Friday, March 15, 2013

My Whole Life is an Unaccompanied Tour

Lately I've been a source of information to prospective Foreign Service Officers who have found me at this blog or through other social media. One of the questions I get, particularly from the young women, is, "What's it like as a single female FSO?" The short, sweet answer is, "It's not for everyone."

There's a joke in the Foreign Service that goes something like this: If you want to know where a male FSO's first overseas post was, look at his wife, if you want to know where a female FSO's first overseas post was, look at her furniture. 

I know enough female FSOs who have found husbands abroad to dispel that myth. But I think the foreign service lifestyle is harder for single women than for single men. And "single issues" are not just about dating. I cannot tell you how many post reports I've read where "great post for singles" meant "great post for single guys to pick up local girls in bars." 

I'd be curious to know how many FSOs are single and compare that against the resources offered specifically for them. I took the "Single in the FS" seminar at FSI before heading out on my first overseas tour; the only thing I remember is that we were told we had to report our romantic relationships to the RSO. As if the dating scene is the only concern singles have overseas. They don't teach you how to expand your circle of friends outside of the embassy. They don't train CLOs on the special needs of singles (most CLOs are spouses and therefore organize events that appeal to other spouses and families). And they don't teach you how to handle the tough times alone. I think there are a number of single FSOs who self-medicate when they don't have anyone to talk to.

One of the nice things about serving in Kabul, and previously in Baghdad, is that everyone here is temporarily single and living the unaccompanied life. For a single FSO who usually has to plan social activities around her friends' kids' schedule, it's great! In Kabul, the babysitter doesn't cancel at the last minute, visiting in-laws don't disrupt your regular girls night out, and people are always up for a drink after work. 

This career is - mostly - fulfilling and has given me a lot of experiences I would not otherwise have had.  I'm grateful for that. But it's also a demanding lifestyle and doing it by myself can be tiring sometimes. There have been times when I wished I had a trailing spouse (or wished I WAS a trailing spouse) instead of being the one on whose shoulders everything falls.

I wonder what would happen if single FSOs organized themselves.


Chad and Sabrina said...

How about a FS Mix that in with the next bid list and see what happens!

Anonymous said...

Heather, may I post this to the AAFSW facebook page? It's a good reality check. Can you let me know at kelly AT Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Heather, please keep educating us spouses (whether we are CLOs, advocates or just community members) on the needs of singles, so we can be less clueless and more helpful!

Heather said...

Anonymous, thank you! That's the first time anyone has said that to me. There was a CLO at one of my previous posts who scheduled 90% of the events during working hours, so that's one thing to keep in mind. Organizing family-friendly AND adults only outings. Going places I would love to visit, but not by myself (wine tastings, day hikes, etc).

Anonymous said...

The FLO's public line is that it trains all CLOs on being sensitive to the needs of singles. I'm not entirely sure what that means, nor have I seen it actually employed.

My single-lady horror story is that about halfway through my first tour, I was at home sick with stomach issues and before I knew it, I was so dehydrated I couldn't even remember what day it was. Eventually I mustered myself to drive the traffic gauntlet into work (as I had no cash with which to pay the local doctor), our local nurse took one look at me and called motorpool to take me to the ER. The worst 36 hours I had in the Foreign Service was being in a foreign hospital, where the expectation is your family will be there to help take care of you, completely alone. Fortunately, I had some very sweet non-single colleagues to call on for help, if it weren't for them I don't know what I would have done. Even FSI's course on "Singles in the Foreign Service" simply doesn't prepare you for that.

And don't even get me started about transfers-- I know we are entitled to two admin days for packout, but I've been guilted about evening having to take one. And there's no spouse at home to take care of things like sitting in line for three hours to return or a cable box or wait for a vet to show up to give you a health certificate for your dog.

I love the Foreign Service, but these were not things I thought about before joining, as people were focused exclusively on dating issues! (End Rant)

Cameron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joan Mower said...

Interesting post -- I'll share it with my students at Johns Hopkins. Right after I joined the FS -- stayed in briefly because I got married instead -- FS Journal did a piece about how the top FS women were either 1) married to other FS officers 2) Single 3) Married with trailing spouses who had nontraditional careers (writer, musician etc.). Only two high-ranking FSOs had husbands with similar professional careers: One woman's husband was a lawyer whose firm was opening all over the former Soviet Union. (She chose Moscow and the like.)
Another was married to a water geologist (she chose places like Kuwait.) What I see now is lots of women marrying non-Americans. At virtually every post in Africa, there's a female FSO (or two of three) married to Africans. Just like male FSOs! Might be really interesting to see if these folks face extra challenges in their careers, personal lives? Maybe not?