Expat Bouganvillea: Tale of the ‘Trailing Spouse’

Recently I was over at The Smart Expat’s site, and I happened to notice this great post about decidedly NOT loving the term ‘trailing spouse’

When I read it, I knew I had a comrade in arms.

I do not like the term ‘trailing spouse’.

In fact, I loathe it. For oh so many reasons.

If you look at my ‘About’ page, you’ll see I wrote this:

‘…BTW, I’d rather not be called a ‘trailing spouse’ in expat parlance. It makes me sound like a clinging bougainvillea vine trailing off a trellis…I’ll tolerate ‘accompanying partner’.’

In her post (which she titles ‘Because We ARE Special’), The Smart Expat explains that Alan Paul (recently repatriated American and Wall Street Journal columnist who lived three years in China and who has launched the highly successful memoir Big in China) visited her Facebook page ‘Definitely Not Trailing’.

While indicating that ‘trailing spouse’ wasn’t acceptable, Alan Paul questioned the need for any label. Why not simply husband or wife?

Fair enough.

The Smart Expat answered that a name is important in part to acknowledge that in overseas assignments, someone’s job assignment is likely driving the move. The other spouse (whether working outside the home or not) tends to be the one who ends up doing the logistical work of getting the family transitioned and settled, often at the expense of their career or other aspirations.

The Smart Expat rightly points out that failure of the spouse and family to adjust is one of the reasons some expat assignments fail. She ends with the point that if Human Resource departments and academics are going to give us a name, better to choose it ourselves rather than be labeled by fiat.

I agree.

And yet…

Let me explain. I am in complete agreement that ‘trailing spouse’ is abhorrent. And if you think women dislike it, try asking any of the growing numbers of men heading overseas (or across country, for that matter) with their wives/significant others. Joining their voices to the chorus is spurring the debate.

I also understand that companies, governments and organizations tend to slap a label on the situation NOT because they want to insult or offend anyone, but because they are thinking in business terms of benefits and prerequisites. I know, because Husband currently works as a worldwide Recruitment Director for an international organization.

He uses a term at work that he would never use at home, or in the company of anyone else.

He would no more refer to me as his ‘trailing spouse’ or ‘trailing wife’ than elect to gnaw off his arm.

So why does he at work? Because part of his job is dealing with the legal and financial distinctions of employment packages.

The international organization he works for deals with employees from countries all over the world, and what might be an acceptable term in one country may be inappropriate in another. And lest you think the politics of this debate only fall on the liberal side, think again. In the end, they tend to default to what has been an agreed upon (and some might perceive as antiquated) terminology.

I agree with The Smart Expat that we ought to determine our own ‘label’ if only to avoid being saddled with ones we don’t appreciate.

So what exactly is that label? That’s the challenging part.

At the Families in Global Transition conference held in Washington, DC last month, there was much discussion about ‘STARS’ (Appel Gidley is credited with coming up with this moniker.) It stands for ‘spouse(s) traveling and relocating successfully’.

I like that it is non-gender, is positively oriented and acknowledges the crucial role played in overseas moves and transitions.

Better than ‘trailing spouse’? In my opinion, yes, but…

Will I use it? No.

In my opinion, it smacks of trying too hard.

I am a fan of each person referring to themselves in whatever terminology they prefer.

I’d rather not create the expat equivalent of the ‘Mommy Wars’ in which both stay-at-home and in-the-workplace mothers sling epithets at each other and question the others’ mothering credentials.

Ditto for inciting the same type of battle regarding what constitutes ‘work’. Some of the hardest working, most highly organized, intelligent, shrewdest people (regardless of gender) I have ever known don’t happen to pull in a paycheck. But don’t even kid yourself that what they are doing doesn’t somehow stack up. They’d be a boon to just about any corporate board or front office imaginable.

I personally don’t think one’s politics or marital, working or financial statuses are germane. Yet others may. That’s their choice, and I respect that.

I am not a trailing spouse. I’ve never trailed anything in my life.  I’m an individual who is also part of a team (in my instance, marriage and family). The decision to move overseas wasn’t thrust on me, I contributed jointly to it.

So when (if ever) a label is necessary for whomever and whatever reason, I am an accompanying partner.

As for you, you’re whatever you choose to be (or not be) labeled. And I’ll respect that.


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