Trailing Spouses… and Careers

Spouse trailing is the curse of the expatriate wife, but Catherine Gilson turned it into a blessing by transforming her volunteer experience in Paris into The Culture Club, her own tour group. She is a textbook example of how women square the sometimes vicious circle of moving, setting up a household and trying to establish themselves before moving on again – the subject of a career-development seminar last month organized by WICE and the American University of Paris.

The heartening news for “trailing spouses” is that a few U.S. companies are waking up to their needs. But not out of altruism. More and more corporations, faced with the need to expand into global markets, need a pool of good workers to send overseas.

Although some men do trail their spouses, they remain a small minority. What companies are realizing, explained Pam Stanoch, president of Windows on the World, is that wives are vetoing their husbands’ overseas assignments. She said 94% of Americans turn down international assignments and 70% of those refuse because of their spouses, many of whom don’t want to sacrifice their own careers. What is more, companies are finally acknowledging that the adaptation of the spouse is crucial to the productivity of the employee, whose posting abroad represents a sizable investment.

As a result, some multinational companies are starting to offer trailing spouses career and life-planning counseling; help with finding a job at the spouse’s company or another company; job-hunting and fact-finding trips to the host country; and reimbursement for continuing education, language lessons, cross-cultural training, professional-development seminars, child care and marriage counseling. A few companies are even offering partial or full reimbursement for the lost income of the trailing spouse.

Still, Stanoch advised women not to wait for better expatriate packages, but to start demanding them now. She also encouraged women to start calling themselves “accompanying spouses” instead of “trailing spouses,” to get away from the disparaging notion of a housewife merely following her husband around. In another case of political correctness, but one that Stanoch disagrees with, a book called “Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad; A Wife’s Guide,” by Robin Pascoe, has been nearly blacklisted in the United States because critics say it portrays women negatively. While the book does give the impression that women who are accompanying spouses are dependent, Stanoch stated, “That’s because they are.”

If the problem for accompanying spouses is dependence, the solution has to be more than semantic. Although spouses may begin to think of themselves differently by talking about themselves differently, and that could be an important first step, it’s not enough. What is needed, as Stanoch said, is for women to take positive steps to keep themselves “at the center.”

Several months after Catherine Gilson arrived in France with her husband and daughter in 1987, she took advantage of an opening at WICE to become director of its Living in France department, organizing classes and programs to introduce participants to French culture. After more than three years of that, she decided she needed to do it on her own. So in 1992 Gilson started her own non-profit association, The Culture Club.

“My philosophy is that there are all kinds of ways to see Paris…but I feel strongly that the way to start integrating with the French culture is to have a behind-the-scenes look,” she said. Her tours are intimate, 10 people or fewer, led by professionals. In April, for example, The Culture Club is offering a visit to the Musée Marmottan, where participants will learn about medieval manuscript illumination from a modern-day practitioner. Gilson says her events, about one a week during the French school year, usually attract longtime anglophone expatriates “who have done all the usual tours.”

Thinking about career in such a broad sense is just what trailing spouses need to do, according to seminar organizer Nadine Redding, director of WICE’s Families and Mobility program. She’s not talking about a one-time “job” connected to a specific place, but a career  encompassing a set of paid or unpaid experiences that can span countries.

“Career development in this sense is important because it forces accompanying spouses to set personal life goals and it helps them to be more in touch with their own needs as a person, something that often becomes difficult with repeated relocation,” Redding said. It can also help “minimize the feelings of loss” when the women has to uproot herself once again. “The career itself can thus be something tangible to build on in successive moves.”

Gilson says spouses simply need to “get involved.” At first, she says, the spouse’s “whole reason for being is to get the family organized – you’re constantly giving.” However, she adds, “unless you reach a point when you can start refilling with something, there’s no point in being here. You become a void.”


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