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Girl power: on combining a diplomatic career and a family

The main reason I didn’t pursue a diplomatic career before I had kids was that I couldn’t imagine being both a mom and a diplomat. In my mind, and in those of many women I’ve spoken with, it’s daunting to be pregnant and raise kids and travel all over the world for work at the same time.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that it took until my early thirties to realize that it was okay to try; that I didn’t need permission from anyone to pursue the job I really wanted and that I didn’t have to be perfect at everything to be good enough.

Coincidentally, it took the same amount of time and life experience to call myself a feminist. Perhaps I knew, on some unconscious level, that I wasn’t really pursuing full self actualization professionally or true equality in my marriage and that’s why I didn’t use to identify much with the term.

Now that I’ve taken the major step of getting my own career on the rails I’m no longer hesitant to describe myself as someone who is adamantly in favor of better opportunities and more respect for women, and equality for all genders of any kind in general.

But to return to the main question: how do you combine having kids and a flourishing career in international relations? I can’t say it’s easy. Yes, I’ve “allowed” myself to have a good job, and I don’t feel selfish anymore for hiring a nanny or leaving half of the household chores for my husband to figure out. But I feel stressed and overwhelmed on a regular basis. I’m expecting my hair to turn gray any day now.

Finding a guy isn’t easy

For single women who work abroad it’s not always easy to find a partner to start a family with. I feel lucky that I already had an IR degree when I met my husband and he was already a diplomat; we knew what we were getting into and our life goals matched. But that’s not the case for all couples, obviously, and if you’re a single lady serving in a place like China, or Armenia, or Kenya, the dating scene can be very limited.

Most countries are kid-friendly

On the bright side, many countries are far more family-friendly than you might imagine. Many less developed countries aren’t ideal for kids to grow up in, but for expat families there’s a whole separate (read: high-quality) infrastructure and besides, many countries have cultures that are far less rushed and more family oriented than our own.

On the other hand, there are certain places you just can’t bring your kids to. Few governments and international organizations allow their employees to bring children to postings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan, and a number of other countries. You just can’t jet off to a warzone in Iraq or a refugee crisis in Yemen and be with your kids—concessions have to be made (I would have loved to work for UNHCR but didn’t try it for that reason).

Diplomacy is somewhat gender balanced

While certain international careers like the car and oil industries remain heavily male dominated, there are plenty of female diplomats—and you’ll find a fair amount of women at partner organizations like the UN and NGOs. So you don’t feel like a unicorn when you’re out in the field, wherever that may be, and you’re not a guy. I’m not sure about other foreign services, but in the US over 40% of diplomats are women—and many ambassadors are too.

Family guilt

So basically, most of my experience of being a woman in the diplomatic world has been good so far. Actually, it’s much better than what I expected when I was still a student and guys in my class would roll their eyes or make disparaging remarks when I asked questions related to “male topics” like nuclear defense strategy.

Then again, I’ve certainly felt discouraged at times by stuff people said, especially when it came from close relatives. Perhaps some people (it definitely includes both men and women) really believe I’m making a mistake by “dragging my kids all over the world” (never mind the many friends, adventures and life-skills they’re acquiring) or think I shouldn’t have gotten in the way of my husband’s career. But it’s not my problem if people view me as nothing more than an extension of someone else. Because despite the conventional ideas surrounding marriage and kids, and being part of all of it, I know I’m not. And the upside is that among diplomats you’ll rarely hear such misogynist talk—they’re too afraid of sounding undiplomatic.