A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A ‘Trailing Spouse’ Speaks Out

One of the most common questions I receive about life in the Foreign Service is: what will my spouse do? With that in mind, I invited my wife, Jennifer, who worked while I served overseas in Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary, to offer her thoughts on what it’s like to be a “trailing spouse.”

Jennifer Seminara

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to be a Foreign Service (FS) spouse. My boyfriend of five years joined the Foreign Service and asked me to marry him right before he left Chicago for his training in Washington. I didn’t know where he was headed but a life overseas as a diplomat’s wife seemed exciting and I was in.

I was in graduate school at the time, pursuing a master’s degree in public health and had grand ideas about working on public health programs in developing countries. At the time, I didn’t realize how difficult it is for the “trailing spouse” to have a career.

Being a FS spouse can be a great opportunity to stay home and raise children or pursue hobbies. Housing is covered by the U.S. Government, which makes it much easier to get by on one income, especially when living in a country with a low cost of living. Having a career as a FS spouse, however, is not easy for most.For those that would like to work, Eligible Family Member (EFM) positions are available at most embassies but these administrative and/or low level (and usually low paying) jobs can be difficult to secure since there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants one. I worked as the Community Liaison Office Coordinator at two posts; there were also EFM positions for Consular Associates (which requires CON-GEN training) and Office Management Specialists (OMS/administrative assistants) in various departments.

My CLO predecessor at our first post described the position as the cruise director for the embassy. There are the more serious and important parts of the job, which include providing information to newly assigned employees and families, advocating for employees and families, advising post management on quality of life and reporting to the Family Liaison Office in Washington, D.C., on education and employment at post, but a large part of the job is to build community spirit and enhance morale.

In other words, the CLO plans a lot of parties, happy hours and all kinds of events to help maintain American traditions (super bowl parties, Easter egg hunts, BBQs, trick or treating, visits by Santa, etc.) and tours to help Americans get to know the host culture. I really enjoyed being a CLO but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to do as a career and the salary I earned was far below what I could have been making in the U.S. in my field.

Spouses who would rather work outside of the embassy have limited options. Despite reciprocity agreements, which the U.S. has with a number of countries, it’s difficult for many spouses to secure gainful employment at many posts around the world. Even when spouses have the legal right to work in a country, many lack the local language skills needed to find jobs.

Spouses are entitled to take language training at the Foreign Service Institute but many can’t afford to devote months to classroom study due to financial or family issues and those who do still may not be able to achieve the fluency needed to get jobs. Also, finding a job in many foreign countries is all about networking and who you know, and if you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the local language, you’ll have an uphill climb. And even if you can find a job on the local economy, salaries in many countries can be as low as $500 or $1,000 per month.

FS spouses that tend to have the most luck finding work are often in fields where they can find a U.S. job that will allow them to work remotely. Teachers are always in demand, as there are international schools everywhere and you need not know the local language to teach at most of them. Personal trainers can find work in some posts, as can nurses and development workers.

For spouses that don’t find jobs, it can be difficult to adapt to life overseas. Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) have a network of Americans to interact with at the embassy, but the stay at home spouse can feel isolated and bored, especially if they don’t speak the local language well. In a way, they’re the ones who are truly living in the local culture, while their spouses are in an English-speaking, American bubble at work.

Up until the 1950s, the wives of FSO’s were given formal evaluations along with their husbands, and spouses who weren’t viewed as being good hostesses – planning and hosting representational events – could negatively impact their husbands’ careers. While that’s now ancient history, some spouses do feel subtle pressure to attend all sorts of cocktail parties and events that might seem glamorous but are actually quite boring.

Most trailing spouses are female and posts with large expatriate communities have plenty of groups they can join, and a lot of women manage to forge their own networks easily. But trailing men often have a harder time, because some feel awkward joining female dominated clubs or groups, and men with no jobs tend to feel a loss of identity more acutely than women do.

But despite all the personal drawbacks, and career sacrifices, being a FS spouse can also be a lot of fun. Many spouses make really close friends overseas and become part of social circles that are tighter than the ones they had at home. Since all expats are by nature away from their lifelong friends and relatives, everyone has an incentive to be open to meeting new people and making friends.

Last, but definitely not least, is the fact that life overseas can be more exciting than life in the U.S. If you’re an adventurous person who is curious about the world, you’ll enjoy having the opportunity to experience a new culture, not as a tourist but as a local. And if you love to travel, living overseas will open up possibilities that would be impossible when based in the U.S.

If you want to live overseas, but aren’t sure if you could do it on your own, doing it as a Foreign Service family is the way to go. You’ll have a U.S. mailing address, so you can order products online to your heart’s content, you’ll have a network of people at the embassy to help you navigate the local culture, and you’ll have free housing and education for your kids.

And for those in countries with a low cost of living, you can afford the kind of household staff – cooks, cleaners, nannies, gardeners – that would be impossible in the U.S. Some get a little carried away and get so addicted to this sort of neo-Colonial lifestyle that they don’t want to return to Washington, where they have to live the kind or ordinary middle class lives they left behind before they joined the Foreign Service.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by Dave Seminara]