Becoming a "Trailing Spouse" Is the Best Thing That's Ever Happened to My Career

For the past few years, my husband's overseas job has come first. And it has given me incredible freedom.
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Emily McGee
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For the past few years, my husband's overseas job has come first. And it has given me incredible freedom.

The first time I left my job to follow my husband's career was 10 months after our wedding. I was a middle-school teacher in Rhode Island, and I had been the breadwinner while my husband finished graduate school. But after he won a prestigious fellowship, I quit my job and followed him to Atlanta, Georgia.

The second time I left my job to follow my husband's career was less than a year later. This time, I was teaching high school, and my husband had a professional development opportunity overseas. I quit my job and followed him to Kenya.

After moving back to the U.S., I took a fully remote job. I knew we would move again, and I wasn't about to get caught out a third time. When the inevitable happened, and we moved to Mozambique for his career, I was smug with the knowledge that I could finally take my job with me. People in the U.S. and Mozambique told me how lucky I was.

In the U.S., my husband and I had managed the delicate balance of being a dual-career couple with a child. We took turns with daycare pick-up and drop-off. We split the household chores. We were both working hard, but we were making it work. I assumed we would continue making it work in Mozambique.

I was wrong.

My husband's inflexible schedule, long work hours, and frequent work travel pushed all the household and child-minding responsibilities abruptly on me. We were both bitter, frustrated, and exhausted. After four months in Mozambique, I left my remote job.

When I originally took that remote job, I was making a career decision based on my fear of being a "trailing spouse." I didn't take the job because I loved it. I didn't take it because it paid well, because it was mentally stimulating, or because there were incredible opportunities for advancement. I took it because I could work from anywhere. It didn't pay well, it was boring as hell, and there were no opportunities for advancement. Holding onto this remote job was just as much of a career sacrifice as quitting my teaching jobs had been.

And I was tired of sacrificing my career for my husband's.

One of the unspoken truths of expat life is that it typically comes with vast privileges. My husband works long hours and travels a lot, but he's well-compensated. His salary is higher than it was in the U.S. We live in a fully furnished home and his company pays the rent. In Mozambique, we are the 1%.

Instead of letting my identity as a trailing spouse hold me back, I decided to take advantage of my privileges. I spent several months reading, researching, and talking to my husband about what my ideal career would look like. It was mind-blowing to realize that I had the ultimate career freedom: I didn't have to work for money. Some of the most fulfilled expat spouses I know have realized this and do work that they are passionate about, even if it's work that doesn't pay well.

Because I value financial independence and I want to eventually give my husband the same financial freedom he's given me, I decided that making money was important to me. Luckily, because of our financial privilege, I have plenty of time to figure out the best way to combine my interests with my career. My goal is to freelance part-time and start my own business as a coach for freelancers. I want flexibility, I want to work part-time, and I want to be my own boss. 

For me, being a trailing spouse is what makes these career goals possible.

My family and me at a picnic in South Africa.

My family and me at a picnic in South Africa.

I no longer view my career as a straight-upward trajectory at one organization. I no longer view it as an addendum to my husband's career. I view it as a bus. 

If that sounds ridiculous, then hear me out. 

My career is not a journey, it's just a vehicle that moves me on my journey. When I make career decisions based on fear, I'm not in control. I'm just along for the ride. When I make proactive decisions about how to create a career that fulfills me, that pays well, that gives me the freedom to live and work anywhere in the world, that's when I'm driving the bus. And from now on, I refuse to do anything but drive the bus.

I used to envy my husband. He has a "sexy" job title that garners respect. He does work that sounds so interesting that strangers contact him to find out how to follow in his footsteps. He gets to travel all over the world on the company dime.

He also missed our daughter's first smile, her first crawl, and her first steps. When we arrived in Mozambique, he had to be in the office less than nine hours after we deplaned, fresh from an invigorating 24-hours of traveling with a toddler. I no longer envy him because I see the sacrifices he has made for his career.

We've both made sacrifices. His career has made me a trailing spouse, but it has also made it possible for me to dream big and create a career that will sustain me mentally and financially.