I read a blog the other day about trailing spouses titled The Graveyard of Ambition?
She mentions the intelligent, educated, professional women who give up their careers to follow their spouse around the world and live the expat wife life. They make their way around the world doing volunteer work, supporting other expat wives, caring for their family and household. A job that is underrated.
My mother was a trailing spouse. She followed my father through Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. She sewed shirts for lepers in Mexico and helped women market their crafts in Colombia. But mainly, as the blogger said, she kept the show on the road.
When there was no doctor to call in up-country Burma, she read Dr Spock and became a doctor. When her children didn’t show up at the airport as scheduled and there were no means of communication, she became a detective, analyzing all the travel possibilities and determining what the outcomes could be eventually meeting the right plane. When she was stranded in Liberia for four days because the plane broke down, she befriended strangers and learned to survive. When there were shortages in Nigeria and the electricity went out during important dinner parties, she improvised.
Living overseas is not always glamorous. It can be a challenge and the trailing spouses have a lot to contend with. I knew women who would put “Doctor”, “Psychologist”, “Professional Buyer” on the customs entry forms under occupation. They did it all.
My mother saw herself as part of a team. My father went to work every day and earned the money but he couldn’t have done it without her support. She was the perfect hostess and entertained dignitaries and visitors from around the world in support of his work. She checked on spouses who were new to the country and helped them adjust. She worked very hard.
My experience was a little different. I was also a trailing spouse. I followed my husband when he decided he wanted to move to Russia. He was not part of a corporation or an embassy. He was a freelancer. There were no benefits or perks. As soon as I landed I was expected to find a job and help with financial support. This left little time for me to go to coffee mornings, shopping sprees, tourist excursions, or play mahjong.
My husband was a social person, he invited everybody he met over for dinner. I think I fed half of Moscow. He gained very little professionally from these encounters but it enriched our lives. We met all kinds of interesting people and I liked to cook. So I cooked, I cleaned, I cared for our son, I worked, I took public transportation, I learned a lot. I was lucky to find a wonderful Russian grandmother to take care of my son when I was at work, and eventually she brought in a friend to help with the cleaning. I took time off when I could to meet other expat women and made some good friends. I adapted and adjusted and survived. But it was not glamorous.
Everybody has a different experience when they live overseas. I knew couples who were both professionals in their own right. I knew women who moved around the globe on their own and met their husband along the way. I knew one woman who was a very successful diplomat and her husband did his own thing in another country but was able to work remotely. Some people take the time to write books. There is always something to do.
Trailing spouses are an elite and privileged group. Most of them live well. Some have to deal with hardship in remote areas but they usually have a safety net. They can complain all they want but I think they know how lucky they are.