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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Trailing Spouses in the 21st Century

"I abhor the term trailing spouse. I think it derogatory in a million different ways. I assume it's the new politically correct way of referring to what used to be known as the "expat wife", changed to take into account the growing number of men moving overseas due to the work of their partners. But nonetheless, I hate it. It might be a little less evocative of the expat wife stereotype of doing lunch and drinking gin in the afternoon, but it's no less loaded."

Rachael Green
Don't You Dare Call Me a Trailing Spouse

Much ado about nothing? No, the terms we use to define other people or ourselves have power. Green is correct that "expat wife" and "trailing spouse" are not neutral - the stereotypes associated with them have been around for decades and are still tainted with sexist assumptions.

How tainted? Exhibit A is my own reaction to the news that we were being expatriated to Japan. I guess my Women's Studies classes at university didn't take because I was filled with self-contempt and fear at the idea of joining this particular club of women abroad. Or perhaps those classes (and the feminist culture I bathed in as a youngster) did have some influence because here I was trying to deal with what felt like a dissonance between my high-minded feminist principles and an act that seemed to contradict them.

What this reveals is my own collusion with a stereotype that denigrates women. By feeling that there was something deeply wrong with me becoming a trailing spouse, I was also passing judgement on those who have done it. That is, I think, a deeper betrayal of feminist principles. Crapping on other women and internalizing negative stereotypes is about as far from solidarité as one can get.

Stereotypes are the epitome of "contempt before investigation" - the complete antithesis of the Beginner's Mind. So let's clear our minds and take another look at the "trailing spouse" (a term that leaves much to be desired but is a decent descriptive term if we suspend judgment).

It's a category of expatriates who live in another country primarily because their partner has a job or position there. In the 21st century this group includes men as well as women, gay couples as well as straight (heterosexual) ones. And right there we see the stereotype start to unravel.

Yes, women are probably still the majority of trailing spouses (for now) but any assumption you make that starts with the premise that it's always a woman following her male spouse is likely to come back and bite you in the ass when you least expect it. Like when you meet the nice couple at a party in Tokyo and, after you have said to the wife how lovely she looks, you ask the man what company he is with and could you have his business card. And it turns out that she's the highly-placed executive at L'Oréal and he's taking a sabbatical to learn a foreign language and spend more time with the children.

Because the world has changed and the trailing spouse population has a different sort of diversity about it, we now have an opportunity to compare experiences across gender and see what shakes out. 

I found one small study that took a shot at it.  It's a dissertation called  Adaptation of Trailing Spouses: Does Gender Matter? by Anne Braseby.  There are surely others and please let me know of any you have come across.  This one is relatively recent (2010) and compared the experiences of two groups of American trailing spouses of company transfers, one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the other in Brussels, Belgium.  There were 7 men out of just over 40 subjects.  It's an interesting read and I'll give you a few of her findings I found thought-provoking.
All of the male spouses who relocated with children were on their first posting and were stay-at-home fathers at least two years before they relocated.  Consequently none of the male trailing spouses had given up a career to relocate, they were either stay-at-home fathers or in non-career track jobs. In contrast only 40 percent of women who relocated with children were stay-at-home mothers before they relocated... The majority of women had given up what they considered a career to become trailing spouses.
Isn't that interesting?  The sample size is too small to be definitive but isn't it curious that she didn't find even one lawyer, finance director or executive who quit his job and put his career on hold to follow his wife abroad?  To be investigated further and let's not jump the gun and say that we know why.   Stop and consider other possibilities.  One I came up with was my realization that I have never seen a woman manager offered an expatriation contract where it was known by the company that her husband had a career and a position equal to or greater than hers.  Is there a sexist assumption here that a man in that position wouldn't give all that up for his wife and so he's not ever given the opportunity?  

And even more interesting finding had to do with seeing expatriation as permission to do something that the individual wanted to do anyway but found uncomfortable or difficult to do in the home country.  It has to do with the juggling act between paid employment and family and some of the expectations around them.    Oddly enough some of the career women and the stay-at-home fathers were in a similar place facing the low status Americans confer on people who take care of children.

