Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SAHMing it up in the US

Even outside of the State Department there's an acronym for everything. Two and a half years ago I was a LCSW working for HOTC, then I was an EFM working at CLO, now I'm a SAHM taking care of my LO, American style.

What's a SAHM, American style, you ask? A person who's current job has incredible purpose, but no time off, and is paid in hugs, smiles, and baby giggles. A person who's secondary responsibilities are usually housework, food prep, and in my case, dog wrangling.  A person who has realized how precious time is, both because he or she has the opportunity to watch a little human transform before his or her eyes (sometimes they get taller overnight), and because any time that is not spent working is precious. Very precious. A SAHM is a stay at home mom.

Why American style? Because American hyper-individualism and our transitory lifestyle, even those who are based domestically, makes full time mothering at home a job with a very heavy workload, and it is not a job that is universally appreciated or understood. The following is NOT a statement about childless people; it is simply a statement of fact: until you have been a full time stay at home parent, or are the spouse of one, you have no idea how much work goes into doing even a moderately competent job of it. And getting help is not as simple as it sounds. Babies can not be easily delegated. 

My adjustment to being a SAHM was rough, but it has been easier than my adjustment to other changes in my lifestyle, such as moving to Manila. It was also concurrent with our repatriation back home, which is, believe it or not, a process of adjusting to culture stress, especially when you land in Washington, DC in the heat  and hostility of a Presidential election. However, although it does not have super-affordable mama's helpers such as nannies or domestic assistance of any kind, the US does have a lot of energetic women (and a few men) who create their own support systems and figure out how to make being a SAHM (or Dad) work. It also helps to adjust one's priorities, and realize that those secondary responsibilities are WAY down on the list of priorities.

It is not helpful when people spout platitudes such as "appreciate this time because they grow up fast," but buried in the platitude is truth: this beautiful little being changes every day, and someday I will not be able to scoop him up and give him a raspberry to the music of his laughter, his kisses will not be open-mouthed baby maulings, and he probably won't laugh when he farts (he may find them funny, but it won't be as innocent). So as difficult as the day to day work is, I make space for gratitude that I am having this experience. It also helps to know that in a few months I will again have the opportunity to look for a second job, should I want one. Which I will, as long as I can find a good daytime mama's helper. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pregnant lady on the move!

No, I am not, thank gosh, pregnant again, but one year ago this week my beautiful baby boy was born, and I've never shared my  experinece of my FS OB med-evac.

Although it is State policy to recommend that all women return to the US to give birth, many FS women give birth abroad and have good experiences. Manila has excellent medical care and I loved my Filipino OB, Dr. H. However, this being my first birth experience, I wanted to be with my family in my own country, and also wanted to use a hospital-based midwife (which I highly recommend). Plus, I didn't want to deny my baby the ability to run for President. God help him if he takes that task on.

First, the facts. If you choose to return home or give birth in your region's med evac point (EAP's is Singapore), you will receive housing and meals per diem for 12 weeks: 6 weeks before birth and 6 weeks after. In general, MED is pretty strict about this timing, so if you want to depart earlier or return to post later, you will be paying out of pocket for the extra days. My boss, the CLO, was very generous and accommodated me taking 16 weeks of maternity leave. State does not offer paid maternity or paternity leave, so once you have used up your annual and sick leave you go on LWOP status. 

Your per diem allowance varies based on where you go. In Florida my allowance was only $88/night, which is absurdly low for the area, amd so I stayed with my parents for the duration of my med evac. If you return to DC, your allowance is appropriate for housing costs in the area. If your due date falls during home leave or a DC assignment, you are not on a med evac and are on your own.

The pros to returning home are obvious: familiar medical care setting with providers who speak English--can you imagine being in labor and trying to speak a newly acquired language, if you even had language training?--easier access for family members to meet the baby, and the convenience benefits of being in the US. Drawbacks: if your per diem is insufficient and you can't afford to get an extended stay hotel room, crashing with your folks for 4 months with a new baby is a lot to ask of one's family, unless they live in a very large house and have a cook and a maid. My parents were wonderful and extremely generous, but they do not have the aforementioned house and helpers.

