Are you a ”trailing wife”?
Few people understand what this wretched expression means, and even fewer are able to express how it really feels to leave everything behind to follow a partner fulfilling his or her career path abroad.
Kristin Louise Duncombe nailed it when she wrote her first book, Trailing, in 2012. With brutal honesty, she shared her personal experience of how she traveled the world, first as a child of a diplomat, and then as a trailing spouse to a dashing Argentinian husband who accepted his first post with Doctors Without Borders in Kenya. Kristin, a young psychotherapist, dropped her budding career to follow her man into the heart of Africa.
From the front lines, she witnessed a civil war brewing, unimaginable sickness, culture shock, isolation and, to top it off, survived a violent carjacking. Nairobi may be seem like an exotic setting, but almost all trailing wives will recognize themselves somewhere in Kristin’s riveting and tender book.
She wrote her memoir, Trailing, after moving her family to Paris and setting up a successful counseling practice for the Anglophone international community. Now, Kristin has released her second book, Five Flights Up, about uprooting the family again – this time from Paris to Lyon. Kristin writes with the same candor and rollicking humor on her reluctance to let go of her career – once more. This time, she tells her story through her additional struggle to help her two children, Carmen and Lorenzo adapt to the displacement and new home.
INSPIRELLE immediately reached out to this passionate author, expat wife and mother of two, whose voice will resonate with many of our international readers.
Kristin, where do we begin, because your two books so cleverly delve into the psyche of trailing wives whether they are in worn torn Africa, exciting Paris or in the bourgeois neighborhoods of Lyon. What do these women all have in common?
The common denominator for any accompanying, or “trailing” spouse, is an identity shift. Once we start moving around the world to accommodate the choices and responsibilities of another, our sense of identity will change to reflect that. This in itself is not good or bad: How that is lived is very much a case by case study and can run the gamut from the best thing that ever happened to a person, or the very worst. If you poll any group of accompanying spouses you will certainly find that they will know fellow accompanying spouses who are absolutely thrilled with the experience, and others who are deeply unhappy.
Either way, the highs and lows are often intrinsically connected to how a person feels about how she is spending her time. Is she learning? Growing? Developing? Relaxing? Does she feel good about where she invests and expends energy? Does she have a sense of purpose that makes sense to her? These sorts of existential questions can occur to anyone, trailing spouse or not. The specificity of the question, though, for a person who has relocated because of her husband’s job, is whether she feels that her purpose and development expands or shrinks based on the circumstances his job lands them in.
You lived in several countries as a child following your father’s foreign service career, then you moved to Kenya and Uganda with your husband, then France with your family. You worked hard in each location to find work for yourself, which created tension at home. Why was this so important?
I have always been very career minded, so for me it was out of the question to NOT work. I received training in a very specific field that I have always been passionate about (psychotherapy) – a field which, like many things, needs to be honed and developed with regular practice and study. When I agreed to follow my husband to Kenya because of his job with Médecins Sans Frontières, I did not anticipate the difficulties I would have getting set up professionally.
Without a sponsoring agency providing me a professional role, I was really at a loss as to how to BE who I said I was (a therapist). I got very depressed, and my husband, who was extremely busy with the epidemics exploding all around him, did not understand why I didn’t just set up shop. But without any logistical support (such as a car or telephone) and with the loss of confidence that the situation provoked, I felt really paralyzed and very unhappy.
Is every move difficult? Can moving to Lyon be as foreign as settling in Nairobi, Kenya?
Every move has stress involved with it, but not every move is difficult. So much of what makes a move easy or difficult has to do with how one feels about the place they are landing, and what their aspirations and expectations are for their lives in that place. I think many westerners would say that Lyon is more difficult to move to than Nairobi, because in Nairobi there is a much more clearly defined divide between foreign and local. An expat new to Nairobi will immediately identify with/be identified by other expats. And much as some might recoil from that “tribalism,” being an expat is being part of a tribe, with both beautiful and ugly sides to it.
Arriving to a small French city like Lyon, however, where members of the foreign and expat tribes have much more diversity of experience in how well they have been able to assimilate locally, creates a different type of expectation and level of tribal cohesiveness. Many expat women I have worked with in both Paris and Lyon said that they did not know how to fit in with the French, but they also could not figure out which expat niche in France was the one they really belonged to.
Now you are in Geneva, Switzerland, after four years in Lyon, France. Did you go kicking and screaming?
Truthfully, I went to Geneva skipping and throwing flowers. It was a move I was very excited to make, not because I wanted to leave Lyon (a great place to live, by the way) but because I knew what Geneva was like, and it felt like going home. I am from Washington, DC, where everyone you meet is from someplace else, and I grew up abroad in the expat/international school system, where everyone is from someplace else. Here in Geneva, you step out on the street or take the bus and you hear 10 different languages being spoken. In my neighborhood alone, just as one teeny sample, there are grocery stores from India, Iran, Peru, Kosovo, Greece, and Portugal. I feel most at home in this very international environment, and I was really excited to become part of it.
Anyone who reads your books is struck by the sincere honesty of your personal sacrifices and struggles to assert yourself and your needs. At one point, the communication breakdown in your marriage leads to affairs on each side. Was it cathartic to write Trailing and Five Flights Up?
Cathartic, yes, but only the initial messy and chaotic first drafts of either book. Telling any deeply personal story is inevitably going to be cathartic, but the distance between a cathartic first draft and a polished, publishable draft is huge. By the time I finished the final drafts of those two memoirs, I already had a lot of distance from the stories, such that it was almost as though I was writing about someone else, someone I had outgrown. So after catharsis, the real psychological work in writing both Trailing and Five Flights Up was the opportunity to do some retroactive introspection and detective work about how all the dots of the stories connected.
As for the honesty factor, I am thrilled when people comment on the stark candor of my books, although invariably that comment is followed by a question about whether I fear the judgement of others.
“You talked about your depression. You talked about affairs. You talked about all the crazy and unfortunate things you did. Aren’t you afraid of what people will say?”
Indeed, I am afraid, but I also know that if I want to write, there is no way to please everyone. I have had people that I don’t know say horrible things about me on the internet. But what compensates for this 1000 times over is every time I hear from a fellow woman who says, “I was so relieved to read your story and to know that I am not the only one who felt that way. Thank you so much for telling your story.”