Back Seat Job.

Years ago, a friend who had just graduated from law school and taken the bar exam, suddenly moved to Tokyo when her husband was offered a five year position managing his law firm there. Wow, what an adventure, I thought. Mt Fuji! Endless sushi! Those cool kimonos!


Then she discovered Japanese law prohibited Westerners from practicing law in the country. She couldn’t speak the language or read any street signs, making exploring Tokyo alone exhausting. She couldn’t buy shoes, business clothes, pantyhose or cosmetics, either, given how different Japanese women were from Americans. Her career hit a dead end before it even started. That was the first time I heard the term “trailing spouse” to identify a partner who follows his or her spouse’s great job. The description aptly captured my friend, who trailed along so obediently she lost part of herself along the way.


I faced my own “trailing spouse” challenges soon after, when my husband took a killer job in Minneapolis. His new company made his stock options vest the day I moved from New York City with our two kids. Boy, I wish they’d put those options in my name. It would have made giving up my job at Johnson & Johnson, my children’s world class daycare center, and my tight knit network of relatives and friends a whole lot more palatable. Instead, I struggled to find rewarding work, affordable daycare, a pediatrician and new friends to keep me company while my husband worked late night after night at his wonderful new job.


This is my way of saying there’s a downside to the immense good fortune facing Michelle Obama, the world’s highest profile “trailing spouse.” The new House rocks, you’ve got every private school admissions officer in DC looking out for your girls, and you won’t have any shortage of invitations, decorators, designers, household help, and unforgettable opportunities. But for an ambitious, self-directed woman with a prestigious, hard-earned career of her own, these perks strike me as mere consolation. I can’t pretend to read Michelle Obama’s mind, but to me, nothing beats charting your own course in your lifetime.


So how do you turn “trailing spouse” into an adventure – even a resume builder -- on your terms?

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

To me the big question is: when do you say no to a spouse's opportunity? For my generation (40 something white college educated moms) it seems harder for women to turn down husbands than vice versa. Which can lead to a lot of resentment down the road. Some people love the adventure of being a trailing spouse; others like me can't stand it. In many ways I still regret our move to Minnesota for my husband's job. It took a huge toll on our marriage and my career, and I'm not sure even today my husband understands what I gave up to support his dreams. From my view, Michelle Obama has had few choices in this political adventure. No matter how "lucky" she is to be First Lady. Although I definitely see the value in rolling where life takes you, I'd rather make my own decisions and pay the price for my own choices.


We kind of did this. My husband transferred to the Hampton Roads area at the same time I wanted to start my own business. I was still able to do work for my old company from home, so I didn't feel like I was losing ground. Now I run my own business and still do consulting jobs now and again. I have realized that this is exactly where I want to be right now. I don't think we would have moved here though if we thought I would not be able to continue working. I don't think I could have done what your friend did with moving to Japan unless I thought I had a prayer of ever learning Japanese.

Mom to 3


Your writing is always so timely for me. I gave up a very sought after senior position to allow my husband to really grow his startup and to move to a more affordable house/better school district. At the holidays, I have old friends and my mother visiting and they all use polite low level tones to ask me what I am doing. Apparently raising two kids under five, moving twice, and starting a free-lance career just isn't enough. What I feel I lost the most was social cache'. Status. I feel like printing up t-shirts that say "I'm not asking for your pity so stop offering it!". And I really want my mother to stop asking if my expensive college degree and years in grad school were "worth it?". The lowest is realizing that I really only want to be successful in my new career to end all those pitiful questions and lefthanded compliments on my "choices".

Its been four years of hits to my career hopes, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel (its called good public elementary school), and I feel its up to me, just as it would have been had I never quit my old job, to make a great career for myself. Do I think its fair that I have to "mommy track" myself and he didn't? Nope, not one bit. But since I can't change the situation very much myself, I'm just going to focus on me. Get what I really want out of life - happy social life (husband), happy kids, decent work and be grateful if we never face a major financial crisis. My personal dream for the next generation? An acceptable Daddy track that most new father's can jump on for a while so the Mommy track wouldn't have to be so steep or stray so far from the main path.


We have taken turns being "trailing spouse," as the economy demanded. When we got married, my husband moved to where I was, but the only job was with a fairly small, shaky company, and there weren't a lot of other options here within his industry. So when the tech crash started and his facility shut down, we swapped roles, and I followed him to more tech-heavy areas -- first a transfer to Colorado, then to New Mexico when the CO facility shut down.

I won't BS; it was extremely hard. I was a year away from partnership at a law firm when the first move hit, and I hated walking away when what I had worked for 7 years for was finally within my grasp. Then I was completely miserable in the new job. I ultimately went back to telecommuting for my old firm, which left me feeling like I was "playing lawyer" instead of really building my skills and practice.

The way we (I) got through was two-fold. First, I focused (or tried to!) on what I was gaining, not what I was losing. I told myself it was a good time to step back from the career a bit and have a family (especially since we had been wondering how we were going to manage that with the DC, 2-career, 2-commute life we'd been living). Plus we got to build our own house in CO, which was a real luxury I never thought I'd experience, and the lifestyle out there was fabulous.

Second, and probably more important, we openly agreed that it was temporary. I was really, really unhappy in NM, and the whole "look on the bright side" thing didn't work (I had been clinging to the "build our house" thing as my bright spot in the move, so losing that pretty much stripped my defenses). So I ultimately told my husband that I needed to know that this was just temporary, and that at some point, preferably within the next two or three years, it was going to be my turn again. And that's what we did: when he got hit by that company's seventh round of layoffs, he focused his job search exclusively on my old stomping grounds, and we were really lucky he found a good job here. Now I'm back in the office and am a partner, and have family nearby for our kids. I'm definitely several years behind where I might have been otherwise -- but I'm also only at 80%, because the time away taught me how much I valued having time with my kids and family and generally having a life.