If I have begun putting ouzo in my morning coffee, you will quit …

A bottle of ouzoImage via Wikipedia

Best darn advice for EFMs and partners ….

I recently discovered The Vine, the Tomato Nation advice column that addresses questions on etiquette, grammar, romance, and pet misbehavior. The April 14, 2010 issue contains a request for advice from a spouse who’s husband has been accepted into the Foreign Service.
Cheers to you, Sarah D. Bunting! “Draw up a contract ….if I have begun putting ouzo in my morning coffee, you will quit.” Best darn advice I’ve seen in a while for a “trailing spouse” (yes, double GAG).  And no, you won’t hear this advice dispensed over the counter at State’s Family Liaison Office (FLO) or at FSI’s Overseas Briefing Center (OBC). 
Makes you wonder why not — since this is a reasonable enough advice. Read on below and I’ll tell you why (republished with permission from Sarah D. Bunting of TomatoNation.com).

Hi Sarah –

I need some advice on how to think about a problem, I think. My husband has been accepted into the Foreign Service and is waiting for a job offer from the State Department. I have been cautiously supportive of this process; in fact, I applied as well last summer at the same time he did, but did not make it through one of the earlier stages of the process. The Foreign Service hiring process is notoriously long and difficult, and I suppose at some level during the whole thing I took a “cross that bridge when you get there” attitude toward how I felt about being a Foreign Service officer’s spouse (a “trailing spouse” in FSO lingo. GAG).

So, the bridge is waiting to be crossed, now that he could get an offer to go Washington to begin training for his first post really at any time. And I have no idea how I feel about it. Sometimes it seems exciting: travel! New, exotic places! Built-in community around the various embassies and consulates! Sometimes it seems super-scary: non-US living conditions! Not being able to speak the language! Having to move every 2-3 years! Sometimes I think it’s a great life to give our children (who are 3 and 1), and sometimes I think they will hate us for not letting them be more rooted.

Majorly, there is also the fact that most trailing spouses (…barf) aren’t employed, or very employable. The stats are that only something like 30% of Foreign Service spouses who want to be employed actually are. I’ve looked into it, and the choices generally aren’t good. Most jobs available in the consulates are administrative in nature — filing and that sort of thing. And working outside the consulate requires navigating that country’s work rules, some of which are prohibitive.

I’m a lawyer, and proud of what I’ve accomplished in my field, and would never be thinking of giving it up now if it weren’t for this. It’s not a particularly portable career. There are some few opportunities for professionals, mostly at NGOs and that sort of thing, within the diplomatic community, but they are few and far between and hotly contested. Should we do this, I will certainly try for something like that, but the odds are very much not in my favor, so I feel I need to make my peace with not being employed before we go, in order to go with my whole heart behind my husband.

Only I can’t seem to do that. I’ve never wanted to stay home with my kids; as wonderful as they are, I need more mental challenge in my life than looking after toddlers can bring (please, commenters, do not take that as any kind of slam against at-home parents. I personally am just not built for it). And I look at the Foreign Service life without a job of my own and I see loneliness and isolation.

A lot of current FSOs that my husband corresponds with have some variation of, “Can you find a hobby?” as the answer for the question of how a spouse should occupy him- or herself. I have hobbies, but I don’t feel like that would sufficiently contribute to the household. I would feel like a lazy dilettante who is mostly doing those things to stay occupied. I’m worried about being isolated and I worry about feeling trapped. And I worry about losing the career I’ve worked so hard to build; it isn’t easy to re-enter the law world after time away, assuming my husband doesn’t want to make a lifetime career of this.

There are a few other factors too, like the fact that my husband hates where we currently live (I am willing to move domestically), he knows I’ve always regretted not traveling more and that I wish I had a more adventurous spirit, and since we’ve been a couple, where we live has been driven entirely by his career, that he has recently left (involuntarily). I moved with him with full buy-in on all the moves; it’s not like I had no say in the matter. But at a certain point, it starts to feel like my life doesn’t matter. I’m feeling absolutely no self-determination, no ability to articulate what I want and be able to make it happen.

I’m also pretty happy where we are living now; after 3 years here, I’ve finally started to develop the community that I’ve been working so hard to build. I have a circle of friends, a church community in which I am active, my daughter has a preschool that we like, etc.