In addition, if your embassy is short-staffed or very small, it may be more difficult for Dad to be present for the birth AND the first few weeks of newborn care, which is hard on both parents. If you have the baby at post, Dad has more flexibility, and Mom likely has a domestic helper at home.

I am glad I returned home for Kyle's birth, and if i have another baby my choice to med evac or not will depend on the situation. In Albania, having the baby in country is not an option due to lack of sufficient medical care. Other than freaking out, I'm not sure what MED would do if one hired a local midwife and insisted on a home birth. Probably revoke your medical clearance. 

If you have any questions about being in the FS while pregnant, please don't hesitate to ask.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bidding on Manila?

I wrote this list when we had only been in Manila for six months, but I have nothing I want to change now that our tour is over, except to add that Manila is a fantastic post for families with young children. Blogger and iPads don't mix well, so I have to add that pro up here:
9) Yayas and child-friendly everything - want to go on a date with your spouse? Yaya to the rescue-an entire day of in-home, devoted, and reliable child care for only $22! Is your child having a meltdown in the Sofitel? No problem-here come a troupe waiters, waitresses, and fellow brunchers ready to help you calm him down. Have 3 or more kids? Your housing is going to be fantastic. 


1) Community - The Embassy has wonderful leadership and is staffed by a great group of people, creating a friendly work environment despite the heavy workload in the consular section. The social community is inclusive and supportive, and there are plenty of opportunities to make friends.

2) Travel - The Philippines is a beautiful country, and Manila is well located for Southeast Asian travel. Domestic travel can be either cheap or expensive, depending on where you stay.

3) Food - Although Filipino food and Americans don't usually mix well, there are good restaurants in Makati and the Fort.
4) Domestic help - Imagine a life where your house is always clean, dinner is ready, and there's no such thing as laundry nights. And most importantly, you can afford it. Drivers are helpful in dealing with the traffic and parking problems, and can multi-task as professional dog walkers, errand runners, and bag schleppers. 
5) Safety - There are certain places in the country where you cannot go, and there is a travel warning in the Philippines, but Manila is generally as safe as any other mega-city. 
6) Availability of goods - Unless you shop like a local, and it's difficult to shop like a local, you will pay US equivalent or higher prices for most of your groceries and household basics. Manila has a 5% COLA. However, you have access to many familiar US, Australian, and European goods, which helps if you are already overwhelmed by the city. When you can't think straight because you battled an hour of traffic getting to the grocery store, at last you will find a few familiar labels on the shelves. You won't find everything you want, but you'll find most of it. Local and imported fruits and veggies are generally plentiful, depending on the season. 
7) Good deals -  Restaurant dining and home food delivery is extremely affordable, particularly if you are used to paying D.C. prices. High-quality and skilled crafts, furniture, jewelry and clothing is wonderfully inexpensive at markets such as Greenhills, and travel can be cheap. You can have incredibly fresh, organic vegetables delivered nearly to your door for less than $100/month--take that, Whole Foods. Massages are the best deal in town, even at the Sofitel.
8) EFM employment - Most spouses who want to work are able to find a job at the Embassy, and most enjoy their work.

1) Air quality: The air quality here is poor, which makes it difficult to spend very much time outside. In addition to the pollution caused by smoke-spewing buses, cars, and jeepneys, there's always an interesting smell heading your way on the next breeze.
2) Traffic: Planning a night out is always a challenge. It could take 15 minutes to get to your destination, or it could take over an hour, and the traffic is unpredictable. For this reason, most people spend a lot of time at home or at the homes of their friends. In addition, driving in Manila is difficult, and requires your full attention when you are behind the wheel. The rule of the road is that there are no rules.
3) Nothing is easy: The only easy way to run an errand in Manila is to ask your driver to run it for you. From the traffic to finding what you need to dealing with salespeople, hilarity inevitably ensues.
4) Noise: Fireworks go off year round and at all times of the day and night, cars backfire, horns blare, scooters buzz, and there is the occasional parade.
5) Walk-ability: What walk-ability?
6) Money: Yes, you can save money, but not as much as you'd think. Good mental health requires escaping from the city approximately once/month, which can get expensive.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mobile Mama

It's not easy to maintain a routine in a mobile lifestyle. If it's just you and another reasonably flexible adult, you can  make a  routine fit no matter where you are and what you're doing,  but babies and dogs require more stability.

