It has been a year and a half since I was approached to write an essay on being a single parent in the Foreign Service. That essay was a revelation for me. It made me reflect on, for the first time, what it meant to be both in the Foreign Service and a single parent. It also connected me with other single parents serving in the US government overseas as I sought out advice and other viewpoints for the essay.
About a year after the publication of the first essay I was again approached to write on the topic for another book. I had the option of just reprinting the original essay or updating. Initially I thought, not much has changed—I am still in the same location and my daughter had yet to start school—so what more could I write about? But then I thought about it and I realized I did not have to think all that hard to come up with more material.
One of the first new challenges came early in fall 2015 when I had to make the difficult choice to be medically evacuated to Singapore for several days without my then-3 year old daughter. I know, I know. I am still trying to come to terms with how that particular scenario came to pass. There was certainly pressure on me to leave her behind because it would be “easier” to do so, though easier for whom I never really understood. I initially fought to take her. I insisted that she would be included on my travel orders and I was successful. I then tried to find child care, which is what proved impossible. There was a high likelihood I would be hospitalized, though the time frame—maybe a few hours, maybe overnight, maybe a second night—was uncertain. Although there were several hotels in Singapore listed to have babysitting services, not only were they all the most expensive in the city-state and well above the government reimbursable rates, and while I would be hospitalized the hotel would not be covered anyway, but how do you arrange a sitter for an indeterminate amount of time? So instead her nanny stayed with her overnight three nights and two other single Foreign Service parents served as Power of Attorney, checking in on her and emailing me daily. It was not easy – I thought a lot about the fact I was separated from my young daughter not only for several days but also by international boundaries at least a five hour flight away. Now, I am not 100% sure of the right way through what happened but I know I will be a better advocate for us both should it happen again.
By the following summer I was presented with yet another challenge. The G-20 was coming to Hangzhou, China, within our Consular coverage area. Oh, how I wanted to volunteer to assist in any way I could. As a Foreign Service officer, assisting with such multi-national organizational meetings is part of what we do. As a political officer, particularly one who has yet to serve in a political position, it would mean so much more. And yet I had to be realistic.
In my original essay I had said something along the lines of it not being necessary for the single parent to put his or her hand up for every volunteer opportunity because their colleagues are not. I was wrong. Some of my colleagues were and are. Some of them seem to have inexhaustible reserves of time and energy. Many of those doing so are single without dependents, but not all of them. Many are also married and some have children. I cannot compete. But honestly I do not have to. I will not say it has been easy to come to terms with these limitations and to be strategic in what I volunteer for; it has not. But I stand by my original advice to be realistic with oneself, to set expectations, and to have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor. I may have missed out on the temporary duty opportunities to Hangzhou and India and Haiti and Ecuador and around China, but I found other meaningful and equally important ways to support our mission. And although I did not get a picture of myself with the US President, I did walk my daughter to preschool on her first day, something I would have missed if I had been at the G-20.
Preschool, that was my next test. My first experience with the preschool came in the form of the email requesting payment of tuition. The entire 17,000 RMB (US$2474) tuition and 1000 RMB (US$145) registration fee were to be paid in cash on one of two days between the hours of 9 and 9:30 AM. Although the letter noted that should someone be unable to pay the tuition on the stated days and times then one could notify the committee and they will try to make alternative arrangements. “Try” seemed the operative word – implying the parents who were unable to pay on those dates and times were inconveniencing the committee and it would be at the discretion of the committee to be accommodating. Wow.
Recently the preschool teacher sent out a message to all the parents to ask for volunteers to teach a cultural class each day for a week. The message went out on a Monday for classes two weeks later, after the Chinese New Year. I would have loved to have participated. Unfortunately, my job required me to submit my requested leave dates for the August 2016-February 2017 time period last June! It is not impossible to change, but it can be denied. This very issue nearly derailed my attempt to attend the preschool Christmas pageant when the date was abruptly changed two weeks beforehand despite being on the calendar the previous three and a half months.
I had expected to feel some pangs of jealousy missing out on a few school activities, but I have had other unexpected negative feelings. The very narrow and specific times to pay the tuition and the sudden rescheduling of the Christmas pageant (seemingly to accommodate the travel schedule of one parent on the preschool committee at the expense of others) felt at best just inflexible, based on some kind of outmoded idea of family. At worst…well, maybe I will leave that to your imagination? I am still working out how I feel, but one thing I did realize is that my experience in this area is not unique to single parenting, but is part of a broader challenge to working parents.
In all of this my daughter C and her friends are becoming more aware of differences in family structures. While trick-or-treating I overheard one of C’s school friends ask “How come you don’t have a dad?” And C, not yet 5 years old, responded matter-of-factly “I have a dad but he doesn’t live with us. He lives in Kentucky.” Although I will say that particular moment warmed my heart, I was feeling much less confident when just before the Christmas pageant she burst out crying because it would be the nanny and I attending not her father and I. The outburst came out of nowhere and hit me like a cast iron pan to the head. In these issues too I am not alone.
Now I am in the middle of preparing to move us – myself, my daughter, our two cats, and our stuff – across three continents in a matter of four months, I am reminded again of the Herculean effort Foreign Service Officers put in to move themselves from Point A to Point B. That is not to say we have no help, but we do a surprising amount on our own. I am not going to say it is harder as a single parent – every FSO whether single, married, with children or some other permutation, has equal but different challenges.
Here though is where I circle around and mention again the connections I have made that have helped make single parenting in the Foreign Service easier (not easy, just easier). The affinity group myself and a colleague started has in just two years grown from a handful of members to over 80. That may not seem like much but it makes a difference to me and our members to know we are not single parenting in this career alone. Beyond a support group I have also found allies and advocates. These may be former single parents, those raised by single parents, or just plain awesome people who acknowledge my situation, support me, and lift me up. I have been extremely fortunate at my current post where I not only serve with other single parents but also have received friendship and encouragement from two former single parents and seven, yes, SEVEN colleagues who came forward to tell me they were raised by single parents. And they became diplomats!
Of course there is more to come! Childcare while I am training in DC remains a challenge without resolution. And soon enough we will arrive in a new country where I will start a new job, need to find a new nanny, and C starts kindergarten. Whew. At least so far, so good.