Deja Vu All Over Again

“Millennials” are unhappy with being so-called trailing spouses, or so I hear. Because, you know, they have education, and careers and stuff. And some of them are guys.

This is not surprising, because my generation felt the same way. We also thought we were something new and different. Now I understand why this made the previous generation roll their eyes at the time.

I am in my late forties, which makes me a GenXer. My husband, who just squeaked into the Baby Boom, joined the Foreign Service in 1988, shortly before I graduated from college.

Other than being more female, spouses back in that day were in pretty much the same demographic as new spouses are now. We were nearly all very well-educated, and had often left careers behind. In fact, the the average age of joining was higher back then, so many spouses would actually have been further along on their career trajectories when their officers signed up.

I was an exception, and at that time, probably one of the youngest spouses ever to follow my officer overseas. I had just turned 23 when we landed in La Paz. The ink on my Georgetown University diploma was barely dry. Was I annoyed to find out that the only job available to me at post was temporary secretary? What do you think?

I was terribly disappointed to discover that no one cared about my hard-won education, or even (in some cases) that I could form a complete sentence. “Devastated” might be a better word. I had been working since I was 16, and had certainly done my share of unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but to discover that was not just in my past but in my foreseeable future as well was a shock. Not to mention, I had all those student loans to pay off!

Top that off with the surreal world of women’s clubs and formal receptions. I am from a solidly middle class, middle-American background, and had zero experience with any kind of formal setting to begin with. Then, I went from keg parties in grungy dorms to tea parties at the Ambassador’s residence in a little more than a year.

I realize now that I had several kinds of culture shock going on at once. It was not pretty.

I had no idea what I was getting into. This was pre-Internet, so how could I? I didn’t understand why the few older spouses I met during my husband’s training were so cynical when I brightly said I would be working overseas. I just assumed that they hadn’t tried hard enough. My generation would be different, you see. Because we were smarter, better-educated, less traditional…or something.

In fact, we are different. But not because we are smarter or try harder. We are (theoretically) able to work at most posts overseas because those that came before us worked hard to make jobs available to spouses and to put bilateral work agreements in place. We are able to telecommute and freelance because of this amazing new invention called the Internet. And we are able to avoid most of the onerous responsibilities of previous generations of diplomatic spouses because society at large changed and State reluctantly followed. I’m pretty sure my own cranky cohort drove the last nail into that coffin…

The Foreign Service spouse situation is FAR from perfect. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it all that good. But it is definitely better than it was twenty years ago.

It is also possible now to enter this weird world with your eyes more or less open, thanks to blogs, online communities, and books written by Foreign Service family members. Of course, entering the Foreign Service universe is kind of like having children. You can read all the books you want, but it won’t truly prepare you for the havoc that having your first child will wreak upon your life. I get that. But there is definitely first-hand information out there.

A smart person should know to take everything State says with a grain of salt. After all, if you went to college, you know to always rely on primary sources whenever possible!

It’s easy to assume when you see older spouses who are more or less content with their lot that it was always the case. That they never gave up anything to be a Foreign Service spouse, or that they gave it up gladly. Um, no. Spouses who joined the Foreign Service community back when I did have done one of two things since:

1.) Left the Foreign Service, with or without their officers, or,

2.) Developed a plan for their career and life that works with being a Foreign Service spouse, rather than against it.

What you are seeing now, in short, are the ones who managed to make it work for them. And you can bet it was not an easy process. They may have become writers or artists, or developed other unexpected freelance careers as I have. They may have decided that working as a secretary is OK if it gets them out of the house and makes them feel like part of a team. Or they may have decided that paid work does not have to be part of their personal life fulfillment plan, and that volunteering is pretty cool after all.

Also, burnout happens. State does a lot of stupid stuff. When first presented with that stuff, the natural instinct is to rail against it and try to change it. This is GOOD. But, not everyone can keep up that momentum. Some people decide that State is kind of like a toxic relative that they need to keep out of their lives in order to be happy. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach.

