The fifth volunteer to take part in my series on Male Trailing Spouses arrives slightly late for our interview on the porch of a local independent coffee shop, and looks a little harried. His phone buzzes on-and-off, and he checks it every time. He has a lot of work on, he tells me. But what is really stressing him isn’t that – it’s the fact that his wife is on the campus of the local university surrounded by rioting students. Twenty-first century man he might be, but Ryan Kilpatrick is still worried about his other half.
Luckily, we receive no distress calls and can carry on with our discussion. This is the first time I have actually been able to interview one of my male expat partner’s face-to-face: up until now, I have made contact with all of them through the magic that is the internet. But a meeting with Ryan’s wife Jenny through a mutual Facebook group we both belong to led to her suggesting I interview her husband. So, here we are – my first real life male trailing spouse (note: there are many other men accompanying their partners here; I just haven’t yet persuaded any of them to take part in this series!).
What this means is that this post will be very different from the others. Previously I have asked the men to simply answer a list of questions to give us a flavour of their lives. But although I used the same questions as the basis for this interview, the conversation was very free-ranging. At the same time it brought up some really interesting issues and topics to consider.
Don’t pat me on the back
One of the things that Ryan was adamant about when I asked him how he and his wife had reached the decision for her job to take precedence over his was that he shouldn’t be congratulated for this. It was a simple matter of economics (as is often the case in a couple moving for work), and it just so happened that she was earning more than him.
“Until you started asking these questions I have never even thought about it being the male or female trailing spouse,” he said.
“I am not patting myself on the back about making this decision”.
Jenny and Ryan first came to South Africa in 2011 when she was offered a place at the University of Pretoria as a Fulbright scholar. As the scholarship – sponsored by the US Government – includes financial support for a partner, Ryan readily agreed to pack his bags and join his wife on this first expat adventure.
They had already moved once for her job but that time it had been within the States where they lived. While Ryan had studied in Denmark and worked briefly in Costa Rica during graduate school, this would be their first venture into the world of expat life – and, luckily, it was a happy one.
Finding his feet
During his first stay in South Africa, Ryan quickly got involved in local life – volunteered to help stock a library at a local township school, played basketball, undertook pro-bono work in the Centre for Human Rights at the university where his wife worked, looked after their dog and generally played house husband. He said he relished the opportunities this experience gave him – and so when a full-time opportunity came up for Jenny at the same university a few years later, he jumped at the chance to come with her again.
Crucially, the move here this time (which is almost certain to last quite a few years – they have even bought a house, showing how serious they are about making a go of it) was a joint decision. He acknowledges that one of the reasons he has felt it easy to settle is because he knew he really wanted to come here in the first place – he took joint ownership of the decision. He also realises this isn’t always the case, and that things can be very different for someone who feels pushed into the move.
Although the first time round Ryan didn’t have to work as he was paid by the Fulbright scholarship to accompany Jenny, this time he wasn’t in such an enviable position. And, just as it is for most of us who give up a job or career to follow a partner abroad, this put him in a place he didn’t like very much.
Our conversation ranged around the issue of whether it is easier for women to give up their jobs or careers than men – something that I have been exploring throughout this series as well as in conversations in real life. As women are often forced into this position when they have children, society is somehow more forgiving of a woman who stops working than a man. Traditionally, a man is a “bread-winner” so is it harder for him not to be bringing home the bacon (or in our case, the )? Are women better at living with the status of not having a job than men?
These are all interesting questions and probably impossible to answer but my experience shows me that most men who find themselves in this situation do look for some sort of “project” – whether it be paid or unpaid – to mimic the life of a traditionally working man. Having said that, Ryan says he in no way has felt emasculated by the decision to put Jenny’s job first – it really is just the way it has turned out.
“There was a bit of joking about me being the house-husband, with people asking whether this meant I had to wear an apron,” he said. “Partly this is because in many corners of South Africa ptriarchy still rules.
“But we should celebrate the fact that more and more women are earning opportunities to live and work abroad in this increasingly globalised society, and that men like me are prepared to accompany their partner.”
However, he does acknowledge that while the mild teasing about being a house-husband didn’t get to him, he did want to do something more than shop, clean and look after the house when the couple moved to Pretoria. He took on some consultancy work online (working mostly in coffee shops – a great way to at least find some social interaction when you work from home) and then he landed a job working with Power Africa, an initiave of President Obama run through USAid. Now the pair are the perfect DINKIES (Double Income, No Kids) – although even though he is now working, he says their next move is still more likely to be linked to her job than to his.
One of the things I explored in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide was how men and women socialised differently. The way I mostly make friends (apart from through the children) has been arranging coffee or lunch dates. We women basically like to sit around and talk (I realise I am generalising here but on the whole females are better at small talk than men). The guys, on the other hand, tend to like to be “doing stuff” when they meet their buddies. Hence why sporting activities or shared projects seem to work better for men.
When Ryan arrived in Pretoria for their first visit in 2011 he said he was contacted by another trailing spouse whose wife worked with the UN. Ryan connected this man, an IT expert, with the township school and library, where he helped them set up their computer lab and taught computer literacy courses to students and parents. “He actually became a much better volunteer than I ever was,” Ryan admitted.
This time round he said he hadn’t met other men in the same position as himself – but said that hadn’t stood in his way. Instead of relying on the expat community for friendship he used his early opportunity of not having to work 9-5 to get out and about as much as possible and has made friends as he goes around his daily routine: with his estate agent, the owners of the couple’s local coffee shop.
Just do it!
So finally what does he say to others in a similar position to him thinking of taking the plunge?
“Just do it! I would say to any person that there is no job where you live now that gives you the sort of experience like this, where you put yourself out of your comfort zone and move somewhere new and have to figure out things for yourself.
“All of the clichés are true – and it really does give you a new perspective on your own country when you move away from it.”
And on this note we finish the interview so that Ryan can get back to work. And, I feel sure, check on his wife. After all, he may be safely having coffee with me while she is surrounded by rioting students, but they are definitely in this together.
If you have enjoyed this post please remember to check out the others in this series and do contact me if you are a male accompanying partner and would like to share your story.