ways I never imagined. I had lived abroad on my own before for an extended period of time, so I thought myself well equipped mentally and emotionally to take on the challenge that was India. I saw myself boldly exploring new frontiers and blogging about my trails on a daily basis… what happened instead was a kind of disconnect… I no longer had daily shared events to discuss with my friends back home and they, it was obvious could not relate to the world of minutiae that it seemed my life had been reduced to… yes they wanted to hear about that great trip to Thailand, but my endless search for cracker barrel cheese… well not so much.
Gradually though as I helped my family to get settled I began to embrace my role as the trailing spouse… let’s face it – we trailing spouses just make life easier for everyone else in the family… we run interference with the tradesmen / workmen… our spouses come home from work, the child comes home from school and things are magically fixed, in place, and working… we arrange schedules so that everyone can get where they need to go Mumbai traffic notwithstanding… we endlessly search for new food sources to ensure that our families are gastronomically entertained… we research places and forms of entertainment for the family… ensure that all the little things which will help our families feel more at home are in place and taken care of…
There are in fact many housewives who do these things on a daily basis worldwide, but it becomes that much more challenging when you are doing it on the other side of the world… in a land with different customs, norms and expectations. I liken the experience to thinking you are going off to finishing school and ending up at a military disciplinary camp for unruly teens… once you learn the rules and abide by them – life gets a lot easier, but until you get the hang of it you are in for a bumpy ride.
Looking back now, a veteran of a year and six months I know quite certainly that challenges, disappointments may come, but I would do it all over again if I had the chance … I will embrace my title and my role as the “Trailing spouse” – I will ensure that life here for my spouse and my children are as worry free as I can make it and I will enjoy my new friends… the other trailing spouses… because yes, a funny thing happened over the past year… I made friends… I created a whole new reality for myself, one which includes friends who can totally relate to my obsessive search for cheese, and my comical exchange with the rickshaw driver, and also my days of homesickness.
All things considered there are worse titles one could give you other than “trailing spouse” and I have learnt to wear mine with pride!
One love, one heart, one people…