The trials of a trailing spouse

The days of the dutiful and easily exportable empire wife are over, says Margaret St John
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have lived in Dublin, Brussels, London, Washington and Paris - the last three cities as a "trailing spouse". These postings could never be described as the hardship capitals of the world and, overall, I have enjoyed living abroad. If anything, I have been the one keenest to move around. Now my attitude is changing. Maybe it is because I am getting older or because my children are reaching the less portable stage but I find it harder to envisage moving country and culture every four years. And I am not alone.

Many women with good careers are refusing to follow their men, and some companies are finding that they cannot rely on women to uproot the family, move to another country and immerse themselves in another culture. The days of the dutiful "empire wife" appear to be over.

"Peter always just gets the job and dashes off," a friend confides, "leaving me to sort out the house, go to the charity shop and dump, let the house and soothe the children. When I arrive in the new city, he has settled into the job, is very busy and has got quite used to living in a hotel. The rest of the family is miserable while we find a house and adapt to a new school. I'm getting fed up with it and I don't want to do this any more."

Can anything be done to prevent problems? Prospective Tory candidates used to have to put their wives through a tough interview to prove that they would be suitable for the constituency. Nobody would dare suggest interviewing the wife of an executive to test her for exportable qualities, such as flexibility, stoicism and a thick skin. But I know of one wife who cost her husband's company a fortune in both of her postings because she took so long to settle in. She insisted on moving house several times.

Some resourceful women have put their experiences into print to help other trailing spouses adapt to a new culture. Support groups are plentiful and many families stay within a close expatriate community.

I have avoided these books and support groups because of the advice given to me by my friend Lucy, some years ago. Her marriage to an American diplomat required that for a long period they moved country every two years, mostly in Africa. She swore that no matter what, it always took a year of unease to settle into a new posting. She said you could arrive in a town, take up bridge, join the church, invite every contact to your house and exhaust yourself. Alternatively, you could simply drink.

Settling in does take time and you have to be prepared to make silly mistakes. Some people are more flexible than others and some are better at making friends. Children react differently as well although the experts will be quick to tell you that they take their cue from how happy or miserable their parents are - as if you didn't feel guilty enough already about removing them from their grandparents, cousins, friends, schools, clubs and so on.

I am now enjoying what Paris has to offer and the children do seem very happy. I know I shall have to move again in about three years but I want that to be the last move. I hope my husband and I can arrange things so that we can settle somewhere on our terms. I would like my children to have firm roots. I would like to live in my own house again and not in rented accommodation. I want to go home - wherever that isn

Margaret St John is married to John Lichfield, The Independent's correspondent in Paris.

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