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Fighting to avoid being invisible: The challenges this working mother faced moving abroad as a trailing spouse

It is a mixed reality for Singaporean Jeanne Tai, who moved to the United States with her daughter and husband for his master’s degree. You're not only cut off from your old life, you have to fight to avoid becoming invisible in your new one. And travel aside, it is not a tai tai life. 

Fighting to avoid being invisible: The challenges this working mother faced moving abroad as a trailing spouse

Being a trailing spouse is coloured in shades of grey, says Jeanne Tai, who confesses she’s simply winging it, whether figuring out how to get a local driver’s license or finding affordable after-school childcare. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

“What do you do all day, Jeanne?” I was on a Zoom call with several friends in Singapore. On my screen, I saw faces look at me expectantly. It was an innocent question. So why did I feel the urge to change the subject?

“Are you happy?” came the next salvo. Another loaded question.

Many people have asked similar things since I quit my job in Singapore and moved to California last year to accompany my husband while he does a master’s degree. Common questions include “How do you fill your time?” and “What are your plans?” 

I usually describe how I spend my days caring for my daughter, attending classes, writing, and volunteering for four different organisations.

I sometimes see eyes glaze over as people struggle to process my fragmented schedule. My new life doesn’t fit into neat frameworks like “full-time work” or “stay-at-home mum”. How easy things were when I could say, “I work in communications” and have everyone nod knowingly.

The truth is, being a trailing spouse is coloured by shades of grey.

It’s hard to define my plans when I’m still figuring out how to get a local driving license and find afterschool childcare that won’t break the bank. Moving across continents was a huge rupture and I’m reconstructing my life on the fly.

In short, I’m winging it.

The writer at Changi Airport, just before she and her family relocated to the United States. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

As for whether I’m happy, being a trailing spouse brings conflicting emotions. Some days I feel the certainty I once had is dissolving and slipping through my fingers. No stable job. No clue how future employers will view my resume gap.

Other days, I’m punching my fist in the air when I get responses to networking e-mails or make progress on an online class. Little wins I can grasp and call my own.

Social anthropologist Flavia Cangia described it best when she said trailing spouses are in a “liminal hotspot”. Put simply, we’re in a weird, in-between space. Torn away from everything we know, we lose “the very coordinates of (our) identity.” But in the rebuilding, we can craft a life with renewed purpose and meaning.

It’s thrilling. It’s terrifying. It’s the paradox of being a trailing spouse, an existence marked by privilege and precarity.


Every trailing spouse’s experience is different. It depends on things like one’s gender (male trailing spouses have unique concerns), the degree of cultural difference, language barriers, and ability to find a job.

The duration of relocation matters. While I had (and still have) trepidations putting my career on pause, what’s helped is knowing we’ll return to Singapore next year after my husband’s studies end. This gives me certainty of when I can resume work.

My experience has also been deeply coloured as a mother. As my visa does not permit full-time work, my husband and I agreed I would assume more childcare responsibilities for our daughter.

An undeniable perk of being a trailing spouse is the chance to explore a new country, says the writer, such as visiting a local farm on a weekend. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

One of my most profound joys here is being able to witness my child grow up. She’s four, that magical age when she still gives bedtime snuggles and fierce hugs around my knees.

On some days, the two of us spend hours in parks and museums, basking in the Californian sunshine. Nothing compares to your child whispering to you: “You are everything Mummy.”

But can I be honest? It’s not enough to be a mum.

My heart aches because I know caregiving is as important a vocation as any other. But a voice in my head holds me to punishing standards. It hisses at me: “All those years climbing the ladder, and now you’re making sandwiches for your kid?” 

When talking to other expat partners, a recurrent theme is work. What we used to do. What we want to do next. Side hustles or career transitions we’re planning for.

It’s jarring when friends tell the writer to enjoy her tai tai life – shouldn’t the husbands be the lucky ones who have wives that sacrificed jobs and income to support them, she asks. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

With technology and flexi-work norms, many trailing spouses don’t fit the mould of passive homemaker. Quite a few of us have remote work arrangements, freelance gigs, micro-businesses or furthered our education. 

But still, there are sacrifices. Some of us are working and earning at less than our potential due to family, visa, or logistical issues.

Research on expatriate families talks about “trailing spouse syndrome”, which is when the accompanying partner struggles mentally and emotionally from the relocation. It can manifest in isolation, loss of purpose, even depression.

The need to subordinate one’s career is a big factor. Unlike the employed partner, spouses usually lack the support and structure offered by an institution such as a workplace.

In Singapore, I had colleagues, friends, and achievements. I felt seen. But since coming here, I’ve had to fight to avoid becoming invisible.

In this context, it feels jarring when friends say, “Enjoy the tai tai life”, something I hear often. Laden with unconscious bias, the statement presumes a woman should feel lucky to benefit from a leisurely life courtesy of her husband. 

Why isn’t it seen the other way round? I’d argue our husbands are the lucky ones to have wives who sacrificed jobs and income to support them.


But one undeniable perk of being a trailing spouse is the chance to explore a new country.

I adore travel and soaking up new experiences. You can say I’m textbook millennial: Wanderlust in my eyes and a habit of oversharing travel photos.

While travelling with a kid is hard, we try to arrange short vacations during my husband’s school breaks. It was special to introduce my daughter to her first camping trip at Yosemite Park and teach her to throw snowballs at Lake Tahoe. I fully acknowledge the privilege of being able to travel, even on a reduced income.

