The Foreign Service and the Single Parent

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 Challenges

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.

The Benefits

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.

Practical Thoughts/Advice

• 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.

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The 2015 USA Tour

Six cities, seven separate hotels/homes in four separate states, 11 flight legs covering over 20,000 miles equals just one vacation back to the U.S., Foreign Service style.

In my pre-FS, pre-mommy life my vacations generally entailed flying a long distance for 1-2 weeks, visiting multiple places, spending 1-2 days in each place. Case in point: my ten day May 2011 trip to France, just a month before I found out I was pregnant and six weeks before I joined the FS. I flew from Jakarta to Nice and visited Avignon, Nimes, Arles, St. Remy, Orange, Le Baux en Province, Uzes, Nice, Monaco, and Antibes. Now however, I spend more vacations back in the US visiting friends and family. The hardest part is deciding who and what to see in the US. On this trip, I embraced my former traveling self and tried to fit in as much as possible.

The first destination was Walt Disney World in Florida for our very first Disney experience together. On Saturday, May 16 we touched down in Orlando at 9 am after some 24 hours of travel time. I had nothing else planned for the day other than dinner with Cinderella. At 4:15 pm. That may seem a rather ridiculous time to have dinner, but faced with the choice of then or a 7:30 pm seating, I reasoned we would more likely be awake for the earlier. Still it was a struggle. At 3:45 pm in the lobby of the Grand Floridian resort outside the 1900 Park Fare dining room I had my doubts we would make it to dinner and I asked if we could get in on the first seating at 4 pm. The kindly let us do so which was a good thing as C valiantly stayed awake to greet Prince Charming, Cinderella, her stepmother and two stepsisters but then curled up in a ball and fell asleep in her chair.

We went immediately back to the hotel where I too fell asleep. We both woke up at 12:40 am. Wide awake and hungry but with everything closed at our hotel, I put C in the stroller and walked thirty minutes to a shopping center with a 24/7 McDonald’s. On Saturday Disney World closes at 2 am, so despite the hour we were not the only people up. There was regular traffic on the roads; we were passed by a jogger, other walkers, and a woman on roller blades.

We were at the park soon after the 9 am opening. I do not quite understand why the park opens so late. If it is open until midnight or 2 am for the night owls, then why not open for early risers or severely jet lagged at 6 am? I felt unexpectedly nervous about our first foray into Disney. All the park options, Fast Pass decisions, and such made my head spin. I expect Disney is overwhelming on any day, but through in some fresh-off-the-plane-from-Asia jet lag and it takes on a whole different dimension. The prospect of backpacking solo through the Amazon seemed less daunting than a day at Disney.

We made it to only three rides (the carousel, Winnie the Pooh, and Under the Sea) and two meet and greets with Ariel and Belle (where C was furious to be chosen as only a picture frame in the re-enactment story) before heading back to the hotel for lunch and a nap. I thought if we slept until 5 we could be on a 5:30 shuttle and be back in the park by 6 pm. Except the nap last 7 hours and we woke up at 9 pm instead. Oops.

Next we spent two and a half days relaxing at a Cocoa Beach condo with my long time friend CZ, her son, and another friend. We played napped, chatted, played in the pool or on the beach. CZ’s son turned one year old and we celebrated with cupcakes and NASA launched a rocket, which we could watch live from the condo balcony.

Next we flew on to Buffalo, NY. There I rented a car and drove to Rochester to stay with long time friend RH and attend the graduation ceremony of my Indonesian friend MF. After two days we headed back to Buffalo where C stayed overnight with her aunt and uncle and cousin so I could get a good night’s rest and spend early Sunday morning running through the streets in the Buffalo Half Marathon. The weather was perfect for a run, in the 60s with a light, cool breeze and I took the course slowly and enjoyed my toddler-free, no-visa-adjudication time immensely. We spent the rest of the day with C’s grandparents, who had driven up from Salamanca, and aunt, uncle, and cousin. On Monday, we had more family time at the Memorial Day fair on the Buffalo waterfront.

Our final destination was Lexington, KY. We spent a day exploring the city on our own with C and I making a pact – C enjoyed 2 ½ hours at the Children’s Museum and then fell asleep on cue as mommy started her one hour tour of the Mary Todd Lincoln house. I only had to carry her sleeping 32 ½ pound self through the whole house. We then spent the next two days with C’s dad.

All in all it was a wonderful trip back filled with friends and family. Icing on the cake was throwing in Disney World, a birthday celebration, a NASA rocket launch, a grad school graduation, a half marathon, history, and lots of Americana. Despite the jet lag, only days into the trip I knew it was completely worth it.

