My Life As Luggage

The phone rings and a voice on the other end tells my husband to get on the next plane to Dallas. We're moving. Again. For two months, half-packed suitcases sat by the door waiting for this phone call. My husband may travel all over the US on consulting projects but he never leaves without one important piece of luggage, me.

When Brian first approached me about switching to contracting work, I was thrilled. It seemed like the perfect plan. We'd make more money this way, experience different cities and best of all, the client pays for all our living expenses. Why wouldn't it be fantastic? In a way it is, but no one told me how hard it would be to become a trailing spouse.

A trailing spouse is a person who gives up their career in order to follow his or her spouse to a new location where the spouse has found employment. In my case, we traveled half way round the world; from Australia to the US.

In every city, people say to me, "You are so lucky to be able to travel and have all that free time". They imagine that I jet to exotic and exciting places, living in the lap of luxury as a lady of leisure. I want to shake them and yell, "Life for me is not all about watching soap operas and eating bon bons!"

Yes, I travel a lot but clients and their projects determine our postings. Living at a motel in a small industrial town outside of Hartford, Connecticut hardly counts as exotic, exciting, nor luxurious. And suddenly the so called 'leisure' time becomes your enemy. Instead of working 10 hours day, I was now waiting 10 hours a day for my husband to come home.

Like so many women, my identity was closely knit to my career. I have been a hotelier, a public relations executive and even an entrepreneur but when I stopped working, people labeled me a 'housewife'. The term felt as foreign as the little town I'm in. I lacked friends and with little direction in life, my place in the world as I knew it, ceased to exist.

I found it infuriating that people treated me as if I was faceless. Without a job, children, or some sort of justification for my being, many people assumed I have nothing to offer. No one called me by my first name, let alone even tried to remember it. I was just Mrs. So and So. I can't tell you how many times my husband's colleagues have introduced me as 'Brian's wife' with no name following the statement. To them, I was the insignificant other.

During the day when my husband worked, I lived in a maddening solitude. It did not matter where I was; I was still alone. I watched mothers pushing prams in the park, eavesdropped on conversations in cafes and spied on kids playing hooky at the mall. I observed other people's lives in place of participating in my own. Except for the occasional 'Check please', it was as if my microphone had been turned off to the outside world.

Eating alone became one hair-graying meal after another. I would never eat at a restaurant without the comforting presence of a book or magazine. Clutching my security blanket, I would approach the host and meekly ask for a table for one. As if that was not demoralizing enough, the host would always repeat, 'Just one?' On days that I had forgotten a book, I would walk in feeling my stomach curdle like sour milk.

What began as an exciting adventure detoured into a quick trip to Depression Ville. I felt lost emotionally and literally. It was difficult navigating around a new city and running simple errands, invariably turned into heightened dramas. It almost seemed easier to stay indoors.

I was sleeping in late, watching too much daytime television and detaching myself from life outside. My apathy soon turned me into a sloth. The worst part is, none of your family or friends understand your dilemma because they can't see past your 'imaginary' lifestyle. It's difficult to garner sympathy when you're a 'lady of leisure' crying for work.

Aware of my pain, my husband called as much as possible during the day. In the evenings, he brought me to every corporate event, even when spouses weren't invited. At work, his career thrived. He was the can-do consultant who was able to fix anything but at home, he was helpless as I cried in his arms. For him, there are no dramatic changes in his life whether we are in Melbourne or the moon. He still goes to work from 8am to 6pm. His colleagues may be different at each project but the work is the same.

One night at a corporate event, one of Brian's colleagues mistook me for a new employee. I explained that I was the spouse of their new consultant and that Brian had brought me along so I wouldn't be alone in the evening. In my naiveté, I told her I hadn't bothered looking for a job thinking she knew that his contracts were short-term assignments and that it was impossible to apply for a work visa.

"Humph! If I'd married as well as you, I wouldn't bother either" she scoffed. Her eyes narrowed as she scrutinized me from my painted toenails up to my freshly coiffed hair. In my excitement to have a reason to leave the hotel, I splurged lavishly at a day spa and it paled my complexion see what I translated to in her eyes - Bimbo. That was the last humiliating blow I could take.

