They go with the job
Flic Everett investigates the world of 'trailing spouses': the women (it's hardly ever men) who give up everything to follow their husbands overseas
Sunday 29 March 1998
"A lot of employees are sent abroad now, particularly in Europe," explains Professor Chris Brewster of Cranfield School of Management. "It's assumed that partners will go uncomplainingly, but of course, most have jobs of their own." Most still go, however - because an average of three years apart from their partner seems a worse price to pay than a halted career and an upended life. A new book, They Only Laughed Later, edited by Carol Allen and Richard Hill, collects the accounts of female expats, and illustrates the loneliness, upheaval and sheer weirdness of their lives. Several of the contributors are married to men from the Foreign Office, an organisation that's particularly concerned about the welfare of its "trailing spouses" - over 1,000 wives and 300 or so husbands - and encourages them to learn a language, and retrain for a portable career.
"We've started a scheme in which partners can learn aromatherapy, TEFL, even plumbing; skills they can take up anywhere," says Elizabeth Nixon, chairwoman of the FO's Development Services Overseas. For a woman forced to abandon her lucrative and fulfilling career, however, a crash course in essential oils is unlikely to help. And, with the growth of the global market, some international companies realise it's time to offer working spouses more than a parasol and a list of menu suggestions - companies like Unilever. "We try to find the partner a dual role within the company. If that's not possible, we can offer up to pounds 2,000 to help them study or start a small business. Obviously, there are some countries where working is less feasible, but we try to offer advice and provide local contacts."
Other organisations believe that assimilation is a "private matter". ITN, which has long-term foreign correspondents based in Moscow, Washington and South Africa, is content to stay out of marital dramas. "Whether the partner goes is a personal decision for the couple - all our jobs are applied for so it's their own choice - no one's forced to go abroad. Usually, also, the postings are in areas where it's not difficult for a partner to get work. We do offer foreign-language training."
Sibella Laing is married to the director of a Central European aid fund. "Stuart's been in the FO for 25 years, and I realised early on that I couldn't have a British-based career. Initially, I learned Arabic, so I could teach in the Middle East. In the 1980s we went to Prague and I got a marvellous job at the university - then Stuart was sent to Saudi Arabia, and I considered staying on. But you couldn't even telephone between the two countries then, and the marriage would have suffered too much."
Suzy Tucker, also married to a Foreign Office employee, had no intention of handing round Ferrero Rochers, either. "In '93, we were moved to Bratislava in Slovakia from Prague, where I'd just had our daughter by emergency caesarean - I could barely walk across the flat, never mind move house. Bratislava was an emerging economy, and there was no work for me, whereas in Prague I'd worked on a newspaper. Luckily, we're a close couple, and I made friends - but there is a high divorce rate in the FO, like the army, because the partner often can't fulfil their potential. And if you're not interested in entertaining, it's fairly limiting."
It seems that the only way for an expat wife to be happy is to wind the clock back 30 years, and accept childcare, a diverting little job and unstinting support of her husband as her raison d'etre the moment the plane leaves British air space. But, sometimes, the sacrifice isn't worth making. Annie Taylor is married to a TV foreign correspondent. He is posted in Washington, while she's in London with two-year-old Alex. "He'd been away before for limited periods. But then he was offered Washington, indefinitely. My mother was very ill. Then I got a job and pregnant in a short space of time, and decided I couldn't face being a 'Washington Wife'. John's bosses think I'm some mad feminist, because I don't want to go and join a wives' reading circle.
"He and Alex miss each other terribly. And we both feel guilty about our choices, although we see each other every few weeks. I knew when I met him he was obsessive about work, and I'm very proud of him. So in theory I'd move - but in practice, I'd be leaving friends, family, a job I love - and it's hard to give all that up."
The decision to give things up is made easier when there are simple replacements at the other end. Michelle Briere is married to the Marketing Director of Meridien Hotels, and has recently moved from Paris to London. "The only thing I really miss is French food and our dog. It's not so different, though. I didn't leave a career behind because I look after my children, and we brought them with us. I just need two or three months to get to know new ways, and then I can make friends somewhere else."
The career problem can often be worked around by adapting or deferring - and the moving becomes just a weary matter of tea-chests and newspaper every three years. The worst problem for trailing spouses is isolation. Clare Lumsden, 27, moved to Osnabruck in Germany with her army officer husband, Peter, a week after marriage. "My main worry was loneliness. But army life is incredibly sociable - and all the wives are in the same boat. When I had Daniel, I was inundated with offers of help.
"It was different when we went to Cyprus two years later, though. There are fewer young women with children there, and I used to long for just one friend I could talk to easily. Despite it being seen as a brilliant posting, Cyprus has never been enjoyable, for that reason."
A further problem is the growing children, and whether to dispatch them to boarding school or haul them through inadequate local schools. "They went to school where we lived when they were little," Sibella explains. "Then we had to send them to boarding school because there was no senior education available. They'd rather be here - but it would have been worse to move them every three years"
"The boarding schools of England were built on expatriation," Chris Brewster elaborates. It's no longer taken as read, though, that children will be neatly labelled and packed off to England at seven. "Parent's views have changed," he agrees. "Women don't want to be abroad, jobless and childless as well. Because it is still the men who are generally posted - although women have proved better at international management. Sadly, I think it's unlikely we'll see a change in companies' attitudes to expat spouses , until more of them are men."
Until that time, the attitude remains that a man thinks "job then family", and a woman thinks "family then job" - so many companies are still reluctant to post women with families abroad. But when they are the family, paradoxically, it's okay.
The rise in British expats is likely to continue growing as Europe's boundaries become increasingly flexible. And if the divorce rate in the expat community is to reduce, big businesses need to devote a lot more time to understanding the problems of "trailing spouses", who aren't necessarily prepared to trade their career for their husband's, or their personal happiness for an aromatherapy certificate.
'They Only Laughed Later' by Carol Allen and Richard Hill, Europublications, pounds 10.99, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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