Of our two dogs, Julie, the Vizsla, is having the hardest time re-patriating. Poor Julie, in Manila she was walked three times a day by her friend Tony, who's official title was Driver, but he spent more time with the dogs than he did driving. Since we've been back, Julie has had a hard time adjusting to her American lifestyle. When we brought Kyle home from the US, Julie and Grace barely noticed. They had their aso yaya and Tony, and we were an afterthought. Here, attention is spread very thin. The baby of course absorbs 90% of household energy, leaving a very small amount to be portioned across self-care, relationship care, and dog care, not to mention laundry. 

Julie's not the only one adjusting to our household reducing by 3/5. Kyle has never been an easy sleeper, but since I had a mama's helper in Manila, I never felt the pressure of being on the job 24 hours a day. This is the hardest job I've ever had. Of course I love taking care of my baby-but a lunch break (or a bathroom break) would be nice once in a while.

As we adjust to living in the US, and I adjust to the American model of motherhood--all me, all the time, except on weekends or if a grandparent is visiting--I am trying to maintain a routine despite moving, traveling, home leave, and a million other routine saboteurs. Kyle is a flexible baby, but he is not a low maitenance baby. I am a devoted mama, but I need a little time to be something other than a mama. In the US, those opportunities are few, especially when baby has quit taking naps in his crib because he became accustomed to being held while we were on the move.

Now if you'll excuse me, I see that Kyle is learning how to work doorknobs.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Family Ties

One time I asked a Filipino domestic worker if Filipinos as a group were tolerant of homosexuality. This person, who is around 50 years old, said that although homosexuality was not accepted in the 1980s, now nearly all Filipinos have a sibling who has come out, and in general have come to realize that homosexuals are "just like everybody else: they are my sister; my brother." 
The Philippines is a devoutly Christian country. On issues such as abortion, they are 150% pro-life. They are also pro-family, and it's not uncommon for a Filipino to have 9 siblings, so if one of those ten children is attracted to people of the same gender, almost everyone has someone they love who is gay, lesbian, or bi-sexual. And to their credit, instead of ostracizing their brothers and sisters, they have come to accept them. 
If you believe that it's ok to discrimate against someone based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, then I'm not talking to you. However, if you don't believe it's ok, then don't go to Chick fil A today. Even if you think the uproar is stupid, don't care about gay rights, think Chick-fil-A is a good company, or believe that all companies and their CEOs are evil and there's no point in boycotting any of them, you don't need to join ranks with those who are mobbing Chick-fil-A today. Today, support your brothers and sisters; you can eat at Chick-fil-A tomorrow. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Missing Manila?

I spent the first year of my time in Manila resisting. I resisted the traffic, having a driver, the check out process, the stomach illnesses, and the polluted air. I was exhausted by the quest for groceries, atttempts to go out to dinner, and my wish to practice yoga in a studio. I was so mired in the difficulties that I could not apprecitate the postive aspects of life in Manila. When we returned from my OB MED evac to Florida with our eight week old baby, I mellowed. I wasn't going anywhere anyway, so the traffic didn't bother me as much. I fully appreciated having domestic employees to help with housework and allow me personal time. Tony the driver also became our dog walker, all around errand doer, and furniture-putter-togetherer, and I accepted that it really was nicer to chill in the backseat instead of battle with 20 million other people for space on Roxas, EDSA, and Buendia. I discovered that I could have clean, organic produce and other groceries delivered, and decided that if I wanted imported cheese I was going have to live with it being just a little bit, well, moldy. And now that I'm back in DC, I can't believe it, but I'm MISSING Manila. No, not the moldy cheese and the pollution and the Dengue fever, but I came to really like my life there, and I miss it. I imagine that as soon as I settle in to DC, we'll be off to Albania, and the process starts again. I'll be in Tirana reminiscing about the time I paid $15 for a beer. So what is consistent in life in the FS? Not your stuff: Delta might misplace it or it will arrive covered in mildew. Perhaps the most consistent aspect of a mobile life as a US Diplomat is the community. Having only been back for a month, we've already reunited with several friends from A-100, and many of our closest Manila friends, and everyone is the same. People have babies, live in exotic places, and change jobs, and they are still the core group of awesome people that make life in the FS something to miss.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good morning, America!

