Trailing spouses have typically been defined as those who relocate, often overseas, as a result of, or in support of, their husband’s and wife’s career. In more recent times, the term has become more generalized to include those who move and leave behind their own careers for the sake of their spouse’s professional opportunities and ambitions. Though men are not precluded from being trailing spouses, the reality is that most are wives following their husband’s prospects, dreams and goals in a different location, be it a city 300 miles away, across the country in a different state or half-way around the world in a different hemisphere.
I am a trailing spouse.
It took me a while to figure that out. I knew I was something, but I felt I didn’t have the correct terminology to package it up neatly with a non-explanatory bow. When I moved from my home city, a place I had resided all my life, to a new one, I realized I wasn’t in the category of the typical stay-at-home mother of babies or toddlers who had quit work shortly after giving birth, in the glow and haze of early motherhood. I also learned I was not a traditional housewife, one who had never pursued a career and had always been at the beck and call of ceaseless domestic, marital and parental needs.
Career Woman to Casualty?
I had been a “career woman,” for better or worse, experiencing and relishing in, yet at times resistant to, all that entailed (laser-paced days, everything done on fast-forward speed, hours-long strategic meetings discussing matters that could have been resolved in 30-minute conversations, racially biased and sexually charged office politics, back-biting and back-stabbing frenemies and more). I was habitually conflicted about what my true role and purpose were supposed to be in life, because brewing the ingredients of a corporate professional life, a peaceful home, a solid marriage and raising children just never seemed to mix. The brew was bland at time, and bitter at others. On one day, the broth of my life tasted well-balanced, and the next day, all the flavors were off-kilter. Such was the rollercoaster of logistics and emotions I navigated and endured in a life I led without interruption or fail for well more than a decade.
Becoming a trailing spouse is not without its jolts of humility and identity crises. As Petra Canan Trudell writes in “Portrait of Trailing Spouse: Dependent, Dejected and Learning to Give Herself Some Slack."
“As I stared at my new visa in the office of the Japanese consulate in Detroit just days before our move, my eyes focused in on one word on the document: ‘dependent.’
My husband Craig, whose job was taking us abroad, was listed as a specialist in humanities in his passport. As for me, for the foreseeable future I would be known to two governments as my husband’s ward. I went from being an educated, working professional to someone who — on paper — couldn’t get by on her own.”
Additionally, the trailing spouse is usually a woman, not a man – a truism explored by The Washington Post in “Why couple’s move for a man’s job, but not a woman’s.” Traditional gender roles and men’s larger earning potential usually explain the disproportionality of trailing spouses who are wives. A more nuanced look at the underlying patterns and characteristics of trailing-spouse marriages, however, reveals that wives often have more portable careers – jobs that can be performed from practically anywhere. However, husbands frequently have quite linear careers that are more rigidly structured, or “clustered.” In other words, their jobs are less flexible and cannot necessarily be performed anywhere or at any time. As the article states, “men have to move in order to move up.”
The Phantom Fallout of Following Your Spouse
The unintended collateral damage of becoming a trailing spouse can be sudden, delayed and prolonged. While those on the periphery may think that trailing wives who have moved for their husband’s more lucrative careers “have it made,” the daily strum and drang can be much less than idyllic. Trailing wives’ days, especially in their early months and even years after a relocation, are not spent at Starbucks, day spas, yoga classes or high-end department stores. It is not an extended and indefinite vacation funded on someone else’s dime. In fact, it may be spent learning how to re-budget an entire lifestyle, develop true homemaking skills and refining the newfangled skill of delayed material gratification.
Instead, trailing wives who move for their husband’s career are grappling with a constellation of feelings that may butt heads with the routine logistics and demands of their new roles. These may include a loss or restructuring of identity, particularly for those with professional pasts; learning a new community; meeting new people and making new friends (which is already challenging enough as an adult alone, let alone with an added move); managing domestic logistics, from household needs to kids’ schedules; and preserving existing relationships with relatives and loved ones back home, amid the geographic distance. And the fact that husbands may not always understand the competing and conflicting concerns of trailing wives doesn’t help matters – these husbands may be distracted by their own adjustments at work. Plus, they may even be incredulous at what they perceive as their wives’ lack of gratitude or happiness at the options and flexibility his career has provided.
As a trailing spouse who has experienced (and still experiences) all of the above and even more, here are some strategies for making the most of this murky time – and gaining some clarity, confidence and competence on the other side.
Keep the faith. I’ve always been what I consider a spiritual person, but certain life challenges, including relocating, have required me to become even more inwardly evangelistic about my faith. No matter your belief system or religious affiliation, sometimes exploring and reaching out to a power higher much more supreme than your limited humanity outweighs any tangible, earthly outlet. For me, my growth has come from a wellspring of reading the Bible and other scripture-based books as well as through the practice of prayer and positive thinking. A spiritual basis helps to place daily conditions and conflicts within a much grander context, helping me to derive meaning, application and discernment from it all. A substantive base beyond oneself also helps tremendously as a member of a society that appraises people based on job titles before all else.
Stay healthy. You are no good to anyone, not even yourself, if your self-care is left to no one’s devices. Maintaining your health and well-being is critical so that you can continue to serve and perform in all the ways your multitude of roles demands. Keep exercising and try to stay nutritionally balanced. In your new town, find a new primary care physician, dentist and gynecologist, at a minimum, and make your routine appointments. If so inclined, also find a new gym to join, in addition to a new massage therapist, counselor / therapist and other complements to your total wellness system.
Step out of your comfort zone. Being in a new location offers the covering of relative anonymity. This cloaking can serve as a stimulus to try something new or different that you otherwise would not have done on your former home turf. Of course, the curiosities or interests pursued are as individual as the personalities of trailing wives, but they could include trying out a new fitness class, testing a new cuisine, learning a new skill or craft, or even dressing in a style you always admired but couldn’t wear due to the norms and conventions of your old work life.
Be of service. Not earning money does not mean you don’t need to stay plugged in. Your talents and skills need not wither on the vine just because you don’t have a regular job. Many organizations, agencies and schools welcome volunteers with deployable skills – accounting, communication, administration, facilitation. Research nonprofit organizations, hospitals and schools in your area to find opportunities that align your skills with a passion, or cause, that interests you. In the process, you will likely meet new people, cultivate a local network and derive a sense of purpose that is priceless.
Reflect on the past, but don’t be rooted to it. A common dilemma for trailing spouses revolves around an internal dialogue about identity – an identity that is commonly correlated with what they used to do for a living. Trailing spouses have to define the terms of their new selves within a new paradigm, one whose introduction does not begin with their old professional roles or position titles. It is helpful to be thankful about the experiences and exposures we’ve had. We have derived many lessons from our careers, and now is the time to apply them in a fresh context while learning new, less ephemeral ones, along the way.