Male Trailing Spouses: An Inconvenient Truth

Most trailing spouses are women, but in the last 15 years a new trend in the expat world is ramping up: the male trailing spouse.

Who are those men?

Who are those men?

Defying convention, these men are pioneers in unchartered territory: not only do they support their wives’ career, but at the cost of their own financial independence they support the home and household. They go shopping, they cook, they clean, they raise children and help their wife cope with the stresses of work life.

Talk about going against the most common stereotypes!

So how does life look like when you’re a stay at home dad in a foreign country?

Neil

Neil

I’ve had the pleasure to interview one of them. Neil Edward Kelly is an Australian who moved with his wife to Basel, Switzerland 10 years ago.

Transitioning from a full time activity – professional consultant – to raising 2 little children in foreign Switzerland was not a smooth ride, to say the least.

As I heard it so many times from other trailing spouses, Neil experienced episodes of stress and anxiety before sliding into deep and chronic depression.  With support of both professional attention and his fellow ‘hausmänner’ (male accompanying partners) he slowly regained his sense of direction and self-worth.

No wonder. The job of trailing spouse is tedious, currently badly paid (if not paid at all!) and most often completely undervalued in the community and by employing corporations.

You can’t help but feel deeply unhappy if you define yourself by what you do, by your position in society, by the money you make.
So when you suddenly have to change country, give up your job and become a stay at home adult, deprived of any support network, isolated by the language barrier, ignorant of the local customs, you’re deeply shaken in your identity.

Anne: Can you tell us a bit more about your experience as a male trailing spouse?

Neil: When people see me for the first time, accompanying the kids at school excursions, staying at home to take care of the household, the first reaction is suspicion.

A stay-at-home man? He must be lazy or stupid, he must have a disability that keeps him from work or might be just a bit weird.

A man involved in children’s activities? Cooking, shopping, cleaning up the house? Always surrounded by children? What kind of man is that? Can we trust him? What if he “liked” young children a little too much?

There seems to be an immediate suspicion of the man seen to be doing ‘woman’s work.’ I’ve noticed that there is almost a kind of “racism” developed by other stay at home mums and working dads.

It’s not unusual for male trailing spouses to find themselves on the fringe of social and corporate events.

Because of the language barrier and cultural distance, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) for the expatriate trailing spouse to find a way to ‘break in’ to the local community.

But even in expat circles, stay-at-home moms very often consider me with some condescension.  Sometimes I get a sense that they pity me, or see me as a lower life form. They offer ‘advice’ on how to decorate the house or arrange the furniture.

Anne: Is there any advantage to be a male trailing spouse compared to a female one?

Neil: Are you familiar with “Superwoman”? There is an ideal of the “super” mom, expected to be omnipresent: volunteering at school, training the soccer team, chairing the parents and friends committee, holding on a job, always impeccably dressed up and capped, cooking delicious meals for her family, decorating with taste her interior. The loving mother, dedicated wife, dynamic and positive woman.

Well, stay-at-home men are not under the pressure of being a “Superwoman”. That’s the only positive thing I can think of.

We’ve also started to get a bit of media attention and I think we are in a good position, being newsworthy because we are male. We might be able to draw attention to the experience of all expatriate spouses and maybe help change community perception of the home-maker.

Anne: What has been the most difficult in your transition  in Switzerland and in your life thereafter?

Neil: Without any hesitation, I’d say it boils down to cultural adjustment and social integration.

The difference between the Australian culture and the Swiss culture is huge.

Here are just a few examples:

First, the language barrier. When I went to the supermarket at the beginning, I had no idea about what was in the packet. I found it very unsettling. The same would happen at the chemist. The names of the drugs are all different.

Greetings are not the same from one village to another. When greeting people – and Swiss people are not very flexible or accommodating as listeners – your pronunciation must be precisely as they expect (including inflections of the local dialect) or they are likely to shout “Was??” (What??). I was surprized that they seem to have difficulty comprehending other Swiss dialects – even when the regions are very close by an Australian sense of distance.  Australia is a very multicultural place and people speak English with a broad range of accents and inflections, so it was a bit of a shock to find such narrowness here in Switzerland – where the local people have difficulty understanding each other.

