Tales of a Trailing Spouse

Tales of a Trailing Spouse

If you’ve moved here for a partner’s new job, you’re not alone. Read one wife's story from our 2016 Visitors & Relocation Guide .

Virginia Robinson and her family – husband Mark and daughters Ellie, 7, and Clara Jay, 3 – moved to Chapel Hill in 2013
Virginia Robinson and her family – husband Mark and daughters Ellie, 7, and Clara Jay, 3 – moved to the area in 2013. // Photo by Briana Brough

Thirty-six hours after moving to the area, I went to my first job interview. Pretty horribly sleep-deprived from both travel and caring for my daughters – Ellie, who was 4, and Clara Jay, who was 4 months – I sat at the end of the world’s longest table, wearing the only dress I had unpacked and a pair of work-appropriate shoes hastily purchased the day before. I answered a slew of questions, including “Tell us about your relationship to Durham.” That one was easy. Except for the preceding day and night, I had absolutely none.

My family relocated when my husband, Mark, took a new job. For his hiring process, he was flown out from California (where we used to live), put up in a nice hotel alone, and ferried through his numerous meetings over two days. It was intense but focused, and we were thrilled by the job offer because it allowed us to move closer to our families and to an area that has so much to offer a couple with young kids.

My interview was obviously a far cry from his. Adrenaline, chaos and a thousand-yard stare don’t often result in a person who seems hireable! Looking back, I laugh about it. But I cringe, too. Timing really is everything. When that opportunity didn’t work out, I shifted my focus to meeting the families around us.

When I met my next-door neighbor Carmen Bapat, she asked if I was working. I told her that we moved here because Mark was offered a position, but that I hadn’t found anything yet. I regaled her with my embarrassing tale.

“Ah, you’re the trailing spouse,” she said knowingly. “The what?” I asked. I’d never heard the term. “The trailing spouse. Your partner gets the job, and you follow. I’m a Ph.D. student in sociology; we study people like you!”

It was a revelation. There were so many people like me that we were a thing!

And there are a lot of us in the Triangle. Because the area is a hub for academia, medicine and technology, professional opportunities abound. For some, a spouse’s career move isn’t a big deal. For example, my friend Erianne Weight moved here for a professorship, and her husband, Matt, who was a pilot for Delta, only needed to change the “home” airport from which he flew out. For him, the transition felt pretty neutral.

However, among most of the partners we know, it seems rare for both people to secure equally satisfying jobs, and that can be stressful.

Mark felt guilt for being the one running off to work while I unpacked boxes and figured out the school system. And in my mind, my daily successes seemed less impressive (I found our favorite crackers at Harris Teeter – um, congratulations to me?), and the failures seemed more ridiculous (however, I got lost finding the marshmallows).

But the discovery really can be fun. While Mark was at work, and after my “Target phase” – when I would go to Target for almost everything – I began acquainting myself with our new town. It became a kind of treasure hunt. The bounty of new places, and the people I met along the way, made this place start to feel like home. At local shops and restaurants, owners and salespeople greeted me as if we’d known each other forever, even though I was brand new. I’ll always be grateful to them for treating me like a friend when I still felt like a stranger.

Eventually, moving inspired me to pursue things I hadn’t before. I joined the Triangle Modern Quilt Guild, which meets at Spoonflower and has helped me up my sewing game tremendously, and I decided to change paths professionally, returning to my first career – writing. I’m now the editorial assistant for Durham Magazine, Chapel Hill Magazine and this publication!

It’s funny, but I think when you move, you do it twice: once to get yourself physically to the new place, and once again, metaphorically, to move beyond all that life change.

Each family, and each partnership, is unique, so I’m hesitant to dole out advice on how best to thrive after moving for the sake of another’s career, especially since I wasn’t always particularly graceful myself. That said, I do think it’s important to hold in your head and in your heart that to be someone who makes a new place – a new house, new people, new schools, all of it – feel like a home is not a small, insignificant role. And I’d like to join all the awesome people who were kind to me in welcoming you here. Enjoy the treasure hunt!