I recently had the honor of meeting a leading researcher at the Indonesia Update Conference 2011, in Canberra. She asked what I did for a living, to which I answered that I was a trailing wife.
The lady gave out a big laugh. “Trailing wife. Ikut suami. Is it written on her Indonesian identity card that her job is an ikut suami? Does it mean that she follows her husband everywhere, even to the restroom?” she asked.
Although I considered her ridicule inappropriate, she was actually not the first person who had misunderstood the meaning of trailing wife.
Among those whose work forces them to move to other cities and countries, such as diplomats, expatriates, military personnel or researchers, more than 80 percent are men, and 70 percent of those men are married. This means that if an Indonesian woman is married to one of these men, and his work dictates that they must relocate, then whatever nationality the man holds, she will be regarded as a trailing wife.
According to a 2008 survey by the Permit Foundation, 90 percent of spouses were employed before their relocation. Yet for varying reasons, only 35 percent carry on with paid work during their lives abroad. Some spouses do not obtain work permits or do not find jobs that are satisfying enough. Some families relocate within a very short period, leaving the accompanying partner little time to find a job. Some families also relocate with very young children.
Once a woman opts to follow her husband, she should be ready to leave her comfort zone and deal with repeated culture shocks. She should also be ready to convert an empty space into a home and, with little help, navigate the family’s daily life in a new environment. Sometimes she is also required to be actively involved in her husband’s social functions. On top of that, a trailing spouse has to be efficient enough to pack the household property back into container boxes when the family leaves for another place.
If the family has children, the work of the trailing spouse expands to raising their Third Culture Kids (TCK). TCKs are children raised outside countries where they hold a passport. According to sociologist Ted Ward, they are the prototype citizens of the future and need their parents more after they experience being uprooted from their original cultures.
As shown by sociologists David Pollock and Ruth van Reken, besides the many benefits of growing up overseas, such as developing multilingual skills and possessing an expanded worldview, children also experience the downside, like unresolved grief and a lack of true cultural balance. Ideally, both parents should proactively bring them up, but as breadwinners, fathers have long working hours that leads to prolonged absences from home. This means that the task of raising TCKs falls mostly on the shoulders of the mother.
Despite the high commitment, huge responsibility and the juggling of multiple roles, a trailing wife is unfortunately still taken for granted. Like a housewife supporting her husband, the duties of a trailing wife are not considered to represent a real job.
Anne Kingston, author of The Meaning of Wife, revealed that successful single women sneer at the traditional role of the wife, because it is associated with the traditional good wife imagery of servitude, subordination and self-sacrifice. Husbands in traveling families who earn the money while their wives stay at home are seen as representing this image.
Further, society tends to frown upon a woman’s choice to drop her paycheck in favor of supporting a family abroad. It deems that she wastes her professional talent, since today, family-caring work is equated to doing nothing. Therefore, managing household affairs means that one is unoccupied.
On the contrary, my observations in five different countries have shown me that, next to the tasks of homemaking, many Indonesian trailing wives conduct fruitful activities. For example, a former economist became an avid marathon runner, a former public relations officer became a scrapbook kit designer, an architect became the organizer of a catering business and a former teacher became an author.
The list can go on and on. Besides, there are also those who actively involve themselves in volunteer work, such as helping people with cancer or helping with poverty relief. Others pursue higher education degrees.
Referring to Robin Pascoe, author of A Broad Abroad, the traveling life has taught these women to see themselves as interdependent, rather than dependent, on their husbands. They come to find skills outside their educational backgrounds and they come to define success that goes beyond just making money. They utilize their past professional experiences to find stimulating projects wherever they live.
Through the Internet and through international communities located within their neighborhoods, these trailing wives apply borderless marketing strategies. Later, when it is time to relocate, they bring along non-traditional, mobile careers. Some keep on discovering further expertise in addition to the new skills they have already acquired, which adds to their CVs and has the potential to lead them back to the regular pay checks that they had left behind.
It is rarely acknowledged that these women empower themselves and become functioning members of their communities. Society at large still prefers to portray the stereotype of these trailing wives as glamorous, unproductive and gossiping at coffee mornings.
In spite of their success in building international professions, when somebody asks what they do or what brings them to a particular country, their answer might simply be that they are a trailing wife, or an ikut suami. This short reply brings most listeners to the clichéd image that triggers either smirking or mocking, just like the response I received from the female researcher.
And in response to her questions, yes, an ikut suami is a job and it can be placed on our Indonesian identity cards. But no, I am sure the trailing wife’s husband is capable of going to the restroom by himself, thank you.
The author is a trailing wife who raises two multilingual children and currently resides in Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on multilingualism, multiculturalism and cross-cultural kids.