The last time I moved to a different country, I’d won a scholarship to study in Australia. I got rid of almost everything, left my old school papers in my mother’s storage closet, and boarded a Qantas flight with my hiking backpack and a rolling suitcase. I spent some time traveling in Thailand first, so I left both of those in a luggage locker in Hualamphong Railway Station for three weeks. In Australia, I moved in with someone I met on Couchsurfing, started going to classes, and eventually found a job working night shift as the receptionist in a brothel. It was exciting, it was easy to navigate, and it was entirely under my own direction.
Here Is What It's Really Like to Be a Trailing Spouse
Now, things are different.
I’m what they call a “trailing spouse”. This means my partner has been relocated to Sweden for work, and our toddler daughter and I are along for the ride. Although it was a shared decision, this is not my rodeo; my answer to the never-ending question “Why did you move here?” is “My husband has a job.”
We sent a cargo shipment of our furniture, irreplaceable art, and my favorite cast iron frying pan. Every day, my husband drinks coffee, brushes his teeth, and leaves for work…and there I am, at home. In a totally new place, with no real resources except my ability to cope and hope that the local Facebook groups won’t be too petty.
I don’t speak Swedish. I’ve been doing Duolingo for awhile — although I started getting embarrassing “We’ll stop sending you these reminder notices, you failure” messages — and there are free Swedish classes sponsored by the government, assuming I can manage to register for them. Every day so far has been a cascading pyramid of to-do list items: I can’t check on my daughter’s registration for kindergarten without a bank account ID number, which I can’t get until I get my Swedish identity card, which I couldn’t get until I had a social security number, which I couldn’t get until we went to the immigration office and got fingerprinted.
I’d love to find a job, since my residency includes a work permit, but my lack of bilingualism means I can’t even apply for most of them. I don’t know where to buy food; there are supermarkets everywhere, but I’m confused about what they carry. Some days it feels like I live in the grocery store, buying three items at a time and always forgetting something.
Trailing spouses, usually women, end up doing a vast amount of emotional labour, not just for their households and their children, if they have them (helping teenagers adapt to new countries or dealing with toddler jet-lag), but for themselves. In the rest of my life, I’m used to being independent, interesting. I have hobbies. This trip, I’m the addendum, the afterthought. I’m the extra box on the customs form, the “spouse of” instead of the reason for going. Because I’m the one staying home, I end up managing our household, buying replacement toilet paper and trying to figure out our budget with a whole new realm of unanswered questions. I register the toddler for daycare, find activities to take her to so I don’t just sit at home alone all day. I can’t join a gym or even check out library books effectively. Being a trailing spouse is a little bit like having postpartum depression: you’ve done this thing that everyone is so ecstatic about and is supposed to be amazing, and then it’s frustrating and hard and you feel even worse for finding it hard.
Like any move, you eventually settle into a routine. Eventually all the paperwork is sorted out and you don’t have any more hoops to jump through. Eventually, I can stop looking through listings of apartments and worrying about mortgage rates, because we will have our own place and our non-Swedish queen-sized mattress can come out of storage, and I will have a place to put the cargo bike I’d like to buy.
The mornings are starting to get darker, which is the most inexorable reminder that days are passing, and I feel like I have so little to show for it. When we first arrived and our unsettled daughter was waking every morning at 5:30, it was bright and sunny outside…even if it was a crisp, pale sun. Now, more than a month later, it is a rich blue at the same time, and she wanders through the house turning on our lights. Another month, and it will be pitch black, staying that way through Scandinavian winter, where daylight reportedly only lasts four to six hours in the mid-afternoon (I hope they’re exaggerating). These daylight hours are ticking away and I am still fighting to feel my balance, getting lost, and running constantly into tiny barriers that throw in my face how different it is. I float, do my best to swim, bravely forge ahead. But I’m still, always, trailing behind.