Give up career for life abroad following spouse?
January 16, 2008 12:59 PM   Subscribe

US Foreign Service filter: What's it like to leave school and future career to become a trailing male spouse?

From future Mrs. lockestockbarrel:

After 21 months, on Monday I finally got an offer to start A-100! I declined the offer because I am about 13 weeks away from finishing my law degree, and because my fiance is not totally on board. I hope to receive an offer to join the May class, and I want my fiance and I to figure out ASAP what we'll do.

We are getting married on May 31, and until this offer, I was pretty much resigned to moving to Atlanta to work as an immigration attorney (although I don't have a job lined up yet). My fiance is currently a first-year law student in Georgia. He likes it, is doing well, wants to be a litigator, and would be perfectly content to live in GA for the rest of his life.

While he is open to the idea of me joining the FS, we have a lot of questions and concerns. We realize there aren't tons of FS spouses with their own soaring careers, but we are hoping to glean some wisdom from anyone who's been through what we are facing.

What is it like to leave school (degree obtained or not) or a career to become a trailing spouse? Is your life what you expected? Fulfilling? Do you consider yourself on career hiatus, or even on a career track? Does that matter? Since your spouse joined, have you worked outside the home, especially in law or similar profession? How hard is it to find those opportunities, and is it worth it? How did you first feel about becoming a FS family, and did your hopes and fears turn out to be true?

As the FSO, how did you make a life-altering decision for the couple that was clearly your dream trumping your spouse's preferences, comfort, and expectations? What do you do to accommodate your spouse's career or other interests and goals? Is the State Dept sufficiently supportive? Did you accept the FS willing to leave pretty quickly if your spouse couldn't adjust, or in agreement to tough it out until your retirement?

We are facing a lot of resistance from his family, who think he would be throwing away his future and all his professional options. I know this situation calls for intense personal reflection and discussion between me and my fiance, but I would really appreciate if we could supplement our assumptions, fears, and fantasies with some advice from others who've been through this before.
posted by lockestockbarrel to Work & Money (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
After a near-pass on the oral exam (missed the cut-off for my cone by .1) and an encouragement from the FS to reapply the next year, I was severely discouraged by my then-fiance to continue pursuing it. After talking with other FSO spouses, she was convinced that the rest of her life would be spent organizing dinner parties for Uzbek dignitaries. That may have been a little bit of an over-exaggeration on her part, but the WaPo did an article on this a few years back, and the career options for the trailing spouse are fairly limited. The FS employment programs for spouses generally trend towards simple clerical jobs, and the terms of the visa your spouse will be traveling on generally prohibit real work.
posted by Oktober at 1:14 PM on January 16, 2008

Maybe if he wanted to be a writer, this could provide a lot of opportunities to have new experiences.
posted by amtho at 1:39 PM on January 16, 2008

Sorry, I don't have first hand experience with this subject. However, I just finished reading Julia Child: My Life in France, in which she discusses her life as a trailing spouse. She learned how to cook and wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:48 PM on January 16, 2008

Sorry to add noise, but I'm in the other boat: I'm pushing my wife to apply and would love to be the trailing spouse, but so far with little to no luck. So any tips on how to make her want to apply would be appreciated, too.
posted by AwkwardPause at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2008

Oh, and I guess I should add something that would actually be helpful to your situation: My wife will graduate from law school on 2009, and I currently work in higher ed administration, but have some international relations experience. In the theoretical event that my wife got posted by the FS, I am sure I could find some kind of satisfying job / volunteering almost anywhere we would land. I don't believe an FS posting necessarily sounds the death knell for the trailing spouse's career. Inventiveness and a sense of adventure will go a long way.

