I’m a trailing spouse husband, a rarity it may seem, but an increasing number of males are following their spouse (or partner) into the Foreign Service. This is our first post, and I would like to share my thoughts and experiences on the Foreign Service spousal employment front.
I’ve heard spouses talk about their employment options during FSI training, from reading various articles, books, and Livelines discussions, and I’ve realized that spouses can have very varying experiences with employment. This simply demonstrates why people can have extreme differences in opinions and experiences regarding spousal employment. Some people will experience lemons while others will experience honey. It’s important to be very honest about this with your spouse/partner coming into the Foreign Service, because it’s hard even when you come in knowing the challenges. It may not be the right career choice. Ultimately it’s a tough decision to make and requires a lot of contemplation, research, and talking with your partner.
It’s a very different and difficult path to take for us spouses and sometimes requires a different mode of thinking about our career and learning what other resources or career opportunities may be in store for us. At the same time many factors involving our country of duty do come into play. I know our current post is very "easy" when compared to others. I know my experiences will be different at our next post. But I have learned some valuable information here which will help me in the future. The first is that you have to work very hard at your career and second, you’re the only one in charge of your future.
In my opinion the spouse’s career does take a back burner to the FSO’s career. This is something the couple must be prepared for and consider before accepting a life in the FS. But that doesn’t mean the spouse can’t have some fulfilling experiences or continue with their career – but they have to expect it not to be normal and expect change. I think it all depends on many factors that can be out of your control and be extremely frustrating: the spouse’s type of career he/she wants to pursue or continue with, the government and social climate in the country of tour, security issues, and many others. Sometimes things are hard even though the spouse puts in a lot of effort, and this can be hard for the officer spouse to understand. This can stress a relationship emotionally and financially.
When I first met my wife in the early 90’s, she let me know that joining the foreign service was a dream of hers. She asked me if I would go with her if she got in. I said sure, not knowing exactly what it all entailed besides working at Embassies around the world and traveling. I had just turned 40 when we left for our first post in 2007 – you could say I had had my mid-life crises early and provided for me. But I looked at it positively as a new life experience. I found a life/career coach (who is a FS spouse – Terri Williams, International Transition Coach) through livelines who has been a great resource. It’s helpful to have a third party who has "been there, done that" and is willing to be honest, motivate, and challenge you. It can be hard to stay motivated. My wife says "it’s better to have a life coach than a nagging wife." I agree with her!
I am a graphic designer/photographer and have more than 16 years of experience. My profession is probably one of the most portable there is, and I’ve had many challenges trying to find work that I didn’t expect. Initially I thought everything would be easy and great, I would find many clients to work with locally and telecommute back to the US at the same time. While preparing to leave the US for our first post, I continued to work my full-time job near DC, and study language at FSI, which was quite hectic. But my compay had agreed to let me telecommute which was a financial relief for my wife and I.
Then, after 2.5 months into our new Foreign Service life the company decided to lay me off. I was very disappointed but had figured from the onset that I would arrive at post without a job. So I took a professional sabbatical for several months. Then I started looking hard for employment locally and in the US and I found several things I could do that were interesting to me. As a native English speaker one was a proofreading job (something I’ve never done professionally), a couple projects doing graphic design work, and I also found an expat artist group in Warsaw and we intend to put on an exhibit. Hopefully new experiences will continue to come my way.
It may be hard to find a job, it may be easy. You may lose more than half your household income (as we did) when your family enters the Foreign Service. You may have fights with your spouse and worry about how the bills are going to get paid. You could be without work for months at a time, you may have great post support or none, you may end up taking an Embassy job not related to your profession (and usually underpaid) because you have to. If you choose to enter the foreign service I suggest keeping an open mind toward things you can do, the goals you set for yourself, and your family needs.