I wrote a piece for Suite 101 yesterday about male trailing spouses, and the reaction I’ve been getting proves yet again that there’s little consensus out there in Expatland on the preferred term for those of us who move to another country in support of our partners’ careers.
I can see the difficulties with slapping a label – any label – on these brave and hardy souls. The ideal (yet elusive) term would leave no doubt that both parts of the expat equation were on equal footing.
When I was doing research for my master’s thesis on cross-cultural training and people-who-move-overseas-for-a-life-partner, it used to bug me that peer-reviewed journals referred to the working partner as the expatriate and the other partner as the spouse – as though only one of them had uprooted an entire life and shipped it halfway around the world.
The expat community (or at least half of it) is obviously in the throes of an identity crisis. What should we call the non-contracted half of the expatriate couple? The original term, expat wife, was replaced in later years by trailing spouse, but neither one is quite right: trailing offends some people, wife offends others, and lately I’ve been hearing rumblings of discontent over spouse. (Kind of ironic, since it was supposed to be the more gender-neutral and less Mad Men alternative to wife.)
Trailing spouse always makes me think of Prince Phillip, walking the requisite two paces behind Queen Elizabeth. It implies that we spouses are just tagging along for the ride, almost like an afterthought. (Which we certainly are in the eyes of many an HR department.)
Accompanying is a much more democratic term, with its faint whiff of “we’re all in this together!” But it also sounds a bit sterile, like a chaperone on a school trip. Plus, at five syllables, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Expat wife is totally old school. It conjures up visions of ladies in pearls sipping G&Ts at the club while a Noel Coward wannabe tickles the ivories. It’s a term that’s been slightly tarnished by its colonial associations, and even more so by the present-day perception of expat wives as gadabouts who leave their children with domestic helpers so they can play tennis, get manicures, lunch with friends, and go clubbing every night. (I’ve met women like this, and I find them exhausting.)
The expat wife has evolved, though. More expat women are working in their host countries (some are even – in the terminology of those peer-reviewed journals I mentioned earlier – expatriates), and shrinking expat packages mean that perks such as club memberships are fast becoming relics of the past.
As for me, I’m clearly comfortable with the term; it’s how I chose to identify myself in the name of my blog, after all. Considering the futility of trying to condense the complexities of a human creature into a descriptive and one-dimensional sound bite, I’d say that for a few years there, expat wife described me as accurately as any single label possibly could.
How about it, my fellow trailing/accompanying/expat spouses/wives/partners? What’s your preferred moniker? And is it time for a new one? Please share your thoughts by clicking Leave a Comment below.