The term “Trailing Spouse” may not be one that you are familiar with, unless you are a fellow expat wife. It is used to refer to the partners of those who move abroad for work. In most cases, we are women, although there are some men out there. I first heard of the term when we were planning our move to Geneva. An email from a colleague of my husband referred to his Trailing Spouse; you can imagine my reaction.
When I told a friend about this, she asked if I were planning to wear Laura Ashley dresses and waft about, chiffon scarves floating in my wake. Or perhaps become a Lady Who Lunches.
The reality of the Trailing Spouse is sadly not all glamour. Many women it difficult to find work in Switzerland. Most women I know here do not work. Swiss society is very patriarchal, the role of the woman is in the home, not in the boardroom. Child care is expensive and the schools break for a two hour lunch at 11.30 am. (although most schools now offer a lunchtime club)
There is also a law that Swiss nationals must be given priority when job seeking; if there is no Swiss person suitable for the job the position may be offered to a EU citizen. Only then is a person from outwith the EU allowed to be considered for the job. This, and the language difficulty means that for many non-EU Trailing Spouses, there is little chance of them getting a job. Even if they had a work permit, which many do not have.
When we moved here we were told that in the cases that expats returned home earlier than planned, because they could not settle, it was most often the partner at home who was the deciding factor for breaking off the overseas posting. The working partner is busy, has contacts with others at work, is often able to communicate all day in either English or his native language. The Trailing Spouse is home alone, in unfamiliar surroundings, with little or no support network, struggling with the language and becoming more and more homesick.
So we join Women’s Clubs, we throw ourselves into local life, into socialising, into homemaking – surely a completely anti-feminist endeavour?
Not really. Or not always. Many women use the time – and generally they are here for 3 to 5 years – to reassess their lives, to take stock and decide on the next step. For some this means going back into education – learning French or doing a correspondence course at a University. Others develop one of their hobbies into a source of income. Some become heavily involved in activism or volunteer for a charity.
The blogger Kirsty Rice asked recently, “Did you sacrifice your career for love?”. For some expats this may seem true, until you look more closely.
I did not have a traditional career in a sense that I felt I was giving something up when we moved to Switzerland. If I wanted to, I could work here, but the tax and health insurance would be so expensive that I would not actually make any money from it. For me, the time in Switzerland has been one of reflection. I have worked out what I do not want to do when we move back to Germany (or wherever). I know that I don’t want to work in a shop. I may go back to teaching English, as I enjoyed the work. As yet, I don’t have the definite answer but I am working on it, and having this time out is brilliant.
It is trickier if both partners have careers that they cannot just walk away from. How do you decide whose career is more important? Do you take turns? Is it easier for one person to take a break, or is it possible that they can continue to work from afar. One woman I know has kept her job in US and can do most of her work online, travelling back and forth to the States only when she has to. It is a balancing act, and only when both partners are happy with the decision can it work.
Living abroad can be wonderful but it can also be very challenging and if there are tensions before the move, then an overseas posting can potentially be the last straw for the marriage. It is part of the juggling act, to ensure that both partners feel valued in their new roles. If one partner is doing it with the feeling of “sacrificing” her life, or career then the journey is off to a rocky start.
Expat life can strengthen a marriage. When both partners pull together and support each other. When both are happy with the decisions made. When both are happy with the move and ready make the most of the time overseas. Time and time again I have observed that the people who come here with an open mind, ready to embrace their new life, are the ones who enjoy their overseas postings most.