The term trailing spouse is used to describe a person who follows his or her life partner to another city because of a work assignment. The term is often associated with people involved in an expatriate assignment but is also used by academia on domestic assignments.
Wikipedia, “trailing spouse”
The “trailing” part of “trailing spouse” can be controversial. Some regard it as belittling or insulting. In my previous job as a content manager, I was directed not to use the term because it might cause offense. I was asked to replace it with “accompanying spouse/partner.” Which is fine, but it doesn’t really roll off the tongue, you know?
Whether we like the term “trailing” or not, it is now in common use, and has been, at least to some degree, since the 1980s. Google “trailing spouse” and you will find many mainstream articles and online communities which employ it—or even embrace it.
I use the term on this blog, and even tag some posts with it, for a couple of reasons. First, if you want people to read your blog, you have to tag it with terms that people actually search for!
Second, I’ve decided that I’m not offended by it. I am actually a spouse. I do, in fact, follow my partner to his assignments. I guess I “accompany” him too, but then, so do his extra suitcases, referred to by the State Department as “Unaccompanied Baggage” (or “UAB” when even that is too much effort to say, or spell out). Really, I am much more useful and entertaining than a suitcase!
So why does “trailing spouse” bother some people so much? I think often becomes a focal point for all the dissatisfaction that some (by no means all) partners feel in this unique situation.
If having a career-oriented job is important to you, and you are unable to make that work while posted overseas, then you may not feel useful—even though you are! You may feel that you are truly “trailing,” like toilet paper stuck to a shoe.
If you really want to be a diplomat yourself, and are stuck being a secretary or consular assistant indefinitely, well, that’s going to be a problem, too. No modern partner, male or female, wants to feel like they are “trailing” their significant other in a field in which they are both interested. (I certainly wouldn’t.)
The Foreign Service can be a trap in this way. Bilateral work agreements, State Department employment initiatives that look great on paper, and statistics about employment can give a different impression than the reality. At overseas posts, most spouses either accept well jobs below their skill level or simply decide that their time is better spent elsewhere.
At my current post, there are three jobs going begging. Statistically, this looks like no one wants to work. In reality, it means that no one is interested in being a secretary or a mail room supervisor, which is not at all the same thing.
So, if you are not happy about your place in the universe, and see yourself as secondary to your partner, then it is understandable that you would not care to be reminded of it by being called a “trailing spouse!”
Wherever we are posted, I always join an international group of some kind. One reason I enjoy the company of corporate/non-profit spouses is that they are not always worrying about getting jobs. I don’t believe that is because they are less qualified or less interested in working than their diplomatic community counterparts.
It is simply that they enter the arrangement with a more realistic picture of the employment situation. They know (in most cases) the work permit or the local job just isn’t going to happen. Embassy jobs aren’t even a factor. And so, they get over it, and move on. The introverts, like me, focus on their families, roam cities with a camera, and develop a million hobbies (like blogging!) The extraverts volunteer, run organizations and entertain a lot. It’s all good.
I like being an expatriate, but I have no interest in playing the role of diplomatic wife. For the most part, I manage to avoid doing so. I don’t have anything against diplomats, but I don’t really feel a need to be a part of that team. I follow my own interests at every post, professional or otherwise. I also have a part-time job as Family CEO. I’m good at it too. No regrets there.
So, being called a trailing spouse doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just one of the many things I do. If I said I wore a size 8 shoe, that would tell you very little about what I look like, wouldn’t it? It’s just one thing to know about me. Yes, I “trail,” but I am also a writer, editor, blogger, knitter, quilter, photographer, amateur genealogist, pulp fiction and trashy TV addict, pretty good cook, crazy cat lady and mother of two awesome people. Just for a start.
And anyway, it’s just a word. Sticks and stones, you know.
Here’s one word that does bother me. Dear fellow trailers, let’s please not use the word “sacrifice.” If you say that you have “sacrificed” for your partner’s career, then you make it clear that you are feeling sorry for yourself. If you feel sorry for yourself, then people will feel sorry for you. But is that what you really want?
Grownups make choices, and then own those choices. If you are a trailing spouse, own it! Make the most of it, enjoy it! If you can’t do that, then the obvious solution to make another plan that you can work with. There’s no shame in that. Trailing is not for everyone.
We’ll probably go back to the U.S. for good after this tour. I am both determined to make the most of these last three years as an expatriate—and more than a little relieved that it may be coming to an end. After eight countries and more moves than I can even count, I am ready to make a new plan.
But, just like my shoe size, my years as a trailing spouse will always be an inseparable part of me. I’m OK with that.
Amen! Well said.
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I used the term as well, but I have to admit, I don’t love it. I think your toilet paper analogy was a good one. Trailing somehow denotes someone who is ‘running after’ and picking up the detritus left behind, as if the one going ‘ahead’ is the one with the glory and the one accompanying is just there to pick up all the stuff they leave in their wake. It’s unfortunate, but that is a bit what it sounds like. That said, there is a male trailing spouse group that is called STUDS–spouses trailing under duress–which I take umbrage with. If it were woman saying ‘under duress’ we’d likely be belittled and told to be thankful for the opportunity! But somehow they get away with it….food for thought. (And perhaps a blog!) Enjoy your last posting and take full advantage of not having to work!
