Life of a trailing spouse
Happiness & adjustments of wives accompanying husbands in expat life
Aditi Raman Shridhar
Quite a few women don’t relocate for their own career, but follow a husband or partner on an assignment. As a “trailing spouse”, you take care of the family while putting your own plans on the backburner – not always an easy or rewarding job.
Recent surveys regarding relocation trends show that the number of employees without family ties is increasingly preferred for expat assignments. This is also due to the fact that the well-being of a “trailing spouse” has a strong impact on the success of a foreign assignment.
The wish to protect their kids from being uprooted and forced to travel across the globe is often a reason for turning down such an assignment. However, the desire to support their partner’s career and to protect them from becoming a trailing spouse is another important factor.
The ‘Traditional’ Expat Spouse
In most cases, the so-called “trailing spouse”, who accompanies their partner abroad, is a woman. However, only a minority of previously employed women hold a job during their time as a trailing spouse. With changing gender roles and social expectations, it is increasingly hard for an expat spouse to forgo their own professional success for their partner’s career.
On the one hand, most expat wives actively eschew the term “trailing spouse” today. “Traveling spouse” has fewer unfortunate implications, and “family relocation manager” aptly describes the many duties that the non-working partner has to shoulder. On the other hand, more appropriate terms aside, it’s certainly not easy to give up the economic advantages of a second income and the sense of personal satisfaction associated with a previous job.
There may be many external obstacles that keep a spouse from pursuing a career abroad. The lack of a work permit, the language barrier, unaccredited qualifications, language, and a competitive local job market are just some of them. According to a September 2017 study released by InterNations, an international community of expatriates, only 45% of the spouses who move with their partners to a new country end up finding work. More than 80% of the spouses are women.
Home-Makers and Mothers
Initially, some women do not plan on becoming a stay-at-home parent. “I had been looking forward to starting work again,” Akansha Verma, an expat Indian in Lagos remembers. “I’d been raising our two sons for the last three years but I was ready to go back to my job as a shipping agent. Then my husband came to Nigeria.”
Akansha became a trailing spouse. It was not for lack of trying, however, that she failed to obtain a work permit in the organisation of her choice in Nigeria. “Of course, Lagos is a big port city and I’d been employed by a ship-owning company before. But it’s rather difficult for dependents of visa holders to get a Nigerian work permit of their own. Your future employer has to sponsor you, and either the positions for English speakers were all taken.”
“And then,” Akansha adds, “I decided to just stay home and care for my kids.”
Dealing with the Kids
Children’s lives are often disrupted by the more or less sudden changes and the general bewilderment of finding themselves in a completely strange environment. Often, the non-working parent becomes the “culture shock absorber” for the whole family. In another case, a trailing spouse has reported to feel like a “single mom” when her partner buried himself in the responsibilities of his new job.
Luckily for Akansha, her two sons were so little that they adapted more quickly than the parents expected. And her husband made sure to set aside some quality “family time” in his daily routine. Luckily, a nanny and househelp helps Akansha to get a lot of free time to have time for herself.
“I’m coaching a few students in Maths and English right now,” she says proudly, “and I’m happily busy with my work. I am not able to have the career of my satisfaction but I am on the way to get there.”
Fortunately for Akansha, she has found a work at home option. However, for other spouses; behind closed doors, partners who follow their spouses can spend long amounts of time in isolation in an unfamiliar country without an established network, often contemplating their left-behind careers.
“My husband was very supportive. But I know a lot of my friend’s don’t have husbands who understand the struggle, and it ruins their relationship,” Akansha says.
To avoid spousal resentment and maintain one’s mental health, she advises women to evaluate what they want from the expatriate experience. “You need to have a goal in mind to avoid wandering aimlessly and then realising you’ve become a completely different person and actually not like yourself,” she said. “Even if you do adapt as a result of the environmental change, at least you’re aware of it and not lost.”
Above all, she recommends communication. “Reach out,” she said. “You are not alone. You are not the first one to go through this, and you are certainly not the last.”
The biggest problem with being trailing spouses is that there is an instant lack of professional identity if a woman has not joined work immediately in a new country. The associated problems are lack of self-worth, economic dependence (if a woman was previously working in her home country) and also lack of human connection in a new place. This is why, most expatriate women tend to ‘lock themselves away’ instead of taking an opportunity to “reinvent themselves” to avoid losing their identities.
Reinventing oneself requires personal initiative and effort. The desire to use the new environment, the new social life and culture for one’s own advantage is the key to recreating a newer and fresher self.
The ‘taboo’ of a homemaker
Being a homemaker is fun and exciting and very satisfying for many women, but unfortunately it is not recognised as a work at par with a professional career. This also attacks the self-esteem of many a women.
