Soon after I started this blog, author Kristin Duncombe emailed me. Fifteen years ago, she followed her husband to Nairobi, Kenya for his job, just like I was about to do. She had recently published a memoir about her experience as a trailing spouse.
I read her book, Trailing: A Memoir, in two days. I could relate to so many aspects of Kristin’s life, including her safety concerns while living in Kenya, her loss of identity as a trailing spouse, and her struggle to build a new life for herself.
Kristin now lives in France and works as a therapist and consultant with international and expatriate families. She specializes in counseling children and adolescents who are adjusting to the transition of moving abroad.
I was lucky enough to interview Kristin about her experience as a trailing spouse and get her thoughts on how couples can emotionally prepare for an overseas move. Read on for her expert advice:
1. In Trailing, you write very honestly about your struggle with PTSD and anxiety after you are carjacked in Nairobi. You also describe some of the challenges of your marriage. Was it difficult for you to write in such an honest and open way about your mental health and marital struggles?
I can’t say that it was “difficult” to write candidly about my struggles with post traumatic stress or my marital issues, but more so that the candor and “truth” emerged, on its own, after many rewrites. The original drafts of the book were mired in many very conflicted feelings about what had happened to me and to us those first years of our marriage. It took several years for me to chip away at my own narrative until it made sense to anyone reading the book, or to me! One of the most important questions that needed clarification was why, if I was so miserable, didn’t I leave? The final, published draft of Trailing provides a very clear answer to this question, but it took years of retrospective reflection to formulate the answer. Tied up in that analysis was a coming to terms with just how badly my mental health had deteriorated after the carjacking, something I was not fully aware of until several years after I landed in France and realized one day that I no longer jumped at every strange noise, no longer crossed the road with a pounding heart every time I saw a group of men. Only after I had really started to recover from my trauma did my lens clear up enough for me to realize how unwell I had been. Writing and re-writing the narrative was in itself a very healing process, both for my marriage and my own personal sense of well-being.
2. Early in the book, when you and your husband Tano discuss moving to the field for his work, he says, “The most important thing is that we stay together.” After your own experience, and in your role as a therapist who works with expatriate families, do you think that staying together is “the most important thing”? What other key factors should families consider before moving abroad for one family member’s career?
My answer to this question has changed over time. When Tano said that, we were a newly formed couple, and I basically agreed with him, in spite of my inner conflict. As people who actually barely knew each other (when you compare the depth of relationship when you’ve been together three months versus ten years, for example), I’m not sure if our relationship would have been sustainable over long and/or frequent separations. There is no formula that will apply to every couple, but in our case I think it was essential that we stuck together those early years, no matter how hard it was, because in spite of being so “madly in love” etc etc, we did not have history, which I believe is part of the glue that keeps people together when the going gets tough. The years we spent in East Africa, including the traumatic break up at the end, is an important part of our history that has shaped who we are as a couple today. Ironically, “staying together” in the literal sense ceased to be the “most important” thing once we had worked through our marital crisis. What I mean by this is that having established a solid foundation post-crisis, we developed a very independent marriage that has allowed us to both lead the lives we want. I craved career and a geographically stable, even sedentary lifestyle, whereas my husband needs travel to be happy, and fortunately has a professional life that allows him to be ”out there.” I am using this as an example because it helps explain what I think is actually the most important thing for expat couples — that they are able to create an existence where both people are able to lead lives they find satisfying.
3. You first lived abroad as the child of a U.S. diplomat, which you describe as a lifestyle that was “comfortable, cushioned, sheltered [and] pampered”. In contrast, as the spouse of a Medecins Sans Frontieres employee, you had almost no support. What resources would you recommend for other spouses who don’t have the social, emotional, or financial support that some international organizations provide?