A friend of mine has been a trailing spouse in Cambodia and Turkey for about two years, and has done independent consulting for the UN and the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs, and whatever other odd jobs he could find. The couple just returned to Sweden and he landed a good job with a NGO in Stockholm, in large part based on the experience he acquired during those two years abroad. I do not think he would have gotten that job without the experience.
posted by AwkwardPause at 2:40 PM on January 16, 2008

I haven't been in this situation and don't know anyone who has. I don't entirely know what foreign service entails. And I would hate to pick up and leave in the middle of a degree that I was pursuing.

That said: c'mon. A litigator and immigration attorney living together in Atlanta sounds like a fine life. A trailing husband of an FS employee sounds like an exciting life. You'll make less money and be less comfortable, in part because the US is probably the most comfortable place in the world to live. He might never finish an advanced degree. He won't have the satisfactions, such as they are and are not, of a professional day job in the US.

But together, in the foreign service, that's an adventure. Does he have a creative jones of any kind? Does the ideal of a globetrotting photoblog excite him? Has he always wanted to write something, or devote himself to the kind of inner study that the university system is ill-equipped for? Would he rather read law textbooks, or give himself a classical education? Mow the lawn or paint watercolors of foreign foliage? And in the wired world, he can still be as plugged in to US culture as he wants.

Foreign service is a dangerous and demanding job, and that's a reason not to pursue it. Maybe you want to have kids under the aegis of the US health care system: That's reasonable too. And I would say the most important question is, are you going to stay married? That's a tough one to ask fiancees, but if you're as dead certain that you are meant to be life partners as any two fiancees should be, then the idea that maybe in 15 years he'll be a divorcee without the higher education he wanted is a real drag. (Likewise, could you handle a marriage where you're the breadwinner and he isn't bringing in income because he doesn't want to take the clerical sinecure he's been offered?) But getting paid to see the world with the person you love the most? I find it hard to believe the idea of being a litigator in Georgia is that much more attractive.
posted by blueshammer at 2:40 PM on January 16, 2008

Not super-relevant, but you may find this to be interesting reading.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:40 PM on January 16, 2008

And all that is without considering the prospect of gainful professional employment or volunteer work that AwkwardPause suggests, which I would suspect are certainly realities for any careerist.
posted by blueshammer at 2:42 PM on January 16, 2008

In your trailing spouse plans, consider also that a minority of Foreign Service postings are no dependents allowed, because the State Department considers that country or city too risky or unstable for children, trailing spouses, and other loved ones. So you will need to build the potential for a couple of one- or two-year separations (with a fair number of conjugal visits, of course), during which you will be trailing from a long distance, having full childcare responsibilities, etc, and every night on the news you will see a report of more violence in the place where your partner is living and working.

When I was in the Peace Corps, I had a lot of interactions with the embassy people, and there were more male trailing spouses than the stereotype would suggest. Particularly in some of the FS tracks, women are very well represented, in a way that they weren't 30 years ago. Some of those guys did great, finding fun consulting/volunteer/paid employment, great social lives, etc. Others found the burden of being Mr Househusband, stranded in a very patriarchal society, cut off from a lot of the socializing that begins with "so what do you do?", and so on very difficult. A lot of the guys had a great time at the beginning, when their wives were junior officers and they were enjoying their break from the rat race, but a few years later when their wives were heading up the pay grade and jetsetting around the world for important conferences (to which spouses were often not invited) they started to feel kind of insecure. I don't have any figures, but my sense was that the rate of divorce was fairly high.

But again, for the ones who liked it, who were ok with having their social status come through their wife, and who could find interesting and rewarding ways to stay busy in places where maybe they couldn't get a regular job, it was a really great set-up. The benefits of FS work are pretty good -- the pay is ok, and when you consider the housing, medical, travel, and other in-kind support, you can save a startling amount of money while living a lifestyle far above what you would have in the US. (How many people at the beginning of their careers in the US have full household staffs, for example?) I say go for it; if you hate it you can restart things back in the US a lot easier than trying to reenter the Foreign Service in five years.
posted by Forktine at 3:57 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The State Department's list of required reading includes Patricia Linderman's Realities of Foreign Service Life. You may even have been given a copy after you passed the Oral. I highly recommend her book as well as her website, Tales from a Small Planet (

I say go for it, and use the time to think about your relationship. For A100, you'll be in DC for at least three months until you get your commission, followed by training in your specific cone, and then it's completely likely you'll remain in DC for language training for another three to six months. He can easily continue school and join you on holidays, as your cone training (particularly for Consular) will not be all that time consuming. That gives him a full year to consider it, be introduced to the other spouses, and maybe get used to the idea.

