Single Parent Dilemma: The Business Trip

woman with suitcaseIt 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.

Trip One

mother and daughterFor 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.

Trip Two

mother daughter goodbyeIn 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 of 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.

Trip Three

mother daughter welcome homeIn 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.

 

Shanghai: Preschool Days and Activities

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For 2 months a Shanghai mall hosted this amazing My Little Pony wonderland (amazing for the kids at least; I grew tired of the MLP theme song in Chinese blaring over speakers fairly quickly).

I struggled to come up with just the right title for this blog post.  Shanghai: The Kids Mecca or Parents Empty Your Wallets are both apt descriptions, but were not quite right.  Shanghai is chock full of activities for your progeny.  This is however not about all the kids activities on offer in this city–I am not that kind of blogger.  I expect you probably could find just about anything your kids’ heart desires, but this is, as usual, just about me and C.

I am now the mom of a school-age child.  Well, preschool-aged child, but it is school nonetheless.  Approximately a year before arriving coming to Shanghai, I learned that the State Department does not cover the costs of preschool.  It makes sense–preschool is not free in the United States and therefore it is not free for us overseas–yet it still came as a bit of a surprise.  No worries, I thought, I did not attend preschool and look at me, I became a US diplomat.  Not too shabby, right?  Therefore I figured C would do just fine without.

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Just one half of the fabulous Shanghai Centre Kids’ Club. The toys! The colors!  Even I feel happy whenever I bring C here.

But things are different nowadays.  Even in the US, Kindergarten classes are more and more often full day and involve homework.  Preschool is the new Kindergarten.  And I am in Northeast Asia where there can be even more pressure for preschool to provide not only structured children’s recreation but also to prepare kids to excel not just in primary school but even to possibly decide their future university and their entire lives.  Yikes.

As soon as I arrived in Shanghai, I enrolled my daughter in the incredible Kids’ Club in our housing complex.  Besides being a wonderful play space open 7 days a week from 9 am to 6 pm where parents and the ayis (nannies) can bring the kids from 6 months to 6 years to play, they also offer regular story time (in Chinese, English, and Japanese), DVD time, music class, and exercise class but also special activities from Easter parties to Japanese flower arranging and soccer games to cooking classes.  And if you are  a member you can rent the space for birthday parties (no need to supply games!) It is not inexpensive at US$50 a month, but it is well worth it.

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This is a stack of 180 one hundred RMB notes. For real.  Yes, I took a picture of the money.  I actually did a whole photo shoot…

Once part of the Kids’ Club there was pressure to enroll C in the preschool.  I was stopped in the supermarket, in the elevator, in parties at the Kids’ Club, with helpful suggestions that C might possibly be ready for school.  She is bright.  She will make friends.  She will learn a lot.  It is not that I disagreed per se, . but preschool, even full day preschool, does not actually last a full day (a full day is only 9 am to 3 pm; oh, how I wish that were my work day).  As a single working mom who had already lucked out in finding a really great ayi (in other words not someone I wanted to lose), I just was not sure it was right for us.  But after a year I came around to the idea C would benefit from some schooling.  So I bit the bullet and signed her up for half day.

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Every week the teachers send photos to all the parents via WeChat as no parents are allowed in the classroom.

I did have a bit of sticker shock.  It would cost me 17,000 RMB for half day (9 am to noon), half a year.  Plus a 1,000 RMB one-time registration fee.  That total 18,000 RMB (approx US$2750) would need to be paid in cash on a Monday or Tuesday between 9 and 9:30 am.  That’s right, a full 30 minutes mid-morning.  Hmmmm…  As a working mom I have been part of enough conversations to know I am not the only person to face this kind of situation – where schools still assume a parent (usually the mom) is readily available during the day.  This, I am sure, was just my first such experience.  I do not expect it to be the last.  Luckily my daughter’s preschool committee turned out to be quite flexible — the treasurer (a very pregnant woman about to return to her home country to give birth), armed with an electric bill counter, met me at the Kids’ Club at 8 pm at night to accept my payment.  It felt a bit cloak and dagger, but the payment was made.

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C gets her jump on at the brand new NBA Play Zone, another awesome indoor kids play area that will drain your wallet.  (only $36 for one adult with child on the weekend) But you love it.  Draining your wallet, that is.

As preschool tuition costs go, C’s school is an absolute bargain.  According to several online sites, private/international preschool programs in Shanghai cost between 5,000 and 20,000 RMB (US$758 and US$3,030) a month.  One prominent international school costs 204,000 RMB a year with a 2000 RMB registration fee and a 20,000 RMB non-refundable security deposit for a total of 226,000 RMB (US$34,242).   Just take a moment to digest that.  Not quite as much as the current annual tuition at any of the Ivy League universities, but it will set you back a pretty penny and a vacation or two.

My daughter is absolutely loving school.  What’s not to love?  I mean once you get over handing over all that cash (yes, I do think a credit card payment would have felt less painful).  This is a Montessori-based education.  A total of 11 students with 2 teachers and 1 classroom helper.  The student-teacher ratio is fantastic.  Of the three hours, 30 minutes is spent in Chinese class.  One of my previous excuses regarding the preschool was my daughter learns a lot from her ayi every day.  Yet in three weeks of class C’s Chinese level has skyrocketed to include multiple Chinese children’s songs.  Hearing her speak so much Chinese kinda makes me want to stay in China much longer.  Kinda.  Not really.  Well, maybe.  Um, no.

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Look at my 4 year old climb this wall! (I know from personal experience I could not do it)

All kidding aside I love my daughter fiercely and I am happy that we have been posted to Shanghai where there are so many activities for her to participate in.  The Chinese culture loves children and the worldly and affluent Shanghaiese make sure the city gives them and their kids options.  My daughter is also enrolled in both private swimming and group ballet classes.  We are lucky that both of these activities are located in our housing complex!  I know.  Be still my tired single mommy heart — a five minute walk to both swimming and dance is ideal.  The swimming is hefty 250 RMB (US$38) per half an hour but I do think back to the mommy and me swimming we took in the US, which were $30 for half an hour with up to five kids and parents, and realize that our private classes are worth it.  Especially as C is really benefiting from the classes.  The dance classes too are extraordinary.  I had some doubts that the teacher — despite her incredible patience with the children — would be able to get 8 four and five year olds to learn a routine and execute it on stage, but she did.  The end of year recital was so sweet to watch.  Lots of proud parents and kids.   The 2,450 RMB (US$374) tuition is for 14 classes, the recital, and the show costume.  I took dance as a child (ballet, tap, and hula/Tahitian) from the ages of 4 to 12, and I thought back to how much I enjoyed it.

As the bidding for my next assignment will begin tomorrow (as soon as I return from vacation), I think again how incredibly fortunate we have been to be posted to Shanghai.  It is a place where kids are treasured and catered to.   There are so many organized activities and places for creative play.  Yes, it will cost you (it has certainly cost me), but it has been worth every penny to provide these kinds of opportunities for my daughter.

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C and her Chinese swim instructor cover the basics as Rapunzel (lower right hand corner) looks on