Or is it evening? Don't ask me; I have a 9 mo old baby trying to adjust to a twelve hour time change. Baby jet lag: a reason to bid on the western hemisphere. -- 4/5 of the Mobile Home Family has repatriated into the US, waiting for one forlorn family member to meet the requirements of his TED and join us in DC, where we will spend a year in training at FSI. Brian will be learning Albanian, and Kyle and I will be taking advantage of everything NoVa and DC have to offer: Trader Joe's, fresh air, glorious, tree filled parks, and huge, shady off leash dog parks. Most of our closest Manila friends are also in DC for training, and we will be rejoining with friends from A-100. I'm looking forward to it. -- I am not thrilled about leaving my part time job at CLO, and my full time yaya behind in Manila. I love spending so much time with my baby, but I am not used to never having a break from baby care. Elmo turns out to be a miracle worker. When I really need 15 minutes to eat, use the restroom, or just stare at the wall, Best of Elmo 2 comes to my rescue. Kyle has never been an easy sleeper, and add a huge time change and a lot of home hopping into the mix and you have a baby who won't sleep in a crib. So far every nap has either been in arms or in the stroller. He's in the stroller right now, which is allowing me to write this post. -- The next few months will be an interesting identity shift for me. Before we had Kyle, no one EVER asked me if I were a housewife. Now that there's a baby, suddenly I'm a homemaker, even if I'm working part time. I guess before I was just a lucky duck, traveling the world with Paycheck (as my friend Nick affectionately refers to our spouses), and our dogs. Fine, I accept my role as a 24-7 caregiver, and my salary is the money we are saving by not bringing our yaya with us to DC. It was my decision to not bring our nanny with us--without a job I simply couldn't justify the cost, and hopefully we will find a good caregiver in Albania so I can work. -- And he's up, so off I go.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Honey, have you checked the sh*tter?

New Zealand's South Island, a fantastically gorgeous place like nowhere else on earth. Where you can gaze at crystal clear, tropical blue water set against snow capped mountains, and enjoy it at comfortable 65 degrees. Where you can drive from a rain forest to a semi-arid clime in a few hours. And where you can eat the best apples I've ever tasted.

the view from the road

A city park in Wanaka, and an unexpected delight when baby + mountain roads + campervan prevented us from making it to our intended destination.

Hanging with an airplane

The view from the road

 Simply stunning Milford Sound (which is not a sound, but a fjord).

Blue mist, and the view from Milford Sound Lodge/Holiday Park.


Fiordland National Park

Still in Fiordland National Park

 Mt. Cook/Aoraki

Campervanning the South Island with a 7 mo old: where you can hit your knee on the same protrusion about a 1000 times, pull over about 2000 times to let everyone else pass (except the other 1000 campervans), and go on a search for a waste dump, because not all holiday parks provide them.


We had a great time, ate delicious, fresh food (although I'm back to not eating red meat again--I'm afraid I might have met my meal), witnessed the sedative effect of pure, fresh air on a baby, hiked a little, drove a lot, and rested our Manila-fatigued eyes on the beauty of the South Island.

Other than staying a week longer and not being harassed by officious Quantas flight attendants to use the incomprehensible baby seat belt, I wouldn't have changed our trip at all. And any R & R with a baby, sans yaya, is likely to be more Running than Resting.

