Stomping on the “trailing spouse” moniker: 5 options

Trailing spouse _

I despise the term “trailing spouse” and yet even I begrudgingly use it as lame shorthand way of explaining my situation abroad. “Trailing spouse” makes me feel like an uncooperative cat on a lead. But even with that baggage, it’s still a step above the clubby, musty term “expat wife.” Using either, however, causes me to noticeably wince.

Are there alternatives?

My husband recently forwarded an email to me from the powers that be at his company. In it, I was referred to as a “stakeholder at home.” While graciously admitting that I like the way it recognizes my personal stake in the matter of our corporate relocation (and conceding that it is miles above “bitch in the house”), it still makes me want to punch someone in the mug.

At the recent Families in Global Transition conference, the keynote speaker, Dr. Rey Leki, called for the term “spartner” to replace “trailing spouse.” I can’t, however, puzzle out what “spartner” is supposed to summarize. Supporting partner? Sympathetic partner? Sidecar partner? Superhero partner?

As a person who moved abroad in 2005 because I wanted an international adventure, I don’t much like being summed up and fenced in by any of these terms. I have worked abroad. I am studying abroad. I am raising little Third Culture Kids abroad. I am not a “trailing spouse” that gets moved about like a gin and tonic swigging end table.

Let’s consider the following “trailing spouse” alternatives:

1. Conjurer of Worlds. Reminds me of the flexibility required to build (and re-build) an international life. Applies especially well to situations in which one unearths the only birthday cake mix in Zhuhai, China or discovers a fresh career path. I also like the sorcery vibe.

2. Willing Wanderer. Hints at the lack of choice one might have in some relocation decisions, while admitting that this odd journey can still be terribly amusing.

3. Corporate-Funded Adventurer. Gives a nod to the financial backing for many international lives abroad. At the same time, it makes one sound like a tool.

4. Expat. Sweet, simple, easily understandable. “Expat” is to “trailing spouse” what “Ms.” is to “Mrs.” After all, why should anyone’s international identity relate exclusively to his or her marital status?

5. In the end, I might personally lobby for “Internationalist.” I like the vagueness. I like the Cold War, “cloak and dagger” feeling. I like that one could use it forever and not just while actually living abroad.

Top it?

47 responses to “Stomping on the “trailing spouse” moniker: 5 options

  1. I’m a fan of “International Person of Mystery”. It sounds daring, exotic and fantastically vague (plus it implies that you could be a spy, a writer, a diplomat or serial traveler.) But then again, I’m all about keeping folks guessing.

  2. Citizen of the world? I don’t see why the wife part of ‘expat wife’ is necessary – aren’t you just as much an expat as he is!? Or is he somehow more expat than you?? Maybe ‘spartner’ is a combo of Sparta and partner – THIS IS SPARTA!!!! 🙂

    • I think the inclusion of wife/partner/spouse has been added to be more inclusive of the partner whose job didn’t move the family. But something about it still annoys me. You’re right that most of the time I simply call myself “expat.”

      “This is Sparta!” Ha! There have been times when I’ve felt like crossing continents and running into a certain HR office and yelling that while flinging computers and paperwork across the floor.

  3. I am disappointed that you’re not a sentient end table. That would have been fun for me.

    In situations where people try to make me feel uncomfortable or less-than, I usually flip their intention back on them, so I’d go with “kept woman” or “doxy” and really make people think about what it is their language is suggesting. If you want to go the sci-fi route, you could say you’re an Engineer (in the ALIEN / PROMETHEUS sense) since you *are* the giver and sustainer of life.

    Or, you know, stick with a classic like “thrill-seeker” or “swashbuckler.” The latter has the bonus effect of confusing foreigners.

    • Yes, a sentient end table. Like HAL, perhaps.

      So far, you win the prize for best alternative with “swashbuckler.” (And thank you for introducing me to the term “doxy.”)

      (PS since we’ve established we’re cousins, please tell me you watched “Temple of Doom” checked out from the VHS rental shop five times in one day like my little brother and I did in 1987.)

      • I did watch GREMLINS as many times as possible on a 24-hour rental and then proceeded to not sleep for weeks. TEMPLE was my favorite Indy story for ages until I got older and looked at the trilogy (yeah, I’m a denier) and realized it’s the lesser of the three. I still say “Chilled monkey brains” whenever I get served cold foods though.

