Trailing Spouse – Does Volunteering Make You Happier?

trailing spouse and volunteering

Time to give as a trailing spouse: not before thoughtful reflection and preparation!

Sophie avidly reads an article reporting the conclusions of a Harvard study conducted in 2014: ‘Volunteering makes you happier’.

It’s been 6 months since she arrived with her family in this new country. She followed her husband when he got a promotion abroad.

While she didn’t have a minute for herself 3 months before and 3 months after the move, she’s now ticked all the to-do boxes: find a new house, get a new car, understand the healthcare system, settle the kids at school…all while supporting her husband so busy with the transition to his new job, getting used to new food, starting to learn the language, and keeping in touch with family and friends.

Everyone in the family now has an established routine with exciting activities.

Except for Sophie.

Staying at home? No, thank you. Not for her.

Ideally, she’d love to get herself a paid job. She’d have some colleagues, a good start for a new social life. She’d be exposed to the language and the culture – excellent for her integration and to stimulate her brain. She’d have her own money. All things that would give such a boost to her self-esteem.

But is it worth investing time and effort to even look for a job?

She doesn’t know how long her family is going to stay in this place. Her partner’s job is a 3-year assignment. It can be renewed or shortened at any time.

Her credentials aren’t recognized in this new country. She’d need to re-train, at least partially.

She doesn’t speak the local language.

And finally, who’s going to look after the children when school finishes? She doesn’t have any family around. The childcare fees might well nearly eat up all of her salary. Not to mention that the children wouldn’t be able to do so many extra-curricular activities. She’d need to hire a chauffeur!

Isolated, dependent (financially and emotionally quasi-exclusively on her partner), restricted in repetitive and unchallenging household tasks, her morale is plummeting. Her sleep is restless.

‘Volunteering makes you happier’, she reads. The sentence sticks in her mind.

And if volunteering was the solution?

It would allow her to contribute to the community, have a sense of purpose, ensure social contacts and language exposure, and still keep some flexibility with the children.

Quickly considered, it seems a good deal. But is it really?

It’s important to understand what’s at stake — for Sophie and for you.

Otherwise you may well end up wasting time, effort and even money and feel totally depleted and frustrated. Worse than before you started!

And in your specific position, often the only anchor of the family, without any support network and familiar healthcare system, this situation may put your sanity and your whole family stability at risk.

I’d go even further:

What if volunteering, in spite of its noble aura, was actually detrimental to you, the accompanying partner?

How could helping others possibly be detrimental, you wonder?

Here are three things to consider…

Volunteering can be detrimental because it doesn’t solve your financial dependence

Volunteering requires a serious commitment. In time. And sometimes money.

Organisations realize that training volunteers is time consuming and costly when the retention is poor. They test the motivation of their volunteers and have specific requirements: attending trainings, contributing financially to their cost, committing to a number of months or even years of service.

When it’s not for training, volunteers are required to undertake (and pay for) police checks, first aid diploma, ‘working with children’ certificates. Those are not free.

At first, Sophie was decided to do anything to get out of the house. But paying to work while she can’t support herself doesn’t feel right. She even questions the principle of such a volunteer offering: it actually looks like a real job!

To top it all, as a volunteer, you may not be insured. That was the case in Australia until recently. It meant that if an accident happened, you were not protected while the employees of the company would be covered!

Volunteering can be detrimental because it can harm your self-esteem

Have you ever collected donations for a good cause by knocking door to door?

Or tried to raise funds by organizing a BBQ?

Or manned a school uniform shop once a week?

How did it boost your self-esteem?

Volunteering covers a very broad range of occupations: you don’t get an equal sense of accomplishment from taking notes during a Parents & Friends meeting or rescuing some wildlife hit on the road or visiting cancer patients in the hospital. They each provide the volunteer with a different feeling, depending on the person’s needs and background.

In some school communities where acute rivalry takes place among families, taking a volunteering position can look like the job of a General on a battlefield. With landmines everywhere.

Sophie heard the unfortunate story of the previous sports coordinator at her children’s school: she resigned after 2 years, depleted and criticized and rejected by all the parents.

Sophie already suffers from a lack of consideration and recognition.

She cringes when her husband’s financial adviser, filling in their tax return form, describes her occupation as ‘non working’. She resents her visa labelled as ‘dependent’ like a child or a disabled person.

She doesn’t need more of the same from a volunteer position.

Volunteering can be detrimental when you’ve already given too much

Because you can only give to others – wholeheartedly, without expecting anything in return – when you’re first fulfilled.

Sophie clearly is not.

While she agreed to the move and was excited by the adventure, up to this point she’s spent most of her time supporting others: her partner, her children, her parents.

Where does she get support from? Who is there for her?

She isn’t allowed to vent her frustrations: she should be happy. She chose to come here!

But when was the last time she did something only for herself?

Squeezed between the school hours, her days are short.

Finding the time is one thing.

But that’s not all: giving herself permission to effectively do something exclusively for her own enjoyment and spending money (that she doesn’t earn any more) on ‘indulging’ herself (as her husband teases her) is her biggest obstacle to overcome.

