Part of my identity as a global citizen is that I am a “following spouse,” a “trailing wife,” and an “expiate partner.” If you’d have told me fifteen years ago that I’d follow the man that I loved across the globe, leaving behind a flourishing career in the United States, my home, I’d have thought you mad.
However, I did choose to follow my heart, rare for an academic in the hard sciences to do, saying goodbye to a tenure track at the University of Michigan. Most of the cohorts that I started my ivy tower journey with are now tenured at places such as Tuft’s, Harvard, Stanford and, of course, Ross School of Business, a top-tier business school at the University of Michigan.
I remember both the Dean of my department and the highest level of the university administrators as they attempted to convince me to stay. “Why did you spend 14 years of your life to get to this point to simply dismantle it like this?” That question was posed to me in numerous forms, and quite honestly, despite my happiness, to this day still haunts me. Do the “what-if’s” ever truly leave?
I am a rare breed, but one that is beginning to emerge more profoundly in a global arena. Not only am I a following spouse, my partner is frequently not here with me in this foreign land, since he travels often like so many husbands in Dubai and other heavily dense expiate cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Mexico.
Partners move to an exotic land where their spouses travels close to half of the time or even more. I have a dear friend whose husband travels every week and is home only on weekends; she too left a robust career with a prominent educational institution in order to be close to her parents, who had decided to return to their homeland of India from a successful arena in California. Another friend has a husband who travels every two weeks for a week, and she had earned a JD and left a partnership track at one of the most prestigious law firms globally to follow him. Then there is myself. My husband travels every two weeks, for anywhere from four days to over seven days.
I find I am always playing a game in my mind. “Ahhhh, I get the whole bed to myself” I will have more “me” time, I say to myself. I am lucky he is traveling; after all he is doing it for our family. Sometimes he travels to places that I am not so sure are safe and again my mind taunts me as the thought of maybe becoming a widow disturbs me. He, being the loving man that he is, assures me, like so many husbands do in the arena of our expiate existence, “Nasrine, it’s the same danger posed to me as walking around parts of D.C. at night, stop worrying!” Those words are sweet comfort when he is there, but little comfort when he is not.
I am blessed by what I lovingly refer to as my Dubai Diva Power Posse. In this wonderful group are women, mothers and wives that are just like me. We meet for coffee, lunch, dinner and have “girls nights out.” We have become family that lives in a house of sisterhood of intense support. All of our husbands are in roles that are gigantic in the overall relationship of the East and the West.
We’re akin to military wives, but we’re not in our home nation; we’re on foreign ground. Hence, we don’t have that support from our local communities, families and dearest friends that are back home. Throw in some culture shock, intense homesickness, constant jet lag, feelings of concentrated longing, something that mocks deja vu intertwined with a dream-like state, and that is what us trailing spouses are feeling. Many of us have small children, a household to run, staff to manage (in a foreign language) and are hoping to fuel our own dreams in an unfamiliar land that is not our own with the full understanding that we could be on a plane tomorrow to some other city.
It’s a lifestyle that is NOT for everyone!
“I feel like a single parent, but without my family and lifelong friends for support, and I don’t even know how to navigate this city,” my friend was sobbing to me one night. I took her hand, because that is all I could do. I kissed it and held her tight “I AM your family and I understand” I said. “My children cry for their dad and then I feel tremendous guilt and what do I do, I fold! I know this is not right but I can’t help it, I know that I shouldn’t but I do it! I am so angry! I was a lawyer back home, about to make partner, my mom helped out and now I have given my husband to the peace process!”
I, too, have been battling the same demons since 2005. My cheeks turned red as I did what I could to hold back my tears. I heard the echo of my own child crying for her father, tears running down her face. The powerful roar of my toddler daughter yearning for her father beckons me often. All of this happens while I am doing my best to research organic kale in the heat of the desert and calling a friend back home to congratulate her on her recent tenure at Yale. I know her frustration all too well.
My phone rings. She looked at me with a smile “Is it him?” My eyes were now also full of tears, “Yes, it is, excuse me for a second” I stand up and head for a quiet area of the café.
This is the way many expiate trailing spouses exist. We do it all and then some while our husbands work, work and work. Yes, many of us are economically comfortable, but is it worth it? There are so many benefits to this global lifestyle, and I have a bird’s eye view of the world, but I grow tired of the transcontinental lifestyle at times. Am I grateful for this life? Yes, I created it. DO I regret it? Never. Is it a challenge? Yes it is.
Have I finally learned how to navigate it? Yes!
I now feel I’m an expert on global citizenship and being a trailing spouse, and I love to be of support to others that are on this international journey with me! We are the women all over the world that are global citizens in every sense of the word, and what we do each and everyday is remarkable. I am both honored and humbled to be a part of this group.
If you’d like to share some of your experiences as a trailing spouse, or would like to connect with me to discuss mine, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter or Instagram.
I’d love to hear from you!