It may come as a surprise to some that I spent more than six years working in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer without going on an overnight business trip. I managed due to a combination of my positions and locations (serving as a Consular Officer in two large high volume visa posts — i.e. my job was identical to that of 30-40 other officers) and personal choice. There were certainly opportunities for travel. While serving in Ciudad Juarez colleagues regularly took part in the Mission Mexico “swap” program in which Consular Officers at different posts would change places for a month. So for instance an officer in Juarez would go to Guadalajara to adjudicate visas and a counterpart there would come to Juarez. In swaps you also swapped homes, even cars. There were also the occasional TDY (temporary duty = business trip) opportunities to places like Las Vegas for a trade show or Baja in support of G-20 (occurred a few months before my arrival), and even trips to Cairo and other far-flung locals. Shanghai too had opportunities, many similar: Mission China swaps, TDYs to India and Haiti, and travel to Hangzhou in support of the G-20.
I could have volunteered. A few well meaning, though generally childless, colleagues would offer various scenarios. It would not have been impossible, just quite difficult. In Juarez with an infant, and later in Shanghai with a preschooler, a nanny, and pets, swapping presented a more logistical and financial challenge for me than for my single or married colleagues. I also rationalized that given the majority of the opportunities presented were basically doing visas in another place, I could simply continue to do work hard on visas and other tasks where I was assigned. These choices I made may have cost me tenure the first time around and later promotion; it is hard to tell. But, they were the best choices for myself and my daughter at the time.
Fast forward to Malawi. Here I am in a different position. I am no longer one of dozens of Consular Officers; I am the sole Political Officer. Though I bid this position high due to the family-friendly atmosphere and the reported work-life balance, I knew it would be inevitable that travel would come up. It may be a small nation, and this presents opportunities to really learn the issues and see a good part of the country, yet there is so much happening here and as the Political Officer I must get out and about on occasion. What I had not expected were three TDYs in three months; to what essentially worked out to be three trips in seven weeks.
For my first trip it would be just three days and two nights within Malawi. In late October I joined my locally-employed colleague on a familiarization trip to the southern Malawi cities of Blantyre and Zomba. Lilongwe may be Malawi’s capital since 1975 but Zomba, the original colonial capital, and Blantyre, the business and judiciary center, together make a triumvirate of modern Malawi’s social, cultural, and political scene. We would depart Lilongwe early on a Tuesday for the four hour drive to Blantyre and take meetings all day beginning with a lunch meeting and ending with a dinner meeting. The following day would be spent 2/3 in Blantyre and then we would travel to Zomba to stay at the Embassy cottage that evening. Original plans for a dinner meeting in town were scrapped due to the ongoing bloodsucker situation. The final day would be a half day of meetings in Zomba before the nearly 4 1/2 hour drive back to Lilongwe. Easy peasy, right?
Well, first when traveling as a single parent in the Foreign Service, you need to fill out a few items of paperwork when away from home but leaving family members, especially children, behind. There is the usual out-of-town locator all employees must complete when traveling. For all those folks who do not work for the government overseas, think about having to complete a form every single time you take a personal or professional trip. In the event of an emergency, Post must be able to account for all personnel. If heaven forbid an airplane or train crashes or a boat capsizes or there is a vehicle crash, Post needs to know if personnel traveling in the area may have been on board or on that road. Security and facility personnel need to know who is or is not at your residence. Even payroll needs to know in case pay needs to be adjusted. It is one of the less-than-glorious aspects of Foreign Service life. On top of the usual away-from-home forms a single parent needs to complete a Power of Attorney and a Medical form for the staying-behind-child or children. I also left behind a contact list of friends and family…just in case. Along with my daughter’s passport in an accessible spot.
I had asked a colleague if she would mind serving as Power of Attorney and the Medical back-up and she said no problem and then even suggested my daughter stay at her house. She has a daughter just a year older and with whom my daughter likes to play with. A sleepover! This would be very exciting for C. Her only other sleepovers have been one night at her aunt’s in NY, one night at her grandparent’s in NY, several times at her father’s in KY, and one week at my sister’s in VA last summer. This would be the first time not with family. She could. not. wait. This did involve me having to pack her suitcase — full of school clothes (including uniforms and P.E. clothing) and play clothes. I also had to contact the school bus to give instructions to pick up at my house on Tuesday morning, deliver her to the other house on Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday at the other house, Thursday morning at the other house, and Thursday afternoon drop back at our home. The bus went off without a hitch, but I cannot say I wasn’t worried.