Some additional thoughts:

On traveling with my 3 year old toddler:

I think the biggest pain in the rear traveling solo with a toddler, a car seat, a stroller, two suitcases, a duffel bag and a toddler backpack is getting from curbside to check in or from the luggage carousel to curbside (or the rental car to the terminal or vice versa). I appreciate the airports having luggage carts available but not all that thrilled that they tend to have a $5.00 rental charge. In most cases one could receive 25 cents upon return of the cart (oooooh, how generous!), though how one is supposed to leave luggage and toddler to return said cart is a bit of a mystery. I spent approximately $50 total in luggage cart fees, often just so I could push my bundle of stuff between 50 and 200 feet.

The second hardest part was the number of times C asked to go home. To China. Every time we got on another flight she asked me if this one was the one to take us back to Shanghai. This means that 1. She is comfortable in our home and life in Shanghai, which is fantastic, but also 2. I made the right decision to decide to cut back on travel during our tour here (though I had hoped I might be wrong).

On my brief taste of US freedom:

The first thing I did upon landing in the US was turn on my iPhone (not used in China) and update my Facebook status. I could do it RIGHT THEN. Oh, the freedom! No waiting for the lengthy lag to get my computer started (which slowed after our arrival in China) and then log on to the VPN. Just doing that made me realize the accommodations I have made to enjoy our life in Shanghai. We DO have a nice quality of life in Shanghai. But it was great to use my iPhone and Facebook. It was great to not think about checking the air quality monitor. It was also really great not having everyone around us taking photos of us (ok, my toddler, no one cares to take pictures of me anymore) discreetly or otherwise.

We are glad to be home. Now only the four months during the busy, sultry, Shanghai summer stand between us and our next big vacation.

The Diplo-Cats Journey to China

Kucing and Tikus (“Cat” and “Mouse” in Indonesian), my two cats, have at last joined us at our apartment in Shanghai. They are diplo-pets, about to start life in their fourth country of residence.

Getting them here to China has been a bit challenging, a story of logistics and miscommunication, incarceration in the quarantine facility and finally freedom.
It is never really easy to uproot yourself again and again and it is not any easier to do this with pets, but this trip really about did me in.

Indonesia to the U.S. was the cats’ first international trip. It was no cake walk, but once I found the pet shipper (the fantastically named Groovy Pets) and paid them a load of money, it did not turn out to be so bad. I had to fly over the Pacific using United Airlines, per the Fly America Act, but there was something tricky about them joining me, so I booked them on KLM cargo. They also flew out a few days before I did so as to arrive on a Thursday afternoon when quarantine facilities at Dulles Airport would be open. My aunt picked them up at the airport and they seemed in very good spirits, the KLM cargo person cooing at them affectionately. They also had a layover in Amsterdam, so I expect their flight was a sight better than mine.

It cost $400 for the two of them to fly cargo and another $800 in charges to Groovy Pets. When I asked for an itemization of this fee I initially received pushback. But after I pointed out a taxi to the airport and departure fees could hardly cost so much I was informed that some of this would amount to “gifts” to various officials. Oh, I said, you mean bribes. The woman pursed her lips and responded evenly, we prefer to call them gifts. I let it go.

To and from Mexico proved to be an even easier proposition. K and T only needed updated rabies vaccinations. I had all the documentation on the seat next to me in case Mexican immigration authorities stopped us, but no one did. Returning to the US we also encountered no problems.

China however has strict pet importation regulations and a “one pet per passport holder” policy. (Sounds reminiscent of the One Child Policy, right?). Pet import rules also vary by city, and unfortunately Shanghai’s is a littler stricter than some others, including a minimum one week quarantine at a Chinese facility at $320 per pet.

I did not like it, but I was prepared to do it.

Three weeks from departure I sent an email to the Consulate to check again on the requirements and that is when I learned – oops, sorry, it turns out it is one pet per ADULT passport holder. Basically I was being told that I would have to leave one of my cats behind. I could not believe it. I replied asking if there were anything that could be done. The reply was, no, our hands are tied.

I freaked out.

My sister could not take one of my cats as she is highly allergic. My parents could not for the same reasons. My aunt could not, although she loves cats to pieces, because she said she would have to choose between my cat and my uncle. (My uncle is quite the catch, so I understand her choice)

I put up a status on my Facebook and a Facebook group I belong to and I had some pretty great responses – from people (complete strangers) willing to watch my cat for a few months until I returned in May on vacation (with a plan to try to import the second at another time) to several friends offering to foster my cat for the entire two years if necessary. I was heartbroken and yet really, really touched.

The next day however I had another email from the Consulate informing me that one of the locally employed staff (a Chinese employee of the Consulate) had taken it upon themselves to call the section chief of the Pudong International Airport Quarantine Office, and according to him, the section chief, it would be no problem to bring in a one pet on a minor’s passport. However, the Consulate contact informed me, this was no guarantee. I emailed back: I am bringing both cats.

Not that the idea the information could be wrong did not worry me. It sure did. But I had a lot on my plate right then – from my Chinese test to packing out to my mom’s health – so I decided to take a leap of faith and hope it all worked out.

