I have lately seen a lot of soul-searching within the expat community about the world “trailing spouse.” It’s slightly less loaded than “expat wife” – you know, the one in high heels, cocktail glass in freshly-manicured hands, hanging out poolside with other similarly spoiled women complaining about the domestic help – but it still leaves an unpleasant taste behind. Of sheep-like creatures following their spouses meekly around the world without an agenda of their own.
Trailing: A Memoir speaks exactly to that image of the trailing spouse. Some might find it depressing, but I found it thought-provoking and inspiring. It really cuts down to the essence of so many expat stories. Whatever you call yourself, this is what a lot of us have been and still are, with all its benefits and pitfalls.
In a nutshell, Trailing is the story of Kristin Louise Duncombe, who as a young wife in the late 1990s gave up plans of her own professional life to follow her husband, a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor, to East Africa – first Kenya and then Uganda. For anyone who has followed a spouse to an overseas assignment and put their own career on hold, or even gave up on it altogether, this story will likely ring very true. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been posted to – although, having lived in Africa as a trailing spouse myself, it was particularly vivid for me. The issues so grippingly woven into Trailing – of losing your identity, not knowing your purpose in life, and dealing with an evolving relationship that by necessity gets refashioned in every new place you live – will speak to anyone who has hitched their wagon to someone else’s ambition. If you’ve made it your main purpose in life to stay home and raise a family while lending support to a spouse who is the main breadwinner and whom you therefore follow from assignment to assignment, no questions asked, you will find something of yourself in Kristin’s saga.
Her story is basically one of doubt and marital struggle: Did I make the right decision in moving here? What will I do with the rest of my life? Who is this man I fell in love with and who is now so absorbed with his career that I barely ever see him? Can we still make our marriage work? But not only that, it is also a fast-paced read, interlaced with anecdotes of the tireless and impressive work done by MSF, a harrowing carjacking, and the culture of East Africa. Personally, I would have loved to see more of the latter as this only came through in short glimpses – the housekeeper Mama Florence and her natural remedies, tales of witchcraft, even the culture within USAID, a world entirely its own.
It’s not that my experience has been anything like the author’s. I absolutely loved every minute of the three years our family spent in Africa. We all embraced the lifestyle, had many friends, and were spared any traumatic carjackings. Kristin, by comparison, was not very open-minded towards her new home, was too readily spooked, and might have made things much easier by being less self-absorbed, at least that was my impression. But then again she was only in her twenties and newly-married. In any case, even if you feel like you might not have made the same choices in Kristin’s situation, her story still speaks powerfully to anyone who’s ever doubted their own choices regarding career, marriage, and child-rearing.
You don’t even have to move abroad to wonder where your life has led you and whether you’ve become what you wanted to be. And while it seems so much easier for someone else to turn their life around and find true purpose and happiness, the truth is that it is never too late for us to do the same.
Maybe “trailing” is a bad word. Maybe each one of us, before ever deciding to “trail” someone, should think long and hard about what that will mean for the rest of our lives.