Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Cautionary Tale

On occasion, I still get asked about what it was like to be a Foreign Service spouse. Was it a big adventure? Is it hard on relationships? Is it glamorous? Does diplomatic immunity really mean that you can drive as badly as you want?

The answers are yes, yes, nope, and sort of, but the consequences of a crash in a backwater with poor health care are dire enough to make you drive safely.

Most people want to know, deep down, if they’d be happy. Would their marriage survive when so many others fail? Would they find fulfilling work? Would putting their career on hold make them resentful and angry, or would they enjoy all of that free time? (In essence, and don’t be afraid to say so, “Would I cope better than Shannon did?”)

I’ve had more than a year to think these things over, and I’ve come to some answers. They aren’t pretty, and if you want cheerleading, look elsewhere. This is for my readers who truly want to know about the dark side of Mama State.

The Foreign Service doesn’t create new problems. It takes the flaws and marital issues you already have and blows them wide open. I believe my divorce would have happened with or without the added stress of living overseas. It just happened a whole lot quicker than it would have back home. This is actually a very lucky thing, as both of us were young enough to pick up and start over.

The couples I see with the most success are the ones with an escape clause. Before they even fill out their first form, they sit down and say, “We’ll give it a fair shot for two years, if either of us is unhappy we’ll go home.” Truth is, life as an FS spouse can be stifling. There aren’t a whole lot of outlets or opportunities, just the endless rounds of Embassy life. So don’t enter into a Foreign Service marriage unless you’ve got a commitment that you can go home if you aren't happy.

And, yes, being a Foreign Service spouse can be intellecually and emotionally stifling. Your sense of self is under near-constant attack.

As one example, I was pressured to shut down my blog in 2006. I was in Sarajevo, and post management informed me that I could not have a blog that was in any way critical of the State Department. Mind you, this wasn’t because I was a State employee in my own right. That would have been intrusive, but understandable. But as a spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, I was not permitted to have opinions, nor was I permitted to broadcast them online. Asking me to stifle my voice attacked the very core of who I am. (Even now, I refuse jobs that intrude or pass judgment on my personal life.)

A quick thing you never knew: at parties, if you say you’re a spouse, the person speaking to you will usually bob around and look for someone more important to talk to. It’s maddening at first, but eventually becomes funny. It says a hell of a lot more about them than it ever will about you.

And, once you get on that plane, your career is over. Some people enjoy the Embassy hobby-jobs set aside for them, some enjoy the extra family time, some work a miracle and get a job with an overseas corporation. The people who do maintain their careers will blather about how you have to be up to the challenge, flexible and so on. (These people are even more annoying than they sound.) But, really, you’re never going to get to the corner office. A few weeks ago, I calculated that my Foreign Service sojourn probably cost me at least $50,000 lost income potential. Money well spent, but it takes a long time to dig out of a career hiatus.

The final thing I wish I’d known about was the “tough enough” macho foolishness of Embassy life. Look, I hated living in Sarajevo. I don’t like cold, I don’t cope with dreariness well, and looking at bombed-out buildings made me very depressed. That’s not a character flaw. It’s simply a personal preference.

But over and over, in embassies, on Real Post Reports, I see an attitude that if you don’t like a post, it’s because you have the “wrong attitude” or you “don’t appreciate other cultures.”If you don't like it, you should just go back to America with the other wusses. I have even heard friends say that if you’re unhappy at post, it’s your own fault because you didn’t try hard enough. All this accomplishes is taking ordinary homesickness and squashing it down until it morphs into a full-on breakdown and wack-evac. Truth is, you can be an optimistic person who appreciates other cultures and still not want to live in a bubble thousands of miles from home. Different preferences are not character flaws.

I know I’ve dwelled on the negative, but the truth is that someone has to. There’s a definite PR machine at State, and they want incoming officers and their spouses to believe that if they fall, State will catch them. Nothing is further from the truth. Yes, they'll handle the logistics. But, emotionally speaking, you're on your own. (And if you get divorced like I did, expect maybe one or two people to help you, and the rest to toss you to the bureaucratic wolves.) Go in expecting adventure, interesting friends, and great travel opportunities. But go in with an escape clause and with your eyes wide open.


Anonymous said...

i reallly loved this post..good job..

Digger said...

Great post. I have lived it on both sides. My partner joined first, so I was a "member of household." I found it too hard to be either separate most of the time or to deal with the thought of being in another country with no diplomatic protection, no employment I gave up a career I loved to join the service.

I am sorry most folks abandoned you. Because the truth is lots of tours are hard (okay, some really suck) no matter how much you try to make it work. And State won't help is a bureaucratic machine that takes care of its own needs. If you are lucky in the service, you find friends who will help. They, not the Department, become the family that helps you through things. I am convinced that we end up staying in the service because of those friends.

Your post should be required reading for anyone considering joining the FS as well as their spouses. People should join with their eyes wide open not just to the excitement but to the pitfalls personally and professionally. And there aren't a lot of places to get that information.

Digger said...

I have quoted and commented on your post here:

Donna said...

I found this blog through Life After Jerusalem. Interesting post. I'm an FS spouse on my fourth overseas assignment - I laughed out loud at the part about people losing interest when you tell them you're just a spouse. So true! It's also true that fs life magnifies any marital issues you're already having - you can't take a troubled marriage overseas. And at each post, we've had different problems crop up. Overall, I think it's well worth it to live this way if you get the chance. I don't dare calculate the money I've lost through giving up my real job all those years ago. But for me, the benefits have far outweighed the drawbacks. Not so for everyone.

Shannon said...

Digger - Thanks for the link! I'm amazed this post is getting traffic nearly a year and a half after it was written. I've been out of the FS world for longer than I was in it. Honestly? It just wasn't for me - and that's OK.

Donna - Thank you for a well-reasoned post. Everyone makes trade-offs in life, and many would be willing to sacrifice career and home to have an opportunity to see the world. Me, I'd rather have brunch with my hometown girlfriends over an elephant ride. But that doesn't mean I'm ungrateful - far from it. Sometimes you have to do things that aren't right for you, just to discover what IS right.

Anonymous said...

I really think your post is spot-on about the FS spouse experience. I am a first-tour FSO in Mexico, and my husband and I discussed the pros and cons for MONTHS before I joined. Still, nothing can really prepare you for the isolation and bureaucracy of this lifestyle. Still, I'm glad I at least tried it, because now I won't resent my husband for ruining my "dream." We're probably going to quit after this tour, and I won't go the rest of my life regretting not doing this fantastic career that turns out to be much more difficult and much less glamorous than I expected. I suppose State has gotten better about family concerns over the decades, but we don't have decades more to spare, and that's what I'm sure it'll be before there are good professional career paths (not secretarial, or volunteer, or online) for spouses. Our families are not just baggage!

Unknown said...

SuituUpFSO just sent me your link as a comment on our blog (The Dubinskys' Travels)...I wanted to add that having friends is of course helpful, but they are mostly living the same transient lifestyle that you are. 4 months into our first post, and we were lucky to pull Bangkok (probably the best USAID post available), but I'm already realizing that your friends are going to come and go. We're preparing for our second set to move away already and you lose some support each time that happens, which is unfortunately quite frequent and a part of FS life.

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