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.