Five Things That May Surprise You About Being An FS Spouse

This is sort of a postscript to my earlier post on being a “trailing spouse.” Once I wrote it, and started discussing it with others, a few annoying little things came to mind that I probably should have mentioned. Basically, head-smackers that you would never anticipate until you actually become a trailing spouse. Specifically, a U.S. Foreign Service spouse. Ours is a very strange little universe, indeed!

1.) You have to get a power of attorney in order to have legal access to your own belongings.

Now, to be fair, the State Department strongly encourages everyone to complete this POA and get it on file. No one is trying to deliberately deprive you of your stuff! But, the fact remains, all household goods are stored in the employee’s name only. So, it’s an odd feeling when that truck drives away to Hagerstown with your family heirlooms and you know that little piece of paper is the only thing giving you access to your own stuff.

2.) Your household effects that are shipped to posts overseas also belong to the employee.

So, if you arrive at post in advance of the employee (which sometimes happens, due to school schedules, employee training, unexpected events, etc.) you can’t get your HHE until the employee is physically in the country, This is not the State Department’s fault. It is due to the fact that a diplomat’s dependents are not technically diplomats themselves until the diplomat arrives at post. So, there is no way to allow duty-free access to the household goods until that point.

You can’t even get your air freight (UAB) until the employee arrives. This happened to me in Vienna. I arrived at post almost a month ahead of my husband because he had a last-minute medical issue. Our UAB was available a good two weeks before he was able to fly to post, but it could not be cleared by customs until he was in-country.

Fortunately, in Vienna, this was a not a big problem. We could buy anything we needed locally. But how bizarre that the UAB that *I* had carefully sorted and organized, and that consisted primarily of items for myself and my kids, was not mine to use until he got there?

3.) Your own car cannot be shipped to post.

Nope, only the employee can export or import a car. Before leaving for Vienna, I had to add my husband’s name to the title on my car in order for it to be shipped. At first, I thought I was going to have to sign it over to him altogether. I am not normally possessive about these things, but this was the first car I had ever owned all by myself. I had been driving it for seven years and was rather attached to it. This little paperwork formality really ticked me off.

It’s funny the things that can get to you during a move. It might have something to do with relinquishing control of your life stuff (see above).

4.) You can’t just call a plumber.

Phone-lady-Retro-Image-Graphics-Fairy1Here’s how it works in the States. The sink leaks. Assuming I can’t fix it myself, I call a plumber to come fix it at a time mutually agreed upon over the phone. The plumber fixes the sink. I pay him. Done.

Overseas, all that stuff goes through the embassy. Most embassies now have an online request form to submit work orders for maintenance issues. Except, it’s not really online, it is on the State Department Intranet. So, the only way you can access it is to use the employee’s account, which you are not supposed to do.

So, they have this actually-online-on-the-real-internet version of the same form for spouses to use. (The employee has to set this spouse-y login up, of course!) Except this site never seems to work. And even when it does, it’s not connected to the employee’s work order history for the same property.

So, IF you can get onto the online system, you can try to save your spouse’s well-compensated time by putting in a work order yourself. But first you have to make sure he/she hasn’t submitted the same request through his/her login at work. And then, for some inexplicable reason, no matter who has submitted the work order, the embassy will inevitably call or email the employee to make the appointment for the plumber. So, my husband has to call or email me to find out when I can be home, then give that information back to the embassy people.

It’s like some Kafkaesque game of Telephone

If your eyes haven’t rolled all the way back in your head yet, what I am saying is that a perfectly ordinary, everyday task that, you know, normal people do, all by themselves, becomes a Thing, in which your spouse has to be involved, no matter how hard you try to take care of it yourself.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Maybe you are perfectly happy nagging your spouse to submit work orders and set up plumber appointments. But, as the handy person in the family: the one who deals with about 90 percent of home maintenance on that other planet upon which we occasionally reside, these are the occasions when I need to resort to cleansing breaths!

retro-mom-money-images-Graphics-Fairy0045.) You cannot cash a check at the embassy until your spouse signs a paper giving you permission to do so.

Now, this really annoys me. It is positively Victorian. We have a joint checking account. My name is on the checks, and they know where to find me. So why on earth does this rule exist? It’s not like I am withdrawing duty-free money from the bank! And I could go to an ATM anytime, after all. Sheesh.

The truth is, though my less-than-stellar career trajectory doesn’t keep me up at night, there are a lot of minor things that do bother me about being a trailing spouse. I just don’t feel that calling me an “accompanying partner” will change any of these things.The words themselves don’t honestly seem to matter that much. It’s the situation that is aggravating on occasion!

I will leave it to more career-oriented people to blog about the employment aspects of “trailing.” Me, I just look forward to being able to call a freaking plumber when the sink leaks.


  1. So happy that some people bend rules sometimes … Had my UAB in Dakar 3 weeks before dip’s arrival (I arrived 4 weeks prior which was an odd situation – especially since first tour post! First ime in black Africa, etc. And in Budapest we have a wonderful maintenance FSN who knows WHO is really in charge of house things, especially when hubby is constantly travelling. And they have de-activated the e-service at home for good, not that it was that practical anyway.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.