Even a trivial thing like walking in the street is not straightforward. In Australia we cross people on the left-hand side. In Switzerland, it’s on the other side, similar to the car traffic.

Swiss people are not used to introduce strangers to each other. I’ve had the experience quite often, where I happen to be out with some Swiss friends and we meet others who they obviously know.  My Swiss friends will talk to their acquaintances without acknowledging my presence or introducing me to them.  I will have to wait, completely excluded till my friend has finished their other conversation before speaking to me again.  From an Australian cultural point of view, it’s just ignorant and rude, but in Switzerland one has ‘compartments’ of life that are kept separate.

Another cultural trait impressed me when I first arrived in Switzerland.  It is normal practice here for people to stare at strangers without acknowledging them.  I often have strangers staring into my face, and I feel compelled to smile or nod or indicate some sort of greeting – but they don’t respond and just keep staring with a blank expression.  In many parts of Australia, this would indicate aggression from the other person – you could expect they are about to punch you in the face or something.  Here, it’s part of the culture, I think it’s some sort of mutual recognition of being there, but respecting your difference and your privacy or something.

I remember one of the first days at my children’s school. I introduced myself to another woman as you would naturally do in Australia ‘Hi I’m Neil”. She answered, shocked “But I’m not your friend!” and walked away.

Believe me: it’s one thing to know intellectually that there are cultural differences and another to go through them in real life.

Anne: How did you overcome those various challenges?

Neil:  I’ve had to redefine myself.

And while redefining myself has been quite painful, it has given me some extraordinary insight into my own strengths and weaknesses

… as well as the slim edge between functional and dysfunctional that is always there in expatriate communities.

About ten years ago I started to meet regularly with other expatriate ‘hausmänner’ (it’s the male equivalent of ‘house wife’ in German, it’s sort of self-deprecating as it’s not an ‘official’ word).  We’ve managed to sustain and build a fairly strong group.  We try to cultivate a nurturing, supportive and inclusive attitude in a fairly ‘corporatized’ expatriate world that is quite empty and even hostile at times.

We are fairly disorganized but have managed to maintain a weekly get-together for a shared meal.

Finding a restaurant to gather is a struggle though. Believe it or not: restaurants have refused to serve us when they realize we don’t all arrive at once, all order at once, and our children can get a bit noisy.

We’ve tried to create special times for different sorts of conversation and support.  One thing we’ve done quite successfully at times is to instigate the rule of ‘the talking stick’.  The idea is that anyone with ‘the talking stick’ gets to express themselves without interruption or contradiction.  Our experience is that new arrivals need to rant for about 18 months!  Through this time, they gradually learn how to listen as more new-comers get a turn at the talking stick.  When there’s a lot of people who want a turn, we enforce a rule “don’t Bogart the talking stick!”  Given the level of stress that male trailing spouses experience, it does take quite a while to teach people how to listen.

Healing doesn’t come from talking but from being heard!!

Whether men are happy or not as trailing spouses depends on a number of factors, some research has been done on this issue.  Adjusting to the culture is very important and the adjustment has to be to the expatriate culture as well as the local culture.  Men also adjust in different ways depending on where they are in terms of family life (young kids, teenagers, college students or ’empty nest’), on what sort of career they previously had.

Interestingly, I found that there were 2 categories of persons, reacting differently according to their status before relocation.

The PIP: previously ‘important’ people, having left behind high powered jobs, financial independence and a wide social network

The POP: previously ‘ordinary’ people. For those ones, the expat status is more prestigious than their previous occupation. But I’ve noticed that they were depreciating themselves considerably in comparison to their wives.

There’s also a big advantage in having the right attitude, to treat the experience as an adventure, a learning experience and to be willing to change your attitudes and even values to survive in the new culture.

