Trailing Spouses: What Life Is Really Like
When I married my husband I had no idea what the term "trailing spouse" meant or that I would become one. A trailing spouse is someone who follows their spouse's career opportunities to different cities and often abroad. While it is an exciting life that affords travel opportunities and may seem glamorous on Instagram, there is much more that goes on behind the scenes. I asked other trailing spouses (and one former trailing child) for their insights on their lives. They provided thoughtful commentary to help illuminate the ups and downs of following their partners. Enjoy reading about what they love, what frustrates them, and if they would do it again!
Helen, Former Trailing Child
My father works for the State Department, so I grew up moving all around the world. I am the oldest of four children, and we were all born in different countries. I’ve lived in Panama, Paraguay, Croatia, Austria, Virginia and Maryland, and as an adult, while living in the US, I have been able to visit my parents while stationed in Greece, Peru, Germany, and now Turkey (I have not visited them in Turkey yet).
My personality is pretty extroverted and outgoing, so growing up, I usually did okay making friends with each move. However, being social and having friends was always very important to me and caused me a lot of stress, even as a young kid. I often felt like 2-4 years at each post was just enough time to really make good friends, get settled on a sports team, etc., only to have to start all over again. Some of my younger siblings had an even harder time with this than I had, some easier. In middle school and high school I always played sports, mostly as a way to make friends. I figured if I could get on a team I would have automatic friends and a sense of belonging. Family support was huge for me, and my siblings and I were close due to our circumstances. My faith was also huge, as I knew my church would be wherever we went. I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the congregations varied in size, but they were always there.
When I graduated high school and left for college, we had been living in the Washington D.C. area. That summer, my family was moving to Athens, Greece. We went to the airport together as a family, but were going two opposite directions. I flew to Salt Lake City, Utah for college, and they flew to Athens. Their plane left first, and I cried privately in the bathroom after they left until I could board my plane. Luckily, when I got to Utah my aunt was there to move me into my dorm room and get me settled, but it was hard! It certainly wasn’t the typical college send off you see in the movies! That was something I really wasn’t prepared for, how hard the moving around would be even after I was out of the house.
I have been able to have some wild experiences due to my dad’s job like meeting President Obama in the Oval Office, meeting Colin Powell at “bring your child to work day”, interning at an American Embassy when I was in college, and playing “hide & seek in our house’s bomb shelter in Zagreb, Croatia in the 90’s which my siblings and I had no idea was a bomb shelter because typically we just got evacuated. I have been able to go to some amazing “bucket list” places too, some of my favorites being Machu Picchu, the Amazon, Santorini, Salzburg, and Venice.
As a kid, I didn’t really appreciate all of the beautiful places we got to visit, and honestly would have rather been at my grandparent’s house playing outside with my cousins. My siblings and I often complained about every sightseeing trip we did, and certainly didn’t appreciate the amazing places we got to go! However, now as an adult, I am very grateful for the global perspective I believe I have, and the travel experiences I was able to have that have shaped me. I always went to international schools, so I had friends from a very diverse range of backgrounds and cultures that I believe was very good for me. Even though I am a proud American, I view myself as a global citizen and still enjoy traveling, now with my own four children.
Any advice I would give is to be patient and gentle with your children of this lifestyle. It’s hard dealing with the constant uprooting, and brings challenges you don’t even see coming sometimes. You are much more vulnerable, and “third culture kids” often make bad decisions out of a desperation for connection and friends. I was lucky that my mom was not only a “trailing spouse”, but also was a trailing child as her father was a diplomat as well. Her and my father were always very understanding of us. However, you also have incredibly rich experiences, see parts of the world some people never get to see, and great cultural experiences that will shape you for your entire life. I believe these experiences can make children become more empathetic, understanding, and aware.
Follow Helen on Instagram.
Our family visiting Tbilisi, Georgia while we lived in Ukraine.
