Friday, December 30, 2005

The Inevitable Timeline

There's a legend of a 19th century British lord, who, when visiting his daughter, exclaimed with dismay that his toothbrush wasn't "foaming properly". It turns out that his valet had been placing toothpaste on the brush for him for so long that he no longer knew how to do it for himself.

There are some interesting parallels to being a Foreign Service spouse. I can do many things I would have never tried three years ago. I can buy beer in three languages, I can bargain in outdoor markets, I can navigate any international airport in thirty minutes or less.

There's also the wimpy, whiny dark side that you almost never hear about. Our apartments are assigned before our arrival by an inter-agency board, someone else sets up our license plates, we have a special passport agency, an Embassy maintenance guy comes over to change the light bulbs, and we receive financial allowances for virtually anything that may be construed as a hassle. Mama State takes care of it. It's like crawling back into the womb. Some spouses are able to keep a hold on themselves, some become accustomed to being taken care of and lose themselves a bit along the way, others become spoiled brats.

I don't really know which camp I fall into. Luckily I lived on my own for long enough that I don't take Mama State for granted. I'm sure most of my girlfriends felt the same way, but there seems to be an inevitable timeline for us. For a while it's a refreshing break, then it becomes routine, then it becomes an entitlement. Then our brains inevitably dissolve into a puddinglike goo, we become "ladies who lunch", we manhandle the pool boy, and then we bemoan the lack of a Christian Dior boutique in Mogadishu.

OK, I'm exaggerating for effect. The infantilization of spouses is an entrenched, and unfortunate, State Department trait. On most forms I am listed as Matt's "dependent" or "trailing spouse". I haven't been anyone's "dependent" since I left for college, and "trailing spouse" implies that Matt is dragging me around the world in a little red wagon. Sometimes I'm called an "eligible family member" which is a lovely effort to avoid offending anyone by being completely vague. I have friends who try to list their cats as "eligible family members." So excuse me if I don't find the term flattering.

Until the 1970s, wives were considered "unpaid employees" of the State Department and were included on employee evaluations. I don't mention the husbands of diplomats, because there weren't any. Female diplomats who married were forced out of their jobs.

Frankly, things haven't gotten much better. For example, Matt has to sign a Power of Attorney so I can use the Embassy Cashier. It's a joint account, it's my money too, but I need hubby's permission to talk to the nice bank teller lady. It's enough to drive you crazy.

Of course, there are government programs to fix all these things. For example, if I DO indeed go crazy, Mama State will send me on a lovely all expenses paid two-week vacation to Sibley Hospital.

Now call me crazy (and ship me off to Sibley) but couldn't a lot of this be fixed by NOT calling us dependents, NOT making us get our husbands' approval to cash a damn check, and by trying to make us fend for ourselves a bit?


Michael J. West said...

Just because I'm curious...if it were the other way around, and you were the diplomat and Matt the trailing spouse, would you still have to get his approval to cash a check in 2006? Or would he have to get yours?

Shannon said...

Matt would have to get my approval to cash a check. It's not a gender issue. Only direct hire employees (aka anyone but spouses) have automatic approval to use cashier services, other family members have to get a power of attorney signed by their "sponsor" (yes, Matt's my "sponsor" --ick!) to use the cashier. It doesn't matter if it's a joint account or not - if you're a family member, your spouse MUST give his or her approval for you to get cash.

The problems with this are obvious. You have people controlling their spouses via money, either by refusing to sign the form or dawdling and hanging it over the spouse's head. And, at the very least, the very act of asking your spouse's permission to withdraw your own money from the bank is very demoralizing.

The intention is to make sure only authorized people use cashier services, but the effect is to reinforce the essential inequality of State Dept marriages. It's a really stupid policy.

Anonymous said...

As a male trailing spouse this drives me crazy. I am a retired Marine and my wife can cash a check at the exchange without having a power of attorney from me on hand. True she has to place my SSN on the account but still NO power of attorney.

Shannon said...

Yeah, I'm with you. It just makes no sense, and it reinforces the idea that spouses are second-class citizens. Sigh.