For some (not all) of the women who gave up their careers to follow husbands abroad, it was a solution to a very common dilemma.  As much as they loved their jobs and careers, they also wanted to spend more time with their children and were exhausting themselves trying to do it all.
"Giving up work in the U.S. was something they would not do, but relocation gave them a reason or “permission” to become stay-at-home mothers without some of the social stigma they perceived they would feel in the U.S."  
As for the stay-at-home fathers, Braseby had this to say:
"What is interesting is that for them, following their wives to another country where the visa issues would not allow them to work, these trailing husbands were moving to a more
socially acceptable status than they were accorded in the U.S. They had a reason for why
they were not working, while in the U.S. there is the expectation that men go to work and
not to stay home with the children."
This meant, Braseby says:
"an enhancement in their self-esteem. Their role became not a role based on lifestyle choice (in which the male stay-at-home caregiver would easily be seen as avoiding the proper breadwinning role), but a role accorded to them by their circumstances. They had to stay at home because government policy did not permit them to work. They no longer had to justify their choice of parenting over work, reproductive over productive labor. After relocation they were afforded an excuse for their choices and, in fact, claimed a good deal of admiration from many of the women trailing spouses. Their self esteem increased because the community recognized them for the job they are doing (i.e. supporting their wives and in many cases looking after the children) rather than the job they are not doing."
I'll stop there knowing that some Flophouse readers will take exception to Braseby's conclusions and I hope to hear your objections, corrections and clarifications in the comments section.  

Again, this is a very small qualitative study but I found it a good place to start busting stereotypes around "trailing spouses".  Let's apply some  21st century reality to that 20th century thinking, folks, and see what happens.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Very interesting. You know that group that goes on hikes around Paris on Wednesdays that i told you about? There are several talking spouses in that group, several of whom are men. Some of those men are older and are retired and enjoying their wives' assignment abroad.

Maria said...

The 21st century reality is that in most households both spouses need to work in order to bring in the necessary money. Generally the spouse who doesn't help by holding down a job is seen as less responsible, even if they have children and take care of them and save childcare money. When a family has to go abroad due to a job assignment, that one job will most likely be one that will bring the family all the money it needs to survive together. It doesn't become necessary for the trailing spouse to find a job, but some sense of shame at not helping enough probably persists.

LarryC said...

A few years ago, I met an American woman with an amazing background. She lived in The Netherlands as a young adult, became fluent in Dutch and French, married a French banker. After many years of devoted service, he was transferred to the bank's offices in NYC.

The Frenchman was unable to cope with American life and the pace & intensity of NYC (which I adore) and demanded a transfer back to France (which he was given) but she decided that moving back to France was not in her best interest. She was always living in the shadow of her husband's French career - so they divorced and she remained in America, resettling in Redmond, WA of all places.

bubblebustin said...

I'm curious, Victoria. Would your husband have taken this job if you still has your Frenchlings at home? Life changes immensely when the nest empties. Your babies leave and you move to another country, what could be more of an upheaval than that? BTW, I don't always respond to your blog posts, but I ALWAYS read them. So good to hear from you. Take care. Going to Montreal for a few days in early April, will you be there by chance?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen, I remember that you mentioned it. The author of this study had some interesting things to say about the relationship between the male trailing spouses and some of the women's clubs. She also talks about one for men that was started in Belgium and the UK and it's called STUDS (Spouse Trailing Under Duress Successfully). :-)

@Good points, Maria. I can attest personally to the shame part.

@LarryC, Glad you brought that up. Expatriation is really hard on marriages. It can bring huge changes to relationships. Family unhappiness is a big reason for expat families coming back to the home country before the end of the contract. Unlike the foreign service where travel is part of the original deal, expatriation isn't and has to be negotiated.

@bubblebustin, Oh yes. Last time we were expatriated we brought both the Frenchling AND the cats.Thanks for mentioning the empty nest thing. That's been on my mind a lot and as you point out we have had the double whammy of that and expatriation. It's not been easy.

Nope. In April I will be in Bangkok.