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Why So Many Moms Trade In Corporate Jobs for a Life as a Trailing Spouse

01/14/2014 11:57 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2014

Giving up a career to become a stay-at-home mom is difficult enough for someone who stays in the same city or country, but for the woman who moves abroad, the challenges are ten-fold. So why would a highly educated, professional woman give up her career and financial independence to follow her spouse into an unknown future?

The past 50 years have seen revolutionary changes within work-forces around the world. No longer are labor markets dominated by manual-laborers, but are rather filled with service-based, skilled-laborers. Another radical change has been the participation of women in the remunerated job-market, with them moving en masse into every industry and sector.

This change has been made possible in large part due to the feminist movement, which has promoted and advanced labor and reproductive rights of women through awareness campaigns, progressive legislation, and many high-profile Supreme Courts battles. However, feminists have done little to promote or defend women's rights within the family, home, or marriage (in the USA or elsewhere).

As a consequence modern women are still expected to assume the same roles and duties in the home as in past generations, while performing at par, or better, than their male counter-parts in the work-place. "Working" moms of today are forced to burn the candles at both ends in situations that excessively surcharges their time, energy, and resources.

As Anne Braseby states in her doctoral thesis Adaptation of the Trailing Spouse: Does Gender Matter?

" ... Successful career women want to perform like men in their professional lives, but men don't have the pull of family responsibilities that career mothers do. Often women try to "do it all;" the supermom syndrome which inevitably leads to role overload... Competing pressures to be a successful career woman, a good homemaker, a good mother and a good wife, all driven by the ideals of the traditional sex roles, impact women's lives tremendously. It is these competing identities that determine whether women will become trailing spouses, and will affect their adaptation once they have relocated overseas."

That is why we are seeing more and more professional women, with high paying jobs and careers they have worked so hard to build, giving up these jobs to follow their husbands half way around the world.

Unfortunately, most multinational executive directors, HR managers, and those in the global mobility industry still see the expat wife as nothing more than an appendage of her husband, with no identity, career or influence within the marriage. As Braseby explains,

"Many of these early trailing spouse women, although educated, rarely had careers or professional identities of their own. They had been groomed to marry, take on the identity of the wife and mother and assume a supportive role to their husbands... Despite the 'Feminist Revolution' of the 1970s, the business research on trailing spouses still held quite fast to what are now widely recognized as gender stereotypes. Thus, many of the initial approaches to spousal adaptation among expatriates were based on middle-class, middle-aged women who came of age in the 1950s when functionalist ideals of the breadwinner husband and stay-at-home housewife were normalized."

Contrary to this antiquated image of the trailing spouses, women today are a far-cry from their predecessors of the '50s; they have different needs, different priorities and different perspectives. While they are willingly giving up their careers, they do not want to play the expat socialite, filling their days with meaningless activities and bowing down to the whims and desires of their husbands, or worse the dictates of the expat employer.

This is why financial incentives and even the most luxurious of the expat perks of the past, such as large homes with a slew of domestic help, are not enough to compensate for the loss of identity that the trailing spouse feels when she loses her career.

So the questions becomes: What do trailing spouses of today want? She feels discontent enough with the rat-race to sacrifice her career, but at the same time she wants to keep her own identity. Unfortunately, this is not an easy answer for anyone, particularly in a world that too often defines value and success in material terms, corporate titles, and high-profile award ceremonies.

In her book A Moveable Marriage Robin Pascoe quotes Elizabeth Perle McKenna (When Work Doesn't Work Anymore), "we have to be ready to switch from the accepted system of recognizable success to something more individually rewarding," showing that it is the "intangible" rewards that propel women (and increasingly men) from the four corners of the earth to throw caution to the wind, and follow their spouses to a foreign country.

In my own case, I did not lose my identity by becoming an expat, a trailing spouse, and later a mom, but rather I found my identity, my vocation, and sense of "self" in my globe-trotting, domesticated life. Long before most people had even heard of the word "expat" or "global mobility," I had happily left-behind a promising career amongst the rich and powerful of Washington, Wall Street, and even later in international law (probably my true vocation of the three -- and one I have now returned to) without any regret. This I believe was the "secret" of my success. I followed my heart, taking the road less traveled by, and in the process discovering a life filled with personal enrichment, adventure, knowledge and ultimately some wisdom--things in life that no amount of money can buy.

Quenby Wilcox is founder of Global Expats, which assists expatriated families across the globe. She is also founder of Safe Child International, and publishes a monthly newsletter Family Courts in Crisis, advocating for the rights of victims of domestic violence.