Amsterdam · Family · Life · parenting

The Worst Place On Earth


On Tuesday, My Lawyer says: “I might go to Dubai next week.”

I reply: “What is the likelihood in percent?”

“Like…. 50%.”

“Okay,” I nod. “Keep me updated.”

On Wednesday, My Lawyer says: “I am 80% not going to Dubai next week.”

“Okay,” I say. “Good to know.”

On Thursday, My Lawyer says: “I booked my tickets for Dubai. I leave Monday. First thing.”

This little back-and-forth, aside from sounding like a corporate reworking of Craig David’s Seven Days, will be familiar, I’m sure, to Trailing Spouses across the globe (I HAVE TWO SUBSCRIBERS IN PANAMA). Others might be wondering what the merry fuck a Trailing Spouse is, and why I’ve deigned to capitalise it, as if a Trailing Spouse is akin to a CEO (IMAGINE!). The truth is, written lower case, it brings to mind entrails, does it not? “I’m a trailing spouse.” “Jesus, Patricia, don’t be so hard on yourself.” See? I’m a trailing spouse. Trailing like a veil, trailing like a ball and chain, trailing like the innards of an Elizabethan woman who has been hung, drawn and quartered for being left-handed. No, YOU have a flair for the dramatic. I just don’t like the phrase trailing spouse.

The seven year old is the only child awake when My Lawyer leaves on Monday morning. She is already dressed in the clothes that she laid out the night before. “I’m all in black today. Like a shy person,” she adds, inexplicably. She has drawn felt-tip earrings on her earlobes. Dutch girls get their ears pierced younger than girls in the UK. The seven year old is The Only Girl Without Earrings, apparently. Apart from, you know. All the other kids who don’t have earrings.

“Okay, I’m off!” says My Lawyer.

“Where are you going?” asks the seven year old.

“Dubai,” replies My Lawyer.

“That’s not a place.”

“Many would agree with you,” nods My Lawyer. “What shall I bring back?”

“Bath bombs,” says the seven year old without hesitation.

My Lawyer looks at me with a vague look of panic.

“It’s like a ball thing that you drop in the bath and it fizzes,” I explain.

“And it has to turn the water a different colour,” says the seven year old.

“Okay, fine,” says My Lawyer. “See you all in a few days.” He disappears down the stairs and the seven year old yells after him:

“Don’t get one with bits in! I don’t want a bath with bits in!”

“Daddy is going to an island that is the shape of a palm tree,” I say.

The seven year old frowns. “Is he going to a spa?”

“Basically,” I nod.

I take the kids to school. It is bitterly cold. The nine year old is complaining that he doesn’t feel well. The nine year old is usually ill for the entire winter. He is small, pale, has a large vocabulary and a beautiful singing voice. If I were to describe him in one word, that word would be: “Victorian”. If I were to describe him in a sentence, that sentence would be: “Would not have survived childhood in Victorian times.”

I feel his head. He is a little warm, but, I reason, he has been wearing a hat. Also, I reason, the four year old has a day off school and I’ve promised to take him to the zoo, so it would just be a lot better all round if the nine year old wasn’t ill.

“You’re a little warm,” I say, “but you’ve been wearing a hat.”

“That seems inconsequential,” says the nine year old.

“See how you get on,” I say. “If you get worse, school can ring me.”

“We are going to the zoo!” says the four year old.

“You’re going to the zoo,” says the nine year old, processing the information.

“We are going to the zoo,” I confirm, resigned.

It is literally zero degrees out.


Artis Zoo is on the other side of Amsterdam, a 25 minute cycle from school on Steve the Bakfiets. Steve says nothing; he knows that I know he is judging me for some seriously iffy parenting back there, and questionable medical conjecture to boot. I ignore Steve’s accusing silence as I park him up outside the zoo, and I hobble after the four year old. Cycling a cargo bike in the freezing cold, over the course of a 25 minute ride, can age a person by approximately ten years.

“It’s very cold, Mama.”


“Let’s see Mr Crocodile. His house is warm.”

We warm up in the reptile house, where I spend most of the time pointing out lizards that the four year old cannot see but are right in fucking front of us. We see a couple of turtles shagging (“He’s having a piggyback ride!”), and then head out to the lions, who, huge as they are in a tiny enclosure, are almost impossible to miss. There’s always someone worse off.

