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*the person who trails the primary income earner to a new career destination

One of the hardest things in terms of being a trailing spouse is the change in identity. I spent my early adulthood in Australia where most of the women that I knew and associated with went to University and gained qualifications. Then they went off and got jobs. They worked their way up the career ladder. My friends were lawyers, bankers, sales directors and advertising executives. Perhaps it a was a rarified group -it was definitely a well educated one - we all had postgraduate qualifications and we had all juggled part time study with full time work for a number of years.

Then when a husband and children became part of the equation we had a whole new set of issues to negotiate. How would we, as a family, manage two careers? How would we deal with child care, housework and financial issues?

While we were in Australia it was hard work having two careers and young children. I felt like a guinea pig or a hamster in one of those revolving plastic orbs. As I worked in the political arena I had to be at work early after reading the daily newspapers and listening to the talk back radio programmes. The first meeting of the day was 7am and, if Parliament was sitting, I didn't finish work until the House rose which could be anytime from 10pm to 4am!

Our daily routine was very, very structured. We had lists of schedules and chores that we both had to do to ensure that everything functioned. We would put the children to bed in the evenings with their clothes laid out for the next day. We did our supermarket shopping online or after hours. We cooked large quantities at a time and then froze them and we wore wash and wear clothes wherever possible!

The car was a repository of spare clothes, diapers, snack food and water bottles and I always carried Cheerio's and dried fruit in my handbag in case someone was hungry. In the mornings we would leap out of bed. I would put headphones on and dash about the house listening to the radio as we made the beds, dressed children and organised things for dinner, (a crock pot was invaluable!) I negotiated an arrangement with a childcare centre and they fed the children breakfast and if we were able either my husband or I would drop in for lunch with the children.

Everything was fine unless the children were sick but the thing is it was such a terrible quality of life. Everyone was always tired, the house was always in a state of controlled chaos and leisure time was a thing of the past. Any spare time was used for chores - washing, ironing, cleaning, mowing, raking or restoring our 114 year old house. Should I add that I was also studying towards my PhD?

Then my husband was approached to move to Hong Kong and we knew that anything had to be better than the treadmill we had placed ourselves on. We decided that I would not work for a year or two. His new job would involve substantial travel (he would be away for one or two weeks in every month) and with young children and a new country to adapt to I would pick up the family/domestic role.

It was a fabulous decision for us.

Because domestic staff are the norm in Hong Kong I was relieved of the household burden. For the first time in their lives, I was around the children all day and, because I had no chores to do, I could study in the evenings. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as our lives became simpler and more manageable. When my husband was away any spare time was spent studying and then when he was back in Hong Kong, we were able to do things together as a couple in the evenings. The children were asleep and well taken care of by our helper and we could go swimming, to the gym, to dinner or simply enjoy each others company.

The only thing which was difficult to manage was the expectations of my friends back in Australia. They acted as though I had fundamentally sold out on some basic feminist principles. They asked me how I justified my existence. How I held my head high when I was doing nothing to contribute to the household? It was hard work to convince them and I spent many a teary evening trying to rationalise how badly they had made me feel until I came to the conclusion that what other people thought about my life really was irrelevant. What mattered to me, and to us as a family was that for the first time since the children had been born, our family was functioning well. The children were happy, the house was organised and my husband and I had our leisure time back. Freed from household drudgery we spent our weekends exploring Hong Kong as a family.

The children were also getting more attention and we could read and play and do fun things together without having to worry about the washing or the ironing or what was being made for dinner that evening.

Additionally, my husband enjoyed the freedom that having someone living with us offered. For us we were able to enjoy time as a couple again and it drew us together. Rather than running around like headless chickens doing chores, organising the house and trying to fit everything in, when he came back from his trips it was to a serene household which operated smoothly.

Life is kind of like a boat
Maybe there is comfort in getting older. You care less what people think of you and the decisions that you make. Perhaps it is also the fact that what is normal in one country may not necessarily be normal in another. Whatever the case, I now approach family life according to our needs. Not the expectations of others. My identity doesn't necessarily come from outside or from what someone thinks about me. I think life is like a boat and I don't let other people's waves knock me. Nowadays I juggle work and family again although we still have live-in help. The children are older but for me, the main thing was learning to appreciate that the only person I have to justify my lifestyle to, is myself.
Dr Amanda O has been a trailing spouse for the last eight years.

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Posted 15Oct05