In the wake of the wife

Women have long followed their husbands' careers around the world. Now it's the men's turn. By David Cohen
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Picture the scene: your wife comes home from a long day at the office and tells you, with triumphant smile, that the promotion she's been after, that hefty pay rise that will put the seal of success on her career, is hers. Wonderful!

There is only one catch - her new post is in another country. Sharp intake of breath. Do you quit your job, uproot your children and sacrifice your career for the sake of hers? Or do you dig in your heels and refuse to budge? Well, if she is earning substantially more than you are, you tend to go.

Until recently the sobriquet "trailing spouse" was almost exclusively the preserve of women - long-suffering, loyal wives who trekked around the globe in the wake of their high-flying corporate husbands.

But in the last three years, the number of women offered international job transfers has doubled, from five per cent to 10 per cent of total international transferees. Hot-spots are the media, pharmaceutical and computer software industries - and the "trailing husband" has become a new cultural phenomenon.

Trailing husbands must face up to the culture shock of life in a new country as well as loss of status, loss of a social network and, in some cases, the challenge of adapting to their new roles as househusbands. How do they cope?

Bobby Meyer, editor of Dual Career Network, a UK publication directed at trailing spouses, says that on the whole trailing husbands have a more difficult time adjusting than trailing wives. "Many trailing husbands arrive expecting to land a good job but are confronted by employers who are uninterested in employing people who are only here for two or three years. Moreover, unlike wives who have a network of women's clubs to plug into socially, there is no network for trailing husbands. Nor, as yet, are they a socially acceptable category."

Indeed, Kent International Club, a club in Sevenoaks comprising 170 trailing wives, recently turned down their first application for membership from a trailing husband on the grounds that it would "open the floodgates" to other trailing husbands and spoil the "girls-only" atmosphere of their club.

But not all spouse-support organisations are exclusively female. Pam Drobnyk, executive director of Focus Information Services, a London-based expatriate networking organisation set up in 1982 to support the trailing spouse, reports a 300 per cent increase in the use of its resource centre by male trailing spouses, some of whom seem to be adjusting very well.

Patrick Skehan, 48, a television sound and camera man, quit his job in Washington DC and followed his second wife, Patricia Skinner, 39, when her employer, Canadian Television, transferred her to London. He left behind his two children, David, 13, and Allison, 11, who live with his first wife in Washington.

"The most painful part about being a trailing spouse is that I miss my children. Sometimes late at night or when Patricia's away on an assignment, I find myself crying, yearning for them so badly. I play loud music and yell. I miss them telling me about their day at school; I miss the way they annoy me. Guilt is the biggest thing. I am plagued by it. My ex-wife was very angry and tried to make it seem that I was making a choice between Patricia and my children. That is not how it was but she made it very hard for me to come here.

Eighteen months ago, when Patricia was offered the job as field producer for Canadian Television (CTV) in London, one of their most prestigious posts, I was determined to be fair about it because five years previously she had done the same for me. She had quit her job as a television producer in Montreal, left her Canadian family and home and come to live with me - as an illegal immigrant no less - in the USA. That 'make-it-up-as-you- go' attitude was the spirit in which our marriage began. In those days, Patricia was the anxious, trailing spouse, needing time to acclimatise. But she responded well, landing both a US Green Card and a job as CTV's Washington producer. Now that she was being transferred, the shoe was on the other foot - it was my turn to be resourceful.

My first instinct on arriving in London was to be a wide-eyed tourist, but I knew that in order to feel secure, I needed to find work as soon as possible. In America, my brother and I had held the contract to provide television crews for ITN in North America. It was regular, lucrative work, but the best I could look forward to in London was irregular freelancing.

After two months of anxiously kicking my heels, I got my first freelance job as a sound-man, but I literally couldn't understand what the producer was talking about. The way he talked was strange and the technical terms were different. I understood the meaning of the term culture shock.

When I tried to call my children, my ex-wife said they wouldn't speak to me. She said it made them feel too sad. I badly needed to visit them to rectify matters, but I needed a job first. I answered an advertisement for a position as a technician on the cable channel Live TV and got it. It's not ITN, but it brings in pounds 28,000 a year and it allows me to immerse myself in British culture. I flew back to visit my children and since then things have got a lot better: they sent me really nice Father's Day cards, for example, and my brother bought them a computer so we can exchange e-mail.

Our plan is to be here another year. Then it's probably on to another location - perhaps Canada. Wherever my wife's job takes me, that's where I'll go. She's the career person and main provider. Like a good devoted spouse, I am learning to go with the flow."

Richard Horner, a 45-year-old American, followed his wife, Ann, 38, from Maryland to England when her company transferred her five years ago. They live in Preston, Hertfordshire, with their two children, Richard, 9, and Eleanor, 8.

"When we started out in 1981, Ann and I agreed that if either of us had to be transferred, the criteria would be who was earning the most. At that time, our salaries were roughly the same and everything about our set-up was equal. We chose a house in the country exactly midway between our respective employers, for example. I worked as a production controller for Armco Steel in Baltimore, 35 miles to the south, and Ann worked as a manager for Du Pont Merck in Wilmington, 35 miles to the north. We bought in child care and shared the household chores. It was a perfect compromise. Then two things shattered that equilibrium: I was made redundant and Ann was offered a huge pay hike along with a promotion - to managing director of Du Pont Merck's UK pharmaceutical division. The only catch was that we would have to move to England for three to five years.

The idea of becoming a househusband did not exactly fire me with enthusiasm. My father said: 'If I were you, I couldn't do it.' He'd had traditional male jobs his whole life and wiping children's noses was not one of them. But times had changed. If Ann was to bring home the bacon, I had to be there for the kids. Still, I was apprehensive. I had lived in Maryland my whole life and had only been outside of America once.

When we arrived in England, they stamped my passport "no employment allowed" and a bee stung my son on the toe. It was an inauspicious start. Every morning Ann would go off to work and I would walk the children to school, the only dad amongst all the mums. People were curious and I could feel a lot of eyes on me. I had to explain the story of why I was not working many times. I made myself join the parents' organisation as a way of meeting people, so as not to be stuck at home the whole time. Our early social life involved a lot of Du Pont-related events where I had to smile and say how wonderful everything was. Everything contrived to make me feel strange: when I spoke on the telephone, no one could understand my accent; when I went shopping I struggled with the money; when I tried to cook, I couldn't work out the weights on recipes; and when I drove my children to after-school activities, I was always getting lost and arriving late.

Gradually I found my feet and became friends with the guy who owned the local shop. It turned out that he had a farm and so I spent my spare time helping him with his sheep which I really enjoy. I have bought a horse and go fox-hunting with two neighbours. When Du Pont tried to relocate my wife back in the US, she resigned and got another job in the UK. That's how much we've grown to love it here.

I don't feel bothered any more that my career is on the back burner. Nor do I feel awkward about being a trailing spouse. I raise the children - that's what I do. It's fun and it beats the pressure of corporate deadlines. Sometimes I worry about my wife. Working so hard, travelling, being away from the kids. I don't want her to feel like she's missing out."