One of the most challenging parts of a life in the Foreign Service is considering what the lives of your children/spouse/partner/pets will be like. My husband and I came into this new chapter of our lives each 100% on board with the idea of living abroad and moving every two to three years. It has been something we've always wanted, so there was no convincing or pleading with him i.e. "Guess what honey, I just joined the Foreign Service and that means that you'll be moving to..."
However, even given this nicely-set stage, the road has been far more difficult for him, and therefore us, than expected. It started with a five-month separation as I trained to be an OMS in Washington before Post #1. His eventual arrival was followed by six months of frustrating unemployment as he applied for every job he qualified for at the Embassy, to no avail. (If you'd like, you can read about this time in my first posting on the subject here, and the second posting here.) As an experienced high school teacher, he was able to tutor American children from the Embassy community after school, which was good work, but certainly not full time. Finally, with a one-month intensive training program under his belt, he found work teaching English to executives in Bogota. He had steady work, although again not full time, a sense of an independent life with new friends outside of our Embassy community, and he got to know more about Colombian life from his students. Well paying? Not really, but that wasn't the point. Unfortunately, he was just settling into his routine when we got the call to return to FSI for my A-100 course.
During the six months I was at FSI, he was able to take the basic Consular course ("ConGen") for six weeks, plus a Mexican border area studies course for one week and a smattering of day-long family-member classes. He decided not to pursue the offer of a long-time substitute teacher position at the local school district in exchange for the potential long-term benefits of having the ConGen credential, which is good for five years.
We've now been in Juarez for four months, and I'm very happy to report that he has found work at the Consulate after three months of frustrating and seemingly senseless bureaucracy. Three months may sound like a short time to wait for a good, full-time job, but please don't forget that he hadn't been working since we left Bogota last July. So really the waiting was ten months and was further compounded by the still-fresh memory of what the seven months of applying, interviewing, waiting, waiting some more, and finally being disappointed felt like. Yes, his gamble of turning down the paying work in Virginia paid off in that he is capitalizing on the ConGen investment now, but that was truly a gamble. His job within the Consular section is interesting, he's learning things he never knew before and will soon be cashing a regular paycheck. Our sections are far enough apart that we don't bump into each other at work all day, and he's learning things I don't know about, which can make for more interesting dinner conversation.
In looking ahead to Post #3, which I'm always doing even though we're only 12.5% of the way through this current tour, he's already saying that he doesn't know if he can stomach another six plus months at FSI without work. Learning a new language will take at least that long, so either we stick with English or Spanish-speaking posts, therefore really limiting our horizons, or I risk the negative effects of a severely bored and under-utilized spouse pacing an Oakwood apartment for months on end (something the cats are voting for - they like the company). And what if our next post requires learning a one-country language, like Greek, or Azeri, or Finnish? With few sections offered for these "boutique" languages, spouses often have a hard time getting a space-available-basis seat in class and therefore have to head to post with zero or little language ability to their new country. Or, if he were to be offered language training, he'd have weigh being employed temporarily in Virginia (if possible) with the benefits of being able to speak whichever language.
In any compromise such as this, there are going to be things that turn out less-than-ideal, and people who have to sacrifice. Having a family means making sure that the sacrifice isn't always on their side. My day dreams of serving one post in each of our bureaus and living in wintry lands, deserty lands, tropical islands, bustling metropolises and places that nobody has heard of - all in my Consular cone - will probably not come to fruition. That's just part of the package of having a family in the Foreign Service.
One of my coworkers, whose wife lives in the US and continues her career while he serves in Mexico, told me that once he gets his next bid list, he plans to cross off all the posts where the timing won't work for his transfer schedule and then send the list to her to pick her favorites. I think he's onto something in making that plan, and offering the proverbial "trailing spouse" some of control over this life is a wise choice.
We're hoping that the warnings of our more-experienced FS friends are true: that the first posts are the hardest for spouses as they try to gain work experience and training that will grease the wheels for further jobs. We look forward to having two paychecks again, and for him to feel more of an equal part of this equation.
My recommendation to anyone still on the outside and considering coming in is to please consider all these things before thinking about dragging a perfectly nice spouse/partner/family off into this life, as it really only gets more, not less, complicated. Complicated does not necessarily mean "worse," just not as straightforward and simple as perhaps your life now/previous life. I'm confident that in the end, when the day-to-day frustrations and gripes have faded, like the memories of how much you love eating hot dogs and then riding the county fair roller coaster, we'll say it was all worth it. Then we'll drag out another photo album and bore you with more stories of places and faces all over the world...
I would add that while you (the FSO) arrive at a new post and start working on day one, it seems typical that a spouse, even if there is a job opening just fortuitously waiting for them, still has to spend the weeks or months applying, interviewing, and waiting for the local HR to give them the go-ahead.
I would also say that the lucky spouses have something truly independent and/or telework related. We have friends whose spouses are continuing their work editing magazines, translating documents, and selling high-end bicycle parts. And I often reflect even now on how I would probably be enjoying the roving-around lifestyle more if I felt more connected to the local culture, e.g. working on the local economy, which is actively, if not passively, discouraged and discouraging. And how (even though you don't tolerate me saying) that as an EFM you are never really "in the club" among the consulate/embassy FSOs and the whole FS culture. Hence the popularity of our lunchtime "bored meetings" with the other unemployed EF-Men while you all were at work. The Family Liaison Office and Community Liaison Office (CLO) and everyone tries to help as they can and be hail-fellow-well-met, but when the rubber meets the road, EFMs are looked over. I think that's a holdover from the Julia Child days of planning cocktail parties for the husbands and important guests.
I think it's good for EFMs to have a long list of "well, I could...."
I could teach English: few jobs at low pay
OK, I could volunteer at local charities and missions: but not in the city's danger zones - you know, where most the charities are.
OK, I could take the separate maintenance allowance and live and work in El Paso: why even be in the FS?
OK, I can just keep house and explore: and go broke and clinically depressed
OK, I can just focus on raising the kids....oh wait, ours are already in college.
I'm happy to have the job because I need the money and mental distraction, but I can't say I'm overjoyed at getting secretary-butt doing 40 hours a week of data-entry. It bugs me to think I am losing what little Spanish I had, and looking at the prospect of learning about my surroundings only through happy hours and CLO events. Waah-waah--I guess what I'm saying is that it really takes an effort, not just for EFMs but for all, to work at reaching out and making some memories outside the consulate and knowing people besides the other Americans.
Bottom line is that it's easier with lowered expectations, putting pride and careers aside, and just doing whatever, wherever. Another bottom line is that it seems that 8 out of 10 EFMs have hard-luck stories, but that they are all very different hard luck stories. It's different for everyone depending on their background, their expectations, their character, and then how lucky they get.
What kind of hors d'oeuvres would you like for your friends tonight, honey?