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.
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.
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.
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.