I booked both cats as in-cabin pets on United (the primary reason I chose to take United Airlines vice the contract carrier American is due to United’s more pet friendly policies). This was far less expensive than flying the cats as checked luggage or cargo.

Less than a week before departure I took both cats to the vet. It is a requirement for most places that rabies shots are no more than one year from importation and no less than 30 days (I had taken care of that the month before). Another requirement is that a vet must issue an international health certification no more than 10 days before importation. That certificate must then be endorsed by a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) veterinarian. The closest USDA-APHIS Service Center to Washington, DC is in Richmond, Virginia.

Yeah, that is the closest. Because that makes sense, right?
(There are no offices in DC, MD, or DE)

Instead of chancing a round-trip FedEx, waiting and hoping it would arrive back before the flight, I decided to make the four hour round trip to have it signed. It literally took five minutes. I mean I put my car into 30 minute parking across the street, waiting impatiently in the security line to get into the building, hoofed it up to the 7th floor, had it signed, and returned to my car with minutes to spare. A crazy trip, but I had APHIS Form 7100 signed.
Then there was the flight – just myself, three year old C, my wheeled carry on, a large handbag, C’s backpack, an umbrella stroller, and two cat carriers. My cats are no lightweights either. Tikus is 10 pounds and Kucing a pudgy 14. (Diet commences for them now)

I am lucky my sister works for TSA since I had to travel without my mother unexpectedly.  I did not know how I would carry two cats through security – since you need to take each cat out of their carrier, put the carrier through the x-ray machine and then carry the animal through.  I called the Dulles  Airport customer service line to see if any of the volunteers could help me – but while they could help me get to security, they could not help me through.  My sister however, with her super TSA badge, could.

On the plane I tried not to concern myself with what may or may not happen upon landing. My immediate concerns were making sure they were comfortable and did not meow the entire flight and how in the world I would get them from the plane to quarantine after picking up our four suitcases at baggage claim.

The plane landed at a gate located approximately 10 miles from baggage claim. OK, that may not be true, but when you are jet lagged and herding a jet lagged toddler and all the crap I listed above, then it does not take much to feel far. I would like to thank all the people who offered us no assistance. Because that would be everybody. I get it, no one made me bring all that stuff, you have your own place to be, still… But despite jet lag C was a trooper and she walked the whole distance. And although it was not 10 miles, it could easily have been one or more. Thankfully about half way there were some small luggage carts, which did help things along, until we arrived at the elevators.

Carts could not be taken down the elevators to the immigration hall. At that floor there was a crush of people exiting from all planes to enter a single gate funneling us to multiple immigration lines. This was bordering on “every woman for herself” territory. There was not deliberate pushing or shoving but it was such a steady mass of people that for the first time I felt concerned I would lose C in the crowd. Again, no one helped. They stared, but did not help.

But we made it to the baggage carousel and it was deserted. We were (not surprisingly) the last from our flight to pick up our suitcases. I began to have visions of myself walking right out of the airport past quarantine without having to stop. I had heard others had managed to do this – simply walk out with their dog or cat without anyone being the wiser. The cats were quiet – they had apparently accepted their fate – and the pet carriers just looked like luggage…

But I saw the luggage carts. They were tiny. There was no way for me to get our four large suitcases, my carry on, and the two cats on one and how was I to push two carts and keep track of C?

This is when Quarantine Lady showed up. I knew she was quarantine lady because she wore a white lab coat. And she asked if I had some pets. Foiled!

But Quarantine Lady was super helpful, pushing my second luggage cart, not only to the quarantine office but also then out to the arrivals area where thankfully my sponsor was waiting. (Quarantine Lady also spotted my name first on my sponsor’s card.) She spoke English and she and her staff seemed very professional, which did put my mind at ease some. The only issue related to C being a minor is that the quarantine officials gently insisted she sign her own form, so I put her on my lap, the pen in her hand, and guided her to write her name.  Done.

C took our leaving the cats much better than I expected (no tears, no questioning my assertion that they were going to see the cat doctor) and, I think, better than I did. Leaving the office without the cats made me anxious.

For the first few days I did not worry; I had enough else on my mind getting over jet lag, stocking the fridge, and hiring a nanny. But by the fourth evening I woke in the middle of the night from a nightmare involving the cats and quarantine.

A week after we handed Kucing and Tikus over to the quarantine officials at Pudong Airport (almost to the hour) I find myself standing outside the main building of the Shanghai Animal and Plant Quarantine Station. I was not allowed to see where the cats were kept, but instead was directed to the main building where I presented our passports and paperwork, then signed a paper. The woman then made a phone call.

We stood together on the road leading into the facility. The pollution levels are very high and the haze thick, limiting visibility. Out of the haze a man approaches, slowly riding a bicycle with a two wheeled metal trailer. I can just make out in the bed of the trailer the tops of the cat cages and hear some soft meowing. The man stops in front of me and the woman directs me, in English, to check these are my cats and they are ok. I feel a giddy nervousness overcome me and I look into each carrier.

