I sparked some discussion way back in March with my article about the (in my opinion) heinous term “trailing spouse” and the fire has been smouldering a away on a number of blogs including the Secret Confessions of a Traveling Spouse, IamExpat as well as on my Definitely Not Trailing group on Facebook. On the Definitely Not Trailing group, Alan Paul, whose adventures as an accompanying spouse “Big in China” will be released on March 1 this year, weighed in with the comment:
“Anything’s better than trailing spouse, but why not just wife or husband? Does there really have to be a special term for this?”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Alan’s comment and considering both sides of the argument and reading what others have to say about it. Intellectually, its easy to agree that we don’t need a term for what we are doing. Each of us is living her or his own life, each of us is dealing with the challenges of living in a new country in her or his own way, so why stick us in a box that assumes we are all the same? In the end though, I come down firmly on the other side.
For those of us who are new to a the idea that our spouse or partner’s career is going to lead us to new places and to circumstances which involve putting our own careers, dreams and ambitions on hold, giving those common circumstances a name gives us the opportunity to know that the emotions we’re experiencing are commonly experienced by people who make the life changes we have made. It lets us know that in circumstances where much of what we find comfortable, supportive and familiar is no longer available, we are not alone.
“Before I came across these terms, I felt very alone [and] had all these thoughts/feelings about my identity if I leave my job/town and go somewhere with my spouse once he gets his post-doc job. Once I found the term “trailing spouse”, even after recoiling at the name, it felt good to know that I wasn’t imagining things.” Secret Confessions of a Traveling Spouse
Moreover because “its not just me”, there are fewer excuses for the organisations who sponsor our moves to ignore the challenges that we collectively face. 15 years ago, when I first stepped into this way of life, I was in a minority of accompanying spouses who had a career. There were few resources either from our corporate sponsor or in the broader community to support my transition to expat life or the to support the inevitable identity crisis which followed my decision to abandon my career a couple of years later. Now many accompanying partners have careers and whether they decide to continue with them or put them on hold, there is a burgeoning sector of support services to help them do so – coaches, mentors and international career services are all available to accompanying partners and it is becoming harder for sponsoring organisations to ignore the transition issues faced by accompanying partners (particularly since failure of spouse and family member to adjust is one of the largest causes of failure of expat assignments – money talks!)
Lastly, and perhaps the most necessary reason for giving ourselves a name is that the HR and academic communities want to give us a name and unfortunately the one they’ve given us is “trailing spouse” If we continue to leave the space open by not giving ourselves a name, the vacuum will be filled with labels that other people give us and we might not like them! Let’s take ownership of our identity as accompanying spouses and partners and give it a name we can be proud of.