If you have read anything else on my blog so far, you probably know that I’m aspiring to become a diplomat, or Foreign Service Officer (FSO). I passed all the exams for generalists and I have what is generally considered to be a competitive score. So in theory, it’s going to happen.
At the same time, there is a lot of uncertainty around hiring these days. And even aside from the hiring freeze (and the ongoing attempts to cut State’s budget), anyone who knows the State Department will tell you that nothing is ever for sure – until it’s for sure. You just never know how many people they will hire and when, or how long you have to wait for your clearances.
For those less familiar with State Department speak: EFM stands for Eligible Family Member and it’s what I’m called because I’m married to an FSO. But EFM can also mean being a same sex domestic partner or child of an FSO.
The funny thing about the label “EFM”, to me, is that at first I really aspired to have it, and then I turned around and tried to get rid of it.
When I first learned about how the State Department works, I wanted to be officially recognized as my husband's dependent and have the benefits that come with being an EFM, like government-paid travel and access to non-competitive jobs within the US government. Later, after I understood the reality of being an EFM, I realized that it didn’t fit with my life plan after all.
WHY I REALLY GOT MARRIED
It took me three years to become an EFM. Until that time, I was an MOH. MOH stands for Member of Household, and as a MOH you receive no benefits to speak of. It basically means that the embassy allows you to live with an FSO (although the FAM has a slightly more elaborate definition of it).
To become an EFM, I needed not just to love and be with my husband, but also to marry him. For years, I scoffed at this requirement. I thought it was ridiculous that diplomats still have to legitimize their relationships by tying the knot. Because of this requirement, I’ve seen many couples around me rush into marriage.
Personally, I refused to hurry and waited three years before I said “yes”. This is the exactly the amount of time I told my husband I would wait for marrying anyone. I’d just never been particularly keen on the whole marriage thing. When I finally got hitched, though, it felt good to have an official label and be recognized by the embassy as part of the clan. Before, I was just the girlfriend. Disgrace!
I never let a label stop me from moving forward in my career though. I had managed to land a good job in the embassy that was typically reserved for EFMs. It just so happened that few EFMs met the language requirement for the position. For almost the entire time we were posted in Uruguay, I worked in as a Political/Economic Assistant at the Embassy.
It was the most boring job I’d ever had, but I was fairly happy with it. Being employed by the US Embassy allowed me to build my resume, develop my Spanish language skills, and earn a good salary. Also, it was probably the only job I was ever going to find in Montevideo (I looked around the local labor market to make sure).
But my happiest moments of being an EFM were during our next posting, which was in Pakistan. When my husband accepted a position in Islamabad, I had to make a choice. Either I had to look for an embassy job and apply for whatever was available, or I had to go back home for a year and wait for him to finish his tour. Without giving it a second thought, I chose the first option. I loved the idea of serving in Pakistan and I didn't want to be separated.
The problem was; I wasn’t an American EFM at that point. This meant that I met the requirements for only two out of about 20 available jobs – the rest of the jobs were reserved for American EFMs who could obtain a (top) secret security clearance. It was clear that I couldn’t afford to be picky, so I applied for both jobs.
First, I interviewed for the position of “warehouse assistant”. The job description was something like “pack housing kits for arriving personnel.” I wasn’t trying to be funny during the interview, but I wasn’t hiding my true self when I asked: “are there any opportunities to grow or learn new skills on the job?” The answer was a simple “no.”
The second position I applied for, however, actually sounded fantastic. It was titled “Deputy Refugee Coordinator”, which was perfect because I’d always dreamed of working with refugees. I asked my husband to put in a good word for me with some people he knew and prepared for the job interview as best as I could. Despite some stiff competition, I got the job.
When I worked in Pakistan, I didn’t care that I was an EFM. I had a job I had always wanted to have, and I couldn’t care less if I lacked the kind of status other embassy employees had. I even got an upgrade halfway through my year there; my supervisor left post unexpectedly, which left me in charge of running the section for several months. Covering for my supervisor actually made me feel useful for once, and I never wanted to lose that feeling again.
WHEN THE EMBASSY DOESN’T NEED YOU
But then I got pregnant, and that tends to change things a little bit. I had my first baby at the start of our next tour, which was the Netherlands. Luckily for me, that’s where I’m from. It wasn’t a coincidence that we got posted there by the way; we had planned the whole thing out for years.
Since I’m fluent in the Dutch language, and I have a background in International Relations, I figured I would be in a perfect position to get a job at the US Embassy in The Hague. I had heard that there was an EPAP (Expanded Professional Associates Program) position in the Political Section, which would be perfect since I’d already worked in that section twice before. I was convinced that I would be a very competitive candidate for this job.
