Posted: 4:02 am ET
The current issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes a piece on tandem couples in the State Department. The article is written by FSO Fred Odisho who joined the Foreign Service as a political-coned officer in January 2014. He has been separated from his tandem spouse for their first four years in the Foreign Service, and he is looking forward to reuniting with her in the summer of 2017 for their second assignment. His co-author is USAID FSO Whitney Dubinsky who joined the Foreign Service in 2010 through USAID’s Development Leadership Initiative. Her spouse joined the Foreign Service “after two years of being unable to find meaningful employment at post.”
Representative of the larger society, Foreign Service families come in all forms, each with its own unique challenges. The dynamic of the modern family has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The percentage of family members working outside the home has steadily increased. More and more possess professional degrees and experience in a variety of fields. Not surprisingly, they possess traits similar to those of their Foreign Service spouses. In the face of these changes, have Foreign Service policies supporting the modern family kept pace?
For tandem couples—the term for families in which both spouses are members of the Foreign Service—the answer to this question is a resounding no. Little has changed since The New York Times published an article in 1986 titled “State Department; Till Reassignment Do Us Part?” describing the challenges facing tandem couples of that era. Being able to be assigned together was and still is the greatest challenge plaguing the members of any tandem couple. The threat of having to split up their family and children remains ever-present.
Tandem couples are not trying to circumvent the worldwide availability requirement. They acknowledge that directed assignments are not limited to entry-level employees but are also possible for mid-level and senior-level employees, as witnessed during the wars of the past decade. They understand and accept that they, like all their peers, may have to shoulder one of these directed assignments that may necessitate serving in an unaccompanied capacity.
In fact, one could argue that the unofficial motto of most tandems is, “It’s not a matter of where we serve … so long as we can serve together.” Just like everyone else, we signed up for worldwide availability, not worldwide separation—especially separation that is not directed and is based solely on the luck of the bidding draw.
The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review says that the federal government takes “work-life balance seriously and will continue to support our employees as they balance their commitment to service with personal wellness and family life. Work-life balance is critical to retaining the best talent.” It is time for senior management to not only say these words but to take substantive action.
Read in full: Tandem Couples: Serving Together, Apart via the Foreign Service Journal’s July/August 2016 issue.
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- Stephanie Kinney: Wither the Foreign Service? — Wham! Read Before You Go-Go
- No Longer Grandma’s Foreign Service
- Tandem Couples,” (AFSA Labor-Management Guidance)
- “What exactly is a tandem couple?” (Travel Orders, September 2010)
- Speaking Out: “A Glass Half Full” by David T. Jones, (The Foreign Service Journal, March 2015)