Dispensing Pearls of Wisdom

Which are worth exactly what you paid for them!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended AAFSW‘s Ice Cream Social. This is a rather nice event held every few weeks at the Oakwood ghetto corporate housing complex just outside DC in order to bring experienced Foreign Service families together with newbies. It includes a “speed dating” segment during which newbie spouses are paired with “oldies,” for lack of a better term, so that they can ask questions about FS life.

Some of those newbies were not much younger than I am, so, as always, it felt a little strange being one of the longest-serving people in the room. At least one of the people I spoke to was older than I was. But the fact is, my husband joined the FS a good 26 years ago, so yeah, in Foreign Service years, just like in dog years, I’m old  <sob>

It got me to thinking: what advice would I give to any spouse or partner who is just starting out in this role? Other than run away! of course. But no one ever listens to that, so here we go.

The most important piece of advice I have is to be committed. But not to the State Department. That is unlikely to be a relationship that works for you *cough*

Your spouse can be as committed as he/she wants to be, but your first commitment needs to be to yourself—and to your children, if you have any. Some mechanisms are in place to guard your interests, but ultimately, the only person who can look out for you is you.

How does that work in practice? First of all, you must do the research and decide whether or not each post is acceptable to your family. Do not leave this up to your spouse, and do not rely on the State Department for information. Back in day, we got stacks of books out from the library when we researched a post. Now you’ve got the entire Internet at your disposal. Use it!

For example, can you spend two years living in a city where you can’t walk down the street without getting mugged? This is not likely to be a huge problem for your spouse, who will spend most of his/her day being driven around town in an armored car. But it will certainly be a major problem for you if you are used to walking, running, or simply leading an independent life without being totally paranoid all the time. Either you can deal with it or you can’t, but you need to think about this before bidding.

Do you need decent Internet access to work, study, or simply to stay sane? Then prioritize that. Again, your spouse will have Internet at work. You may not. This is your problem.

You must find the right schools for your kids, because you know who is going to primarily be dealing with the problems if those schools don’t work out? Yes, you. Don’t sign off on the bid list until you have done your research and are satisfied with the school situation. Seriously, the schools thing is huge.

On the subject of kids, you must find out how bad the air quality really is, as well as other environmental factors that may affect your family’s health. Because guess who is going to be doling out the malaria meds or taking kids to the doctor when they are sick from pollution, allergies, or contaminated water? Probably not the officer. And of course, there is some risk to living in countries with sub-standard health care that cannot be eliminated by State Department resources—though I think they usually do their best. That’s just the reality of the situation.

If you intend to work, you must find out what employment opportunities exist at post—and be prepared to occupy yourself otherwise if a conventional job is not available. Frankly, family member employment at embassies abroad is not in a good place right now. There is a lot of frustration, particularly with very lengthy security clearances for already-scarce jobs, and there is no reason to believe it will get better any time soon. Be prepared to be un- or under-employed for many years, off and on, unless you can come up with a more creative way to occupy your time (you probably can!)

Speaking of employment, please ensure your own financial security. It doesn’t matter whether or not or how much you work. It doesn’t matter if you have the most secure marriage in the history of marriage. There are ways to make sure that your interests are protected no matter what happens. The State Department actually offers a lot in this regard, but you have to get your ducks in order—it doesn’t all happen automatically. AAFSW has a series of articles (some written by yours truly) on this subject. Use them to conduct a financial “check-up” before you go overseas for the first time.

If you’ve read this far, it may sound like spouses get dumped on a lot. Yes, they do. There is a ton of unpaid work that is directly connected to an officer’s career, and spouses carry a lot of that load. I haven’t even mentioned all the packing and unpacking. And the State Department does not offer as much support as it could or should in several areas. That’s a fact that is not likely to change.

So, you have a choice: you can pretend that all things are equal, and get annoyed when it doesn’t work out that way, or you can take a deep breath and start thinking about what benefits you are going to claim for putting up with all this. Here’s the way I look at it:

I get to travel a lot.

I get to work part-time instead of full-time. This happens to be the perfect arrangement for me.

I have time to pursue my many non-work interests (when I am not packing and unpacking).

I often have household help of some kind, even if it’s just a weekly cleaning lady. (Hey, maybe that’s normal where you come from, but it’s not for someone like me.)

I get to learn other languages and explore other cultures.

I get to meet a lot of smart, interesting people.

About people: another pearl of wisdom I have to offer is to get outside the Embassy bubble as soon as possible after arrival at any post. Get away from the office gossip, the housing problems, the people who are mourning their lack of a job. Join expat groups at post (yes, even the women’s clubs–they aren’t your grandma’s women’s clubs anymore), get involved in the school if you have kids, take some local classes, start a book club or knitting group, do whatever it takes to expand your circle. Expats are very welcoming of newcomers. You’ll be making new friends before you know it. Trust me: I’m an introvert, and even I can do this!

Last question (someone at the Ice Cream Social asked me this): is it all worth it? Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Of our seven posts, one was very difficult and depressing, and I think, ultimately not worth it. We experienced a loss at another post that put it in a separate category altogether, though otherwise the post was fine. But the rest, including the unaccompanied tour, were worth it, I think.

Different posts are appropriate at different career and life stages, that is for sure. The Foreign Service itself may work well at some times and not at others. I am pretty sure that our next tour will be our last. But then I’ve said that before, so who knows? At least we have reached the point in my husband’s career—and in our lives—at which we feel that we can change course and settle down at any time. That, in itself, makes all of the hassles easier to take.

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