The Case of the Trailing Spouse

Written by
Ranjani Rao

Decades ago, when I agreed to marry the suitable boy suggested by my parents, I knew my life would be transformed in many ways. My last name would change. I would have to move away, not just from the home I had lived in since I was born but to a new country where I didn’t know anyone. What bothered me the most, however, was the decision to give up the hard-won seat at a Master’s program in Mumbai. 

“Marriage means adjustment”, advised well-meaning relatives and friends. What they did not clarify was that most often, the adjustments and compromises were expected from the bride.

The first ‘sacrifice’ I made as a married woman involved initiating the application process for the post-graduate program all over again. I lost a whole academic year during the rigorous admission process. On the surface, it looked like a good deal - I now had access to prestigious US universities. But I could only apply to those that were within commuting distance of the place my husband worked. Fortunately for me, there was a highly-rated program not too far away, my grades were pretty good and I was offered a seat. The hard work of completing the Masters curriculum could now begin.

Finding role models and mentors

Like many of my peers, I was fascinated by my American life - the wide open highways, unlimited shopping options and the thrill of working on novel ideas in my laboratory. Yet, I soon began to crave the company of familiar faces, not just people who looked like me,but people whose life resembled mine, whose emotional landscape reflected my own. 

As a twenty-two year old married woman in a graduate program, I was among the minority who left the lab at a fixed time everyday because I was expected to keep house - cook, clean, entertain visitors, in addition to my studies and research work. Although my peer group of fellow Indian students were not much older, they were all single and their days looked very different from mine.

When my professor offered me a seat on the Ph.D. program, I was confused. I could fulfill the curriculum requirements but the program would require a longer time commitment. Would I have to delay the decision to have a baby until my dissertation was completed? Was I bold enough or even prepared to subvert social expectations and accept this opportunity that had been offered on a platter? 

Who could I turn to for advise? Certainly not my mother who had been a housewife all her life. My aunts who worked in India had not pursued higher education after marriage and had gone to have children right after getting married. My American classmates had no qualms about sticking to their academic goals regardless of their marital status. The professors were all male, mostly Caucasian and would probably not understand my dilemma.

Yet, I needed someone to walk me through the decision process. Someone who had stood at the same crossroads and decided what was right for them, even if the world didn’t agree. 

Fortunately, I met two Indian women who were married and were pursuing their doctorates. In one on one conversations, they both shared details of their busy lives which were stressful but also satisfying. Without sugar-coating the tough path ahead, they wholeheartedly encouraged me to take on the Ph.D. offer. To these women, I owe a great debt. 

Getting a Ph.D. has enabled me to have a successful career and the financial independence that came alongside enabled me to make life choices that otherwise may not have been possible without their words of support all those years ago. 

It’s all work

Well begun is half done, as the proverb goes. Yet, for almost every woman, her career seems to totter at each stage of life. Bearing and raising children, being a supportive spouse, being a helpful daughter/daughter-in-law, all the close relationships she values demand a rethink of her career aspirations with every curve of the life path. 

Although I was able to move across the US to accept the first job after my graduation, every subsequent career move has been determined by my personal situation. Like many women, I considered leaving my job after the birth of my child since I did not have the support of extended family members. Thanks to a reliable day care system, I stuck to my decision to continue working, but when we made a joint decision to return to India, I resigned from a job I loved for the sake of family harmony. 

While men progress in their careers assuming that the spouse will undoubtedly support them by moving, either by seeking a transfer or finding another job, and take over the tough task of helping children settle into new schools and figuring out the nuances of life in a new place,  most women do not have the luxury of similar support from their husbands. 

On the rare occasion when a woman decides against moving with her husband for his new job, the discussion is never easy. It can range from a delicate debate to a total disaster. Not only does the onus of child-rearing fall on the woman, even society looks suspiciously at women who prioritize their work. Perhaps I did not want social censure and that’s why I willingly tagged along with the family on each of our moves.

Walking the difficult path

The truth underlying Gloria Steinem’s famous quote “I have yet to hear a man ask for advise on how to combine marriage and a career”, was revealed to me when I moved to Singapore in my forties. At that time, I had decades of work experience in the US and India, had a considerable network on LinkedIn and felt confident about finding a job, but it wasn’t easy. At midlife, the opportunities were more limited partly due to my specialised field of expertise but also because as a trailing spouse I was not the one being courted and recruited. On top of visa limitations, my motivation was questioned. Instead of seeing my eagerness to get into the workforce as a positive trait, I was made to feel guilty for prioritising things other than my work.

This time around, like the times before, the majority of women around me were busy with their homes and families. Some had tried to get their foot into the workplace in a new country but many had accepted that accepting an international move was akin to resigning yourself to giving up on a career. Was there someone who understood my predicament? 

It wasn’t until I met Priya, a trailing spouse who had moved from the US and was disappointed at the lack of prospects for herself in Singapore, that I felt seen. We hit it off right from our first meeting (which ironically happened through our respective spouses). We got each other, not just because of our common US history that we could relate to but because we understood the source of frustration that underlined the otherwise idyllic expat lives we were leading. 

We were not role models or mentors for each other, but a loosely-defined support system where we alternately served as therapist, sounding board and cheerleader. When she landed a job, I was genuinely thrilled for her, knowing that she would still make time to meet me and that soon I would be on my way to a satisfying career. 

Sharing stories

Years after those interesting conversations with Priya, when I was invited to share stories from my life as a scientist, writer, and also a wife/mother to a gathering of young women in Singapore, it seemed like a full circle moment. To transform from a confused student to a supposedly wiser mature woman, I had crossed countries and decades to arrive at this point in time. 

As I edge towards the tail end of a long career, I am happy to write or speak about my experiences because I know that it may be exactly what someone else needs to hear at that moment.

While trying to truthfully answer the questions posed by the enthusiastic young women, it struck me that my career graph has been interesting because it has been formed and guided by many others who came before me or walked part of the way with me. Each one of these women left a mark on me but also helped me find my own way to navigate my unique journey. 

Whether you are the leading or the trailing spouse, whether you live in one country or many, there will be moments of doubt and hesitation. But support and guidance is always at hand. If you are committed to having a fulfilling life that you are proud of, regardless of its ups and downs, all you need to do is be open to the possibility of finding the inspiration you need, sometimes in the most unlikely places. 


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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