I grew up outside of Seattle, Washington. I lived in the same house my whole life until I went to college in Arizona. Right after I got married, my husband received his first overseas opportunity in Germany and we jumped at it! We were so excited about the potential travel and new experiences we would have. We lived there a few years then moved back to the U.S. Before too long we found ourselves with another chance to live abroad and moved to Ukraine for about a year. After that, we moved to the Washington D.C. area where we currently live, but are looking at more opportunities back in Europe soon.
Overall I have loved this life! I love living and traveling in Europe. I have been able to see and do more things than I ever imagined. I have developed a passion for travel and photography and I love getting to pursue them by living abroad. I have also enjoyed living in different places in the U.S. You have the opportunity to explore the region and become a mini-expert in many places. I like “trying on” different locations to see what we enjoy, what we don’t, and what we will look for in a forever home/location. Though it’s hard to imagine anything will ever truly be forever.
My least favorite thing about being a trailing spouse is leaving friends and family. I hate saying good-bye and at times it’s hard to maintain friendships via FaceTime and Facebook. I also don't like feeling like I’m depriving my children of growing up nearby grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
I was a teacher for four years before we started moving around. People always told me that I could do that job anywhere, but I have found it hasn’t been that simple. In Germany I was lucky to find an English speaking preschool to work at. However, once I had my daughter I stopped working to be home with her. When we moved back to the U.S. I was pregnant again and had an almost 2 year old to care for, so I chose not to work. In Ukraine, my daughter’s preschool was interested in hiring me, but we knew with the amount of travel we planned to do I wouldn’t be able to commit to a regular schedule. Now we are back in DC, I am pregnant again and currently on bedrest-I'm definitely not working! I often wish I studied digital marketing, graphic design, or anything related to computers to give me something easier to do remotely from home.
My biggest challenge is finding my own niche. My husband has a career which instantly integrates him and gives him something to make him feel accomplished and productive. Sometimes I feel lost when all I have done is cook, clean, and try to prevent toddler meltdowns. I don’t have that same sense of accomplishment as a stay at home mom. It can be lonely and it compounds when you’re in a different country, can’t speak the native language, and not fully comfortable with the day to day routine.
Another challenge is the expense to move and feeling like our house is in a constant incomplete state. Every time we move things get damaged and purged. What works in one house may not work in the next. It is always a dilemma of “do I keep this in case it works in the next place, or just get rid of it?” About 6 months before a move, I start to feel that it’s not really worth it to invest in home décor/organization because we are just going to box everything up anyway. I don’t like that temporary feeling in my own house. I keep hoping that in the next house it will feel complete, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Finding a community and something just for me are important to help me thrive in each location. I find that I am much happier when I feel integrated into a group of friends who I can relate to. Sounds obvious, but finding meaningful friendships can be a challenge. I think jumping into social events right away is very helpful. Friends aren’t going to just appear so you have to get out of your comfort zone a little. I try to say “yes” to anything I am invited to when I arrive at a new place. It might not be a perfect friend match, but you don’t know if you don’t go. At the very least it is a way to get out of the house! For example, I was never a runner and when I moved to California I joined a running group. To my surprise I ended up enjoying running and I made great friends! Similarly in Ukraine, I tried a barre class for the first time and formed lasting friendships with the other women who attended. Trying these new things gave me friendships as well as a meaningful activity just for myself.
Traveling as a family is something that I really look forward to as well. I like planning out the trip, doing the homework, and then of course exploring once we get there. Having something always on the horizon to look forward to is something that excites me and gets me through the lulls. Our daughter celebrated her 4th birthday in Paris and our son celebrated his 2nd birthday in Montenegro. Those are fun memories we will have forever!
I think it is a little early to determine how our children’s lives will be affected by this lifestyle. My daughter makes friends easily, which I think will her with all the change. My son is becoming more and more social as well, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the next move. So far they have been very adaptable to each new situation. They have also learned how to be good travelers (though there are definite highs and lows there too). It is fun to see them recognize world landmarks and know that they’ve been there. I love giving them special experiences that will hopefully leave an impression, even if they don't remember all the places they've been. I am happy for the education they will be afforded by being exposed to different cultures, people, and ways of life. I want them to know that there are many different ways to live and there isn’t one “right” way.
