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?
Here’s my take:
- Temporize the transfer: understand the sentence from day one, so you can decide whether to find another job, dig into volunteer activities, travel around the region, or write your novel while you are “trailing.”
- Set your own rules: my friend could have told her husband she needed to work stateside for a year to start her legal career. She could have looked for a position in a nearby place more hospitable to American lawyers, such as Hong Kong. I told my husband to go first for six months, to shorten my term and make 100% certain the job was worth the upheaval.
- Prioritize what you can accomplish. Make a list of ten goals your former life prevented you from tackling: learning to salsa, getting a graduate degree, spending more time with your children…finishing all those scrapbook projects! Many of the best opportunities knock quietly; sometimes an unplanned work stoppage can bear unexpected joys if you are open to them.
- Negotiate an exit strategy. I agreed to move in Minnesota for two years, figuring my marketing career could survive a 24-month detour. My husband was not thrilled when I held him to the bargain. But both our careers (and our marriage) survived the adventure.
What about you? Have you been a happy or unhappy trailing spouse? Have you asked your spouse to follow your job moves? What’s your advice for Michelle Obama as she tackles her exciting – and challenging -- new life?