Girl power: on combining a diplomatic career and a family
Updated: Nov 16
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.
I have to qualify this statement because I was recently accused of sounding xenophobic here. The reason I single out these three countries is that I got some firsthand reports from there. Another reason is that these countries are geographically spread out and culturally very different—from each other and from the United States. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that dating in any country that’s far and different from your own creates problems because of cultural barriers, language, security, and challenges around logistics and careers.
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 fields, like the car and oil industries, remain heavily male dominated, there are plenty of female diplomats. Similarly, you’ll find a fair amount of women at international organizations like the UN and NGOs. So you‘re not going to be the first or only woman working “in the field,”wherever that may be. I’m not sure about other countries’ foreign services, but in the U.S. Foreign Service over 40% of diplomats are women—and many women become ambassadors.
Basically, most of my experience of being a woman in the diplomatic world has been positive. Actually, it’s much better than what I expected when I was still a student. When I studied IR guys in my class would roll their eyes or make disparaging remarks whenever I asked questions related to “male topics” like nuclear defense strategy. This made me think I wouldn’t be taken seriously in the real world either.
At the same time, I still feel discouraged at times by stuff people say to me just because I’m a woman, especially when it comes 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.