Finally, the Foreign Service has been my husband’s dream since college. I didn’t know that until recently, but apparently he’s always wanted to do this. If I put my foot down and said, “I’m not going,” he wouldn’t go either. I just don’t know if I can do that to him, though.

We’ve talked about it to death (I’ve made all these points to him previously), and now he’s starting to make “jokes” like, when I tell him I love him, he’ll say, “Love me enough to quit your career and come be a stay-at-home mom to the kids in Lithuania?” He laughs like it’s truly a joke (and it wouldn’t be out of character for him to mean it genuinely as a joke), but I’m wondering if it’s more a reflection of how he really feels. And I don’t know how to respond, other than to tell him that I don’t think it’s funny.

So, at long last, my question to you is, how can I change my thinking about this in order to make a decision I can live with? How can I make myself okay with what he’s asking of me? How can I reclaim a sense of agency for myself, even or especially if we do this? I guess I don’t even know what the question is, but I need some fresh eyes on the problem (my therapist is less helpful in this than I thought she’d be). Thanks for your time; love your work.

Too Troubled to Come Up with a Clever Nom de Vine

Dear Nom,

“Finally, the Foreign Service has been my husband’s dream since college. I didn’t know that until recently, but apparently he’s always wanted to do this.”

I’m going to have to call bullshit on this. I’m willing to bet he made that revelation during a discussion or argument about the decision, in order to guilt you into backing down. I’m not saying he hasn’t wanted to do it for a long time, and I’m not saying he deployed “but it’s my dreeeeeam!” on purpose.

But he hasn’t acted on that dream until now, and now, he has a family, and that changes the landscape for him whether he likes it or not, because the family has dreams too. Moving the kids around at their current ages isn’t really a big deal (well, logistically it is, but less so emotionally), but good luck selling them on it in ten years.

Becoming a parent does not mean giving up on your dreams or ambitions, of course. That breed of martyrdom is unnecessary, and does not actually help children from what I’ve seen. But when you have kids, you make some choices, not just about them but about yourself, your lifestyle, your career. You’re not quite as free to move about or change things up as you once were. I’m not advocating that parents put one zombie foot in front of the other in pursuit of picket-fence stability until everyone’s 18, obviously, but the time to pursue a dream job that entails frequent travel and possible relocation to not-so-safe places is perhaps before you have two toddlers…who will be 90% of your spouse’s social life, a state of affairs your spouse is on record as not caring for.

The thing is, your husband knows all that. He knows what you want, and he knows it’s not listening to language tapes and trying to fill your days with crafts. Nothing against crafts, but it’s different when you functionally have no choice. But he wants to go, and he doesn’t want it to be true that someone is going to have to be unhappy in order for that to happen. He makes jokes so that he can head you off from saying, “I want this for you, but I really don’t want any of what it involves for me,” because if everyone’s chuckling ruefully, he doesn’t have to be the bad guy for going after what he wants.

That doesn’t make him a bad guy, but he needs to get real about what it means for you. It sounds like you’ve resigned yourself to going, which is perfectly valid, but I don’t think blowing up on him about it, demanding that he accept your emotional reality, is the worst thing in the world. You’ve had reasoned, I-statements discussions about it, you’ve expressed your support — but you don’t want to go and you already feel resentment building, and you need to get that out, as-is, now, and deal with it. Next time he makes a crack about it, crack back. “No, I’m not sure I do love you enough. …Yeah, not laughing now, are you. Because having to choose between your happiness and my own ISN’T FUNNY. I love you, but I resent it, especially because your happiness is probably going to win — AGAIN! I’ve moved for you before — acknowledge me in a serious way, THIS IS MY LIFE TOO!” Door slam!

No, it doesn’t solve anything, but if he thinks those jokes will go over any better if he’s assigned to Islamabad, he’s high. He can want what he wants, but that has its price and it’s you who will pay much of it, and you can do that for him, but he has to stop pretending it isn’t so.