Friday, March 30, 2012

United Airlines vs. Four-Legged Foreign Service Family Members

At best, United Airlines' decision to exclude Foreign Service employees from the pet transport waiver it granted the military is disrespectful, indicating a complete disregard for the work of the State Department and its employees deployed abroad. United's language is insulting, as they are granting the waiver to the DOD “in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice." Because of course, diplomacy has no role whatsoever in the the US's relationship with the rest of the world.  

United's decision will certainly result in many Foreign Service pets finding themselves without a home. Most families can't afford the $3000+ it costs to ship a pet as cargo on a federal employee's salary. If you use a top quality pet shipper and fly your pets on KLM (which treats animals humanely), add another $2000 to the bill.

At worst, it will result in many medium and large sized dogs being abandoned in foreign countries or spending more than two days in transit, being cared for by people who may or may not bother to let the dogs out of their crates in the course of these two days. At absolute worst, it may result in the deaths of pets who are not handled properly, are delayed, or are misdirected while in transit. A dog-loving friend of mine swore she'd never ship her dogs as cargo again after she arrived at the airport to find someone else's German Shepherd waiting for her. By some miracle, she knew the Shepherd's owner, who had received her dogs.

When pets fly as baggage, they follow the same flight plan as their humans, which is, at most, around 25 hours of travel when flying to Asia, and it only costs between $200-300 per pet, a reasonable expense for most families. You can ask a flight attendant to confirm your pet is on board, and they are waiting for you at customs, where you can take them out of their crates for a potty break.

The following is a video created by a family whose husband and father has volunteered to serve in a war zone, and who, when reunited with his wife and children in a year, will be forced to separate from his canine family member if United is the only American carrier available at their next post. According to United, a Foreign Service tour in Yemen/Islamabad/Kabul/Cuidad Juarez is a sweet deal. 

You might think that having a baby has distanced me from my dogs, and although I won't deny that it has changed my relationship with them, Kyle's relationship with Julie has only strengthened my desire to have dogs always be a part of our family. Kyle laughs out loud at the sight of Julie--how could I ever deny him this pleasure? In addition, having a pet teaches children compassion, responsibility, and to be comfortable with animals. When we leave Manila we will not be affected by United's new policy, but getting the dogs in to Albania may be more difficult.

Whether or not you care about Foreign Service families, if you care about animals, please advocate for our dogs by speaking out against United's discriminatory policy. You can contact AFSA, AAFSW, or even your local animal rights group. If you have any doubts about how much Foreign Service families love their pets, check out Foreign Service Tails.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Gotta love the yaya

Nine months later, I finally drag myself back to the computer (or rather, an iPad) and decide it's time to write a blog. A lot has happened in nine months. Six months ago, the mobile home family welcomed a beautiful baby boy! We chose to go home to have the baby and were in Florida for 4 months over the summer and early fall.
Having a baby has significantly changed by perspective on Manila: love our yaya. In addition to loving the fact that I can work part time knowing that my baby is safe and happy at home with his wonderful caregiver, Filipinos welcome babies everywhere! On the plane home from Hong Kong two weeks ago' my 6 month old was active and fussy, but I had plenty of volunteers in the surrounding seats taking turns entertaining the baby. Awesome.
Having a baby has also helped me learn to let go of the little things, a mandatory skill for a life in the foreign service. I just don't have the energy to fret about little things. Maybe that will change when he's older and I'm getting more sleep-
Our next post is Albania. Another 20% hardship, but hopefully one that is hard in different ways from this one. I've learned how to cope with many things about life in Manila that used to irritate me endlessly. For example, traffic is always bad here. How to cope? Don't go anywhere. Seriously. Or rather, be content with going to the one restaurant that's close to you frequently, and make do with whatever the one nearby grocery store is selling. Or even better, order it online at the thegreengrocermanila.com and go to the grocery store as little as possible.
Anyone reading this in the US or at a non hardship post probably thinks I'm nuts, but this is what works for us.
In Albania, the air will be cleaner, there will be mountain views and parks, and the population will be 500,000 instead of 11,553,427. I will still have trouble getting to the grocery store, and when I get there, won't find anything I need. I do not look forward to our next post with rose colored glasses, or beer goggles, depending on your preference, but I hope that I will keep my skill of letting the little things go.