Honestly after living this way, I can't imagine if we had just stayed in one place for all these years! There would be other benefits I'm sure, but now that we have all these experiences and memories made I wouldn't trade it for anything!
I grew up in the deep south of the United States. I lived in Mobile, Alabama from my birth until I went to college in Pennsylvania. I met my husband in college; we were lab partners in Physics 201. We married right after college and moved to Columbus, Mississippi for his job. After a year and a half in Mississippi, we moved to Tucson, Arizona. Next to South Korea, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where we welcomed 2 children. We then moved to Washington, DC, and Alamogordo, New Mexico. Finally we moved to Germany where we currently live and have welcomed a third baby.
I have thoroughly enjoyed following my husband’s job around the world! We have had the amazing opportunity to live in some incredible locations. I think my favorite part about the unexpected locations we have lived is the fact that you really can find community everywhere. From big lights and never quiet Las Vegas, to a tiny, quiet town in Germany we have made some life-long friends and have been surrounded by fabulous communities. It really forces you out of your comfort zone to meet new people. If we weren’t forced to embrace some of these new locations I don’t think I ever would’ve tried them on my own. I am definitely thankful for the unexpected blessings in each location we’ve called home!
I can’t think of much I don’t like about the life we’ve been given, but if I had to choose one thing that is difficult about the trailing spouse life, it would be my career advancement. I went to school to become a meteorologist. It’s what I knew I wanted to do since I was a little girl listening to the weather radio I got for Christmas in 4th grade. It’s a passion of mine and unfortunately, I have not been able to continue in that career field while moving to these unique locations. I was able to continue my education and pursue a career of teaching, which I have also thoroughly enjoyed. I have even been able to teach meteorology! I decided to stay home with our children after our daughter was born and it has been a true blessing for our family! I’m now the family travel-planner! One other sad aspect of this lifestyle is missing family. On the other hand they have truly enjoyed visiting us around the world!
I think my biggest challenge as a trailing spouse is stepping out of my comfort zone and meeting new people and finding a new community in each new place we settle. At the same time, I would also call this my biggest reward! I would never step out of this comfort zone if I wasn’t forced to, and I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities it has provided our family. From new friends who are like family to incredible travel experiences, it has ultimately been an incredible life for us!
A sense of adventure and flexibility have allowed us to thrive in this lifestyle. We have truly embraced all of the opportunities presented to us, and have tried to enjoy each and every move. Whether that is to the middle of the desert or to a foreign country, we have succeeded in finding opportunities for exploring all that each spot has to offer.
I think the best piece of advice for someone entering this lifestyle is to find something that can bring you joy no matter where you are! There can definitely be challenges to following a spouse around the world, but if you learn to embrace your situation and find joy in each new location, you will learn to love the lifestyle. Finding a community quickly in each new location can also help. Whether that is through church, work, or neighborhood activities, finding a community is always what makes me feel at home.
I think my children have been affected in such positive ways by moving around. They are flexible, resilient, world-travelers, and are now also bilingual! They can make friends easily and while leaving those friends is never easy, they can also say they have friends around the world. What incredible experiences they’ve had at just 6 years, 4 years, and 3 months old! Our kids can sleep anywhere, find adventure in a pile of sand or a stick and 2 rocks, and explore a museum like it’s their job. We are so proud of the kids they are and are thrilled for the opportunities this lifestyle has given them.
I might be biased, but I think the trailing spouse lifestyle is the best out there! I have everything I need in my faith and family and those can go with me wherever we live!
I grew up in Germany before moving to the UK. After graduating high school I moved to The Netherlands, where I met my partner whose career means we relocate internationally.
I love seeing the world not as a tourist but actually living in different countries and experiencing mundane everyday life. I like that whenever you move you get to explore a new side of yourself. In a way, wherever you go you get a fresh start and can “reinvent” yourself.
