Saturday, 24 September 2011

Trailing Spouse

 A few weeks ago, I was invited to join a PHD art project by and for “The Trailing Spouse” by my friend Piia Rossi.  This term describes the predicament we both find ourselves in, living in a place, which is not of our choosing where our partners happen to have work.   It is a term used often in the military, diplomatic or government circles, where the employee is relocated at regular intervals. It is also common practice in those areas to offer support in terms of jobs and childcare to the Trailing Spouse. In the States, universities are known to offer spouses employment in order to encourage academics to relocate. In the experience of Piia and myself, we have received no support from the University of Bielefeld: No Kindergarten place, no help in finding a flat and no support in finding a job.

The term “Trailing Spouse” is not empowering. Rather, it suggests weakness: A hapless soul trailing behind their partner, an appendage rather than an autonomous person.

To me, the words “Trailing Spouse” conjure up horticultural references. I imagine a delicate vine clinging on to a trellis, decorative and vulnerable to the elements. But to my mind, the “Trailing Spouse” must in actual fact become a very resilient type of plant.  It must survive being uprooted and replanted, it must be extremely adaptable to new conditions, it must find fertile soil or it will soon wither on the vine.

Piia was transplanted to Bielefeld over a year ago. Originally from Finnland, she lived in Ireland for twenty years as an artist printmaker and teacher before coming to Bielefeld.  In a way, it is a similar situation to me. She met her husband in the city that she chose to live in and then moved because of his job to a new town and became a “Trailing Spouse”. For her, though, the move was more extreme than mine as the country and the language was new to the family. Her husband is Slovakian, and her children speak English, Slovakian and Finnish and now German.

Before Piia explained her project to me, though, I had never really considered the notion of being a “Trailing Spouse”. 

She pointed out to me that it makes you different to the people you encounter in that place, not only because you may be foreign, but also because you don’t have the same relation to the place you happen to be living in, especially if that place is like Bielefeld, where many people who live here also grew up here. You will probably not have a steady career trajectory, as that would have meant staying in one place for a length of time or having your spouse following you. Your attitude to your flat will be different to most people, because you know that in a few years time you will be moving on, so there is no point investing that much in it.  In the back of your mind you know the friendships you make are, sadly, not going to exist in the same form in a few years time. Somehow, this makes your status quite different to others, even taking into consideration other life altering changes that effect everyone.

So I was pleased when Piia told me about her great project and even invited me to join it. It has promised me a sense of belonging and that, ironically, because of my “Trailing Spouse” status, which usually set me apart.  And I realised, that even though I have been in Bielefeld three years and will most probably move somewhere else in one year I have, despite being a “Trailing Spouse”, made some kind of headway here. I have had new experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed in Berlin. I have joined a brass band and go to a book club, and have met brilliant people here as well as finding out about another little corner of the globe and I suppose, another side of myself. 

You can view Piia Rossi's "Trailing Spouses" community page, which is on Facebook, to find out more information. 


  1. I really enjoy your writing, great to read your views on various things, especially about the Trailing Spouses. Thanks for the horticultural connotation, have you noticed how it has became one of my visual themes? Keep writing.

  2. Thank you Piia for your very encouraging comments. Yes, I noticed the nice picture of the trailing plant on the Facebook site. And, by the way, I think the trailing spouses page is very good!