I think the most important thing is being prepared, which I wasn’t. I flitted off to Nairobi with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, in spite of any reservations I already harbored about forgoing my original career plans. Had I understood that my new existence was not going to be so cushy, I would have packed differently — literally. I would have brought more books, for one thing, and I certainly would have insisted that my husband and I have some agreement in place about how I was going to manage all these logistical concerns. I don’t say this in a blaming way: I think it was just as shocking for him to realize that he was no longer “free” to come and go with the team as he pleased (or at least not without having to put up with a fight from me). In theory I would have looked for work in Nairobi while we were still in the States, but we literally got his assignment and left a week later so there was really no time. Things have changed dramatically, however, since I moved to Nairobi in 1997. At that time internet was still not as accessible, nor were cell phones. I think if I were to have moved to Nairobi today in the exact same mind frame I was in at the time, my sense of isolation would have been less, simply because I would have had easier access to those modern technologies that facilitate connection with the outside world. But I must underline how young I was…and I don’t mean age-wise. I had just turned 28 when we moved, and while I seemed a wise-for-my-years world traveler, I was deeply insecure about my place in the world, which I believe is a direct result of the sense of rootlessness I felt. I honestly thought that “securing the man” was going to settle something for me — provide answers and give me an identity and a structure. Today I am very grateful that I could not have been more mistaken, because the experience turned me into a person who does not make assumptions about how things are going to be, nor do I expect anyone else to “do” my life for me. I feel a full sense of ownership over where I end up now, so to loop back to your original question, what I would want to check out with any person considering “trailing” is whether they are aware of what the conditions will be (country and city-wise, housing wise, and employment-opportunity wise), and have they made their expectations for what they need to be happy clear to their spouse, and can their spouse support them in this?
4. Several times in the book, you allude to the fact that your experience as the child of a diplomat influenced your decision to marry Tano and follow him to East Africa. You write, “I knew first hand how to relocate because of someone else’s obligations” and “I relinquished all my plans when I met Tano because doing what he wanted felt more normal to me than chasing my own dreams.” What advice to you have for families who are raising children in similar circumstances, where moving for a parent’s job is commonplace?
I would repeat what I said a moment ago, that the most important thing is that there be balance in a couple’s life — ie that both members of the couple have existences in which they feel engaged, fulfilled, and supportive of each other. The positive role modelling will be invaluable in helping their children understand that one can always be the leader of their own life if one is invested in personal growth and self discovery, be it through career, hobby or other pursuits. One of the things I hoped to convey in Trailing is that taking charge of one’s life does not mean always being in control. To the contrary. Life will always spring surprises on us. Proactivity – charging ahead with life even when we feel out of control, crafting and building and trying even when we are unsure of ourselves/our direction, is a very important thing to model for our kids. Ultimately, I think that moving around the world can be an extremely enriching experience for kids, although my own experience tells me that having a sense of home – literally, a place in the world to go back to year after year – can be very helpful in creating a sense of mental stability. When I was a young kid my family lived in the Washington, DC suburbs, and my parents kept that house over the years and currently live there as retirees. But it was not a place that we went back to with any frequency over the years, and while I know their few friends from the neighborhood that they kept in touch with, I grew up without a sense of where I could return. Home was always where my parents were, and that kept changing. When I was a young adult trying to adjust to living in the States it was very difficult to have my parents so far away. Again, this was before email and my parents were quite “old-school” about using the telephone, so we rarely spoke to each other and instead relied on letters to keep in touch. I am not faulting them — it was a different era — but what I would recommend to parents raising kids internationally today is make sure the kids know where they came from: spend time there, help them keep some semblance of community alive so that they always feel they can go back. And keep in close contact, because if “home” is going to be defined by a person, versus a place, an active exchange is extremely important to a kid’s well-being.
If you would like to learn more about Kristin, please check out her website. If you would like to read her fabulous book, you can purchase it at amazon.com. (And just so you know, Kristin has not asked me to recommend her book, nor do I get any sort of commission if you purchase it, I just want to share the link because I so thoroughly enjoyed it!)
Feel free to leave questions or comments, Kristin and I would love to hear from you!