$266 vet examination and rabies shots
$248 vet examination and International Health certificates
$76 USDA-APHIS form 7100 endorsement
$250 for United in-cabin pet fees ($125 per pet)
$640 for mandatory 1 week Shanghai quarantine ($320 or 2000 RMB per pet)
$28 taxi ride to and from the quarantine facility

My diplo-cats back with me = Priceless.

Not the Beginning I Expected

We have arrived in Shanghai. Well, C, the two cats and myself are here. My mom did not make it. The Friday afternoon before our departure, my mom headed to the emergency room with terrible abdominal pain. Though discharged some five hours later, the question of whether or not she would be able to fly with us on Tuesday was up in the air.

I am not going to go into my mom’s condition here, but suffice to say that it is uncomfortable though not life threatening. By Monday afternoon her doctor had determined that surgery would be necessary but that the surgery could not take place until her acute bronchitis and fever were brought under control. (I know, bronchitis! We did not know she had bronchitis)

Obviously this meant she would not be flying with me the following morning. This also meant that our travel to and arrival in China was going to be a very different scenario than I had planned.

I had already been emailing contacts at the Consulate over the weekend to apprise them of the situation and the possibility my mom would not be joining us, i.e. my child care situation had become a bit more urgent. Child care had already been on my mind even with my mom joining us. It cannot be otherwise when you are a single parent. With our arrival timed three weeks before the Chinese New Year when many (most?) workers depart the city to visit family, interviewing and hiring a nanny in that time frame already presented some challenges. Now I would have days and not weeks to find someone.

I notified the Consulate I would need to take at least Thursday and Friday off in order to find child care. A friend already in Shanghai messaged me to let me know, if needed, she could pitch in to help. An A-100 colleague offered to see if her nanny would be willing to watch my C for a week or two until I found someone and my social sponsor and his wife sprang to action, contacting all they knew for nanny recommendations.

Meanwhile, my most immediate issue was getting myself, C, the cats, and our luggage from our hotel to the airport, then from the car to the check in counter, and then through security to the plane. I thought I would just take the hotel airport shuttle except unfortunately it did not start service until 6:30 am; my plan was to depart at 5:15 am. Departure was further complicated by the impending snow storm expected to hit the northeast. Although the snow was not supposed to be too bad in the Mid-Atlantic, there could be no guarantee that flights would not be disrupted.

At 4:10 I woke up and began to drag the suitcases from the room, through the snow, to the car. Then I cleared off the car. My brother drove my father over at 5:15 am and we headed to the airport. My sister, who just so happens to be a TSA agent at Dulles, met us at the curb with two luggage carts and whisked the cats and some luggage inside while I took care of C and the rest of the luggage. As my sister has airport privileges, she accompanied us through security to the gate. There she had to leave us and I had to struggle to get us all onto the plane (C refused to even carry her little backpack), but we made it. A family effort.
The next challenge met us in Chicago where we had to transfer to our second flight. Originally our incoming flight was scheduled to park at C18 and our outbound flight took off at C19. Imagine how deflated I felt as we pulled into C28 instead…

But I managed. Sure, I got a lot of looks, some sympathetic, some “I’m so glad I am not you,” some “I don’t want to be anywhere near the disaster that must be your life;” the last to which I wanted to scream “I am a U.S. diplomat you fool!” Though that response would be neither diplomatic nor shed a particularly awesome light on the Foreign Service and so I, in actually an incredibly diplomatic manner, chose to let those people believe what they would and carry on. You know, as best one could carry on with a cat carrier slung on each shoulder (cats mewing away), pushing a lime green suitcase (thank goodness I got the four wheel smooth rolling kind) with a large shoulder bag and a child’s elephant backpack looped over the handles, an umbrella stroller hung on one arm, and barking orders at a small child to “stay near mommy.” The picture of the consummate traveler I am sure.

Once I finally got us onto our seats on the mercifully half empty plane I felt so much better. That was until C asked me “Mommy, where are the TVs?” Oh dear no! United, why oh why would you put people in the year 2015 on a 14 ½ hour flight on a plane with no in-seat televisions or power outlets? I had a toddler, an iPad with a limited battery, crayons and a coloring book, and a new set of toys. Also, two cats mewing underneath the seats in front of us…

So I sat back to enjoy the next 14+ hours before we landed in Shanghai and the craziness would begin once again.

C and the cats did pretty well on the flight. I did alright too. With only three hours of sleep on the flight (and only three and a half hours the night before the flight) I managed to once again get all of us and our stuff off the plane, through immigration and to the baggage claim. I must have been in an extremely good mood because after fighting our way through a massive bottleneck to get to the immigration lines and then waiting for 20 minutes in line, I took the immigration officer’s suggestion to use the diplomatic passport line next time quite well. I just smiled and shrugged and said ok. I could have broken down into wails of frustration.