Though initially nervous about leaving my daughter, once on the road I did feel a wee bit of a sense of freedom wash over me. Then I came back down to Earth. It was a work trip after all. But it was not too long. It would all be okay. However, unexpectedly that evening I received a call from my colleague. My normally very independent daughter, who has been left with babysitters in many a city as I ran half marathons (always fingerprinted, bonded, licensed sitters), was on her third nanny, and also previously spent time at two child care centers, a preschool, and just started Kindergarten, who had NEVER had separation anxiety before, was crying because she missed her mom. She told my colleague she could not sleep because normally she snuggles with her mom before bed. My heart broke. I called the following night and talked with C again. My colleague told me C had said she could not sleep because she had left all her dreams in a dresser drawer at home. I smiled at her creativity, but felt guilty too. Soon enough though I was back in Lilongwe and apparently forgiven.
In November I flew to Harare, Zimbabwe for five days and four nights to participate in some professional training. This time I made the decision for my daughter to remain at our home with the nanny. (Yes, I have a nanny. And she lives on property.) While my daughter had mostly enjoyed her two nights sleepover at her friend’s house, working out the bus schedule and packing her bag did add an extra layer of work for me. Besides just feeling too tired and lazy to go the extra mile, it was also a big ask for my (extremely kind) colleague. By staying at our home C also had access to all her clothes, toys, usual foods, and familiarity. Well, all the familiarity a child could establish in a home she had lived in for all of three months, with our household goods from the US not yet arrived in country. Additionally, the nanny was eager to demonstrate she could do the job and I wanted to give her the opportunity.
This time, instead of departing after my daughter headed off to school, I left on a Sunday morning. I had to say goodbye to my daughter at the front door and her sad little face looking up at me tugged at my heart strings. Though once I arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast in Harare, I did feel a wee bit better. On both Sunday and Monday evening I called the nanny using What’s App. This time C did not want to talk to me. She reluctantly came to the phone, then giggled, and ran off. When I made the nanny get her back on the phone, C sniffled and told me how much she missed me. After I let her go I asked the nanny if she was faking. She was. It seemed her staying at home had been the right choice. She was more comfortable.
Tuesday evening tanks rolled into Harare. Well how about that? In all the single parent travel scenarios I had envisioned I had not thought through what to do in the event of a coup d’état. At least, I supposed, the government takeover was in Zimbabwe and not Malawi. It directly affected me and not my daughter. Although the outcome was unknown for awhile — we were confined to our B&B on Wednesday and escorted to the airport in armored vehicles through the military checkpoint on Thursday — the coup ultimately turned out to be one the most peaceful ever. Still I was glad to get out when I did. Landing back in Lilongwe and returning to the house and C was the first time I felt Malawi was home.
In December I had to fly back to Virginia for three days of training. It is a loooooong trip from Lilongwe to Virginia and I had no intention on leaving behind a not-yet-6-year-old. So, for the third of three business trips C would come with me. There would then be no need to fill out the medical and power of attorney forms. No need to arrange to leave her behind. But, I would need buy her plane ticket out-of-pocket and arrange child care while I was in training. Child care is not particularly easy to find in the Washington DC area in the best of circumstances, and becomes a little trickier in less than ideal situations. Though I would be taking my course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, I opted to again stay out in Herndon, close to my parents, my sister, and the school/daycare my daughter had attended three years before. As a State Department employee I would also have access to up to five days of emergency back-up child care. I would have options. Just as I was planning to begin my babysitter search my parents let me know they would be available. Thank goodness! For three full days she had time with her grandparents and then her cousins when they came home from school. It turned out to be a crazy quick trip but I was glad to have C along with me on the adventure.
Three months, three different business trips, and three different single parent solutions. We both survived them. After a wee bit of no travel time we may be ready for another.