It was not to be. The first year I was in The Hague, the State Department did not fund the EPAP position. So I decided to apply for other jobs at the Embassy. The first application I sent was for a position called “Legal Secretary”. I never pictured myself in an exclusively administrative role but hey, it was a good opportunity for me. I’d just had a baby, and I wasn’t looking for something challenging. Moreover, it was the only opportunity I had at that time.
The rejection letter I received felt like a blow. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t even get an interview! And I was hurt that the letter stated that I “didn’t qualify”. Pardon me? A Master’s degree in IR and three years of federal government service (which earned me a Meritorious Honor Award) wasn’t good enough? Or did they think I wasn’t going to take the job seriously? Clearly, they didn’t know me, or cared to find out.
Things only got worse from there. I didn’t get the next embassy job I applied for, either. It was for the position of Community Liaison Officer (CLO). After the interview I waited for months to get an answer, only to find out that I didn’t get it. Months after that, the embassy employment committee invited me to interview for the same position again (apparently their first choice had declined). I asked if there were other applicants, but they didn’t want to give me any information whatsoever.
I was not in a good place then. I’d still been hoping that the EPAP position in the Political Section would eventually receive funding so I could apply, but I’d just heard (through informal channels) that the position would not become available at all. I was disappointed with how they treated me and failed to provide information. Re-interviewing for the CLO position, and potentially being rejected again, was the last thing I wanted.
Instead, I did something few EFMs manage to do successfully; I found a job on the local labor market. At first, I had little success. Even though I had the advantage of being in my home country, few employers are interested once they find out you'll only stay for another year. And I didn’t have a strong professional network in the Netherlands because I hadn’t lived there since I graduated from university.
I quickly realized that I probably wasn’t going to find a regular job in anything related to my field. (As a side note: a fellow EFM managed to get a job in her field on the local labor market in the Netherlands, so I’m not saying it’s impossible). Luckily for me, a contact from my previous job hired me at his international consultancy company in Brussels for a job I could do from anywhere in the world.
ROOTLESS AND PASSIVE CREATURES
Becoming a consultant seemed to be the answer to all of my problems. I was very proud that I had managed to find a “portable job” that answered to the high standards I have always set for myself. I was thrilled that I no longer needed the embassy and their consolation-price jobs!
During that time (and before), I spoke to a number of other EFMs who had chosen the same path of becoming international consultants. They all told me the same thing; it’s an amazing feeling to get a (second) career off the ground and reach personal and financial success. Some of the European spouses who were consultants hadn’t even bothered to get American citizenship – they had never worried about finding an embassy job because they had chosen to do their own thing.
I liked the idea of being independent, professionally and financially, very much. However, I didn’t actually like the reality of it. I hated working alone, from home, and I didn’t like to work on a project-basis. I also disliked the frequent travel and most of all; I didn’t like the stress of business development meetings and constantly having to add to the company’s bottom line.
The situation with my new job caused a minor identity crisis. I was confused. I didn’t understand why I didn’t like being an international development consultant, when it seemed so perfect on paper. Flexible hours? Check. Decent salary? Check. Interesting projects? Check. Travel and adventure? Check.
Without realizing it, I’d gotten quite passionate about working for the US government and advancing American and global interests. I talked about American politics and diplomacy all the time with my husband. I went to embassy-related events and followed US politics. I kept up with almost everything my husband did for work because I always felt as if we were on a mission together.
Being a mother and having a stressful job outside of the embassy quickly became too much for me to handle. With everything that is typically going on in our lives, I didn’t have enough energy to be fully dedicated to some company, and (much to my own surprise) I really didn’t want to travel to faraway places, like Southeast Asia or Australia, for this job.
On the other hand, I resented the idea of being an EFM again too. I felt as if I couldn’t move forwards, and I couldn’t move backwards. At that point, I had started considering becoming an FSO myself, but I’d missed the test I had registered for because I was sick that day (I’m never sick, so it almost felt like a sign that I shouldn’t do it).
DON’T CALL ME THAT, OKAY?
I started to resent the EFM label so much that I considered sending a letter to the State Department against being addressed as an “EFM”. Did anyone ever ask me if I wanted to be called one, in the first place? No! I felt that the label was demeaning, as in, “oh, she’s just an EFM” (as opposed to a diplomat, or frankly, anyone else in the embassy).
