In May while I was on leave an organizer of the new Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) book on “Raising Kids in the Foreign Service” contacted me to ask if I would be open to writing a chapter / essay from the single parent perspective. I was thrilled to be selected though in truth, the organizer admitted, I was the only single parent in the FS she knew. No matter, I was excited about the prospect of writing such an article; in January I had, with another FS single mom, just launched a Facebook page for single parents in the FS and this was another opportunity to get the word out that there are single parent diplomats. With the organizer’s blessing I am sharing most of my article here. It was written in conjunction with feedback from members of our new Facebook group.
She stared at the email. It was in response to a housing issue at her upcoming post. Did it really say what she thought it said? “We are sorry about this but there is no way we could have anticipated this. We have never had this kind of situation.”
Situation? The Single Parent situation? You would have thought she had asked how to import a unicorn. That’s us, the single parents, the unicorns of the Foreign Service.
I am not going to lie: being a single parent in the Foreign Service is no cake walk. But that is not news, right? Because just being in the Foreign Service is a challenge and so is being a single parent. Put them together and you have yourself a recipe for some demanding but exciting times.
The PCS. We hear the laments of our single Foreign Service Officer brethren; it sure is hard to manage a pack out all by yourself. Then throw in a wee one or two and, if you have truly lost your mind, a pet. Nothing says fun like managing your suitcases, carry-ons, a stroller, a child, and a pet on a two leg 24-hour international journey all by yourself. It is extra fun when, as one single parent recently shared with me, your elementary-school aged child breaks his arm ten days before. Because as they grow older you kinda expect them to pitch in, right?
Setting up child care/school. We hear you tandem parents. Needing to take off work immediately after arriving at post in order to interview and hire a nanny or register your child for school might call for some of those diplomatic skills. After all, post wanted you yesterday. This is especially the case of the single parent, because, well, the person taking off work is you or you. Most places seem to frown upon children registering themselves.
And it doesn’t just stop with enrolling them in school. There are teacher-parent meetings, special events, times when you need to head in to the school and again it is you, the single parent, that needs to take the time to take care of it. And you hope that your supervisor and colleagues understand. We face many of the same challenges that single/working parents in the US face, with the additional challenge of being far from familial and other support systems.
The “helpful” colleague/supervisor. It is super awesome when co-workers or supervisors decide that you really can have it all and that of course you would love some more time away from the kids. After all you joined the Foreign Service! For instance your post has some opportunities for some 2-4 week TDYs. You are interested but cannot realistically work out the child care (you would after all have to buy the plane ticket for your child and the nanny). That is ok, says your colleague, just leave your child behind with the nanny. Problem solved! Except your child is under five.
Or when facing the very real possibility of a post evacuation (that did not in the end materialize) your supervisor suggests you ship your children to someone so that you can concentrate on your job. Or the opposite is the overly accommodating supervisor who, as one single parent mentioned, bend so far over backwards to be understanding that you miss opportunities, like TDY assignments.
Stereotypes. Single parents are divorced. Single parents have contentious relationships with the other parent. Single parents are female. Single parents are unlikely to be in the Foreign Service. And these categorizations extend to our children – our kids have discipline problems and trouble adjusting. It is all over the Internet, so it must be true!
I do not often think on these stereotypes, after all, I have never been married, have a good relationship with my daughter’s father, and we are, in general, rocking the FS life. We come to be single parents in so many ways, sometimes through divorce or separation, sometimes due to the death of a spouse, sometimes by choice, by natural birth or adoption. So when these stereotypes come to the fore it can be surprising and upsetting. We may face uncomfortable questions. We sometimes feel excluded – we are not the singles without kids, we are not the married without kids, we are not the married with kids. And worst of all, our children might be teased or bullied.
Affordable help. This is HUGE. Granted it is not as inexpensive as one may think (as one particularly unenlightened defense colleague said to me before heading to Indonesia – “you can hire a maid for like one cent a day!” No buddy, you cannot). I paid US$800/month in Mexico and US$900/month in China, not including overtime or bonuses, for a live-out nanny. Even when the children no longer need a nanny, our ability to afford household help in many (but not all) posts overseas gives us more time to spend with our children. As one single parent told me, “When you are home, you aren’t just washing and cooking and cleaning – you can pay attention to the kids!”
Community Support. Most of us have found support in our Embassy/Consulate communities around the world, both amongst our colleagues and local staff, as well as other expats and host nation friends. “[My] biggest surprise was how supportive my little communities are (other friends – male and female, and parents – moms and dads – single and otherwise) to help me fill in the gaps.”
At this very moment, as I am trying to piecemeal the final draft of this essay, I am serving as duty officer and the duty phone has been ringing off the hook. A colleague contacted me and asked if she could take my daughter for a few hours to give me some time to handle the duty calls. She even brought me food! We all are grateful to such colleagues who understand the demands of the FS and are willing to lend a hand when we need it.