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Well, I do a lot of picking up, it is true. But, the way I look at it, I don’t have to wear a suit and sit in meetings, so there’s that! Once we get settled, that’s when I get the payoff for all the sh**work I do for moves.
I agree with you about the STUDS name. Sheesh, feel sorry for yourselves much?
Totally agree. It took me a bit to get there…but once you get past feeling like there is some sort of ‘sacrifice’ (if you never felt that, then lucky you!) then there is all kinds of space to do the fun stuff! Saw your workshop with IWG. Great idea:)
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Oh, I wouldn’t say I *never* felt it. I just think we have to put our big-girl panties on and get over it 😉
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I agree about not using the S word. But I’m not sure trailing spouses always make informed decisions about putting their careers on hold – I didn’t know how difficult it would be to transplant my career from the UK to the US until it was rather too late. Now we have to have serious conversations about our expectations going forward.
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[…] 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 […]
Great post, Kelly! It boggles my mind how many spouses hold fast to this particular chip on their shoulder, preferring to perpetuate their own unhappiness and that of their family rather than own their choices. If we don’t view ourselves as equal partners in the decision-making that moved us abroad, how can we expect terms like “trailing” to change?
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You are right that the key is personal agency in the choice – we are all grown ups. But choices to move are often based on assumptions and incomplete information. The term “trailing spouse” seems to go hand-in-hand with an assumption in many organisations that the spouse or partner will take that role of CEO of the family. While that is an important role, particularly for globally mobile families, the assumption means that other needs of the spouse or partner are not addressed. Names are not neutral – they embody all kinds of cultural and personal constructions. There are all kinds of names for groups that have been acceptable at some time in history that are unacceptable now.
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You are very right about the information, however, as a person who started “trailing” before the Internet, I can say that there is certainly a lot more information now than there was back then!
I mentioned in the post that the State Department presents an incomplete picture, especially when it comes to spouse employment. I do not personally blame anyone who is disappointed by the reality at post, however, a simple Google search will bring up numerous articles and blog posts which present a broader view of the situation. Or of any situation at any post, really. Or one can always reach out to other expats at post for opinions and insights. We do not have to depend solely on what our spouses bring home in the briefcases or what is presented at orientation sessions (assuming we are lucky enough to have those available!)
I think it would be awesome if the needs of trailing spouses were better met by agencies and companies. But as long as they have new recruits beating down the doors, that’s not likely to happen. I can’t speak for corporations, but I know that the State Department does exactly as much as it has to in order to keep recruit and retain employees, and no more. It is what it is, and while I support anyone who is trying to change that, I believe that it is healthier on a personal level to own the decision to “trail” and move on from there.
It’s interesting to read what you’re saying about the State Department. We often see that the public and private sectors are singing from a different song sheet. The private sector is talking about a ‘war for talent’ and is concerned about 80m retiring boomers being replaced by Gen X half it’s size – different motivations. Re support, I’m not talking about information necessarily, I’m talking about taking partners and their needs/careers/personal development seriously enough to include them in the conversation and stop making assumptions. Not to be pedantic but I’d argue that if you are making an empowered choice then you are not trailing at all!
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I agree about the assumption that the spouse will take on the role of CEO of the family…it’s ludicrous how State assumes spouses are always available to do what State needs (be home for the packouts and deliveries, be home for the maintenance requests, come in to the embassy for mandatory trainings that may or may not fit with our schedule, volunteer for various events, go as a plus-one to official functions, etc.) versus how helpful they are when I have a question.
Just a small example – my husband was on a work trip when our water stopped working, and when I called the embassy to get a work request started, they said they would start on it once I entered the request into their system (even though GSO is perfectly capable of starting the ticket themselves). I had to tell them, no, sorry, this call right now is me entering it into the system – even if I drove an hour into the embassy, I don’t have a login and password for the computer, and my husband is in the middle of a jungle and there’s no way he can do it from his phone.
I mean, I get that when a house is involved, someone is going to have to give up some free time to get things done, but in this case I was also employed full-time…so, if I go in to the embassy to do this, MY company has to pay for me to do THEIR job for them.
“Not to be pedantic but I’d argue that if you are making an empowered choice then you are not trailing at all!”
I don’t think that’s pedantic, it’s actually a good point! I’ll have to think about that.
It is also true that sometimes negative terms can be appropriated positively. Maybe it’s time to somehow do that with “trailing.” Clearly, we need ironic t-shirts or something 🙂
[…] Kelly at Well That Was Different has decided she doesn’t really mind being called a trailing spouse. Read her post, One Word That I Don’t Mind, And One That I Do. […]
[…] did a post a couple months ago on “Trailing Spouses” and why that phrase does/does not bother her. I’ll admit, I had a minor identity […]