At baggage I stared in dismay at the tiny luggage carts and the four checked bags circling the conveyer belt. There was no way. Then the quarantine lady showed up and she helped me to collect, load, and push the luggage over to the quarantine officer where we registered the cats and paid the fee ($320 per cat, ouch). C insisted on opening one of the cages and petting the cat saying “easy, easy boy” which is clearly from an episode of one of her DVDs. Quarantine lady then also helped us to push the other cart back through customs and to arrival where thankfully my social sponsor was waiting.

The next day, thanks to my sponsor’s wife, I had my first interview with a potential nanny and the following day my second interview. I hired the second nanny to start tomorrow, Monday. Whew. That is not how I wanted to go about it but it is what it is.

So though I did not head into work the day after arrival as I had originally expected (and yeah, despite the 13 hour time difference and the some 22 hours of door to door travel time I had thought I would do that), I still sort of hit the ground running. Registration at the apartment complex. Check. Internet up and VPN working. Check. Nanny hired. Check. Signed up for gym membership. Check. Extra furniture removed from apartment. Three visits to the supermarket. Trip to IKEA. C signed up for Shanghai Centre Kid’s Club. Visit to nearby Jing’an Temple. Welcome lunch with friends. Blog post. Check, check, check….

Not bad for a jet lagged single mom with an arrival in China that had not gone according to plan.

Tomorrow is my first day of work.

Shanghai Bound

So the big news is I passed my Mandarin Chinese test. Yes indeed, I am finished with my language training (this go ‘round anyway). Having been tested in the final demonstration of linguistic acrobatics under pressure I came out on top. Hooray!

I think a few days before I knew it was going to happen because I stopped sitting up at night wondering if I would pass the test or not, but rather I lay awake wondering how I was going to get all the other stuff done for departure after I passed the test.

C’s third birthday was the day after my test. I had no presents for her as I did not want to give her a something new and then pack it up to send to Shanghai just a few days later. I actually held back two of the Christmas presents I bought her since she received so many other great gifts from family. It was going to be hard enough to pack those. Instead we met my sister, brother-in-law, and C’s two cousins at a restaurant and I brought two balloons (one Frozen, one My Little Pony) and some Frozen Anna and Elsa cupcakes. Though I had felt a bit bad about not giving her more of a party, she seemed happy with the day.

The next two days I did last minute shopping and prepping for the arrival of the movers.
I have been trying to prep C for our move to China. I bought her the DVD Ni Hao, Kai Lan Goes to China and for the past several weeks she has watched it as I explain that we are moving to China. Recently she has come to saying, “I want to go to China. I want to eat noodles,” as the characters in the show try some Chinese noodles.

I read up on preparing toddlers for a move. Some of the tips just did not seem to apply to our situation, such as trying to visit the new place before the move or having the child say goodbye to each of the rooms in the house or special places that have come to mean something to her. I used the second bedroom as a staging area for the items I bought to take to China; I doubt it holds much significance to her.

At Target I bought some plastic bins with lids and encouraged C to pack up her own toys. She got rather into it, packing up all her Fisher Price Little People quickly, pushing on the lid and announcing “Mommy, I did it! My toys are ready for China!”

On Tuesday, I dropped C off for her next to last day at Kindercare so that I could deal with the movers, particularly the packing of her toys, without her presence. She is a very different kid from the one who missed out on the packing back in June. Now, if I pick up her Queen Elsa doll to just move it she gets excited “Hey mommy, that’s my doll! What are you doing?!” I could vividly imagine the turmoil that would ensure if she were present for the packing.

The movers arrived at 11:30 and departed around 2:30. Though one of my shortest pack-outs, I still felt quite tired after the movers left. I took two hours to myself and then I went to pick up C.

As soon as she walked into the apartment she said “Oh, mommy! Where are my toys???” She ran from room to room, which in a three room apartment does not take long. I told her that the toys went to China. C did not seem thrilled her toys were gone, but she then asked me to watch the Kai Lan video. All seemed ok.

Except over the course of the next few hours and days she would ask me for certain toys.

“Mommy, where is my wagon?”
“Honey, it is on its way to China.”
“What? I don’t want my wagon to go to China!”

Or

“Oh no! Mommy, where is baby Elsa?” (her Christmas gift from her paternal grandparents)
“Well, Elsa is going to China. The movers packed her. Remember?”
“Nooooooo! Mommy, no! Not baby Elsa. I don’t want her go to China! No!”

Or

“Hey! Where is my Frozen book? I want my Frozen book.”
“C, your Frozen book is going to China. “
“No, mommy, no! That is not nice. I want Frozen book right now.”