As for career options, with a law background, he'll have plenty of options within the Embassy, depending on the location of your first post. You'll also have the option to take your first tour as an unaccompanied hardship tour which means you'll be compensated extra should he wish to stay in the states a bit longer. Heck, you might even meet someone, uh, more your style and end up doing tandem careers all over the world.

He'd be a nut not to go, but it's good for him to understand that marrying you is the equivalent of marrying a lifestyle. An exciting lifestyle, but not necessarily one that suits everyone.

Seriously, take the job.
posted by mochapickle at 4:12 PM on January 16, 2008

"Heck, you might even meet someone, uh, more your style and end up doing tandem careers all over the world"

@mochapickle -- you do realize that I, the male pre-spouse, am the one posting the question, right? And you were so close to a best answer mark, too!
posted by lockestockbarrel at 4:19 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Still deserve it, lockstockbarrel! I decided not to be a trailing spouse, for about a dozen really good reasons that were not necessarily related to the lifestyle. She should take the job, and you should really talk to other FSO spouses. Linderman was a trailing spouse herself, and she'd probably take a personal interest in your questions or possibly get you in touch with FSO spouses. I think you should write to her. Also, the State Dept. should give you a support packet after your future Mrs. accepts, and it'll have all sorts of family support info.
posted by mochapickle at 4:41 PM on January 16, 2008

Reality check: Law school student who "would be perfectly content to live in GA for the rest of his life" is probably not the same guy who'd love to spend the rest of his life ricocheting between, say, Senegal, Mongolia, Colombia, Finland, Tunisia, and Ukraine, without an actual job (unless "househusband who tells the maid what to do" counts as one) and without a college degree.

A lot of guys do (or would) thrive. More than a few guys wouldn't. It's not a value judgement. It's a neutral fact.

I said "probably" is not the same guy, nobody knows, not even you do.

Let her take the job, get married if you have to, but stay behind until you finish law school and use conjugal visits wisely. Good luck.
posted by matteo at 6:38 PM on January 16, 2008

You also didn't tell us how old you guys are. 35 is very different than 25, in this case.
posted by matteo at 6:40 PM on January 16, 2008

To the current Mr. lockestockbarrel, are you at all interested in being an FSO? Instead of being a trailing spouse you could be a tandem couple in a year or so. You probably thought of this already...
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:11 PM on January 16, 2008

I haven't seen it mentioned, so have you considered that you can always do a long-distance degree? Although you might think of them as useless, there are real degrees available. My mother was an (Australian) foreign service spouse for 15 years overseas, and completed a couple of degrees (Economics and then Financial Planning certification, I think) through regular Australian universities, which meant that when we settled in Australia she hadn't worked for a while, but did have recent qualifications which led to a pretty good job.
posted by jacalata at 12:37 AM on January 17, 2008

My parents weren't in foreign service, but they went through something similar. Dad was recruited by the Malaysian Government some 30 years ago as a civil engineer, and Mum, who had a budding radio career in Bangladesh, gave that up and followed him. They meant to be in Malaysia temporarily, but with all the political upheavals and Dad being highly in demand, they've been here ever since.

