The Foreign Service and the Single Parent – Further Thoughts

After I had put up my previous post, an essay written for the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) upcoming book on “Raising Children in the Foreign Service,” I thought more about what it means to be a single parent in the US Foreign Service. I realized I had more I wanted to share and reflect on regarding this topic.

I recently celebrated my four year Foreign Service anniversary. When I joined the State Department I was eleven weeks pregnant, so my daughter has been part of my Foreign Service experience from the beginning. She and this job are forever intertwined, like fraternal twins. It was because I was pregnant that I bid on Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—where I could easily bring a car and drive over the border for baby formula and diapers at Target—rather than bidding on the places like Kathmandu, Nepal or Rangoon, Burma, that quickly caught my fancy until I remembered that I was no longer bidding for one.

In the past I had not really thought of myself as a Single Parent in the Foreign Service. I was a single parent AND I was in the Foreign Service. When people, usually colleagues, asked how I managed I often shrugged and gave some answer like “I have always been a single parent, so I do not know how to be otherwise.” That is true, but now I feel the response is too flippant – it plays down the challenges that myself and other single parents face in this career.

Writing the AAFSW article made me realize I have had far more “Single Parent in the FS related episodes” than I had previous thought and more are to come.

It was me who sat in the Basic Consular Course and heard the instructor use the word that starts with “b” and rhymes with “mastered.” Though it was meant to be a light hearted comment on a law that appeared to favor single American mothers over single American fathers, it could have been quite hurtful. I did not know then how much it might still resonate with me now and I am glad I made the effort to speak with the instructor.

Yet before I even made it to the Consular course, early in my Spanish studies, I had an experience that still makes me go “hmmm.” Given the Ciudad Juarez is a danger-pay post and one in which a lot of new officers bid low but are assigned anyway, Mission Mexico made an effort to reach out those newly assigned officers early. As I knew I would be a single parent once arriving at post my number one concern was child care. Unless they were going to let me papoose my infant to my back and conduct visa interviews that way, I was going to need a full time nanny, and quickly. I reached out to the Community Liaison Officer (CLO), a person a post that fulfills a lot of roles but one is helping officers with issues such as this. My email was short, but detailed, indicating I was a soon-to-be single mother and I could use some assistance with sorting out child care at post. The CLO responded with a spreadsheet of housekeepers that could do part time babysitting.

Several months before arriving at my second post I again reached out to the CLO to ask for information on the child care situation in Shanghai. I emailed multiple times with no response. Finally, about two weeks before my arrival I heard back – and the response was not to worry, that I would have plenty of time to find someone after I arrived. Granted at the time my mother had planned to come for the first five weeks to provide me a buffer time to search for full time help, but still I found it off-putting. Also, in the end my mother was unable to come with me and I made a mad scramble for child care immediately after arrival. (see Not the Beginning I Expected)

In both cases things worked out, as they generally do. And in neither case did the CLO intend to do anything other than help, even if it was not actually helpful.

Here in Shanghai recently our American Employee Association sent out the following email: “AEA is looking for a few good men and women to support our fellow married Americans! We will be throwing a “Parents Night Out” movie night and am looking for volunteers willing to help chaperone a few cute children with us during a Pixar/Disney movie night.”

I do not recall noticing the “s” attached to “parent” right away, but it was not long before this incredibly awesome response was sent out (not by me): “I’m willing to help out on any of those dates. Let me know when I’m needed. Also, it should be noted that not all parents are married (I was raised by a single mother in need of a night off) and may feel as though they are not included in this.”

Again, the originator of the message meant no ill-will and in fact several people pointed out that the initial message implored people to help out their married colleagues and yet not all married couples have children. The writer owned up right away, apologized for any offense and sent out an updated and all-inclusive email. In speaking with the person later, s/he told me that actually the email had been cleared by four other AEA members before being sent out and none had caught the mistake.

It was these experiences that prompted me to include in my essay’s practical thoughts/advice list a gentle reminder that in many cases people are well-meaning but just unfamiliar with what it is like to be a single parent. I certainly need to remind myself of that and give people the benefit of the doubt.

Then there was this recent experience: A few weeks ago I was serving as a representative of the US Consulate at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) 4th of July event. I brought my daughter with me so after my two hour shift we could check out some of the activities. At the AmCham booth a smiling Chinese woman greeted me and told me in English I could scan their “We Chat” code and chose a free gift. Though I had been in country already five months, I had yet to buy myself a local smart phone. I kept thinking about doing so, but the Consulate had given us all a “dumb” phone and it basically served my needs. So I had to admit to this woman that I did not have a phone to scan their code. She thought for a moment, then with an ah-ha moment happily suggested “go get your husband.” Without thinking much about it, standing there with my daughter at my side, I replied, “I don’t have one of those either.”

This happens fairly regularly – most still make the assumption that if you have a child, you have a spouse. But I was unprepared for the woman’s response. Her face immediately crumpled. She quickly said “Oh my god, I am so sorry,” hugged me, grabbed a small box from the table, slipping her business card into the side, handed it to me continuing, “please take this gift and here is my card if you ever need anything.”

I blinked. I was speechless. I have had people upset and apologize for making the assumption, but no one before had appeared quite so horrified at the prospect of my having a child without a husband. I have no idea what her assumption may have been – that I was divorced, widowed, or otherwise. I will never know (unless of course I contacted her from her card, which I have no intention of doing).

This did lead me to do some thinking. When I wrote my essay I was thinking about US stereotypes of single parents, not those we might face in other countries. Yet as Foreign Service Officers we have to face them in both realms. It was not that long ago that women after marriage were strongly encouraged to leave the US diplomatic service. (read here) Of course single moms are by nature generally not married, yet I doubt such women were any more welcome, and most likely less so.