Besides the lunches and the intense ranting, we try also to make contact with the working men.

On the first Monday evening, every 3 months, we meet up in a bar providing a mix of business and stay at home men.
Ironically, this proves to be a unique place for working men to socialize without talking about work!!

We are also at the moment, moving toward creating an official organization to support the male trailing spouses as well as the broader expatriate community.  With a formal group, we think we can also make a difference within the broader expatriate community – for cultural adjustment, social integration and basically having a stronger sense of community – that really doesn’t exist here.

If you want more information and/or live in the Basel area, you can contact Neil on facebook [angryexpat], email: neil.kelly@bluewin.ch or call him at his studio on +41 (0)61 751 16 93

Now over to you: as a male trailing spouse, what’s your experience?

If you’re a woman, we want to hear from you too. Do you know other male counterparts? Are you best friends or worst ennemies?

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Comments

  1. naishproductions says:

    Great article. I’m laughing at all the observations as i have also been through most of these situations. Into our 6th year here and loving it more and more. I’m sure many more people can relate to this story, but i do often wonder whether it’s the same for foreigners back in Oz?

    • Thanks a lot for your comment! Very much appreciated 🙂 To answer your question: well, obviously, I’m not a stay-at-home dad myself so I can’t tell you exactly how it feels here in Tasmania. But I know a few Australian stay-at-home dads at my children’s primary school. They’re completely integrated in the school life and are a great part of the community. I haven’t felt any disapproval or seen weird looks towards them. My impression is that there’s more and more acceptance in general towards this new possibility and I think it’s a very positive move. Women fought to be truck drivers, surgeons, professors, president and officers. Why couldn’t men raise children and take care of the household? Another way to challenge the status quo 🙂

      2014-02-03 Disqus :

  2. Love this! So much of it rings true. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a Hausmann, but I do understand the difficulties in transitioning cultures and ‘getting it wrong’ all the time. I know, for myself, I couldn’t do without ‘my’ Hausmann — he is my hero and I really, truly couldn’t do it without him. <3

    • Oh Diana, thank you for your beautiful testimonial. It’s very moving and it’s what we need to hear more: the words of appreciation, love and gratitude of working partners. They’re too silent in all those discussions. So I’m very grateful for your great contribution.

      2014-02-04 Disqus :

  3. What a nice read and I think probably more or less representative of all the ‘trailing spouses’ althought the husbands probably have to put up with some negativity, especially in more traditional cultures. I have to say I do not like the term ‘trailing’. I sounds like am walking behind my husband and not next to him. I am happy to be called an expat housewive/house executive/superwomen and have a great deal of respect for any expat stay-at-home spouse.

    • Thanks a lot for your thoughts. Yes, the term ‘trailing spouse’ triggers mixed feelings. On one hand, it doesn’t reflect the reality but on the other hand, it is how we are perceived (very often by the corporate world and the broader community). This expression is fairly common in the expat jargon and I use it because people look for it when they surf on the Internet. But I’m happy to promote accompanying partner or stay-at-home spouse as well 🙂

      2014-02-05 Disqus :

      • Trailing reminds me of my childhood. Me, the youngest trailing behind my quite older sister and her friends. Not really wanted. 🙂 I love reading about working and trailing expats though. thanks

  4. My husband is the “trailing spouse” and doing a great job. We are on our third assignment and in that time we had our son so huge changes for both of us. In Australia stay-at-home Dads are far more accepted and hardly anyone would question it. In Germany and Slovakia we definitely get some strange questions and comments. Some of his friends in Australia think he has the best life but he then reminds them he is at home with a 2 yo and not out on the golf course living it up…
    The number of male trailing spouses has certainly increased though as I know at least 5 couples in my Corporation in the same situation. It was very interesting talking to HR in our Vienna Office when I described my husband as “the primary care-giver” for our 2 year old and she made a note to use the term as it is not one normally used in this part of the world.

    For every family on assignment communication is key and we each have the right to call time if we have had enough!

