From my personal experience and what I’ve seen in over ten years of meeting, befriending and interviewing other trailing spouses/International spouses - exmats, around the world, I can tell you with confidence - she’ll instantly find herself at the epicenter of rapid and usually extreme change. In charge of overseeing every end-to-end aspect involved in the relocation – from housing, schools, new brands, to making sure everyone is safe, healthy, fed, cared for, staying connected to family back home… well settled and happy.
Your new role in this assignment was first introduced by Mary Bralove in an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 15, 1981 that was titled “Problems of Two-Career Families Start Forcing Businesses to Adapt.” She used the term “trailing spouse.” This is currently the term that the corporate world uses, but I’ve also found other names to describe it: expat partner, International spouse, accompanying spouse, relocating partner, etc. “Everyone hates the world ‘trailing’—it sounds like a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe,” says Judy Rickatson (Administrator at Families in Global Transition. I agree!
If you’re a partner who (hopefully happily) agreed to venture into relocating to support your husband’s career with the understanding that the new job would bring greater opportunities for your family and be a path to adventure, discovering new cultures, and/or learning new languages, here are the three biggest shoulds you need to know:
1. The experience ahead of you is something you need to walk into with as much clarity, guidance, and preparation as possible.
2. Have a list of honest, detailed advice.
3. Expect that your relocation will make a huge impact on your life, especially if you’re relocating with children.
There’s a path a lot of us relocating spouses/partners – exmats, have traveled: we’ve left jobs or careers behind, we’ve been left alone with a load of mundane housing challenges while raising children, we’ve navigated uncertainty and battled emotional chaos, we’ve been in a vortex of learning how to maneuver through it all in order to relaunch our lives in foreign and unexplored environments, and we’ve been away from our safety network for a fair amount of time. We’ve spent so much time throwing away whole pieces of our lives…only to replace them with newer, different versions.
One of the most valuable lessons I walked away with after spending many years moving and relocating is this: as a pivotal part of successful domestic and international relocation assignments, women need and deserve to have sufficient ongoing support to thrive as individuals, mothers, partners, and professionals. Every woman has factors specific to her—career goals, special needs, age, number of children, personal goals—and all of these aspects of her life need to be addressed. Before deciding to relocate, a couple needs to openly discuss a big issue that typically isn’t talked about: what’s in it for her? How can she make the most of the experience for herself and her family?
Fast Facts Women face in Relocation:
웃 Your life changes the second you say Let’s do it! When you arrive at your new destination, expect to be absorbed by fast, prevailing, and extreme change. From that moment on, count on all your forthcoming experiences to carry tags like - intense, brutal, overwhelmed, excitement, solitude, tiredness, adventure, chaos, impossible challenges, epic…and more.
웃 You’re taking on a new (unpaid) role and agreeing to climb the mountain (perhaps with a kid or two on your back). Sometimes, you’ll be doing all of this with limited or no support.
웃 You will face situations that are mostly out of your control, you’ll be out of your comfort zone, and you won’t have anyone close to you to help.
웃 Dealing with all of the “mundane details” means you will gain irrevocable expertise in logistics, multicultural adaptability, problem-solving, organization, resource-finding, communication within multicultural environments, and much more.
웃 Your life will be shaped by the amazing people you’ll meet and by the richness of the experiences, cultures, and places you’ll find yourself in.
웃 You’ll grow into a woman with a global mindset: more empathetic and tolerant, less judgmental, and with a more inclusive mentality and an awareness of the needs of others. You won’t realize this until later, when your life returns to “normal,” or at least, your new “normal.”
While you’re riding the rollercoaster of change, you’ll probably feel there’s too much drama and solitude in your life. That is true. Still, although no one can assess the learning part of the journey while simultaneously going through critical changes, you can be attentive and aware as you go through each experience.