TALES OF A TRAILING SPOUSE

by
I remember feeling dazzled in those first jet-lagged weeks, pushing a double buggy through the sun-drenched streets of a Sydney suburb.

Everything was unfamiliar and I felt so alone.

 We had just moved from Wales in the UK, to Australia because of my husband’s job. Our youngest had taken his first independent steps the day we left, and our eldest was only two and half years old.

I was one of 8,820 partners to arrive in Australia that year as a secondary applicant on their spouse’s visa. Of those, 7,150 (81%) were women like me. Later I would meet plenty of them – each with their own experience of what it’s like to settle far from home.

For me, the panic I’d felt as soon as we got the phone call to say my husband got the job had never left the pit of my stomach. I knew it was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse.

I’d lived in Canada, America, France and travelled the world, but this trip was different.

I would take a career break from my job as a TV reporter and move nearly as far away from our families as we possibly could to raise our sons. 

We knew absolutely no one in the whole of Sydney.

I’d spent the last few months in Wales lingering in the company of my sisters, cousins,friends and their children, willing my sons to imprint the memory of these loved ones in their young minds.

“Don’t worry,” my friends had said, “We’ll Facetime and message you all the time.” But the reality was that they would be sleeping when I was awake, and I would be asleep when they were living their lives. The brief times our waking hours coincided were not usually convenient for catch-ups.

“I’d taken all the expat advice of accepting every invitation, and was out every day, chatting at parks and playgroups, but no one in our new suburb seemed to be on the same wave-length as me.”

But I’d treasure the texts which arrived like gold-dust for the soul.

Those first few weeks, when the boys’ dad left for work it felt like there were long empty days ahead to fill. I had two under three to care for twenty-four seven. They were too young for preschool, and on one salary, no extra cash for day care.

I trawled the internet to find all the best playgroups and library story times, and we soon found our stride exploring all the local parks, one after the next.

Everything was a learning curve – from figuring out where to buy food, where had the best value, what was pricy, which phone company had the best coverage, which nappies to buy…

I was finally starting to feel as if we were getting the hang of things when my youngest son fell down the stairs of our un-baby-proofed Air BnB house and gashed open his forehead. I had no idea what to do and bundled my eldest into the double buggy and carried my beautiful boy, blood gushing over both of us, to the GPs surgery around the corner. “We have an emergency” said the receptionist down the phone as soon as she saw us. We were sent to the hospital as the gash was too large for butterfly stitches. 

It was terrifying.

We had to find a home and decided to move to another suburb to be closer to a beach, so the upheaval continued.

Our shipment arrived. Our belongings were unpacked in a house that looked similar to the one we left behind in a lot of ways. But my search for a soul-mate continued.

I’d taken all the expat advice of accepting every invitation, and was out every day, chatting at parks and playgroups, but no one in our new suburb seemed to be on the same wave-length as me.

I’d started to think I would be friendless for our whole two years.

Then, gradually, I started to find amazing new mates.

A lot of them were women like me – who had given up their careers, friends and families to follow their husband’s jobs to Australia.

I found out the name for us – trailing spouses.

If the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s 2016 figures are anything to go by, around half of the trailing spouses who arrive in Australia leave before the end of their visas. Why? It could simply be the end of a work contract, or a new opportunity abroad, or it could be the failure to settle in Australia.

Allison Ramadge is another so-called trailing spouse who’s just returned from California. She left the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for Silicon Valley with her husband and one-year old son in 2010, and came back eight years later with four kids.

“I never felt settled there,” she tells me as our children play at our feet in her kitchen. “Something like this would never happen there – you popping round to my house for a playdate. It wasn’t a social environment. We had a couple of good friends, but it’s much easier to settle here.”

It was the subtle cultural differences that were hard to deal with, “I had to be very careful about what I said” Allison says, as she explains that the community was so PC she was once berated for calling a female a woman instead of a lady.

Nevertheless she will always be glad that she took the opportunity to live overseas. Her husband worked in the tech industry, and she had given up her job as a stockbroker, but she never felt like she’d made a personal sacrifice.

 “I saw it as an adventure. My job was to raise the kids, and it was more exciting to do it there than here. You have to have a sense of adventure to give it a proper go. You’ve got to make your own adventure.”

The partner who has a job usually gets everything sorted for them by their employers. The trailing spouse has to create her own opportunities. 

It’s often difficult, especially if foreign qualifications are not recognised. 

This is how it’s been for Jenn Burns. She worked full time as a prosecuting barrister in New York – a job she loved and worked hard for. She gave it up to look after her two pre-schoolers, when her husband’s job took them to Sydney.

“I’d treasure the texts which arrived like gold-dust for the soul.”

“I left a challenging and satisfying job to now face the daily challenges of trying to convince my kids to eat and use the toilet. But I also left behind frigid winters for beautiful weather, the ability to get my kids outside every day and be so much more active.  My husband’s hours are far better too.”

She says it took her at least six months to settle enough to think about her own needs rather than just her family’s, and describes the process of finding new friends like a dating game with various levels of success. 

Now, with her eldest about to start school, she’s thinking about heading back to the office. But, even though she has 16 years of experience in her field, her law qualifications aren’t recognised in Australia, and she’d have to re-qualify to work as a lawyer here. Her first job application didn’t go to plan, but she’s undeterred. 

“I realise now that I know the New York legal market so well but don’t know Sydney in the same way so need to do a lot more research and make more effort to get something I want. I’m not desperate to go back to work but am ready if a great opportunity arises. This will be my project for the next few months.”

Allison is also thinking about a new chapter in her work-life by starting her own business. 

In my case, working as a freelance journalist has taken my life closer to the balance I need.

I get to do the job I love – and see the wonder in my sons’ eyes when they watch a whale breach. I get to be in awe that they know their galahs from their cockatoos and take them out to new beautiful beaches nearly every weekend in summer. 

The long, difficult months of settling in have really been worth it.

I feel finally that this Aussie adventure is mine too.

Photographed by Jean Panuccio

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