Mum does tend to go on and on sometimes about how if she'd stay on in radio she'd be in BBC or CNN or some other really famous news channel by now. She was quite well known in Dhaka; people remember her still (I met a couple of people from a Bangladeshi radio NGO who remembered her; one was a friend of her ex-boss). When she came to Malaysia, she was on a dependent's pass, which meant she couldn't work. This really cramped her style. While she had a young child to take care of (my elder sister; I didn't appear until 11 years later), she still longed to be productive. She did work insurance for a little bit but didn't enjoy it. She took a correspondence interior design course, which she enjoyed to bits. Recently she helped my dad (who moved on to property development) head the interior decoration and design of their house, and it was the happiest I've seen her in a long time.

Mum does have major Empty Nest Syndrome though, and on one part I don't blame her - my dad went to Turkey for 3 years for a degree literally the week after they got married, and she did end up moving from all her family. I think she's projecting the media fame on me somewhat since I also have an interest and aptitude for it. How do you two function without each other? Are you able to live your own lives or do you feel like you absolutely cannot live without the other? How does Mrs Lockstockbarrel feel about being separated from her fiance?

I'm going through a similar dilemma myself with my partner. I may have to leave him behind in Australia while I spend 3 years in Denmark for school. Our relationship is semi-long-distance anyway (we go back to our respective countries during summer break) but unlike me, he isn't really interested in moving anywhere; he loves Australia too much (he loves Denmark to death too, but he's more of a homeboy). He respects and encourages my decision to pursue Denmark, and I really want to take up the opportunity as it would be a great learning experience and will help me further my life goals, but it almost seems like I have to choose between the two - him or Denmark. He isn't making me choose; he wants me to go with what makes him happy. But argh, so hard.

I'm sorry I couldn't be more helpful. I hope my family's anecdotes help somewhat. Communication is key; my parents didn't have a lot of that (still don't) but my boyfriend and I are really really working on it. Hope it works out for you.
posted by divabat at 4:32 AM on January 17, 2008

Trailing spouses are happy when they find fulfilling work in the country where they are posted. They are more likely to find that work if they have a relevant degree and some work experience. Therefore, under any circumstances - even if it means some long-distance time or degree by email - he should finish his law degree. Otherwise you risk a husband sitting around the house in cambodia or kinshasa or kyrgyzstan who resents that he gave up his education to follow you around. That's not fun for anyone.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:31 AM on January 17, 2008

First time around I thought this was a woman trailing-spouse, and I had really specific advice. Then I realized the trailing spouse in question was a man, and I decided I should still give the advice.

While people should make sacrifices and plans to build a life together, each partner should ensure that they have the ability to flourish outside the partnership.

The FSO life is very specific, and it is hard to guess if a person will like it or not. If they have not enjoyed foreign travel, they probably won't. If there are machismo issues, probably not. Some people who think they will love it hate it, and some people who were on the fence really enjoy it. It is also totally dependent on the FSO's actual job situation and overall satisfaction, and the post in question.

If law school is truly what you wanted for yourself, you should do that too, possibly abroad. Between A-100 and language training, you can probably do a big chunk of this in DC. If law school was just something to do, then find another something to do, and just do it abroad.

It is completely impossible for a trailing spouse to build what would generally be considered a career. You can build what *you* consider to be a career. There are jobs on-post for trailing spouses. These are often lower-level and underpaid. There are other agencies, and also opportunities to teach, or develop a web-based career or freelance career. You will be apart sometimes. The FSO will do rotations in DC at a desk. You need to construct a career plan that can withstand all of these.

The most useful resource I've found is the AFSA which published the Foreign Service Journal. This is the association for FSO's. You get a really good sense of what the current concerns are for the FSO's and trailing spouse employment is a big one.

There are also some blogs from trailing spouses. I enjoyed this one from a trailing husband who was happy to trail, and works for Starbucks when he can. The AFSA site has others.

Real Post Reports is an important read. You can usually get the post list for the past few A-100 classes (those who pass the orals can get on the Yahoogroup which often has this info), see what the options were for your spouse's cone and languages, and then look up those posts and realistically see if you could live there and work there.
posted by Mozzie at 10:59 AM on January 17, 2008

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