According to Maria Angeles Duran, a leading sociologist in Spain on homemaker’s contribution to the family and society, homemakers work an average of 30.5 – 61 hours/week; efforts for which they receive no pay or other financial benefits. These women are responsible for organizing and executing a wide range of tasks and jobs, which include childcare, housekeeping, cooking, shopping, chauffeuring, peace-keeping, team-management, financial-planning, budgeting and any other task that happens to pop-up; working 24/7 with no time off for vacations or holidays. Yet, they do their jobs with dedication, love, and a very high level of diligence — a level of diligence one is hard-pressed to find in the “working world.” So, they are understandably upset when told they “don’t do anything” all day.
Nevertheless, in spite of all of these long hours, homemaker’s work is not recognized as legitimate work by societies, family courts or governments for the simple reason that they do not receive any monetary compensation.
How to use the Expat Tag
In a recent article, Global Expat Quenby Wilcox described trailing spouses as “the unsung heroes of an international relocation”. Finding the right job in a new context requires time, perseverance, self-esteem, and patience. What is very difficult is to remain resilient and to remember that trailing spouses have acquired real valuable skills that can be transferred to many markets.
Having given up a lucrative career in executive finance recruitment to follow her husband to Switzerland 22 years ago, Sunita Sehmi now consults, supports, and coaches trailing spouses to adapt, reinvent, and review their story so far. Sometime it is recommended to identify the exact kind of skills needed to work in a new country, and to acquire them, if necessary.
The Path to Your “New” Self — One Step at a Time
One of the first things Sunita recommends even prior to market research, targeting posts, and approaching the job market is to do a professional and personal assessment. Write down and examining your aptitudes, ideals and attitudes about your move and where you would like to be.
Make your CV specific to your context. One must always revamp their resume according to their new or upcoming cultural context. The crucial factor to success is to make sure you present your skills and experience in the most effective and culturally appropriate manner. For example, in Switzerland recruiters do have like to see a photo on CVs – this is definitely not the case for the USA. It could be worth hiring a knowledgeable and experienced career coach to help you create a winning CV and one that is appropriate for the local market.
Get all certificates, references, and recommendations up to date. This is a great opportunity for you to get in touch with old contacts, e.g. ex bosses, who can give you glowing references. Think strategically about whose recommendation or reference could help you in your new job market. Do not be afraid to ask! The worst thing they can say is “no”. Asking for what you want is a ‘best training’ in your new life. If it doesn’t work out the first time, keep moving onward and forward.
Your Online Presence
Make sure you are making it specific and particularly targeted to the national context. An example: LinkedIn summaries tend to change in length and content according to different markets and countries. If generalist management skills are in not in demand or not valued in the host country, make sure that your profile is focused on the market requirements and add more country specific skills. Ask a local colleague or friend to read it and see if it is suitable for the target local and national context. Be as authentic as possible. HR and recruiters want to know who you are and what you can bring to the organization. Everybody has a brand. What’s yours? Make sure that this is reflected in your LinkedIn summary.
Also known as your career or professional brand, personal branding is the way you present yourself to your colleagues and your online and offline networks. You need to make sure that you are clear about your beliefs, values, and talents – i.e. your brand! I did this exercise and I have to say it was very enlightening and powerful. Sunita established that there was a definite pattern to my beliefs, values, and talents that is based in the fact that she wants to help people. As Tom Peters says in Brand You, “You’re branded, branded, branded, branded. It’s time for me and you to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work.”
Create a Present and Future Statement
This should state what you are capable of and cover what you might say to anyone about what you do, what you have done, and where your interests lie. What are your core or key messages? Imagine you are explaining to a child what you do. What would you say? I know I would say “I help people to do better.” Developing consistent, impactful key messages is fundamental to how successful you will be in your new environment. Don’t forget that you must be sharp and confident not just in an interview, but in certain social situations as well.
Remember: initially, you are networking all the time. However, networking is about what you give, not what you get, so share helpful content on a regular basis. Invest in your network. Read more to gather topics to discuss and home in on subjects in which you are particularly interested. You won’t be able to join all the networking groups, so target some key events and read up on who is speaking and attending, and the purpose of the event. To quote the great Paul Coelho: “No matter how you feel, get up, dress up & show up”.
Expectations don’t always match reality. Try not to set your expectations too high, as this can lead to disappointment, frustration, anger or even depression. This is easier said than done, but when we acknowledge that a move or relocation is going to be demanding we often cope better. You have to ask yourself whether your expectations are setting you up for disappointment.
Patience is a virtue. It does take time to find a job so cut yourself some slack (English slang for give yourself a break). Find a course, learn a new skill, and connect and integrate with globals and locals alike. This is your time, use it! Make the best of this rich and exciting opportunity! Take risks. Talk to local people. Integrate. Look at this time as a rich learning experience and have fun!
In a world where everything changes so fast and new ideas and skills develop constantly, it is never a bad idea to devote time to acquire new skills or to up-date old ones.
Aditi Raman Shridhar is an Indian writer and a health and wellness expert.