“It’s very cold, Mama. Let’s go to the café.”

We drink hot chocolate in the café. We have been in the zoo for almost fifty minutes when my phone rings. It is the school. The nine year old has worsened and I have to collect him. I explain this to the four year old, who is not at all on board with the new plan, and cries all the way back to Steve the Bakfiets, who doesn’t need to say “I told you so.”

Back home, I put the feverish nine year old in my bed, and he falls asleep straight away after apologizing profusely for ruining the zoo trip. I play games with the four year old until it’s time to collect the seven year old. I wake the nine year old up and give him the iPad so that he can Facetime me on my iPhone during the 15 minutes we are out of the house.

“Can I Facetime Daddy?” asks the nine year old.

“No, he’s still on the plane.”

“He’s been on the plane a long time,” says the nine year old, “on his own.”

“Yes,” I say wistfully. “He has.”

The nine year old sleeps in my bed and stays at home on Tuesday. I take the four year old and the seven year old to school, and ask my friend Australian Mum to sit with the nine year old whilst I go to physiotherapy in an ambitious new bid to still be mobile when I’m 50. I sit in the waiting room, relishing the three minutes I have to myself. Outside, it starts to snow. Everything seems better.

My phone pings. It is My Lawyer:

Dubai is the worst place on earth.


Wednesday is the half day at school. It is also the day I see Hendrik, my unorthodox language coach, in a brown bar in central Amsterdam. I drop all the kids to school (“Try to cough quietly.”), take twenty minutes to read an article to discuss with Hendrik and then I hot-foot it into town.

Hendrik is not very interested in the article that I have brought. Instead he would like to know, who hates English people more? The Irish or the Scottish?

“It’s difficult to say, because we are very unpopular with both,” I explain.

“Yes!” he says, delighted. “This is what I hear!”

“My husband is getting his Irish passport,” I say, as an aside.

“Your husband is Irish?”

I shrug. “Irish enough.”

We wrap up early when I get a message from My Lawyer:

At airport. Shit! Left bath bombs in hotel room.

I spend my last free 20 minutes sourcing bath bombs in central Amsterdam, for which a more popular man will take the credit; it’s like Christmas all over again.

But it’s nice, right? Nice that I can do this; be on constant call for sick kids, for days off school, for emergency shopping to replace gifts “left in the hotel room”. My Lawyer can travel with a few days’ notice. I can go on school trips, I can sort of learn a new language. Sure, I get the odd comment (“Don’t you want to work?”), but that’s a dip in the ocean of Daily Mail Reasons To Hate Myself. (An aside: No woman, working or not working, has ever said this to me. Just to repeat that: NO WOMAN HAS EVER SAID THAT TO ME. But yet, it gets said. Weird. I wonder who’s saying it, then. Huh.)

What was I saying? Oh right – aside from the judgemental undercurrent and associated self-loathing, there are a lot of good things about being a Trailing Spouse. It’s just that trailing isn’t one of them. I don’t trail. I hardly go anywhere. I am the flag in the ground, until we move again. I am the Static Spouse. I am the Still Spouse.

I am the Spouse that Stays the Same.




9 thoughts on “The Worst Place On Earth

  1. I completely and utterly love this. You nailed it. The static spouse, the flag in the ground. That’s what we are doing- holding things steady for the family. Meanwhile casting ourselves personally into a kind of holding pattern in life (and particularly career)- like an aeroplane circling the airport. But doing it for the good of the family on board (your family). Sharing with all the other trailing entrail friends I have 😂


    1. Thanks so much for sharing – this one seems to have really resonated, which is VERY comforting! Have you read Michelle Obama’s Becoming? She writes a lot about doing the same for her family. I mean, we are JUST like Michelle Obama. Seriously though it’s a good read!


  2. I am now a devoted fan of your blog. I too have been a trailing spouse , a flag in the ground, however now my kids are growing up so I am becoming a derailing spouse (?) or perhaps a weathervane turning in a new direction. Looking back …. past all of the “don’t you want a real job? Or my own trailing spouse?” moments when I asked my haggard self in the mirror , and I would not trade it for anything!


  3. Please tell Hendrik that the Irish do not hate the English. I have hordes of Irish relatives (which Irish person doesn’t!) and have never heard them say anything but nice things about the English. Even since the Brexit referendum. However, I can’t speak for the Scots!


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