Teachable Moments. Although approximately thirty percent of US children grow up in single parent households, single parent families are underrepresented in the FS. Like any member of the Foreign Service, we are the face of the US while serving overseas. We may not always want to be the representative of a group, and this may seem an odd thing to consider a benefit, but this is an opportunity to show people in our host country, and sometimes even our colleagues, that single parents are more than stereotypes.
When in the Basic Consular Course at FSI we study about citizenship. In general an unmarried citizen mother with a non-citizen father has fewer requirements to transmit citizenship. During my course, the instructor made a joke about unmarried mothers and their offspring using a word that starts with “b” and rhymes with “mastered.” At the time my daughter was five months old and it had not yet occurred to me this word would ever be used to describe her. I did not know how I felt about it. So afterwards I approached the instructor and let him know I was a single mother and he may want to consider his audience. The instructor immediately apologized, said the context had not occurred to him, and that from thereon forward he would not use that joke.
Other Benefits. Many single parents reported to me that the material and cultural benefits are a major advantage, and a reason why they stay in for the long haul. The free housing and generous educational allowances that allow our children to attend some pretty amazing international and/or boarding schools are significant. Add in the month-long R&Rs and home leave, and children of separated parent travel, and the very un-American four weeks of vacation, and the perks of the FS shine through.
The Bottom Line
In a survey of FS single parents to sum up their experience in the FS lifestyle, I initially received nothing. Zero. Nada. Seriously, single parents in the Foreign Service have no time to answer informal surveys!
On round two of my informal survey the overwhelming response was that despite the difficulties, being a single parent in the Foreign Service is not only rewarding for both the parent and the children, but is also by and large considered easier than being a single parent in the US. Here are just some of the comments I received:
“The amazing cultural and educational opportunities for the kids.”
“The Foreign Service has given me the opportunity to bring my girls all over the world, introducing them to all sorts of cultures where women have large roles.”
“We are a family that is extraordinarily lucky, blessed beyond words, because I have her, she has me, and we live a very diverse, culturally rich, and extremely privileged life.”
“Even if I leave before mandatory retirement age I will not regret the career choice and tours I’ve had because they’ve all shaped me personally and helped all of us grow as citizens of a fascinating world.”
We may require a little bit of lead time to make child care arrangements, but once done, we dedicate ourselves to our jobs like any other officer. We are Foreign Service Officers. Not that we don’t sometimes second guess ourselves or some days find ourselves exhausted by the challenges. Not that we do not sometimes wonder why in the world we are doing this, dragging our kid(s) around the world away from our home country and family. But overall the benefits outweigh the challenges. You can not only survive in the Foreign Service but thrive and so will your kids. Single parents are represented in every level of the Foreign Service from the entry level officer to Ambassadors. We are specialists and generalists and in all of the Foreign Affairs Agencies: State Department, USAID, Foreign Commercial Services, and the Foreign Agricultural Services.
Oh, and our kids? Our kids are awesome.
• Accept help (even if you have to pay for it). When traveling, instead of torturing yourself by lugging all your suitcases and kids on your own, pay the money for the luggage cart or porter service. There are even door-to-door delivery services! Believe you me, staged movement of the luggage and child at 50 foot visible intervals across the airport is no decent way to travel. Not that I have ever done that. You will be amazed at the kindness of others. Children are cherished in almost every country around the world and in my experience people will step in and help. In China not only do people hold my daughter’s hand on the escalator, lift her on or off transportation, or open doors for me with the stroller, but they are giddy with excitement for having helped. And those at post who offer to watch your child/children? Take advantage! I found myself reluctant to accept, after all, surely they were offering in jest to spend hours with a child completely unrelated to them. But look, if they did not want to help they would not have offered to help, right? Also, be sure to reciprocate – host their kids for a play date, take care of their pets while they are on vacation, buy them lunch, etc.
• Be realistic with yourself and upfront with post/ supervisor. You are not Super Single Parent, even if it sometimes feels that way. No need to volunteer for every extra job under the sun to prove yourself-your colleagues are generally not doing this, why should you? Have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor about your situation and what you can and cannot do. Manage expectations. And if circumstances change – you can take on more or you need to step back a little – have that conversation again.
• Remember that most people really do not understand the demands of being a single parent. The vast majority of suggestions and comments you encounter that seem unthinking are coming from a well-meaning place. You are likely just as unfamiliar with their personal experiences, right? If the time is appropriate gently bring them into the circle of trust, otherwise do as Queen Elsa and my toddler often sing and “Let it Go.”
• Although many of us single parents likely remember our Consular training on passports, it does not hurt to remind you that children under 16 require both parents to sign for their passport. In many instances you will need a notarized Form DS-3053: Statement of Consent. Also when traveling many countries may require a notarized letter consenting travel without the other parent. If you are the only parent noted on the birth certificate, then the birth certificate is good for passport and travel. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/passports/under-16.html
• Have a plan. An emergency could be an authorized or ordered departure, or a medical emergency that leaves you indisposed, or should something happen to your child while you are on TDY, etc. Designate a family member in the US, create a power of attorney for one or two Americans at post, and when your child is old enough, talk to them about the plan and what to do in an emergency.