Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Change of Plans: Breaking an Assignment and Finding Another

When we last left off, the four of us were looking forward to our next assignment to Lusaka, Zambia where I'd be Consular Chief in a small section. Okay, truth be told, the non-Tabbies didn't yet know they were ever going to leave their beloved Salvadoran house garden after four years, but at least my husband and I were enthusiastic about the idea. I'd tucked three Zambian guide books (travel, culture, and birds) under the Christmas tree for him. We'd gotten congratulatory messages from friends who knew the country and were excited for us to get to know it, and others who started planning their Zambian vacations. We began receiving welcoming messages from the embassy and questionaires about our housing preferences. We were imagining life in our new city, and were considering options for buying a right-hand drive car. Essentially, it was all systems go on this new destination. I began to negotiate my transfer timing between what's referred to as the "losing post" (San Salvador) and the "gaining post" (Lusaka) for later this summer.  

Meanwhile, something was not sitting well with me. I heard myself dropping bits of unidentified, nagging anxieties into conversations, making light of my concerns by expressing them with a chuckle. I'd gauge my husband's, friends' or coworkers' reactions to see if my fears were off base. I secretly wished someone would say what I was too afraid to say myself: "You don't HAVE to go there, you know."  I considered the odds of some sort of divine intervention making the decision for me.

Was it Zambia? No! We weren't trepidatious about living there at all. We were excited to meet the people and explore the country and region. 

Was it the job? Not entirely. I had only heard the best about the post and people in charge. Great ambassador - I was told I would be very fortunate to work with him and a friend thought we'd get along well. From my interview, I really enjoyed the Deputy Chief of Mission who would be my direct boss and was looking forward to stepping up and being part of the Country Team. 

So why the turning stomach? 

It started almost immediately after receiving my handshake when I began in earnest to research the travel to post. Negotiating the timing of our departure and arrival was a bit contentious, as is often the case, with each post wanting me to stay the longest and arrive the soonest. Balancing this meant most likely we'd be flying from our west coast home leave location to Zambia with the cats, an itinerary of three flights, two of them overnight, and close to 30 hours of travel. I began to imagine the worst case scenario for them during transit and the worst case began to snowball. 

Then came the realization that should I need to come back home for whatever reason, I'd have to repeat that trip (sans cats) all the while juggling my responsibilities as Consular Chief with only one other American officer in the section to handle affairs in my absence. The belt began tightening around my waist. 

Yes, I was getting to the heart of my qualms now. 

We lost my/our mother a year ago very suddenly, but fortunately I was able to get north to see my family with relative ease. When my father died a few years back, we were in DC which made it even easier to catch a direct flight to the west coast a few times over his last six months. Being only a few time zones away made for easy communication, too. In addition, there were two other serious family health issues where forces were mustered to help out. Being in El Salvador left much of this burden to the geographically closest siblings, something I regret. And let's face it, none of us is getting any younger and the chances of wanting or needing to be physically present is only growing. This simply wasn't the time to be half a world away in a stressful, highly responsible position. 

But I'd actively bid on and accepted the position, so now I had to make the best of it, right? In an effort to imagine what life was going to feel like in my new role, I started quizzing friends who are Consular Chiefs in similar-sized sections. "What is the stress load like? Do you have time for family? Are you enjoying the work?" All were kindly supportive, as good friends are, giving me assurances of "Of course you can do it!" I began to psych myself up with a chorus from The Little Engine That Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can! All the while, their assurances didn't settle my nerves because I hadn't been asking the right questions. I didn't need an answer to CAN I do it, but do I WANT to do it? Or really, do I NEED to do it? That answer could come only from me. 

So over one weekend, after the drumbeats of my dropped hints were getting louder and louder, I just said the unthinkable out loud: I need to break my assignment to Lusaka. No sooner had I declared this than my husband said he'd support my decision 100 percent. I tried to back-pedal: but our plans, but the guide books, but another adventure in the chapter of me and you, but, but, but... He held firm in his support. 

The instant we agreed, it felt as if I had taken off the tighest, most binding pair of pants and shoes you could imagine. Like that moment when you come home from work, kick off the pinchy shoes, strip naked just steps inside the front door, and pull on your favorite sweats. That's how releived I felt at making this decision. 