Prepping Chinese New Year hotpot dinner at her new home. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

But for every Instagrammable holiday, there are many days of undocumented drudgery.

Infrastructure and accessibility play a part. Several expat partners I know, especially those used to efficient public transport, bemoan sprawling American cities. Where we live, there are no shopping malls where you can run multiple errands under one roof. Everything is spread apart, making car access critical.

Women also experience cities very differently from men. Safety is a big concern and several neighbourhoods here are known for violent crime and theft. Some of my friends fear being harassed on trains or are wary of the city’s many homeless encampments. 

With such obstacles, the thrill of a new country wears off. You end up hemmed in, bored, trapped at home. Many activities, like exploring restaurants, are also less fun without friends.

But I don’t want to Netflix all day. Most trailing spouses want something that gives our days purpose so that life doesn’t just revolve around family and chores.

Fearful of driving, I relied completely on public transport during my first weeks here. I would take the bus, drop my daughter at school, and be stuck wondering what to do with home being a 50-minute walk away. Many shops are closed early in the morning and my husband often had classes until dusk.

Those were dull days, dictated by unreliable public transit. Once, my daughter and I waited one hour for the bus on a deserted street while a drunk, dishevelled man staggered nearby.

After that, I forced myself to drive. This has been a gamechanger as I can venture out and do more in less time.

I also keep my mind sharp taking online classes. I recently completed a certificate in diversity and inclusion, and am eyeing another on non-profit fundraising. These topics are aligned to my interest in a social impact career.

Loved ones ask why I don’t just take it easy. But I don’t want to Netflix all day. Most trailing spouses want something that gives our days purpose so that life doesn’t just revolve around family and chores.


In Singapore, I had colleagues, friends, and achievements. I felt seen. But since coming here, I’ve had to fight to avoid becoming invisible.

Let me illustrate what invisibility feels like.

Shortly after arriving, my husband connected with classmates and joined a group for student parents. My daughter made friends in school and was soon invited to classmates’ birthday parties.

The writer and her husband introducing their four-year-old to Halloween, aka pumpkin season, in California, United States. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

Invisibility is not having an inbuilt social network like they do. I must be more proactive in finding friends or risk fading away.

Invisibility is also not having access to resources and information.

Research interviews with trailing spouses show how they feel cut off from the relocation process. Institutions which manage relocations – such as human resource departments – often overlook them and liaise directly with the employed partner. Consequently, spouses find it hard to obtain information about a seminal event that deeply affects their lives.

In the initial months, I had to go through my husband to get various things, including tax-filing guidelines issued by his university, and our daughter’s health insurance details which were linked to his school’s plan. This dependency disturbed me. 

Feeling invisible is when you realise how the community you live in isn’t designed to include you.

My family lives in a graduate student village. After months, I realised my husband had been receiving regular e-mails about social events within the village. As the “primary tenant”, he was on the mailing list whereas I wasn’t. 

This was even though I had signed up for the village newsletter and even been volunteering on the resident’s committee!

Such incidents remind me my existence here is tied to my partner. As an individual, I am forgotten. 

These bags contain donated snacks for children in need, part of a donation drive the writer organised for a homeless centre she volunteers at. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

This has pushed me to aggressively find my own tribe, one not dependent on anyone else. To that end, I strongly recommend volunteerism to meet people and find purpose while also giving back.

I volunteer at a homeless centre and museum. I also serve on the parent community group in my daughter’s school and recently led a school-wide volunteer activity to benefit at-risk children. For my efforts, I was invited to serve on the board of a non-profit. 

These activities are weaning me from my anxieties over “losing” my career and individualism. They’ve helped me gain new things – purpose, accomplishment, and new networks.

While I enjoy hanging out with other international spouses, it helps being in the company of people who remind me that my identity is more than a wife. I am also an involved parent, culture lover, and advocate for social issues.

And therein lies one of the payoffs of my time here. Stripped of my old identity – professional titles, credentials – I now have an opportunity to reflect on who I truly am. It has been rocky, but I’m on the road to reinventing and rediscovering myself.


In Singapore, our government and businesses have urged locals to take on international work assignments as a criteria for career progression.

My hope in writing this is to highlight how we don’t simply deploy an employee oversees but a human being who exists in a family context. This means there may be two careers that need to be considered in a relocation. Unless companies only grant singletons international assignments.

Besides being able to watch her daughter grow up, one of the payoffs of the writer’s time away from Singapore is the opportunity to reflect on her own identity. (Photo: Jeanne Tai)

Spousal failure to adjust is one main reason why expatriate assignments fail. And with greater exposure to gender equality, millennial and Gen Z men are more likely to weigh the impact of relocation on their partners.

Bearing this in mind, progressive companies offer inclusive solutions that consider partners. Think job placement services, access to career coaching, and mental health support.

Even higher educational institutions are wising up. My husband’s university offers backup childcare services, as well as a free food and diaper programme for families who meet certain income requirements.

While these initiatives are geared toward student parents, they indirectly benefit partners as well. These resources swayed my husband’s decision when choosing between different degree programmes. 

If you know someone who is a trailing spouse, be aware of the mixed emotions they may be undergoing. Reconsider questions like “What do you do?” which is associated with job status and can create pressure or fear of judgment.

Ask open-ended ones like “What have you been up to lately?” which offers room to talk about things that matter to them.

Uprooting yourself for a loved one is never easy. When people ask what I’m doing, or what my plans are, I now answer plainly and truthfully: “I’m in transition”. 

CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at]

Source: CNA/pc