The Trailing Spouse: Gender Roles AbroadiStockphoto
Many expat women use the "time out" abroad for intensive parenting.
The Brookfield Global Relocations Trends Survey Report 2010 shows that many companies prefer to hire employees without family ties 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 an expat 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 careers and to protect them from becoming a trailing spouse is another important factor.
The “Traditional” Trailing Spouse
In most cases, the so-called “trailing spouse” who accompany their partner abroad, is a woman. Unfortunately, only 9% of previously employed women held a job during their time as a trailing spouse. It is increasingly hard for a “traditional” trailing spouse to forgo their own professional success for their partner’s career.
There may be many external obstacles keeping a trailing spouse from pursuing a career abroad. The lack of a work permit, the language barrier, unaccredited qualifications and a highly competitive local job market are just some of them. In the case of Franziska (32), it was mainly the first two reasons that made her become a traditional trailing spouse.
Home-Makers and Mothers
Initially, Franziska hadn’t planned on becoming a trailing spouse. “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. And 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 extremely difficult for dependents of Z-visa foreigners 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 Z visa from Germany. That’s when I decided I’d had enough. Now, as a trailing spouse, 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
Indeed, 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 trailing spouse 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, for example, a three-year-old would 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 too! 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.”