“You’re Just Not Quite FS Enough for the FS to Care About”
Something recently happened to a friend of mine that demonstrates just how much some folks in the State Department value Foreign Service families (the italics in that sentence are dripping with sarcasm, if you look closely you can you see them sliding down the page . . . ). I’m not going to detail her story, it’s hers to tell, but I will say it was a stark reminder that even people who should have our backs often don’t. There are SO many examples of this, some have happened in our lives and some have happened to friends. I’ll tell one of our stories to illustrate the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Our first post was Guinea, which fell apart after we’d been there about twenty months. Shortly after I returned from med-evac for the birth of our third child embassy families were put on lock down, which meant no leaving the house under any circumstances other than an emergency, hope you stocked your pantry! After a few weeks of this we were told that we were being evacuated–pack your bags and be ready in twelve hours. A short while later we were on a military plane waving goodbye to my husband who stood on the tarmac watching us go and listening to the gunfire that surrounded the airport. Evacuations, while they stink, are part of the FS territory and just have to be rolled with.
The slap in the face, courtesy of State, came shortly before we were supposed to leave for our next post. Because of the evacuation our two oldest kids missed the last few months of the school year and, to minimize trauma, we decided not to enroll them in the neighborhood school. I caught some blowback for that decision but was later told by the Regional Psychiatrist that I’d made the right call (I knew that). My thinking was they’d already been through so much–leaving their dad, being quickly yanked out of their home, not being able to even say goodbye to any of their teachers or friends–trying to get them settled in a new school just for a few months seemed too painful for them. So we did other stuff– pottery classes, ballet, interesting outings, our oldest (who was six at the time) even became quite the kayak expert thanks to his grandparents. But we were really looking forward to our family being complete again and our move to Ireland, to getting the kids settled into school, to some normalcy.
Then came the announcement that we would not be going to Ireland on the date we were supposed to go. Instead, my husband was pulled for special passport duty in DC due to the changing rules that required passports even for Canada. This meant our lives, so close to being settled for at least a few years, were now up in the air again. The kids would have to start a school that they would leave a few months later (or whenever State decided to get us to post), they would make more friends who they would shortly say goodbye to, they would come to love teachers who would soon be out of their lives. We appealed to State, told them the children had given enough for one year, begged them to just let us give them something other than constant transition. Nope, the needs of the Department come first. Now zip it and deal. We then appealed to a higher up, who actually listened to what my husband was telling her about how much our kids had already been through, she sympathized with us and wanted to help us do what was best for the kids; she offered us a deal–you can go to post on time, get the kids settled, IF you (meaning my husband) agree to come back should we need you. Deal taken, it was certainly better than the alternative.
Thankfully, they ended up not needing to call my husband back and we were able to settle into the next chapter of our lives. It felt good. But, you know what, we had to fight for it. We had to fight people who should know better, who should try harder to help FS families. We understand sacrifice, we understand the needs of the Department, we understand we must roll with the punches and that, ultimately, much of what happens in our lives is outside of our control. We signed up for that, willingly. But I cannot for the life of me figure out why some folks who are able to do more to help FS families, folks who work for State, folks who are our peers, don’t do that. Are they jaded, clueless, or do they simply just not care? Many FS families will tell you that we are, often, an afterthought for some at State, if we’re thought of at all. Kids and “trailing spouses” as we’re so lovingly referred to, are the last rung on the ladder and we often have to scream to be heard. Don’t get me wrong, there are many at State who will go to bat for us, who will listen to us and try harder for us, who will find wiggle room in regulations (there is always wiggle room in regulations). We’ve had the great honor of encountering many people like that in our seven years, they are deeply appreciated. But some, meh, not so much. And don’t even think about changing the rules to make them more family friendly. Just. Don’t.
The most frustrating thing is that it doesn’t seem to change. I’ve noticed, in the seven years we’ve been in the FS, no improvement in how families are treated or regarded. This latest reminder, what happened to my friend, is just another example of some folks at State not seeing past the Officer or Specialist to the family who “trails,” just the latest example of the attitude of, as someone recently put it, ”you’re just not quite FS enough for the FS to care about,” just the latest in the “suck it up, Cupcake, and deal.” And, still, the life is very worth it. I am incredibly proud of the work that my husband and his colleagues in the Foreign Service do, and I’m proud to raise our kids with a sense of service and duty. It’s just profoundly frustrating that some make life a lot tougher for us than it needs to be.