Trailing spouse. It’s a term most expats are familiar with and many, including myself, use it for lack of a better alternative. A recent post by a fellow expat caused me to re-explore my feelings about the term and truth be told, the more I think about it, the less I like it.
If I was on the fence before, her vivid description of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe made me come down firmly on the side of dislike. Because in a nutshell, trailing spouse has the implication of someone following behind and picking up all the debris and crud the person in front of dropped along the way.
The last person in a race trails. Burning exhaust fumes trail. A caboose trails. Spouses shouldn’t trail. Who wants to be compared to a caboose toot tootling along behind the shiny diesel engine?
More than insinuation or semantics, what bothers me most about the term is that it doesn’t take into consideration what the non-working partner of an expat actually does do.
As a trailing spouse, it means that from 9-5, my husband is able to focus solely on his job and his career. As a trailing spouse, it means school is never going to call him in the middle of a meeting and ask him to come and pick up the one kid who has nits or the other who just puked all over the teacher. As a trailing spouse I am there to soften the blow of an international move. As a trailing spouse, I learn the lay of the land, get things set up and keep all the day-to-day stuff oiled and running.
For the working spouse, think about what this means in terms of productivity, in terms of career placement and advancement, in terms of availability. As a trailing spouse it means when my husband needs to work late, he can do so without worrying there’s no one home when the kids need help with their homework. As a trailing spouse when my husband is told he needs to go away on business, he doesn’t have to clear it with the school schedule or vaccination appointments and birthday party obligations. He packs his carry-on and off he goes.
I’m not insinuating that working expats have it easy, not at all; but working expats who have a non-working spouse, the one typically referred to as trailing, have a cushion which allows them the freedom to focus.
Being a trailing spouse sounds an awful lot like being a stay-at-home-parent and it’s true, the family with a stay at home parent reaps many of the same benefits. But there is one huge difference when you’re doing it as an expat.
As a trailing spouse, when my husband’s job says jump, I call the shipping company, pack the boxes, and we jump. Having a non-working spouse as an expat means you are free to advance to Go, collect your $200 and set up shop in the next location. It means if they want you on Mayfair, you move to Mayfair. If they want you on Boardwalk, you take a chance and roll the dice and off you go. Not having to factor in a second career so you can move around the world in eighty days is a big thing.
Before we left the US seven years ago, I was working. I was earning, but I wasn’t working toward a career. If I had been, chances are we would never have accepted the offer to move. By doing so, I sealed my fate for a few years, BUT….I also shored up the foundation on which my spouse was building his career.
Being a trailing spouse does not mean I am a nothing but a cheerleader for my husband’s job. It doesn’t mean I’m selling myself short or prostrating myself to further his career aspirations. It doesn’t mean I’ve shackled myself to his job to keep myself in some sort of lady of the manor way. I’m not picking up after him, following him around and making sure he has clean underwear on in case he has an accident. For now my being home as a trailing spouse allows him the freedom to advance his career, a move which benefits not only him, but our family as a whole.
We are a partnership. I’m not a tag-a-long. I’m not an afterthought.
Far from trailing, I’d argue I’m more of a foundation spouse. A vertebrae spouse. I firm up the family with a solid baseline. I make sure the whole structure isn’t going to come crashing down on us all at any given moment. I do all the systems checks and the maintenance to make sure it’s not just a house of cards, but a home.
I’m not a caboose.
I’m a spouse. I’m a partner.
We are so much more that. We are the ballast on the other side of the scale.
So, until we can think of a better term which accurately encompasses all that a non-working expat spouse allows and does, how about we just say spouse?