C has also started whimpering, asking to be held more and sometimes at night she cries “I want to go home!” even though we are already in the apartment. Though as of today it is “home” for only four more days. This is turning out harder than I thought. I worry about her asking to go home once we are in Shanghai and though I have talked with her about our new home, she will rebel. I have heard that we should receive the unaccompanied baggage air shipment within a week or two, so being reunited with her toys should help. I hope.

Wednesday was a flurry of appointments. In the morning I took the cats to the vet so they could be checked out and there international health certificates would be issued. These need to be completed no more than 10 days before arrival in China. I brought C with me thinking she might find it interesting, especially as she had received a vet set for Christmas. I was wrong. So very wrong. She yelled at the vet “Hey, what are you doing to my cat? Stop it! Share my cat, SHARE MY CAT!” (I think sharing was the best thing she could come up with). That was a long 90 minutes.

Then we headed off to the Foreign Service Institute so I could do some final check out procedures and say farewell. C then had her third birthday wellness check-up with her “regular” doctor (as regular as you can get in this life) in Arlington.

Thursday. C’s last day at the Kindercare so that I could make the two hour drive to Richmond for the USDA Veterinary Services Office endorse the cats’ international health certificates. Although it is possible to FedEx the certificates to Richmond and provide paid return, I have heard of one too many people who did this and then ended up having to do the drive anyway, the day before departure. So I opted for the four hour round trip for the 15 minutes it took for USDA to sign the form (you have to call ahead for an appointment). The trip wore me out, but at least it is done.

Over the last few days I will be taking care of the final preparations, selling my car, cancelling car insurance, packing the bags, filling out change of address forms, putting my phone plan on hold… and trying to relax if at all possible. The next few weeks are going to be busy with getting myself, the two cats, C and my mom to Shanghai and then getting up to speed while getting over jet lag (12 hours time difference, so it will take about two weeks to adjust).

I am excited. I can hardly wait to get to Shanghai, see our new place, get settled in, don our pollution masks, and explore.

The Resolution

In late 2013 my sister mentioned for one of her 2014 New Year’s Resolutions she planned to run 750 miles. I thought hey, now that is an idea, a mileage goal for the year. However, I knew I did not have 750 miles in me. I needed a challenge, but I needed something obtainable. As a single parent in the Foreign Service at the time serving at a US-Mexico border post, I really had to take a hard look at what mileage might really be within my reach.

In 2013 I ran a total of six half marathons (El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Boston, Massachusetts, Juarez, Mexico, and Las Vegas, Nevada). I also ran a 5K, a 10K, and a 10K as part of a duathlon in El Paso. Yet even with all those organized races I only ran a total of 200 to 220 miles the whole year. I supplemented my running with Zumba and spinning classes at my gym and the occasional stationary bike ride or exercise DVD at home.

I did a few calculations and decided on 400 miles for 2014. That came out to an average of 7.7 miles a week. It sounded completely possible.

I think it might have been the next day I screwed up my plantar fascia at the tail end of a 5K. While sprinting in to the end I felt the excruciating tear in the bottom of my foot. Holy Mother $#&@! I hobbled back to the car and for much of the rest of my Christmas and New Year’s holiday. This did not make an auspicious start.

My first run of 2014 did not come about until January 9 and I could only manage one mile. One, quite slow mile on a very tender foot. Over the course of the month I did work up to three miles, but I basically kept the mileage low, ending the month with only 20 miles in total. So there I was starting the year already down ten miles after the first month.

With a half marathon coming up in April, I needed to step things up. Yet the dust storms in Ciudad Juarez came early and I started having asthma attacks while running. I would not even be a mile into a run and I would have to turn back. It was so frustrating. I had secured a sitter for my daughter – either the nanny would stay a little later or a friend would come over. At the very least I wanted to run a 5K, but I would find myself turning back much sooner. I had to move almost all of my running indoors to the treadmill at my little gym.

28.5 miles for February.
29.7 miles for March.
All below the 33 miles and some change I needed to average per month.

Finally in April I managed 40.7 miles for the month, helped in a large part by my Salt Lake City half marathon.

The plus side was my speed increased. I think because I underwent the (&$%@ painful) bilateral vein stripping the November before, my legs no longer felt so heavy when standing or running. I had become a 10:30 or 11 minute miler after the birth of my daughter and had accepted that. Before that I was a 10 minute miler. Suddenly in 2014 I was running 9:45 then 9:30 and then even 9 minute miles.

35.4 miles for May. It did not hurt I ran a half marathon in Cincinnati.
40.7 miles for June.

I had managed to overcome the plantar fasciitis and the asthma and the child care challenges to bring my mid-year total to 195 miles. I was five shy of my goal but felt fairly confident it was still within the realm of the possibility.

You know, if I had a normal life.

