Whining Versus Criticizing Versus Enabling And So On

Recently, on one of those ever-lively Foreign Service email lists, the subject of “family friendliness” came up. Apparently, our beloved State Department ranks highly as an employer, but for family-friendliness…not so much. In fact, since the list is mostly spouses, most responses could be summed up like this: *SNORT!*

Of course, the FS is unique in its demands on families. There are a lot of things that are just a part of the package: frequent moves, danger, dirt, disease, etc. The State Department can’t make malaria, dengue, beggars, or carjackers go away. It’s going to be a tough life no matter what States does about it, and the career could be said to be inherently family unfriendly in several unavoidable ways.

But, sometimes, on these groups, there are hints that people who point out the problems are “whining.” The theory being that it’s all good, we all signed up for this, and we should just roll with the punches and be happy we aren’t military/unemployed/whatever. If we don’t love it–all of it–we should leave. But, as Jen notes in her blog this week, these folks are missing the point.

I personally think that real whining is very, very rare in the FS.

There is some venting, that is true. When faced with say, undrinkable water and consequently kids who are always sick, or a bidding cycle that seems like it will never end, and when then presented with one of the very few groups of people who might actually know what the hell you are talking about, it’s not surprising that some venting will happen. In my view, it’s only “whining” when it crosses an admittedly fuzzy line and becomes excessive. Or when it’s clear someone has made their own bed by going to a very difficult post without doing the research on it. You get my drift. This really is very rare.

If you think someone is whining, try to put yourself in their shoes. This may be difficult if you have never served in a hardship post, for example. Or if you have never served in the same area of the world as they have, and so can’t envision just how bad their situation might be. Or if they are in the middle of an unaccompanied tour, and you’ve never done one. Or if everyone in your family is perfectly average and normal with no special medical or academic needs of any kind (do these people even exist?)

Most importantly, don’t assume that the situation at your post is all comparable to the situation at their post. It’s a big world, and there are several very different Foreign Services out there. Some are just flat-out easier compared to others. A lot easier.

Now about criticism.

My view: if there is something that State can easily, quickly, and inexpensively do to improve quality of life for Foreign Service families, it should get done. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?  Here’s a few suggestions, just based on my own experiences.

Put all the post and employment research information currently available on the “Open” net on a password-protected INTERNET site for family members. Yesterday.

Give all adult family members ID badges so they can get into Main State and conduct their essential business without being treated like tourists or potential terrorists.

At posts with a mixed housing pool–e.g. Embassy-owned and leased–develop policies that ensure that families in leased housing receive the same basic services as families in owned housing. (This is a morale issue at my current post.) For example: air conditioners in temperate to tropical climates (at least in bedrooms), functioning major appliances, internet service, and so on. Then, actually implement those policies. Get tough with landlords. If a landlord won’t comply, find a temporary solution until the lease ends, or the officer’s tour ends. Above all, don’t keep signing leases on properties that don’t meet the basic criteria.

Give all spouses language training, at least to a survival level. None of this “space-available” crap. Many spouses are unable to attend classes at FSI due to employment, childcare, or other issues. Either make language classes universally available to spouses at post, or give them an allowance to go find their own tutors in DC or at post. Hey, the CLO, or MGMT at post could keep a list of local language schools and teachers. We could submit receipts for reimbursement up to a certain limit–say anything less than teaching us at FSI would cost. Now there’s an idea to run with. In fact, since many spouses may prefer to take part-time, night, or other flexibly scheduled classes, it could actually save State money.

Take special medical or educational needs into account at panel. Right now, the clearance system just tells what you can’t bid. It doesn’t do anything proactive to ensure that you get a post where your family can be accommodated. This leads to officers “glossing over” (to put it kindly) the needs of their family members in order to get assigned. Somewhere. Anywhere. We refused to do this, even though many people hinted that we should, and were completely upfront about our son’s learning disorder. We also did not place a bid on any post where we weren’t sure he could be accommodated–which led to a pretty short bid list.

Yes, we finally ended up in Vienna, but only by the skin of our teeth. We aren’t here for the opera. We’re here because it is a huge expat community and there are three major international schools, one of which that was willing to accept our son. Some individuals at State were personally as helpful as they could be, for which I am thankful. But the system itself was certainly not. (He’s doing very well, by the way.)

The discussion on this email group produced many more good suggestions. I won’t even get into spouse employment solutions because this has never been a major issue for me, and I don’t know as much about it as those who have been trying to work full-time while posted overseas. But I do know that I frequently hear solutions that certainly seem very common-sense, and could even potentially save State money. And I know the level of collective frustration on that front is very high.

These are all problems that are well-known, and have been going on as long as I can remember. Why is that? And why shouldn’t we criticize an institution when it fails to respond to simple and obvious problems?  Are we just hoping they will go away?  Are we afraid to say anything negative in case it might impact our own, or our spouse’s, career? Are we striving for sainthood?