I tried to do that–it didn’t work! What I did learn was to focus on one or two things that I understand and care about, and work to change just those things, at the post level or occasionally on a larger scale.

So, this is what I have to say to “millennials,” with love and affection:

You are so right, about just about everything you can possibly say about State. I agree with you at least 99 percent. But you are wrong about one thing. You are not special. Not because you are young, not because you have an impressive degree or C.V., and not because you want to be recognized for your skills and intelligence. The road you are on has been traveled before, many, many times.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get pissed off about the situation–and hopefully stay that way!

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5 comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. My spouse joined the FS one year after yours. Our first post did not even have a fax machine, let alone computers, no TV, no Amazon. But we made it work, and I have ended up with over 21 years of working in the Federal Government. The longest I ever worked at one job was 3 years. So this was not easy to do. I will happily take my pension when I turn 62.

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  2. Kelly,

    As one of the “millenials” you speak about, I agree with most of what you are saying. I do understand that while I’m not “special,” I do think there is potential, particularly among more experienced trailing spouses who have traveled this road “many, many times” to act as though we “millenials” must also “pay our dues” and forge these paths on our own because that’s exactly how the old guard did it, I think that attitude is exactly antithetical to the “lean-in” sentiment that’s being promoted among career-oriented women right now. I’m not saying that this attitude is unique to experienced trailing spouses either — I’ve encountered it all throughout my career as a young attorney (and now as a not-as-young one) from more experienced female attorneys.

    That’s not to say that I’m not engaged in the struggle of how to find a meaningful career (through a balance of freelance work and telecommuting work) as an attorney. I understand that a large part of finding out what works for me depends on my willingness to put my head down and figure it out. However, I also believe — and am trying — to change attitudes within the Foreign Service that it’s somehow “every woman for herself” simply because she’s the trailing spouse. To that end, I engage and participate in any discussion I can about career development in the Foreign Service, try to find resources that I can share with other “millenials” and answer every single email I ever get from a young up-and-comer to commiserate, provide guidance and simply promote camaraderie. It’s an attitude I have found woefully lacking from the more experienced trailing spouses that I approached when I first married my husband and he was a junior officer.

    Thanks for providing meaningful dialogue about this process — the career of a trailing spouse not easy for anyone, regardless of how long they’ve been doing it, and I’m glad you’ve found a balance!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your comment. I have to reply because “you have to pay your dues” was EXACTLY what I was told on my first tour. I hated it then, and I would never tell anyone that now. I sure hope you didn’t think that was what I was saying in my post!

    Others who have been around as long as I have wrote me offline and mentioned that they thought older spouses were “bitter” when they first went overseas. Honestly, I did too, I just didn’t want to use that word. In retrospect, it seemed unkind. I do think we all have to own our choices and if they haven’t worked out perfectly, take a look in the mirror first. Bitterness is essentially a passive response and not very useful.

    I also answer any and all questions asked me by newer spouses. I have noticed that sometimes–just sometimes–they prefer not to hear the answers. I think if you ask for an honest answer you should not be surprised when you get one! Could it be that some older spouses are simply tired of being dismissed?

    The fact is, it will not be easy to develop yourself professionally as an FS spouse. And, you may eventually have to make compromises. Not necessarily to accommodate your spouse’s career–more likely because you decide it is worth it to YOU to live overseas. Fortunately, the potential for at least approaching our own goals is much greater than it was even 20 years ago. Not because the situation with State has really changed all that much, but because the world has moved on.

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    • Totally agree, Kelly. Thanks for your response. Also, I mentioned that I commented on your post to my husband last night and he gently said, “Honey, just so you know — we are too old to be millenials.”

      Shock of a lifetime, I tell ya. I didn’t realize that we’re not!

      Thanks again!

      Like

    • “Fortunately, the potential for at least approaching our own goals is much greater than it was even 20 years ago. Not because the situation with State has really changed all that much, but because the world has moved on.”

      THAT is an amazing summary/insight into the life of an EFM.

      Like

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