    • Thanks a lot for this great input. Interesting to see the difference in mentalities and awesome to have more insight from the working partner’s side. Are those stay-at-home dads in your company talking and seeing each other? What do they miss most?

      2014-02-05 Disqus :

  5. I’ve been a trailing spouse since 2005. I brought my wife and family overseas with me to Tbilisi, Georgia back in 2000. While I was working in the Caucasus, she found a job in the U.S. Embassy, enjoyed the work, and applied to the Foreign Service. We figured that my advanced degree would allow me to easily find work in whatever country we went to. Well, that only happened at our first post.

    Over several years, my work became more sporadic in locations such as Vienna, Dhaka, and Sao Paulo – to the point where employers could no longer identify my expertise from my resume. A few years here and a year or so there offers the appearance of a job hopper who can’t stay in a professional position.

    Now age is starting to become a factor also. It’s hard to hide my age when most of my career-oriented professional work has been done quite a number of years in the past. I’ve seen switched to a functional resume to attempt to “cover” up my age.

    As a male trailing spouse, it’s tough. I want to feel like I have something to contribute to society or at least to the marriage. I grew up during a time when my father was the sole provider. To say the least, the whole experience has been humbling and depressing. At the same time, I love the international experience – as a matter of fact, my education was in international business, so turning tail and running screams “failure” in my ear.

    • Dear Brad, thank you very much for sharing your experience so openly with us. You’re mentioning real issues for trailing spouses in terms of fragmented careers. If you don’t have a so-called portable career, how are you supposed to settle in and support the family, learn the local language, actively network and find a job in a different country every 3 years or so? I believe it’s impossible. The question is then: how do you keep a sense of self-worth and self-confidence when you’re so different from your family’s role models and when you feel excluded? Participation is one of the 9 fundamental needs of any human being. With identity. Those are not frivolous whims. Those needs are to be addressed and catered for. What is the meaning of this situation for you? What are you supposed to learn from it? The answers to those questions are different for each of us. They’re tough and painful to find but ultimately they transform us. You’re not alone in this journey. We can support each other.

      2014-02-12 10:00 GMT+11:00 Disqus :

  6. William Tippy says:

    I was a trailing spouse from Aug 2010 – Aug 2013, in Stuttgart Germany. Both of our kids graduated from high school at an international school there. It was a great experience for all of us. I volunteered at an English speaking church, doing anything that needed to be done: from changing light bulbs to building a wall-mounted drop down table for their kitchen. Although the church was English speaking, there were quite a few German people that attended as well, giving me the opportunity to get to know them and become more immersed in their culture.

    Now, putting my resume together, what is the best way to include this three year gap in my resume? I would assume including my volunteer work would be beneficial.

    • Good to hear about your positive experience, William. Thanks for sharing. I read in an expat study that churches play an important role bringing expats a sense of belonging and transcending cultural differences. For your resume, you may choose to adopt a “functional” resume instead of a chronological one, insisting on the skills you developed abroad (adaptability, flexibility, resilience, curiosity). Another aspect of having an expatriate experience – pointed out to me a few days ago by one of our fellow community members – was the reluctance of hiring managers to employ her because of the risk to see her moving again in the near future. “If you’ve done it once, how can we be sure you won’t leave us after a few months?” Forewarned is forearmed. Fingers crossed for your job search 🙂

      2014-02-26 7:31 GMT+11:00 Disqus :

  7. Great read! Thank you for sharing. Living in Switzerland now, and having also lived in various other countries, fully understand about Swiss “norms” .. A sense of humour (in oneself) often helps!! I’ve had male clients who went through tremendous depression being a “trailing spouse”, other relationships which only just survived because of various “challenges”, and yet others which so far, are working out well.
    It’s a great topic as am sure there will be many more male “trailing spouses” and whether male or female, there are both highs AND lows. I’ve had some first hand experience in the past also, so know only too well what it can be like and how best to overcome such challenges.
    The world is constantly changing and evolving as are the roles of spouses.

    Thanks again, Anne.
    xx

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