Not long ago on a warm August night I sat on a set of stairs overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago. The clamor of cabs and tourists was behind me, an almost full moon reflecting bright white in the quiet lake was in front of me, and next to me was a man asking me to marry him.
It wasn’t until after I said yes that we discussed where we would live. Besides a few years spent in Chicago, my husband has spent his whole life in London. That night, after I put on the gumball machine ring that he proposed with, we decided that I’d move to London with him and after a few years we’d head to the US.
Little did I know that I had just said yes to becoming a “trailing spouse,” someone who follows their partner to another city or country. It’s a role that turned out to be harder than I expected but more rewarding and exciting than I ever imagined.
I planned to get my Masters in London, work for a few years and then be back in the US before the 2012 London Olympics. We were gone before the Olympics but we didn’t land in America. Unexpected interest in my husband from a Norwegian architecture company had me trailing north to Oslo.
My first stint as a trailing spouse, when I moved from a great big suburban house in Ohio to a tiny one bedroom flat in London, was largely my own battle. The only adjustment my husband made was to give up some closet space. Besides that he was at the same job in his hometown.
Back in college I had spent several months studying at Cambridge University and that time prepared me well for my move. I spent my first few months memorizing the London Underground map, wandering the back streets of Oxford Circus and touring museums. My mouth fell open every time I happened to pass by Big Ben or the Tower of London – I never got over the rich history of the city that had become my home.
Everything was great until I had my first bad day. One afternoon I came home after a trip to the British Museum and saw a mouse. It was scurrying along the kitchen floor by the sink. I screamed, shut the door to quarantine the ugly creature that had just ruined my honeymoon with London, and ran out of the apartment.
As soon as I saw that mouse all of the feelings of homesickness and loneliness suddenly hit me. I loved exploring the city while my husband was at work but I was desperate for a familiar face. I had been in England for three months and it was the longest I had ever gone without seeing my family or friends.
The day I saw that mouse was the first time I had faced a problem without my usual coping strategies. There were no Eggo Waffles at the grocery store, I couldn’t spontaneously call my friend Natalie from my cell, and my mom was 3,955 miles away.
Four years later my husband, our toddler son and I landed in Oslo. But this time my husband would go through the expat adjustment with me. We experienced the honeymoon period of living in a new city together, discovering museums and interesting food. We dealt with the culture shock of learning the Norwegian language together, and have faced various other perplexities of life abroad – together.
Yet our hurdles as expats in Norway are different. I am once again the trailing spouse, putting all of my energy into helping my husband and son settle in and dealing with the day-to-day adjustments of being a foreigner. Meanwhile my husband faces daily challenges at the office where the working language is Norwegian and the pressure is high for him to fulfill the role that he was brought here to do. Since he is the reason we are here he sometimes feels responsible for my bad days, although we both know that moving to Norway was as much my decision as it was his.
When I look back at that night in Chicago when I agreed to follow my husband around the world I realize I had no idea what was in store for me. I got to live in my favorite city in the world and rub shoulders with reporters at The Daily Mirror, Businessweek and Newsweek. Now, in Oslo, my husband and I have struck the perfect work-to-life balance that gives us plenty of time with our son and allows me to jumpstart my reporting career with a writing gig at The Wall Street Journal. And somewhere in between we’ve visited seven countries and met some amazing people.
I’m proud to be a trailing spouse.