My least favourite thing, especially now that we have a son, is the fact that we want our little one to have a home and friends and we feel he is missing that. My husband and I are still in touch with some of our childhood friends. We feel that we take that away from him as he is growing up as a third culture kid.
Currently I am a stay at home mom, but our next assignment location will be the UK. I am legally allowed to work there and am keen to look for employment, even if it's a part-time role. I am not focused on a career at this moment. I just want to have a professional life, colleagues, and not be fully financially reliant upon my husband.
One of the biggest challenges is you often cannot make choices about how and where to live. At the moment we are waiting to relocate to the UK and the employer will choose our housing. I wish we had more control and input. I am over living in furnished houses. Sometimes they are not according to our taste and then you have to live in a house that never feels like home. It feels like living in other people's “old junk” or sometimes a stylish hotel, which is not really suitable for babies.
The advice I would give a new trailing spouse is not to expect a life full of glamour and travel. Often it's lonely and you have to be very independent and self-reliant. But, if you get the chance to experience life abroad DO IT, GO! You will not regret it, as overall the adventure and memories will outweigh the bumps in the road. Always remember the days are long, but the years are short!
Hi! I’m Camille, the voice behind Get Globetrotting. We are frequent home exchangers based in LA. We exchange our home with other families in the country/world most months. I run an Instagram account aimed at helping other parents find affordable things to do with their children at home and abroad. I also work one-on-one with clients to help them plan budget international trips. My overarching goal is to help parents find joy and fulfillment by making travel a part of their lives!
We’ve lived in Utah, San Francisco, and now LA. We have traveled all over the world by exchanging our homes with other families. We follow my husband’s career. I am primarily a stay-at-home mom but I work outside the home as a nurse 1-2x a week.
I knew I wanted to primarily stay at home with our children. Because of this, we decided to send my husband to grad school 2 years ago meaning he would have a higher earning potential of the two of us. We think of ourselves as a team. He recognizes the sacrifices I make to help him excel in his career and I am grateful to him for providing a good living for our family. However, I do sometimes struggle with him receiving awards, promotions, and recognition while I put aside my career for a time to raise our kids!
We aren’t a nomadic family because my husband has a typical 9-5 with every other Friday off and a fair amount of vacation time. He really likes his job and we’ve investigated remote work, but nothing ever felt right. I work 4x/month any day of the week I choose so I can build my schedule around our travel plans pretty easily. Also, I am working on building my travel planning, Instagram, and photography business so I can do that from pretty much anywhere! We also own our home and it’s a good investment for us plus we can exchange it for other homes.
One of my greatest challenges is struggling with doing the same thing every day and I miss the stimulation of talking to people that aren’t children. I try to remedy this by planning outings with friends and daydreaming about travel. Every time I go to the hospital to work I cannot stop chatting with all the adults!
Communication has been key to thriving for me! My husband is really good about hearing me out, even when my concerns are completely irrational. I try to treat his successes as my own because it’s me doing all the behind-the-scenes work! We also have a good divide of chores at home so I don’t feel like I am constantly doing housework.
I would tell other trailing spouses to communicate with your partner. Recognize that the work you do may not be recognized by the world, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Find something that you love to do that has absolutely nothing to do with childcare and make time for it. You may resent your spouse sometimes and that is OK. Just don’t let it consume you. Talk about how you’re feeling; don’t hold it in.
Marriage is a team sport! Today women are told they MUST work or they are not fulfilling their potential. But the great thing about being a woman now is that we get to choose the life we want. If you choose to be a trailing spouse, a stay-at-home mom, a working mom, or some combination of them all, realize that those choices are between you and your spouse. Keep your sense of self-worth because the work you’re doing is just as important as the work your spouse is doing. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
We keep a house in order to provide stability for our son. We want our child to have one place he feels grounded. We were both raised in a really traditional manner and we wanted that for our kids. But I do get jealous of others I see online who have freedom to move around as they wish.