I departed from Ciudad Juarez on July 1 to begin nine weeks of travel from post and home leave. I would drive through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia with two cats and my 2 ½ year old daughter. I would spend a week in Hawaii and a week in North Carolina. With creative childcare finds (thank you $50 an hour Japanese daycare, with 2 hour minimum, in the Sheraton in Hawaii and the much less expensive $6 an hour drop in daycare in New Bern) I did manage 30 miles in July. Hi-five for me.

In August we continued our travel to San Francisco, South Dakota and New York. Day care options became a bit more complicated. My parents watched my daughter one afternoon I was in Virginia in between trips to I could get a 3.5 mile run in. My friend watched my daughter in San Francisco so I could get in one hilly run. My aunt and uncle watched C in South Dakota so I could get in a few training runs and my Leading Ladies half marathon through the beautiful Spearfish Canyon. A few more runs in hotel gyms while C sat “quietly” (for a 2 year old) with her iPad and I managed total of 35 miles for the month.

At the end of August we moved into our temporary quarters in an extended stay hotel while I attended full time Mandarin Chinese training. At 260 miles with 140 to go, I was still on track. I figured the fall would be a piece of cake given I was back in Northern Virginia with its perfect fall running weather and numerous running trails. I envisioned myself on long seven or eight or even ten mile runs, jogging blissfully and easily, unencumbered and happy.

Someone must have slipped me something.

I soon found my 50 minute (one way) commute and Chinese study took over my life. I needed to take my daughter in to daycare as soon as I could in the morning so I could drive in to study before class. Trying to study Chinese while your 2 year old plays nearby is a recipe for learning zero Chinese. Oh, and daycare… My daughter had not attended before, so she was the perfect host for every toddler illness known to man. She happily shared them with me. We had cold after infection after cold after infection. We were even so lucky to contract the flu even after we had received our shots.

Still I put up the miles.
40 miles for September.
42.1 miles for October.

I was halfway through November and still not entirely sure I would make my goal. The longer I spent in training, the shorter my runs became. I dropped down to a 10K from the half in October and from a 10 miler to a 10K at the beginning of November. The constant colds and my training schedule were taking their toll.

Then my two online running groups both announced end of year challenges simultaneously. My local group announced a challenge to run 60 miles the last 6 weeks of the year, averaging 10 miles a week. My global running group threw up the Runner’s World end of year streak, running the 36 days from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, a minimum of 1 mile per day.

I dismissed both out of hand. There was my child care issue. My catching everything that passed through daycare issue. I was too tired.

But a funny thing happened. I ran the next day. And the next. And the next. I had never before run more than three days consecutively, yet, here I was managing it. Could I do it?

45 miles for November.
52.9 miles for December.

No sh*t. I did it. I not only met the 60 mile challenge for the local group AND the streaking challenge (with a total of 44 days in a row because I misunderstood the start day), but I also not only met my 400 miles for the year, but surpassed it for a total of 440 miles!

Hot diggity dog. Most of that running was on the treadmills of Juarez, Mexico or Northern Virginia, but I also ran in Utah, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, New York, South Dakota, California, North Carolina, and Hawaii. I am not sure I will ever have another year like that.

I learned a lot from this year of running.
I learned I like to do vary my exercise beyond running. In 2013, although I ran far fewer miles, I was in better shape. The cross training I did by participating in spinning, Zumba, and other classes made me stronger. I like running, but there were days when it felt like a chore. When I was not streaking, I might have only two or three days a week I could get to the gym. Because I had weekly, monthly, and the yearly mileage goals, I needed to run just about all of those days. Some days I would have very much liked to have done something else. Some days, ANYTHING else.

I learned though I can be pretty resourceful if I want to get a run in. Also, that, at least in the United States, that there are places to help the single parent out, particularly if they are willing to pay. There are many licensed agencies that provide in-room hotel child care; excellent community centers which include child care; even drop-in daycare centers.

The streak showed me that just a single mile most often can lift my spirits. The adage that just 10 minutes a day of exercise can boost energy and mood proved true for me. I also continued to push my speed and hill work. It was easier to do so when I knew I only had to run one mile. I also found my daughter will in fact sit or play quietly for at least 10-20 minutes in a hotel gym, unless of course the Wi-Fi cuts out and the My Little Pony video halts in the middle of playing… Knowing she will do this means that even if I do not have a sitter, a short workout is not out of the question.

I learned that when people tell you someone almost always feels better after a run than before it, they are really not blowing smoke up your skirt. Even with a bad cold or a throat infection or the flu a ten minute run did in fact make me feel better.

I do not yet know what 2015 has in store for me for running. Most likely I will be dialing back the miles and diversifying my exercise again, though I will incorporate the hill and speed work.  My next streak will be to study Chinese every day until my test, in just 15 days. It is time to buckle down and get to China. Once we are settled in Shanghai I will be able to consider the next challenge. The challenge other than running the Buffalo half marathon in May, which I am already signed up for…

Happy New Year and happy running!

