Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Foreign Service Relocation Limbo: how loose can you hang?

According to Wikipedia, the limbo, a dance that originated in Trinidad, "reflects the whole cycle of life." A dancer's ability to clear the pole as it is gradually lowered symbolizes "the triumph of life over death." Although successfully relocating in the Foreign Service is certainly not a triumph over death, it can be difficult, and a successful transition requires many of the same abilities as the limbo.

Flexibility is a core requirement for both a mobile life and a limbo dancer. If your body isn't built for back bends, don't bend it back--unless you love seeing your orthopedist. Similarly, if you dislike change, don't choose a life in the foreign service. However, flexibility alone may not be sufficient for either.

Flexibility is high-maintenance. You must warm up, honor your limits, and know that every day brings a new adventure. If you rush, you're more likely to be injured, yet it's natural to want to speed through something that makes us uncomfortable. Navigating change requires patience.

Foreign Service Officers and their families spend a lot of time dealing with the indeterminate future. First you wonder where you'll be assigned, then you wonder when you'll get your orders, then you wait for all the details from all the different departments to come together: housing, travel orders, training schedules, etc. Between the date of your assignment and your arrival you need a lot of answers from a few very busy people, and the necessity of being patient can conflict with our desire to be autonomous.

Knowing when to push forward, and when to hold steady, is the key to the limbo that is life in the foreign service. Self-advocacy is essential, but unusual anxiety about not knowing can be harmful. Every two years you dance another relocation limbo, but once you're clear, the rewards can be extraordinary.

Monday, April 19, 2010

If you can't beat 'em, Tandem?

Always a hot topic in the foreign service community, spousal employment continues to be a significant concern for Foreign Service Officers and their families. Diplopundit and Ryan and Lori recently posted about an article in the Summer 2009 issue of  FLO Direct News, which states that "nearly two-thirds [of adult family members] expressed an interest in working, while only a third was successful in finding employment." In addition, "many positions filled by family members inside the Mission tend to be clerical in nature and therefore widely viewed by the approximately 75% of family members with degrees (of whom about half have advanced degrees) as not very challenging or interesting." In their blog, Ryan and Lori wonder how often a FSO chooses to leave the Foreign Service because his or her spouse cannot maintain a professional career. I have an additional question: how difficult is it to be a tandem couple in the Foreign Service?

A tandem couple is a term used to describe two Foreign Service employees who are married to each other. Because my husband is the son of a retired GSO, we were familiar with the concept before my husband decided to pursue a careeer in the Foreign Service. However, when my husband started his application process I decided against applying for several reasons: 1) I was busy working 2) I was concerned about the complications of bidding on posts as a tandem, and 3) I was unwilling to entertain the possibility of being separated. As detailed in this article written by an Officer married to a Specialist, the possibility of being separated is very real. However, being a tandem couple may not be as difficult as it seems.

In our short time as members of the Foreign Service community we have met several tandem couples, an experience that is most certainly related to our assignment to the Philippines. Embassy Manila is quite large and thus, very accommodating for tandem couples looking for two job openings in the same location. Although it may be unavoidable that small posts may not commonly have two job openings at the same time, there are plenty of large posts in the world, and separation may not be absolute.

In addition, the post assignment process is complicated, but not arbitrary. Although the Needs of the Service are paramount, the State Department makes a significant effort to accommodate its Officers' preferences. Officers are not always assigned to their high and medium rated posts, but the Service does not ignore the wishes of its diplomats and their families. In fact, it makes every effort to keep tandem couples together, and encourages qualified spouses to apply. After all, the Needs of the Service are better met by a two for one deal.

It's been a little over two months since I left my job behind in Florida, and although I am enjoying Project Relax, I've been on vacation long enough to know that I will eventually want to return to professional life. Being well aware of the limitations of maintaining a professional (paid) career as the spouse of an FSO, my thoughts turn to the possibility of being an FSO myself, especially since the responsibilities of a consular officer fit well with social work skills. However, I would like to have more information about the reality of being a tandem couple before settling on it as a goal.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Simplicity of Mobility

No one joins the Foreign Service expecting to simplify his or her life. No one thinks, "My life is so complicated. I think I'll become a traveling diplomat (or a diplomat's spouse/partner)." When compared to the comfort and stability of a stationary life, how could a life of incessant travel be simple? Yet constant mobility encourages--and often enforces--simple living.

Possessions: When you live in one place for an extended period of time, you start to collect things. I am not particularly prone to packrat behavior, but neither am I a master of de-cluttering. I just might need that ____ someday. However, because the Foreign Service will only ship 7, 650 lbs of a family's belongings, one learns to choose what to keep very carefully. In addition, with the exception of a 400 lb air shipment, these belongings have to travel across oceans to reach you, and thus, FS families must learn to do without most  of their things for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. And when you realize that you can live without that ____, having it suddenly becomes a burden.

Ambition: On the surface, it appears to be extremely difficult to have a continuous career as a foreign service spouse. And if you stay attached to your stateside career expectations, it is difficult. A spouse's traditional career trajectory is often abruptly interrupted when he or she relocates to DC or overseas, but this change does not need to derail his or her career. In my experience, the more comfortable I become with my career change, the more I realize the opportunities embedded in the lifestyle. If I define a career as doing something I enjoy and feel is meaningful, regardless of pay, my career paths are limitless.

Opportunities for Learning: I have always been a curious person, and am motivated to seek new experiences. As a social worker with a full time job, it took a lot of planning and energy to obtain education outside of my workplace, not to mention trying to fit exotic travel into my weekends and vacation days. Life in the Foreign Service provides the stability of having a home and an income and the adventure of traveling, and thus, I feel freedom in knowing that, every two years, my home will be the new experience.

Responsibilities: Speaking of collecting things, one set of items that have been steadily increasing for the last five years are our bills. Stationary life combined with a steady dual income encourages spending, and since we've joined the foreign service we've been shedding expenses. Thank heaven we never bought a second home. Unlike relocating as a private citizen, State pays for a large portion of its officers' moving expenses, hires movers to pack you out, and assigns housing at every new post. You may not always like the choices made for you, but there is a wonderful simplicity in not having a choice.

This is not to say that life in the Foreign Service is easy--it has plenty of challenges. However, it has been a pleasant surprise to realize that what seems like a complicated lifestyle has actually simplified my life in many ways.

It's a foreign service dog's life.