Trailing Spouses: The Unsung Heroes of an International Relocation

Every year tens of thousands of Americans pack up all of their belongings and move to another country, joining over 6 million of their compatriots who live abroad. Millions of these brave souls are the mothers and wives of expatriated employees, commonly known as trailing or accompanying spouses. These women, willingly and sometimes unwillingly, give up their jobs, careers and income to follow their husband half way around the world.

These homemakers, who risk so much for the well-being of their husbands, their families, and their children, are the unsung heroes of the expat relocation. They are the ones who deal with all of the nitty-gritty of an international move, of finding and furnishing a new home, of making sure children are adapting to new schools and making new friends, of planning and organizing a new social life for the entire family. The list is unending.

It is their hours and hours of endless hard-work that makes for a successful international relocation. And, given the fact that transferring an employee overseas costs multi-nationals billions of dollars each year, these companies have a vested interests that the family manager/homemaker receives the support and assistance she (or he) so desperately needs. So why are HR departments and relocation vendors not stepping up to the plate and developing assistance programs that truly help the expat families?

The answer is rather simple. Those in the global mobility industry are not in the "family services" business, and therefore do not understand the challenges of the expat family. Nor do they have the resources to provide the daily assistance that these family needs on an ongoing basis. The only person with the experience, knowledge, and qualifications to develop the needed services is the trailing spouse herself.

Unfortunately, most expat employers, HR people and those in the global mobility industry still see the expat spouse as a throw-back from the 50s; a helpless, pampered, Barbie doll, rather than the highly efficient, intelligent and competent woman of today. The trailing spouse of today needs to be given a voice, as well as an active role, in producing and delivering solutions to what everyone in the global mobility industry agree is their number one challenge; the adaptation and integration of the expat family.

Some of the "voices" HR should be listening to are found in Family Matters! Survey by Campbell International Relocation. And, are as follows: -

"[We need] Information about the living conditions in the new location; advice for career development for the accompanying spouse; details about the local school(s) and the number of people attending them from the expat community; information about the availability of internet connectivity and speed... Knowing where the decent suburbs were. What bank to use; how to get a social [security number]... There was a handbook that was helpful. It was the only consolidated source of information."

"The company claims to provide assistance with area orientation, setting up services (opening bank accounts, gym memberships) locating shopping facilities, language classes and driving orientation. None of this actually happened... Had there been a local 'on the ground' consultant to help out when we first arrived, perhaps some of the benefits of the new location could have been shown immediately rather than us having to fumble around in the dark to discover them on our own."

"Organized events helped us to meet new people... Also, it helped having a sponsor. Someone to take me around and show me the shops and businesses that I would need while posted there."

"It's important to be considered a team member in this process. Acknowledgment is also critical from the working partner for the HUGE effort required to move home and family every 3 years or so."

Expat homemakers need above all practical information, advice, and recommendations about the goods and services they need upon their arrival, and in their daily lives. This is where multi-nationals HR departments and global mobility vendors need to concentrate their efforts in providing assistance to multi-tasking, homemakers. The challenges expat moms face in their daily lives are little different from those in their home country; they just have to do it in a foreign language, in the context of foreign traditions and customs, and with no social network at their disposal.

Multi-nationals could save themselves a lot of money and headaches, as well as a lot of heart-ache for the expat families, if only they would heed the cries of these unsung heroes and provide them with the assistance they so desperately need.