Stay-behind families are the new expats

By Sidah Russell

Jo Mutter and her husband, Volvo Ocean Race competitor Tony, and children Alec and Cassandra.

Globally mobile employees spend long periods away from their stay-at-home families, but with the right support and balance it can work for everyone, writes Sidah Russell.

Massey University PhD graduate Jo Mutter has spent long periods over many years solo parenting her two children. Hers is one of a growing number of “stay-behind families”, where partners choose the stability and safety of home over the expatriate lifestyle of  “trailing spouses”.

Her husband Tony Mutter is a professional sailor and two-time winner of the Volvo Ocean Race. He is currently in the final stages of the 2017-18 race and she, as usual, is watching his progress from afar. Writing her PhD thesis on the impact global mobility has on families has been a very personal experience.

“My husband’s career means he gets paid to go sailing, he is living his calling,” she says. “I can’t deny someone I love that.

“But it’s not always easy – it has an impact on your career and sometimes you suffer from role overload. Yet most stay-at-home parents in this situation feel sorry for their partners because they miss out on so much, especially their children growing up.”

Dr Mutter says global mobility is a growing trend that applies far beyond the world of professional sport. Businesses are increasingly sending staff to offshore locations, either to work on short-term projects, as commuters (where an employee has a roster of away and at-home time), or as frequent international travellers.

“Many companies are entering emerging markets and people often don’t want to move their families due to security and other risks,” Dr Mutter says. “By keeping the family at home, they are choosing social and educational stability for their children.”

Jo Mutter is a PhD graduate from Massey University's School of Management. This article is based on her thesis.

In return, stay-at-home partners often make sacrifices in terms of their own careers and, more often than not, the stay-at-home partner is the mother.

“There are always exceptions, but let’s be honest, in most places around the world the male career is still prioritised over the female career,” Dr Mutter says. “Women’s careers are generally affected when they become mothers, but in a global mobility context the impact goes on for much longer.”

She says women with globally-mobile partners take longer to return to the workforce after having children, and when they do they need to find work that offers “personalised flexibility”.

“The standard types of flexibility that are increasingly offered by employers, such as starting and finishing early, don’t work for them. These women don’t want flexibility within a day, they want to be able to work long hours when their partner is at home and short hours when they are solo parenting.”

She says the women in her study with successful careers were self-employed, had built their careers around contract work, or had long-term employment relationships and were able to negotiate the flexibility they needed.

The impacts on the children of stay-at-home families is less than you might think, she says. Technology has made it much easier to keep in contact, and as long as there is a consistent routine, the children are generally happy.

“In many ways, the most difficult time for children is when the traveller returns home, because that is the break from their usual routine.

“After hearing the interviews with their children, my research participants were amazed to realise their kids were not concerned about having a globally-mobile parent. A number of them were like,’Oh my God, it’s not affecting them at all!’”

Dr Mutter believes that organisations could do more to support the families of globally-mobile employees, including providing central points of contact for assistance and creating “empathetic networks” for stay-behind partners.

“Support networks are really important because other partners understand the situation you are in. Most people are hesitant to ask their other friends to help because they feel they can’t reciprocate,” she says. “There’s no reason why, say, Fonterra couldn’t facilitate introductions between the partners of travelling staff members, or even create an online forum for partners to connect with each other.”

She believes that stay-at-home families should receive employer support in the way expatriate families do.

“Stay-behind families could be offered travel budgets to visit the travellers, for example, or have data or mobile phone costs covered,” she says. “It would take a shift in corporate culture, but substantial time off at home after a period overseas would also be great for families. People change their employment situations if their families are not happy.”