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Finding Yourself as a Trailing Spouse: What to do When You Can’t Work

By - February 28, 2011 (Updated: March 18, 2018)

Being a trailing spouse can be a lonely road

Being a trailing spouse can be a lonely road

Landing in a new country as an expat can be challenging enough. You need to deal with paperwork, making new friends, learning new customs and often a new language.  But what do you do when you have to re-define your whole identity?  If you’re a trailing spouse, this could very well be your new reality.

In Western society, we often tie our identity to our job. One of the first questions people ask when they meet is “so what do you do?” This roughly translates as “what box can I put you in, so I can make all sorts of unfounded assumptions about who you are.” Like it or not, our sense of self is often inextricably tied to our job. So what happens when we can’t work?

The Trailing Spouse Identity Crisis

Often trailing spouses, those who have expatriated for their partner’s career, can’t work in their new country. Usually, as in my case, it is because their residence permits or visas don’t allow it. There can also be language barriers to employment and, in some cases, a simple lack of job opportunities for the trailing spouse’s skill set.  Without the possibility of employment, the trailing spouse often experiences an identity crisis that compounds the stresses of settling in a new country.

I was one such trailing spouse. I say was because, after six years here in Belgium, I feel like I’ve finally carved out my own niche. There are a few things I can identify myself as: photographer, writer, blogger and website administrator, copy-editor, and artist.

Thriving Abroad

This wasn’t the case when we first arrived in Belgium. In fact, other than a trailing spouse, I didn’t know who the heck I was.

To be fair, I’ve never had a solid sense of identity based on my career. I’ve done a lot of very different jobs, and none of them really pertained to my journalism or international development studies degree.  Even when I was working, it was hard for me to define who I was.

However, from the age of 16, I had always worked, at least summers during school. Although I never made loads of money or identified myself by what I did, I always did something.  Arriving first in Amsterdam, and then in Belgium, I legally could not work. I not only had to figure out how to fill my days, but I had to figure out who the hell I was.  This identity crisis was one of the main factors that resulted in a big case of expat depression.

To some, and admittedly to me during some low points in my working life, the thought of having endless days to fill however you want is exciting. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. There are endless possibilities. It should be heaven right? The reality however, can be the biggest challenge facing trailing spouses, because we aren’t in the habit of asking ourselves what we really want to do.

I found myself, in those early days in Amsterdam, stuck in a tiny apartment, fighting with paperwork, alone and lonely. Those empty hours of the day stretched ahead of me like years.  I vacuumed and ironed, two chores I detest, just to pass the time. I counted down the hours with bad day-time television and couldn’t wait for Andrew to get home from work each evening.

When we arrived in Everberg, things didn’t get much better. Our boxes finally arrived from Canada, so I had books to read and crafting supplies to entertain myself with. But I still felt lost. It wasn’t so much I needed a job to identify myself with; I just didn’t know who I was without one.

Over the years I’ve heard similar stories from other trailing spouses and now I know my experiences were quite normal. At the time, however, I felt isolated and alone. I turned to the two things that have made me happy throughout my life, photography and writing. By now, you know this was how CheeseWeb was born.

What to Do When You Can’t Get A Job

There are many ways to re-discover yourself as a trailing spouse even if you can’t legally work in your new country.  Before you resort to ironing shirts to pass the time, you may want to consider one or more of the following:

  • Pursue your hobbies – Maybe you have a stack of books you’ve been itching to read or you’ve always wanted to build an iPhone app; Have you always wanted to make scrapbooks of your children’s’ baby photos?; Now is the time to really figure out what all of those buttons on your camera do. The thing is, most of us have been working for so long, we neglect the things we really enjoy doing. Now is the time to treat yourself to those things you love. You may even find they lead to the next suggestion…
  • Entrepreneurship – This option will really depend on the legal issues in your new country, but many trailing spouses find their best option for working, is to create their own job. I can speak from experience when I say this isn’t an easy solution or a quick fix. It can be a great opportunity to take one of the hobbies you love, and turn it into a money making venture.
  • Learn the Language – One of the barriers to finding employment in your new country can be a lack of language skills. Learning the language of your host country not only makes it easier to find a job, but also helps integrate you into the society and culture of your new home.  It also makes your day to day interactions much easier.
  • Take a Class – There are so many options for learning these days. You can find on-line classes for just about anything. You can do anything from learning a new skill to earning your MBA. You can also take a class in person. It’s a great way to meet new people with similar interests and it can also help you learn the language of your host country.
  • Volunteer – Even if you can’t legally work in your new country, there’s no reason why you can’t donate some of your time to a charity you care about. Many organisations are desperate for help and require many different skills. My only word of caution is most charities are looking for people who will be around for the long haul because it is time consuming to train volunteers. If your expat stay is under a year, you may have your offer to volunteer turned down by larger organisations.
  • Join a Club – If you live in a fairly populated area, chances are there are expat clubs. Here in Brussels, there are clubs for just about every nationality you can think of. You don’t have to ‘stick to your own kind’ though. There are great expat clubs that focus on integrating all different nationalities. Or, if you’re comfortable with the language, you can join a local club as a way to integrate with the natives.
  • Raise Children – I’m not suggesting that getting pregnant is a good way to beat boredom. The stress of being new expats will certainly be increased by adding a pregnancy to the mix. However, some trailing spouses I’ve talked to have found it rewarding to focus solely on their children for a few years. Perhaps your host country has a good reputation for raising children (like Belgium). If you were planning on starting a family, having the time to focus on being a parent could be a good option.
  • Start a Blog – It seems natural that I would suggest this, after all blogging has given to me. Many people think blogging is difficult, or you need to be a great writer to have a blog, but that’s just not the case. A blog doesn’t have to be a personal account of your life. It is actually much easier to write about what you are passionate about. Do you love to quilt? Start a quilting blog and share your patterns and designs. Do you like antique cars? Share photos and stories of rallies you’ve been to. No matter how obscure your passion, guaranteed there are others out there who share it with you.

Thriving AbroadNot all of these solutions are right for everyone and you may try a combination of several options before you find what works best for you.

Try not to look at the empty days of your new expat life as a sentence to be overcome. Look at them as an opportunity to grow and discover who you are. Trying new things and following your passions is a great way to make friends, build your self confidence and discover ‘the real you.’

Have you created a new life for yourself as a trailing spouse? Share your experiences in the comments and help the next generation of expats.

Looking for more resources for trailing spouses? Check out our Expat Resources page.

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