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The Trailing Spouse: Gender Roles Abroad

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. Find out what it entails and how to keep your cool as an expat wife.
Many expat women use the "time out" abroad for intensive parenting.

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, and a competitive local job market are just some of them. In the case of Franziska (32), it was mainly the first two reasons that turned her into a typical trailing spouse.

Home-Makers and Mothers

Initially, Franziska hadn’t planned on becoming a stay-at-home parent. "I had been looking forward to starting work again," Franziska remembers. "I’d been raising our son Ben for the last fifteen months, but I was ready to go back to my job as a shipping agent. Then my husband was sent to Shanghai for three years."

Franziska became a trailing spouse. It was not for lack of trying, however, that she failed to obtain a work permit for China. "Of course, Shanghai 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 Chinese work permit of their own. Your future employer has to sponsor you, and either the positions for English speakers were all taken or they only wanted someone near-fluent in Mandarin."

"And then," Franziska adds, "I might even have had to leave the country to apply for my own work visa from Germany. That’s when I decided I’d had enough. Now, I’m focusing on being a parent for Ben, and making the transition from Hamburg to Shanghai and back as easy as possible for him."

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 Franziska, Ben was so little that he adapted more quickly than an older child might have. And her husband Daniel (38) made sure to set aside some quality “family time” in his daily routine to take care of Ben as well. Franziska has even found a suitable ayi for her son – a mixture between nanny and domestic help, whose support gives her enough free time to focus on her education.

"I’m studying Mandarin right now," she says proudly, "and I’m busy improving my business English. It won’t be easy for me to get back on track, career-wise, after being a trailing spouse for so long, but my new language skills should be of great help in the international shipping business."