Oasis Magazine Articles

Blazing the Trails

By Anne Whaley-Sousou

What is a “trailing spouse” and who came up with this label? When did it become the general term for the partner of someone who earns their salary by working abroad?

I find the word “trailing” demeaning, as if the spouse referred to in the expression is unable to control their destiny, but must instead walk in the wake of their more powerful partner. One of the features of successful expatriate spouses of either gender is their strength of character and their independence. I am therefore at a loss as to why this label has stuck.

I am thrilled to acknowledge that there is an increasing trend of expatriate house-husbands; but for the purpose of this discussion, I am addressing the women who have filled the role of following their partners around the world in search of a good job. Women have travelled with their men for hundreds of years, ever since men travelled to find work in far-flung corners of the globe. These amazing women succeeded in living and raising families in conditions which would overwhelm most. You only have to read the biographies of women like Mary Livingstone, Gertrude Bell, or read the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to realize expat wives have a proud heritage.

In my nearly 30 years of being an expatriate, I have observed that behind most successful expat executives there is a strong, confident, and content spouse. This is typically a partner who after taking an active part in the choice of posting, believes in herself and is resilient enough to find meaning in her life, independent of her role as spouse and parent. I am not saying it is easy to uproot your life and settle in a new environment. There are the challenges of finding houses, schools, doctors, dentists, and shops that sell products that you recognize. But one of the pleasures of living abroad is the amazing camaraderie and support one can find among the expat community from day one.

After overcoming those initial challenges, which most women do admirably even in the most trying conditions, an expatriate spouse has opportunities that many people will never have. They usually discover a new side of their personality, new strengths, experience new situations, grow in confidence and self-belief and, amazingly, they do this with each new posting they experience. 

Over the years I have met wonderful expat women who donated their time and energy to charitable causes. A friend of mine founded a charity called Foundation for Mother & Child Health as a reaction to the poverty in her host country, which has already helped over 3,000 families in Jakarta, West Timor, and India. I have seen people become fluent in new languages, learned new skills, and gained extra qualifications. Some women started up businesses which over time provided employment for other expatriates.  And there are countless women who gave their time and energy to support causes within their communities, from improving conditions for local animals to helping at their children's schools.  Wherever you are in the world, if you look, you will find there is something to do which will make you more fulfilled as a person.

During stays in Bahrain, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France I have been involved in creating two well-baby clinics, became an aerobics instructor, and worked to establish an NGO. While I was living in Paris, I combined my two passions, travel and photography, and started my own alphabet photography company.  For this venture I had to learn the intricacies of building a website, and tackled online sales and marketing; no easy feat for someone with limited IT knowledge!

More recently while living in Cairo, I have managed to pull all my life skills and experiences together and became a personal and professional coach. This has helped me see my life in an even more positive light and made me realize how lucky I am to have spent most of my adult life living in other people’s countries.

I have found that the answer to making it work is to just say "yes" to most ideas people suggest in the first few months - within reason of course! You can always drop out if you decide the activity is not quite your thing, but it's a great way to meet people. Join a community social club - CSA is a great example of one that offers to teach you about the new country you’re living in.

Socio-cultural adaption is dependent on a number of factors including the length of stay, host culture, cultural identity, and whether the expatriate chooses (or is able) to interact with their host nation. The more you interact with your host nation, the quicker you will feel settled. If you enjoy cooking, learn to cook the local cuisine. If you are good at languages, try to learn the local language. If you enjoy working with charities, there are usually many institutions that welcome participation. Be aware that some projects may require the support of a local who speaks the language and who understands the laws of your host country; for example, trying to establish a business or a NGO.

Always use your common sense, if something doesn't feel right, don't do it. If someone asks you to do something that would feel wrong in your own country, it's usually better to go with your gut feeling or at least ask someone who has been in the country longer than you and understands local customs better.

As an expatriate spouse in a new posting, it is completely natural to sometimes feel sorry for yourself and to be overwhelmed by the strangeness of everything. You then have the choice to stay in that mindset and dread every minute of the posting or pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find meaning in your life outside the role of just an expatriate spouse. Just please never say you are trailing anyone!

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