A REAL Halloween

All week I had been excited about the prospect of trick or treating with C on Halloween night. I had had her costume picked out since early September. She loves all things horse and cowboy/cowgirl related. The bonus was that as Halloween approached, she actually started talking about the holiday. The week of she actually began talking about trick or treating – and it was not because I introduced it. I have, for the most part, learned not to discuss future events with C because she has little or no concept of time and believes everything I talk about in the future is about to happen! Indeed, that morning she sat bolt upright and asked first thing to go trick or treating. I forgot my own rule and told her we would go trick or treating later, after school. Wouldn’t you know it, thirty minutes later I drive up to her school to drop her off and she bursts out crying because she does not want to go to school, she wants to trick or treat!

Realizing that C had a concept of Halloween for the first time and that it coincided with us actually being in the U.S.  filled me with a lot of unexpected happiness. In this Foreign Service life I cannot be sure when we will be in the U.S. at Halloween again. Sure, Halloween is celebrated in other places and even more places co-opt it as a special foreign event, popular in schools, expat community housing, and bars, but there really is no place that celebrates quite like the U.S. I mean that neither negatively nor positively; the U.S. celebration of Halloween is just unique.

In Ciudad Juarez they celebrate Halloween for instance. In fact it seems there along the border it is celebrated more vibrantly than the Day of the Dead. Many children in Juarez attend school in the U.S. (as did their parents) and people appear to enjoy this U.S. tradition. There is trick or treating and the handing out of candy. And yet, it is still, even so close to the U.S., not like in the U.S. In Juarez the children, instead of saying “trick or treat” roam the neighborhoods chanting “Queremos Halloween! Queremos Halloween!” (W e want Halloween! We want Halloween!). The candy generally handed out is of the hard candy variety. The kids seem happy enough with their spoils but having been fairly keen on trick or treating as a child, I know that in the U.S. the hard candy (those Dum Dums and Jolly Ranchers) that some people insist on giving out are more often relegated to the “last to eat” or the “give to mom and dad” pile.

It has been great to be here at this time. The leaves have turned gorgeous fall colors and most trees had shed about half their leaves. Pumpkin season seemed especially good. Although the weather hit a balmy 80 degrees the Tuesday before Halloween, the day of the weather had cooled considerably. It was chilly, around 50 degrees, overcast and windy. Yet this created just the right conditions for a “real” Halloween (except some children, like C, had to wear jackets over their costumes to keep warm, which usually bums some kids out). The fallen leaves were swirling. The crescent moon appeared hazy through the clouds. The air was cool and crisp. It was perfect.

I had initially considered trick or treating with my sister, niece, and nephew, but they were heading out from 5:30 and as I am on the late language schedule at FSI, that is my finish time. I would not get home until 6:30. I decided instead we would trick or treat in the neighborhood behind the hotel. First, I figured the neighborhood backs onto an elementary school so there are likely to be plenty of children living there. Secondly, as it is townhouses, we could cover more ground, more homes, with less walking. I guesstimated a minimum of ten houses and a maximum of twenty.

As we walked over to the neighborhood with grandma, I noticed it seemed very quiet. Few of the homes facing the street had lights on and those with lights gave no indication they would be participating in trick or treating. I saw no children knocking on those doors. I did not even hear any children, which seemed a particularly bad sign.

As we turned on to the first street a house was decorated and had a porch light on with a bowl of candy sitting on the step. No person anywhere to be seen. I directed C to take a piece and she happily did so, dropping it in her pumpkin bucket (yes, the ubiquitous plastic pumpkin bucket). The next few houses were dark. Then another two houses again had only a bowl of candy left outside in front of the door. C went up and knocked on the door anyway, she was so excited. But no one came. Hmmm…this was really strange. I thought first this neighborhood must be filled with some of the most honest kids in America. A great sign for sure, though nowhere near as interesting as actually knocking and saying “Trick or Treat!” Then I wondered if actually this is what trick or treating had become in America. It had been awhile…

Finally we saw not only other children in costume but also a door with a real live occupant handing out candy. Thank goodness! I had begun to feel disappointed that C was not going to get her Halloween experience (nor would I!). After this house there was another and another. We turned at the end of the street and behold there many homes decorated for the holiday, with carved pumpkins on the steps, fake spider webs on the bushes, silhouettes of skeletons and witches in the windows. C began jumping up and down with delight, especially as there were several groups of other children out running from door to door.

Halloween was saved!

All was good until C tripped on a step that activated a motion sensor sound machine that emitted a scary sound and the occupant of the house, dressed in costume, stepped forward to offer C some assistance and give her some candy. C burst out in sobs and begged to go home. And thus ended our first trick or treating experience in the U.S. It could be our last for awhile.

At least we got a small candy haul (certainly plenty for a toddler under 3) and this morning I still got to deny her candy for breakfast, which is a time-honored tradition of American parents in the days and weeks after Halloween.

It was perfect. A real American Halloween.