I just don’t think there’s anything else to be said about that. Now, on to enabling.

Here’s what I think. The FS is full of smart people. I ought to know, I’m married to one of them. You have to pass some sort of smart test to get in, or so I hear. And then you are actually paid pretty well. Six figures at the upper levels. I mean, please, with all the talk about salaries not being competitive, we are talking “not competitive with corporate lawyers.” It’s still pretty good money, people.

I think that anyone who is in that position ought to be able to figure out these problems. I think anyone in that position ought to be assertive enough to push for changes in a system that doesn’t “allow” for something totally obvious (see list, above). And I think anyone in that position ought to be working their butt off to get their organization off the bottom of “family-friendly” employers.

Maybe that smart test ought to include a section on empathy. Or a section in which you make a ten-hour flight with a toddler and newborn by yourself. In coach class. And then end up in an African country most people have never heard of in a house that is falling apart trying to keep your babies from drinking the water or getting bitten by malarial mosquitoes for two years. (Holodeck, anyone?)

The point being, we as family members put up with stuff every single day. We know that individuals cannot always move mountains. But we deserve to hear: “I know this really is necessary for your family, and I’m going to do my best to get it for you.” We should be able to expect this kind of response when we present very real problems. Especially ones that can be solved fairly easily and inexpensively. Not: “Sorry, I can’t find it in the FAM, so I’m not willing to risk my own behind to get you what you need.” This culture needs to change.

To consistently expect less is just enabling. We can’t know for sure that State will live up to our expectations, but we can be pretty sure it will live down to them, given a chance.

Finally, though I’ve been in the FS a long time myself, I am really tired of hearing how hard it was for spouses 40 years ago. (Someone please smack me if I ever start doing that.) It should get better. It should evolve. Frankly, it sounds like it totally sucked way back when. You simply couldn’t get people to join the FS if similar conditions existed today. Their spouses wouldn’t let them.

State changed because it had to. And the only way it’s going to keep evolving is if it has to, in order to keep attracting the “best and the brightest.”

So, I submit, that it is, in fact, the duty of every family member to “whine” in a constructive, civil manner about things that aren’t getting done, that don’t make sense, or are just plain stupid or inconsiderate. Loudly.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am very thankful for all those who do!


  1. I love this. And I agree with you about everything except that part about how we shouldn’t whine if we bid a crappy post high without doing the research. Because some of us are married to idiots who bid certain places high when their spouse SPECIFICALLY told them not to.
    And so I (oh did I say “I”? I meant “those spouses”) feel every right to whine about that. 😉
    Great post. I hope somebody somewhere reads this and does something!


  2. Wonderful post with excellent points. I am very sorry to see that all these points are still valid eight years after I left the FS. Very, very sorry, because there is so much good in the FS experience, though little of it comes from State!
    And as far as having gotten my children with learning differences out of the system, all I can say is that I really should have done it earlier. I should have know better when our post choices on my second-to-last bidding cycle came down to going to a terrorist city with a school small enough to want our children with learning differences, or living on a French speaking island outpost with no schools with an American curriculum….
    All I can say is it is lots of fun (hint of sarcasm) watching everyone on the street all the time to see if they are setting you up as a target.


  3. Well said! It’s interesting to read about FS life from someone else’s perspective. I have my own set of complaints about family friendliness as an FSO mom. I tend to idolize EFMs’ situations, but it’s a good reality check to hear we all have our own obstacles — albeit different ones. Now, if only State would magically make them go away for all of us… =)


    • It’s news to me that anyone would idolize life for family members! Well, OK, it’s pretty nice in Vienna 🙂 But living in Africa with a baby/toddler who was always sick from something, poisonous snakes and a freezing cold pool with a rickety knee-high fence (only after we insisted GSO install one) in the yard, and the power out for several hours a day totally sucked. (And pre-internet, too, so very isolating.)


  4. Although I left the service a few years ago, I did some hard time early on as a GSO in Africa. It’s such a hard balance between remembering what you just said and navigating the constant barrage of “why isn’t this just like my home in washington?” It’s easy to give way to frustration and fall into asking folks to suck it up – my favorite was a woman who insisted that the hot and cold water faucets (which were in the normal places) have the little red and blue dots on the handles. Her children, she insisted, needed it at 9 and 11 years old. But what you say is exactly right. It’s hard enough as it is and State should do what they can to lighten the load. Always. Without hesitation.


  5. The thread on the yahoo group really got to me as well and I’m so happy to read both yours and Jen’s thoughts after spending many years in the FS. I hope that some changes can be made … because let’s face it. There ARE issues. Probably more than we’ve all noted. Some big. Some small. And they affect us… sometimes the spouses MORE than the employee.


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