When my husband and I began discussing the opportunity for him to take a new job in Zurich, the idea of being a “trailing spouse” in Switzerland sounded appealing, an adult’s version of studying abroad with less class time and more attending of parades with cows wearing flower crowns. I’d received a master’s degree, changed jobs and gotten married in a three-month span and couldn’t quite remember what it was like to have downtime, although my list of recent life changes was useful for frightening anyone who asked “What’s new?”
Upon arrival in Switzerland, one of the many registration forms asked for my occupation. Without a job opportunity in sight, I had to check the box for “Hausfrau.” Hausfrau? A few days later, I ran into an acquaintance who asked, “Wasn’t checking that Hausfrau box an absolute crisis moment?” It was, heightened by the fact that I had no concept of life as a modern Hausfrau, especially since we didn’t have children. The term also brought to mind the type of intimidating person whose name would frighten horses (my primary reference for Fraus at the time was Frau Blucher of Young Frankenstein).
Maintaining the Haus itself was difficult in the first few months. Our furniture shipment was delayed and we camped out on a rapidly deflating air mattress, cobbling together meals using one pan, pot and fork each. Forget Hausfrau – I was barely a single-room-Frau! When we had things like knives, dressers and coats again, I was confronted with a new and unexpected challenge. In our old lives, my husband and I had shared household responsibilities and hadn’t felt any lingering sense of guilt over dust on the baseboards. Now that I wasn’t working, I felt an enormous sense of ownership over every aspect of our new lives. I also felt the need to manage everything perfectly, somehow compensating for the former career, especially if I was going to be a Hausfrau for the foreseeable future.
How could I let my husband clean the bathroom when I was the one with vast quantities of free time, even if he wanted to split everything more equally? But how had I then somehow ended up having a long and earnest conversation at Lidl about the best cleaning products to use on grout? How could I let him take time to make the calls for repairs when our apartment was visited by a modern version of the biblical plagues? I learned the German for “moth,” “cockroach” and “the oven will take two weeks to repair” long before I’d actually learned the difference between Perfekt and Präteritum tenses.
These challenges were accentuated by the mysteries of textbook German and spoken Swiss-German (particularly the repair calls). I lost faith whenever I couldn’t correctly utilize accusative versus dative cases. After all, now that I was a Hausfrau, I had the flexibility to take classes during the workday. I should definitely have the time to study and acquire more Swiss-German than what I learned from the time I attempted to board a tram during rush hour with a very large potted plant. I occasionally wondered how I’d functioned before knowing how to identify the direct versus indirect objects of a sentence. The struggle to conquer a foreign language in the name of “integration” was compounded when, despite seven years of French study, I’d told a French-speaking waiter that I was working on learning Germany.
Talking with other so-called Hausfraus, it seemed that many of them had reached a much healthier place of acceptance and German sentence construction – “Just sort of mumble the article when you’re talking” was one of (die? den? das?) better pieces of advice I received. They also used their time in positive ways, developing new hobbies and discovering potential career paths or volunteer opportunities. It was clear that I’d have to identify ways to better structure my life so that I didn’t feel quite the same responsibility over issues like crumbs on the counters (at least once we’d evicted the insects). I signed up for volunteer work, both to keep my resume updated and to recapture a sense of accomplishment and structure. It didn’t fully replace the paycheck that could transform a multi-hour conference call about font sizes into a tolerable experience, but I also had the flexibility to focus on aspects of my old job that I’d enjoyed and wanted to develop further.
When I was working, I kept a to-do list in a notebook so that I could stay organized and go back later to identify accomplishments. My husband and I adopted an updated to-do list to organize all our household tasks, which helped me to see how much I contributed every day. It still wasn’t easy to manage every aspect of our lives with stereotypical Swiss precision (and let’s not discuss the horrors of running late in Switzerland!). However, reimagining my role as a sort of “Hausprogrammanager” instead of a Hausfrau also helped ensure that we didn’t get crossed wires about who was in charge of which tasks and end with one of us running across the city to hand-deliver immigration paperwork right before our residence permits expired (completely hypothetical example). We’d have to continue managing life in our new-ish country, but we were able to identify our own version of the modern Hausfrau partnership without anyone spending too many hours scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush – at least until it would be time to move.
By Tracy Wellons
Tracy lives in Zurich with her husband. Originally from California, she has a master’s degree in nonprofit administration and currently serves as a board member and treasurer for Zharity. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, skiing and collecting Swiss-German vocabulary words.
Illustration by Aleksandra Koroleva
Aleksandra, originally from Moscow, Russia, now lives in Adliswil with her husband and 3.5-year-old son. She specializes in clinical psychology and started studying illustration after her son’s birth. In her free time Aleksandra likes sleeping, just as all mothers do. https://www.instagram.com/uber_evil