When we got back to the hotel, Brian and I fought like a couple on the brink of divorce instead of the newly weds that we were. Our fights were a daily occurrence and like skilful duelers in battle, our words aimed to wound. I ran from the hotel room and for the first time, he didn't run after me.

Sitting at the bar downstairs, a thought struck me as I watched my tears trickle into the empty wine glass. Why am I blaming my greatest supporter for everything that has gone wrong? People saw me as 'the dependent' without a voice but my husband never once treated me that way. I realized then that my life had limitless possibilities if I had the courage to own it.

With that thought, I asked myself this life changing question - If I didn't have to work, what would I really be doing with my life? The pivotal point came in the winter of '99 but my spring had already begun.

I wrote down a list of things that I've always wanted to do but ironically was too busy to because of my career. The long list ranged from cooking to learning a new language. Like one of our suitcases, it was time to unpack me.

At our second location, we promptly moved from the hotel into an apartment and I immersed myself into the community. I joined classes and scoured the local paper for events to attend. However, it was still a challenge to find like-minded women who were young and had free time during the day. Most women my age had a job or if they didn't, they had young children.

I used the Internet to search for other trailing spouses or newcomers to the city. It was not in my nature to be to be so proactive but if I wanted to find friends then I'd better get out of my shell. One of the best things I ever did was to email a stranger who had a coffee club for newcomers. The girl who started the club wanted to find her own friends rather than make obligatory friendships with the wives of her husband's colleagues.

Meeting people in the same situation validated every one of my crazy, lonely, and angry feelings I've had since relocating. We exchanged stories on getting lost, shared information on good restaurants and best of all, we were able to swap phone numbers. I finally found a way to connect.

Now, taking my cue from her, I set up a coffee club whenever I move. When we transferred to Seattle, the concierge of our apartment complex let me put up posters to invite residents to join. I placed flyers in stores that I frequented to attract people with similar interests and picked a convenient location to have coffee.

The group expanded through word of mouth spread and women joined from all over Seattle. One in particular, used to drive 50 miles just to have coffee with us. She recently left Ireland to marry an American. Like many of us, she yearned for company and had cried enough tears to flood the ocean that separates her and the two sons she'd left behind. "The one hour drive doesn't matter. You wee girls are my lifeline here," she would say. She was one of my most enthusiastic supporters and never missed a meeting.

The club opened my heart to so many different types of people, even people who would not have necessarily fit into my own clique back at home. It was a platform for people to meet and you could be as private or as open as you'd like. Some attended regularly and others never came back. Some got along so well that they saw each other outside of the coffee club. I was lucky to find good friends that I'm still in contact with today.

It's hard leaving and starting all over again. Harder still, when strong connections are made. And even though I know each move is temporary, I still put my all into these friendships. In the end, I don't just leave with suitcases, I leave with irreplaceable memories.

I'll never forget the joy I felt when a new friend, invited us to her wedding. The intimate affair took place in an art gallery and we shared food and wine with their closest family members and good friends.

Another friend who invited us to stay at his family's homestead in Austin also went to great lengths to make us feel welcomed. The next morning, he drove us to a small town to eat donuts. The Round Rock Bakery has been an institution for nearly 80 years and it touched me that he wanted to share this special Saturday morning family ritual with us. "The best donuts y'all are ever going to eat," he boasted. And he was right. These are all the wonderful snapshots of life that are filed in our album of experiences.

With a shift in my perspective, I began to see that my husband has given me the greatest gift - the gift of time. The gypsy lifestyle may have cost me my career but it earned me a complete new life. It emancipated me from a life bound to 9-5 job and gave me a chance to pursue my true passions: writing, traveling and gourmet cooking. It led me to opportunities such as writing a regular food column in a local newspaper and traveling coast to coast in the US.

It's been five years and five relocations since we started this journey. There's still a transition period before I settle in a new city but I've got the moving part down pat. I've learnt how to find an apartment in three days. How to get it furnished and livable within a week. I've learnt how to braise a duckling, bake sourdough bread from scratch and can even name all the ingredients in French.

I get up in the mornings to work on articles and in the afternoons, I might see friends. Eating alone is now a welcomed break to read all those books I've always wanted to. And sometimes when I have those rare free moments, I might sneak in an episode of Bold and The Beautiful and pop a little bon bon in my mouth.

Cheryl Collett
Dallas November 2004