Once the dust settles on that, have a more reasoned talk about what’s going to happen if you’re really, genuinely miserable overseas. Talk about exit strategies, end dates. Make it clear that you will make your best go of it for a while, without guilt or emotional blackmail for a few years, but if you can’t find work and can’t make friends, the two of you will have to reassess as a family. Draw up a contract if you have to: “We will reconvene on this matter in 18 months, and if I have begun putting ouzo in my morning coffee, you will quit.” I think the idea that this is The Rest Of Your Life is making you claustrophobic, understandably, and having an escape hatch on paper might really help you both.

I’ve recommended before that people with social anxiety narrate social situations to themselves in the manner of a nature show, to relieve pressure and give the difficulty a narrative structure. You might try a variation on that: start a journal or a blog, a memoir of your first year or two years. Call it “Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” and then have some visual pun on “trail” and fart fumes or something. Make it a story for the ages; count on a grand unifying theory.

And keep an eye on the difference between “This will be GREAT! [clenched teeth]” and “This will be hard, but I will be great in there somehow.” Give yourself permission not to love it, or to pretend you do. Realize that, some days, you will think you made a huge mistake, and other days, you will run into the arms of it laughing.

Get angry. Then get a plan. You can do this.

Thank you Sarah for allowing us to republish this in full!
I said that it’s a reasonable enough advice. FSI should include this in their getting to know you classes.  Um, on second thought, best do the contract before FSI.  The truth of the matter is some 80% of spouses in the FS are female. Females are expected to live longer than males. So if the spouse is part of that 80%, given the projected longevity of the American male, spouse may live on to a ripe age of 85, alone. As an “trailing spouse” accompanying spouse/partner with an on and off job that pays less than burger flippers and California nannies, the spouse’s social security retirement cushion also reflects her low and spotty contribution to the retirement system. Look closely the next time you get your annual statement from SSA; tell me if it’s not enough to make you want to drink a vat of ouzo.  
In addition — the longer spouses are away from their fields, the harder it is to get back. It is also difficult to get work with progressive responsibilities overseas because spouses tend to take whatever job is available ….a nurse working in the mail room, an engineer working in housing, a dance therapist working as a commissary manager, a lawyer “working” as an unpaid monthly coffee coordinator, and so on and so forth.  And if that is not an area of concern enough, after gallivanting around the world following the FSO employee, spouses could find themselves repatriated back into the US — whether due to a divorce, retirement or reassignment.  And suddenly, they are back in the workforce, over 45, starting from scratch in a city where they may not have familial support or no longer have their old career networks.  

I should note that not everyone who is a “trailing spouse” accompanying spouse/partner is looking to pursue a career. But for those who are looking, the prospect is not at all funny. One often imagines that she can be the exception. That if she reinvents herself, if she works harder, and volunteers more, that if she learns everything there is to learn that she will succeed where others have failed …. Yes, a contract is an excellent first step.  And an escape clause is not/not a bad idea.  After all, didn’t Ambassador Crocker once said that a good life is about having a lot of options? 

On a related note, the State Department has recently expanded its Professional Associates Program.  For 2010, 55 new positions were created. Yep, you heard it right.  55. (Snort!) Just to put that in context, the 2009 FLO numbers indicates that approximately 6,000 family members overseas are not working. If jobs are not possible in today’s economic realities, the State Department should do more in affording spouses and partners relevant job experience similar to the fellowship extended to military spouses. 

It would be holy goat mama crazy silly to expect job security in an organization where a spouse is not an official employee. Not done here or anywhere unless the spouse herself becomes a direct hire; that is — a “real” employee with tenure and promotion prospects and a real logon. In fact, spouses are supposed to be their own persons with no official responsibilities to the USG overseas (see the spouse directive). So if would be futile to expect any sort of job security while one is an accompanying partner.   

But I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask that the State Department improve the job employability of spouses while they are posted overseas. By providing relevant work experience to spouses even on limited funded fellowships, the organization help ensure that spouses do not have resumes full of holes and are able to get back into the workforce much quickier when necessary (also see No Longer Grandma’s Foreign Service).       

Of course, unless FSOs start leaving in droves due to their spouses’ noncareer prospects in the Service, I really don’t think State will pay real attention to this issue. I’m sorry to say but the better than nothing kool aid has worked so well for so long; you practically join the grateful dead crew when you can find any job at all.  

Updated 5/5/2010.