Just a simple Google search to see if there were any articles on that topic led me to Careers at State Q&A forums with women asking if single moms are even hired into the Foreign Service. These questions were asked not twenty or thirty years ago, but rather in 2011, 2012 and 2014. I found myself surprised and saddened. When I started in 2011, pregnant and single, it never even occurred to me that I would be unwelcome or unable to serve as a single parent, yet clearly some US women are concerned that is the case. I suppose when you hear from some US politicians that you are destroying the fabric of American society and breeding criminals, (like here), it can make you feel you are undesirable as a representative of your country abroad. I wish that too were something from the distant past, except only recently a bill that would allow some companies the right to fire an unmarried pregnant woman surfaced.  (see here)

Yet it was the response of the AmCham woman that prompted me to look into how single mothers are treated in China, and what I found was unpleasant. Though it would seem that attitudes may be changing, the Chinese marriage and birth registration system and traditional values still create an environment where single mothers are shunned and subjected to social stigma and their children are treated as second class citizens. (see here) Given these government and societal attitudes it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government or Diplomatic Corps includes any single mothers.

Yet China is not alone in its approach toward single mothers. Google “single mothers in _______” and finish it with Korea, Japan, UAE, India, Jamaica, etc, and you find articles that indicate that there remain social constraints and stereotypes amidst a rise in numbers. Another member of my Single Parent in the FS group shared with me that when she lived in Israel a woman once snarled “no wonder your husband left you” when she asked for five more minutes for her daughters to play in the shared garden. This forced me to realize that there may be times when my statement that I am a single mother may be met not with embarrassment or pity but even with hostility.

I am not sure what I will do then, but I am trying to be prepared now. I want to do more in this area in the future; my current job as visa interviewer extraordinaire however does not give me much time or opportunity to work on other things. Until then I just want to continue to be a good Foreign Service Officer and mother and hope that by doing so, and sharing my status with others, it makes a difference somehow.


8 thoughts on “The Foreign Service and the Single Parent – Further Thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing this article. As a married female diplomat without children, many of your stories about other people’s assumptions regarding women’s lives and choices resonate with me, as well. Hope to see increasing awareness, acceptance and support in the diplomatic community for women’s life circumstances.

    • Pennypostcard – thank you for your comment. I too hope that we can get past the traditional concept of the US diplomat and embrace a 21st diplomatic corps that truly represents our country.

  2. Pingback: Further Thoughts on Being a Single Parent in the Foreign Service | Unaccompanied Baggage

  3. I see that this blog post is a bit older, so maybe you’re not monitoring anymore, but I wanted to point out what brought me here: I am single, thinking of having a child, and also working on the FSOT. I didn’t think that single stigma would block my chances or that it would be too difficult (I was raised by a single parent after all), but rather I was worried about the disclaimer we’re all given now that you may be directed to an unaccompanied post (new entrants have to bid on all of the posts, not just their top 25).

    My impression from this disclaimer was that you can’t refuse these postings if they’re given, that you agree to such postings when you begin training (and therefore could face sanctions for leaving the Department instead of going to your assigned post), and that your parental status isn’t considered as important as the needs of the Department. As a single person with no family able to take my child if I were to be assigned to such a post, I could not cope with an unaccompanied assignment, hence my concern.

    • Hello, thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right that when one joins the US Foreign Service that the agreement is we are subject to worldwide availability. Also, if one were to refuse an assignment it would likely spell the end of the career. And yes, “needs if the service” is a key part of the Deoartment’s calculus in making and sometimes breaking assignments. However there is also a much more human face to bidding in the first two directed tours and ways for officers to shape their own bidding beyond the entry level. It is theses days rare to have those unaccompanied posts on first bidding lists. And entry level bidding lists, though limited to a certain number of available posts, generally have positions drawn from all the regional bureaus and D.C. represented. And in each class are of course people with different backgrounds and interests. In my A100, after examining my personal situation, I decided to bid Ciudad Juarez number one, much to the relief of many of my classmates. And I had classmates who bid Nigeria very high much to my relief. Mid level bidding is different – and I wrote a blog post on my experience with that you might enjoy reading. But though I bid many high differential posts, I bid none that were unaccompanied. I selected places that though they had high post differentials nonetheless worked for me and my family situation while still meeting career and professional goals.

      I cannot say how bidding and directed assignments may go in the future. Needs of the service may in fact require adjustments, but I would highly encourage you to continue your pursuit to join the Foreign Service ranks and cross that bridge should you come to it.

  4. I am so excited to read your post. I recently passed the OA and I am a single mom of a 3 year old. I have always wanted to work in the Foreign Service and be a mother. I will have to hire a full time au pair /nanny. Can you share a few posts that are really good for single mothers and toddlers? Did you hire an au pair? How did you manage overnight job responsibilities?

    • First off, congratulations! Being in the Foreign Service as a single parent is both challenging and rewarding. Now, as to posts that are good for single mothers and toddlers…as is most anything in the FS, it really depends, on both you and your child. There are so many things to consider from child care costs to size of the Embassy and community. Single parents have served in posts in every region of the world; I know single parents have served in diverse places like Kazakhstan, Israel, Hong Kong, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico City, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Haiti, Germany, UAE, Senegal, Ecuador…the list goes on and on. We hire nannies — most live out, some live in. Some have lived in one place and liked their nanny so much that they have organized for the nanny to travel with them to other posts. Managing overnight responsibilities is a personal decision but something that is worked out between the single parent and the nanny.

      Best of luck to you as you continue your journey in joining the FS and once in, I look forward to you joining our affinity and support group.

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