Volunteering in comparison appears much more ‘commendable’.

But if she attempts to get her needs met from the people she’s supposed to help through her volunteering commitment, she may be bitterly disappointed and even put herself in a dangerous position.

It’s like trying to save someone from drowning while learning to swim.

For this very reason, taking care of yourself while helping others is essential. Professionals in the helping sector know it too well: if you don’t attend enough to your needs (body, mind, emotions), you’re heading towards burnout.

This critical aspect of self-care in volunteering can never be emphasized enough. Sadly, it’s often overlooked.

Sophie frowns: another ‘thing’ to fit in!

But she gets the message: if self-care is a recognized and essential practice for professional helpers, she needs to apply it to herself too. No more scruples to enrol for a yoga class! She’ll also be mindful about her boundaries: she won’t devote more than 10 hours a month to her volunteering commitment.

So, is volunteering your best option right now? It might be. But only if you’re clear about your motivation and if you’ve taken care of yourself first.

How does it sound? What’s your experience with volunteering?


Photo credit Depositphotos and music credit Piano Society



  1. Hi Anne, Thanks for another great and thought-provoking blog. While I am a big fan of volunteering, I can really see the pitfalls too. One of them is that the people you are likely to work most closely with are very needy. The trailing spouse is often needy too and requires nourishment, stimulation, and friendships of a kind that peers can offer. Volunteering is great for giving a person contact with people from very different backgrounds, with different needs, who are unlikely to become good friends. So they probably aren’t going to fill that key gap in Sophie’s life for a network of mutual support. Happy holidays and chins up, expat friends everywhere! Pamela

  2. Thanks for this perspective, Anne. What you write here applies to non-expats too. I have been thinking seriously about doing some volunteer work and you’ve inspired me to get clear on my reasons — and my boundaries — before committing to anything.

  3. Once you’ve established ANY professional credentials (even teenage part-time work) I stop using the word “volunteer” for anything outside of a role in your kids’ PTA or Scouting troop, etc. where clearly you are giving time to help a cause that helps your family. Everything else should fall into one of the following “win-win” categories: internship; externship; or pro-bono. In each case, the recipient of the free labor knows they have a benefit that needs to be balanced and compensated in ways other than money (including covering your professional liability, as Anne noted) — whether that is access to that organization’s network of donors, members, affiliates, or corporate sponsors; refinement of a skill or acquiring a new knowledge base and credential (even sponsoring for a license in the new host country once an unpaid “apprentice” period has passed) or consideration for the first PAID position to become available at the organization where you’ve toiled in an unpaid capacity. If you’re not “part of the team” without regard to your relative compensation level, consider another organization that is give-and-take instead of take-take-take! Value yourself, and your time — make sure they value you as well! And finally, if you can’t find someone willing to take you on to help you develop your skills and local network in your chosen field, or an adjacent field, consider making YOURSELF into your own personal development project….and be sure to compensate yourself in-kind for the work you put into your personal self-development. Working out hard to get fit, as I did upon arrival after our last move? Then reward with the massage for those sore muscles. Completed an online class or training certificate to obtain and credential new skills? Maybe a dinner out to celebrate as your personal “bonus.” My wife has been a very generous patron during my unpaid periods supporting her career — but when I land each new job myself, it’s my turn to pay for the celebration! Helps us keep our lives in balance…. on those rare occasions it actually feels balanced for a split second before the next roller coaster ride!

  4. Hi Anne
    a very thought provoking and balanced piece. I do often recommend to my expat clients that they consider volunteering, as it can be a great way to meet people, but one should go into it with both eyes open. Feeling ‘needed’ doesn’t always translate to feeling ‘rewarded’ so although it may sound a bit selfish, I suggest people volunteer for something that benefits them too – like leading tours in the local museum or art gallery – or doing group voluntary work, like Riding for the Disabled, where a group of (usually the same) volunteers go every week and you can start to build friendships. Don’t try to save the world single-handed 🙂

    • Thanks a lot, Patti for adding your voice to the conversation. Very much appreciated.

    • ms-havachat says:

      Agree with you Anne,

      Volunteering can sometimes be liked getting sucked into something you don’t necessarily want, but feel you need and that’s not the right motivation. As a newly arrived expat at school, or at the local club etc they see you coming and think AHA!

      I’ve learnt over the years to sit back for a while (6-12 months) and observe the political and social landscape; to ask questions; to join the odd sub committee etc before jumping in full on.

      Most expat partners leave employment to accompany their partner, and its difficult to just stop working. If your visa doesn’t allow you to be employed, volunteering is a great alternative, provided it’s on your terms, doing what you want to do ….. looks great on the CV for when you return to your home country.

      I’m very grateful for the experiences volunteering has given me, the friendships, the opportunities to use my brain while being an expat, plus it looks good on the CV for if/when we return ‘home’

  5. Hi Anne, Thanks for another great blog post. Indeed, it is like my life! I am volunteering as a guide at the NGA and I loved it. It is hard work studying with 3 kids but I like to share my passion for art with visitors! I would like to take the opportunity to say volunteering is like any other things when you enjoy it! Thank you! Buon Anno Elena

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