      • Looked at through older eyes, Kate Capshaw really spoils that movie. Well her, the monkey brain scene and the “Kalima Shuctidey!” human sacrifice scenes. Come to think of it, the only good part if that movie is the scene at the night club in Shanghai.

      • KC is really the worst thing that happened. But Harrison Ford in a white tux is one of the best. Who would have thought any man could look that good in a white tux? It’s criminal how handsome he was.

  4. I like “Internationalist” though I would go with the simple #4. I think “expat wife” or “trailing spouse” is used in an attempt to explain why the person may not currently be employed in a paying job (visa restrictions, language barriers, etc. etc.)… but not being employed doesn’t mean that you not doing something useful and meaningful.

  5. I would go with your “internationalist” but it makes me sound like a Powderfinger album. I like the band, but there’s only so many tunes on the CD. “Expat” makes the most sense, but where’s the fun?

    I think “doxy” is my favourite so far. Nothing like a bit of hyperbole to deflate a term. Although Conjurer of Worlds has a certain something.

    I feel compelled to try and add to the list. This is going to take some more thinking, though. In the meantime, from a personal perspective, I guess the terms just don’t bother me so much. Maybe it’s because of all the different ways people have tried to mangle my name over the years, but I have a sort of “just don’t call me late for breakfast” (and get on with my thing regardless) attitude to it, although actually I prefer to be called late for breakfast, I’m just not a morning person.

    • Only an Aussie would think of that. (Oh and thanks for introducing me to Powderfinger. I was oblivious.)

      I like your attitude about ignoring terms. For the most part, I try to ignore them as well. Guess I’ve been rubbed the wrong way lately. Perhaps I should simply “reappropriate” the term “expat wife” to imply something totally kick-ass.

      Please do add to the list as the mood strikes you. I’m waiting with great anticipation.

      (On a side note, we’ve put our trip to Japan on hold in lieu of a trip to the Tibetian areas of northern Yunnan Province. Should be a hell of a trip. I have to soak up every bit of China I can while my Mandarin is this passable.)

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  7. I found you from Bronwyns neighborhood. I love your ideas in this post. I honestly have not thought about what I would be called, but I am in a strange situation where we live in thailand, my husband works for a company back home, and we are both here by choice. I guess we would both just be expats, but now that seems so boring. 🙂

  8. No idea what a good replacement would be, but I will be sending this to my mother – I think “I am not a gin and tonic swigging end table” is a pretty perfect reply to the stereotypes of the Internationalists (I like that description, I think I’ll keep it) that she’s had to put up with over the years.

    Great blog!

    • I hope it gives her a laugh! This week I’ve decided to expand “internationalist” to “improvising internationalist” to capture the juggling act that moving every 2-3 years is.

  9. Was thinking about you – was in HK most of last week for work. I like the simple “expat” label but you should be free to choose whichever you would like. Any timing on the move?

    • Oh dear, what a horrible week weather-wise to be in Hong Kong! I think I like “expat” best too I think anything with wife/spouse/partner at the end is more for the convenience of HR people.

      As for our move, we are in the final stretch of a too-long process decision-wise. If we move (still likely, but not 100% certain) it would be at the end of June once school lets out.

  10. Brilliant, love your alternatives too… Such a horrible term isn’t it? If it has to include spouse I prefer travelling spouse… Here I am just a plain old hausfrau – which i will never get used to! 😀

    • Oh, I think I do like traveling spouse. Hausfrau is as hard to take as filling in “housewife” on all of my documentation in Hong Kong. Even “stay at home mom” is somehow easier to take than “housewife” .

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  12. I would say ” expat” is best. It is all encompassing with just the right amount of vagueness attached. I wrote a post on this ” trailing spouse” title.
    It’s a term that I find annoying and insulting in equal parts and I do hope we hear less and less of the term in the years ahead!
    Thanks for the great post,

  13. Not sure I can top it. But I would probably go for “expat,” which is certainly what you are, and leave it be. It’s funny how much power words like these can have over us, no?

    • I like expat too. You are so right that words can somehow get under our skin. I’ve just got to keep in mind the key line from that 1980s movie Labyrinth (with the glorious David Bowie): “You have no power over me.”

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