Now, it's important to add some context about breaking an assignment.  First, as Foreign Service employees we swear from day one to be worldwide available. To uphold this, there is a strong culture of service, pride in taking one for the team, buck up buttercup this is what we all go through, not everyone can go to Paris, you know...  I don't point this out as an intrinsically derogatory feature of the profession, mind you. We need to be made of sterner stuff to serve around the world, and the harder the post, the greater the (financial) reward. Further, I pride myself on NOT being a whiner. My husband and I adapt well to local environments. We are not motivated by doing just what increases our comfort, or trying to export an American lifestyle to Timbuktu. It's just not us. Plus, keeping committments is a really, really big deal to me. I will put myself out first, before doing so to others.  

Therefore putting myself first took a lot, first to accept and then to enact. I faced the doubts of "Am I not up to the work?" or "We all have had hard times - that's just life, get over it" and the shame of not being willing to simply soldier on. Perhaps these are only my own whispering demons, but they are likely shared by others as well.  

Then I had another realization which has come into sharper focus with each passing decade. Simply put, why accelerate my car towards a destination I don't necessarily want to reach? My new assignment would be a big career step and would likely lead to promotion. But was that really the desired destination? What exactly is the exchange rate for limiting my ability to take care of myself and family, and stressing the hell out of our cats? As is, my career has a maximum life expectancy of eight more years before mandatory retirement. In the end, being mentally and geographically available to those I love is so much more important than the nursing-home bragging rights of saying "...and I retired from the Foreign Service as a mid-level manager..." to a big round of eye rolls from the audience. 

So that's it. I explained my reasoning to those who needed to know and the future boss I was looking forward to working for was just as supportive and understanding as I could've hoped for. My assignment was broken and I was on the market again - for a domestic job this time.  

After some weeks of searching, I believe I found the best fit. The next stop on this adventure will be a familiar one: back to the DC area and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) where I will be a Deputy Coordinator with the Orientation Division. I will be on the team conducting the six-week "A-100" generalist and specialist orientation courses for all new Foreign Service American employees. I'm really excited about it! It combines everything I naturally gravitate towards: teaching, facilitating conversation, organizing, sharing experiences, mentoring, and feeding the energy of bright shiny pennies as they begin their own new career adventures. And - I'm a direct flight away from family. I can do this, no chest-thumping affirmations required.  This is a two-year assignment, after which, who knows? I would rather cross that bridge as I get there than try to predict where the turns in the road will bring us. 

In the meantime, it feels as if I'm wearing the most elasticy-waistband, softest, brushed cotton pants with fluffy, supportive slippers.  

Now that's a good fit. 



  1. Just wonderful, Caitlin! I'm so happy & proud you came to this tough conclusion which is definitely the right fit for all the reasons you stated so well. And I'm already mentally planning a DC trip once you're settled! lots of love, Eden

  2. Merci for sharing your stories, your experiences and this big decision you made! Congratulations on the new post in DC, and even more so for listening to your intuitions. I’m sure the kitties are so grateful too. You continue to inspire! Merci & big hugs to you ❤️❤️

  3. Good for you! Putting yourself first can be uncomfortable but rewarding in the end.

  4. So happy for you both, Caitlin!!!! looking forward to seeing you more often, old friend. PS- i recent quote i saw: “self love isn’t selfish” . Lots of love, S ❤️❤️❤️

  5. Everything you say makes complete sense, and I'm sure the cats would appreciate it if they knew, too. ;) I've found that new adventures are under no obligation to look the way we expected them to when we started out, haha. The real strength here is being able to recognize and make this choice *now,* before it could become a more serious problem! <3 And of course we're looking forward to visiting more often, too! ~Sam

  6. Congratulations for your decision and courage, I know FSI won an excellent colaborator and all of those new officers will learn so much from you! I hope you will also tell them you had a good experience in Juarez ❤️. You are greatly missed here.

  7. Good for you! It takes courage to make such decisions, and your priorities are certainly in the right place. All the best to you, and I look forward to hearing about your new adventure.

  8. I had a wonderful tour there very very recently, it is beautiful country in so many ways, but I had one family emergency requiring a fast return and that was when I realized that I probably shouldn't work in AF again unless it's at one of the few places that has non-stops back. People truly do not get how gigantic that continent is. You made the right choice for you, and the staff there understand your concerns.

  9. Knowing you I’m sure this was a super tough decision but the best one for you both - and the kitties! FSI is lucky to have you coming their way. And, as someone in D.C. I’m thrilled that the two of you will be around! ~ Sian

  10. From an old Slavadoran colleague I am convinced you will shine wherever you land and be a joy to work with. I’m so glad to hear you and Tim will be happy in your next adventure.

  11. As an older person (also with cats) heading to A100 in April, I'm glad to hear that options exist for when things don't feel just right. Good luck in DC, and maybe our paths will cross.