Increasingly, I felt that it was unfair to be given a label that implies a bunch of things about my marital and work status. I felt that nobody was ever going to take me serious again. I was afraid that, for the rest of my life, I would only have “EFM jobs” and socialize with other “EFMs” who were working in dead-end jobs like me.
EFMs are given even worse labels by the way. We are also referred to as “trailing spouses”; apparently, our main occupation is that of following our partners around. I mean, doesn’t it totally sound like we don’t have a life? It’s as if we’re rootless and passive creatures who submit to whatever is necessary for our partner’s careers to succeed.
That said, it’s not as if everyone hates being an EFM. All of the above is only my opinion. There are plenty of husbands and wives who are happy with the opportunity to stay at home with the kids. But I also know plenty of spouses who feel more or less the same way that I do. And spouses who don’t want to complain, but struggle with their situation on a daily basis.
MAKING CAREER DECISIONS
Giving up my job as a consultant was one of the hardest things I ever did. I’m used to constantly creating new opportunities for myself, not to give them up voluntarily.
Thinking back, I think I was on the verge of having a burnout. I totally lost my appetite for working (also food, by the way). It took me months to feel relaxed again. Even though I had plenty of time on my hands after I quit, I couldn’t do simple things like reading a book. I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. I constantly wanted to be doing something “useful”, no matter what it was.
For a while, I refused to make plans for the future. I spent the entire summer focused on doing as little as possible. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I remember having a great time with my husband and son during our home leave in Oregon. Then, suddenly, my mood would change just because I had received an email from my previous job. I’d feel terrible about myself, and extremely guilty because I had “given up” instead of pulling through.
But then September 2016 came along, and everything in my view of the world changed again. I went to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for language training, because I was accepted into the Russian language course. I remember feeling happy and grateful. I didn’t have a job lined up at our next post, but as an EFM I am typically allowed to take free language training while my husband is also studying language in Washington DC.
At the same time, I was a little bit annoyed by the fact that I was placed in a group with three other EFMs. I mean, are we some kind of special breed? Are we less likely to succeed? Would our presence in other groups disturb the FSOs? Our teacher tried to quash these assumptions as best as she could by assuring us that EFMs tend to be great language learners, even better than most FSOs.
Among the four of us, only one EFM had a job lined up. She was actually on track to becoming an FSO herself. She’d passed the exams with flying colors and was confident to receive a job offer within the next couple of months. Like all other aspiring FSOs, she was proud and intensely impatient to start. She asked me why the hell I hadn’t applied yet and, to make a long story short, she convinced me to take the exams.
The only reason I had the guts to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) the following month was because I started to understand that failure is common, even for those who eventually succeed. It took me years to realize and accept this fact, though. FSOs rarely talk about their failed attempts to join the Foreign Service, but once I'd heard enough stories about it, I decided to take the plunge.
I signed up for the FSOT and read some Cliff notes on the Foreign Service and the US government. I took practice tests. I made sure I studied a little bit every day, but I actually felt pretty relaxed while I studied. I just kept telling myself over and over again that failing was fine. I was just going to test the waters. I just had to try it, because I would probably start blaming myself at some point if I didn’t.
The point of this story is that something clicked when I took the exams to get into the Foreign Service. On the day of the oral assessment, which is the last stage of the tests, I knew I was in the right place. I was finally sure that I had found my calling. I think it showed, too, because everything went well and it was a great day, both on a personal and on a professional level.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is not that all EFMs should try to become FSOs and that this is the only respectable solution for those who struggle with their professional identity. It’s just one of several solutions, I think. Some EFMs start online businesses, volunteer, specialize in online designing and editing or (re)train to become nurses, teachers, and hairdressers. Everyone is different.
The moment that changed everything for me was only a realization. It just came to me, several months after I quit my last job (the consultancy job that didn’t work out). I walked down some street in Washington DC, thinking about the possibility of getting another job again and then, out of nowhere, I became fully confident that I was going to get exactly what I wanted – granted that I worked hard for it of course.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in myself before, but I really needed to tell myself once and for all that my life was in my own hands, not anybody else’s. And that I was good enough to take on anything I wanted. I have to admit that I felt a little bit selfish for thinking that. I felt as if I should be thinking more about my husband and especially my kids. But at that moment, I didn’t.
I reflected on my life, and how I had always strived for things, and how I created and explored so many amazing opportunities. I realized that, even though I had my own family now, I wasn’t done yet. Being in my early thirties, I was only beginning to live my life to the fullest. The kind of job I’d always wanted to have was being part of a bigger mission, and on the international stage. And I finally knew just where to go and how to get there.