The Liberation of the Trailing Spouse
I was watching a re-run of Grey's Anatomy yesterday afternoon, in that lull of my day from when I had already written what I wanted to write and when it was time to pick up my daughter.
"Meredith" was having a heated discussion with "Derick" about his impending opportunity with the NIH that would cause them to move from Seattle to Washington. D.C. I was a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for him and would cause a severe pause in her career. He told her she could just be a surgeon at the Georgetown Hospital. She was in the middle of cutting edge research at Grey-Sloan Memorial. They had small children and well, she had envisioned her life there in Seattle. She mentioned the "trailing spouse syndrome" and that if she left and went to D.C., that she would always be in his shadow and would never get her career chance. She also commented that he had already had his heightened moments, that he didn't need another win, but she needed her shot.
There was something about that episode that sat with me. I am one year in a new state, here because of my husband's position. We are in a state neither of us have lived in before and honestly, the one that I said I'd want to live in if I ever had the chance. We went from Midwest natives with Southern roots to being transplants in New England. It has been a journey.
One year in, resignation from a non-profit I worked for in my former state, and watching my last child, my daughter gain her senior year wings, I'm considering what will be my next.
We moved in the middle of the pandemic before there were even vaccines.
There was no one here that we knew. We each had connections through our social organizations that would at least be a bit of familiarity. I also had a clergy "place-to-go" that would set some foundations for us. Still, though, I am the trailing spouse.
A little over twenty years ago, I moved back to a state I never wanted to live in, a state that ended up being my home for the next twenty years, almost to the date. It included two moved within that state. It was where my husband had only lived and only had his career. We were in two different states for grad school and I wanted to consider the world. He wanted to set some things in place for the future, that were beneficial, so off to the middle of the country we remained. I had a great offer out of grad school and he was continuing his research, so it made sense. We would be able to drive or fly out of there to anything on either coast and did that for the next twenty years.
Still, I became the trailing spouse when we had a career change during the Great Recession of 2007/8 that necessitated a move across the state, from one metro area to the next. By then, we had the last of three children at home, the younger two were emerging from toddlerhood and I thought I was seeing some different possibilities from my newly minted career of "work-at-home-mom." The girls were three and five.
Once we moved and settled into the new city, I had to make some choices.
My field was essentially non-existent in this place that was like a field of dried-up dreams. I had to pivot. So I started consulting, teaching at the university extension across the river, and became more of a community activist than one would imagine in an introvert like me. I also started writing, a lot, this space included.
There was something nagging within me, though. I was the "Mrs." to his "Dr." everywhere we went in that city. At every university function we had to attend, because, well, he was up there in administration, it was almost as if my advanced degrees were nothing more than the window dressing I was that day, donned in yet another gown with pearls or diamonds to be arm candy. Now, my husband never treated me that way, but that was always the experience in those crowds. It didn't matter what I had done before moving there or even since as long as I was the dutiful present supportive spouse. Needless to say, that place was steeped in patriarchy.
But I made it work.
I threw myself into the real work of nurturing human beings to their fullest self.
The youngest son went off to college and the year we moved to New England, graduated with his second master's degree. The oldest daughter started college the fall we moved to New England, and well, the. youngest daughter is now a fully independent senior in high school. In the mean time, I organized, ran for office, engaged with the community, started a literary circle, went to seminary, went to prestigious conferences, presented scholarly papers, and kept writing.
This trailing spouse find ways to be liberated from expectations of what I should be doing.
I never returned to the corporate world of my previous and still present career. I found ways to make it work in non-profit, consulting, and social entrepreneurship spaces. It is what I am still doing, in some ways, through the pandemic that sent everyone scrambling to the Zoomland that I had already been working in for four years. It also meant a lot of folks were figuring out how to do what I had been doing since 2003 - working remotely or hybrid - and still being successful.
That episode of Grey's Anatomy that sat with me was that in life and in partnerships, there are sometimes give-and-take. My husband is on what he calls either his last career or next-to-last as he retired from that state we called "beneficial." His forethought and wisdom was to start in his early twenties planning for retirement and calculating just how long he would have to work in that state system to walk away with all he needed to live a dream.
Now, he is truly doing the work that makes his soul sing.
And I am finding new ways of being in New England.
Sometimes, just sometimes, what the trailing spouse gives up ends up being a way to get all they wanted.
Now, that is not what happened with Meredith and Derick, I just know from forward years of Grey's Anatomy that the decision to stay in Seattle worked exceptionally well for her and for their family.
Choosing what works is never a science. It is always a bit of opportunity and consideration of what is gained and what is lost. For me, it is now a chance to discover who I am and what I can do without being under the cloud of expectations that smothered me in my former state. While no place is perfect, this place is showing itself to be perfectly suited for me.
The liberation of this trailing spouse is that I have a blank page to dream, to gaze out the window at the trees, feel the breeze of the ocean, grab my Moleskins and a latte, and wonder.
Tayé Foster Bradshaw is my pseudonym honoring my late father and late mother. Daddy first gave me a pen. Mommy gave me the spirit to sing my own song.
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