Memoirs of a Trailing Spouse – Introduction

Quenby  & sons
Global Expats - www.global-xpats.com

An expatriate (sometimes shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”). In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by their companies.(Wikipedia.)

When people think about living abroad and expatriates, all sorts of images are conjured up. The jet-setting, rich and famous movie stars like Angelina Jolie & Brat Pitt in their French chateau, Antonio Banderas & Melanie Griffith yachting off the coast of Marbella, Michael Douglas & Catherine Zeta-Jones in their villa on Ibiza, George Clooney with his latest fling on lake Como dodging the paparazzi…

Or, perhaps a dare-devil journalist looking for the ultimate story in a war zone; a back-packing bohemian working his way around the world; the relief-worker in a remote, war-stricken out-post; a young college grad looking for adventure and excitement in a far-away land; a retired couple spending their golden years on far away, exotic beaches; or the dashing expat executive with an all-inclusive benefits package and a trophy wife to complete the entourage.

But, few ever think of the frazzled expat mom (commonly known as the trailing or accompanying spouse) with toddlers in tow, left to fend for themselves in a foreign land and foreign language, while her husband goes off to long days at the office or on extended business trips. The woman who only a few months before was a confident executive, making presentations to a board-room filled with high-level directors without batting an eye. But, who now gets a panic attack from the thought of making a run to the grocery store, reduced to sign language and feeling like an idiot in order to find the kids favorite cereal, diapers or the family’s favorite cut of meat for dinner. (Which by the way, why does every country have to cut up their cows into different cuts of beef?)

Every year companies around the world send tens of millions of employees to the other side of the planet, asking their spouses to give up careers, friends, family, and their life support networks, with little consideration for the many sacrifices they make. All too often these fearless women are seen by the expat employer and their HR department as nothing more than rich, pampered house-wives, spending their days lounging beside the pool, playing tennis or golf at the club, with a slew of maids, nannies and drivers at their disposal. A far cry from the reality these women face in their daily lives.

In Memoirs of a Trailing Spouse, I will explore the many challenges trailing spouse, homemakers face in their efforts to provide the loving and supportive environment the expat family needs in order to thrive in their new communities. In order to do this, these women need practical and truthful information, and hands-on support. What they do not need, and all too often are given, is reams of advice and “expert opinions,” or the latest new fangled device or software that someone in HR headquarters, thousands of miles away, thought was “cool.”

I will also explore the issues women face when they lose their careers, thereby identities, and struggle to find ways to create a new sense of purpose and focus in life. Even going to the “politically incorrect” side of this issue (surely opening myself up to much criticism) as I will explain how in my own case, my identity became that of a contented, fulfilled housewife and mother. Someone who found not only the greatest joys of my life as care-giver to my children and family, but great satisfaction in organizing community events, social functions and learning about the local culture, customs and people of the countries in which we lived and visited. I embraced my life as an expat, trailing spouse with dedication, gratification, and fulfillment, without every losing my identity or sense of self; a problem that seems to plague so many expat wives and homemakers wherever they may be.

Never for one moment did I miss the high-powered career or corporate life I had left behind, even reveling in my “domesticated” life with my children the center of my world. Unfortunately, as I was to learn during my divorce, in the eyes of all too many I was a traitor to the cause, thwarting over 100 years of feminists efforts to remove the “shackles of oppression” of women everywhere.

And to my shock and dismay, I was to learn during what is politely referred to as a “high-conflict” divorce, to what extent the feminist movement has only scratched the surface of the oppression of women; glossing over an omnipresent under-current of century old biases and prejudices. Creating a hypocritical façade of the liberated woman, rather than truly emancipating her from the obligations of what a society arbitrarily defines as her role in that society, as well as within the family unit.

In today’s world a “working woman” is admired and respected, while the stay-at-home mom is perceive as someone who lives off the sweat of the brow of her hard-working husband, doing “nothing” all day. This attitude is in part due to women’s right groups’ exclusively promoting labor and reproductive rights of women within the courts and societies, while failing to promote or defend her rights within the home and marriage.

Unfortunately, the feminist movement of the past decades has unwittingly help to create a situation which has pitted career moms against stay-at-home moms. At war with each other as much as with themselves, as each group grapples with the dilemma of how to fulfill their maternal instincts, while fulfilling their desire to maintain careers outside the home. Each side is so busy criticizing and condemning the other side, that they can’t see the necessity of supporting the choices of their “sisters.” Or, the importance of working towards a common goal, that of happy, harmonious, productive families and communities.

So where does the expat mom and her challenges fit into this hodge-podge of conflicting rights and priorities? The modern day expat mom is a far cry from her predecessor of the 1950’s, when few women worked outside the home, following her husband abroad with no questions asked and spending her days in confined, expat enclaves. Today’s expat mom is a woman who is tired of burning the candles at both ends, at work and home, and therefore willing to renounce her career, financial independence… everything… for a life abroad. But, she is no longer content to live lives of leisure, dabble in charity work, and play the socialite promoting her husband’s position and interests, in these faraway stations.

She wants more. She wants time with her children, time to develop her own interests, and time to explore the wonderful new culture in which she finds herself.  This is what motivates these women; the opportunities to explore and discover the world in a truly unique manner. To develop her talents and interests in an increasingly large, global melting pot, and a world which is being revolutionized by the Internet and online networking.

Another big difference of expat homemakers of today is that first they are no longer only women. Increasingly, men are the one’s giving up their careers, and with more and more openly gay and lesbian couples accepting posts abroad, expat communities are increasingly seeing non-traditional families in their mists. Secondly, American and northern European nationals no longer dominate expat communities as they once did, with nationalities from all over the world gradually becoming expats.

Unfortunately, most expat employers, HR departments and those in the global mobility industry still have an antiquated view of the expat spouse, and see her as a throw back from the 50’s. Because of this they are totally failing to understand these women and men, creating programs and services that fail to effectively address their challenges and needs.  So most expat moms are left to their own devices and faced to muddle through their trials and tribulations with little outside assistance.

Hopefully by sharing my own experiences that span 35 years and 8 international moves, with the past 10 years filled with drama, intrigue, and decadence, I will assist other expat women (and prospective expats) fully understand the challenges and opportunities a life abroad has to offer.

At another level, my stories will show how and why societies around the world are failing miserably to address the many problems and issues common to us all, with a perfection of means, and confusion of aims the main problem.

Quenby Wilcox

Read my 2nd post – Third Culture Kid | London & Cobham Hall, Kent (1976-’78) - (My first experience as an expatriate.)