Life as a DCM’s Spouse

If you’ve been in this game long enough to be bidding on DCM jobs, you know something about the position and why your spouse is interested in bidding on it. But this particular job also generates real labor for you, the spouse. Whether it’s making sure the staff can handle events at your house several times a week, upgrading the skills of the cook, or getting decent art on the walls of the residence, the embassy as an institution does only so much of the work — a lot still falls to the spouse. And, believe me, no one will know or care how much effort this job will be except your FSO spouse (and probably the ambassador’s spouse), so you have to have straight in your head why it matters to you.

With the usual caveats in place (it depends; embassies have different expectations and traditions; each marriage and partnership is unique; ORE rules are applied differently by bureau, embassy, management officer), I offer some general observations, based on my own experience over 15 years as a woman married to a man who was twice a DCM (once at a stressful mid-size post and again at a very large and established post), and who later became an ambassador. All of these tours were in less-developed countries.

The Home as Office

One major way your life will change is the ability to draw boundaries around your personal life and space. The DCR is your home, but it is also a workspace — it actually helped me to think of it as living in an office. You will employ a household staff. There may be staff in place when you show up, or you may have to hire staff, or some combination. But there is no “opting out.” As the spouse you will most likely be managing these employees who will be in your house, usually all day long.

You need to be comfortable with your staff. You may see them first thing in the morning before coffee; you might have arguments with your husband in front of them; they will be up-to-speed on your child’s bodily functions. It is a very intimate relationship, and you might have to police your own behavior more than you are used to, in your own home. Fortunately, many DCRs have highly experienced and discreet ORE staff. And if not, the embassy Human Resources section will help you hire some.

For better or worse, you will be the person the DCR staff members turn to for answers to everything–from mice in the kitchen, to figuring out which fork to set on the table, to assistance with their own family problems. You are also the advocate for ORE working conditions, contracts, and uniforms. Embassies treat these issues very unevenly, often requiring the intervention of one of the resident Americans. If staff members quarrel among themselves it will be your personal headache. You may well have to fire and hire people, and do it in a way that doesn’t roil the embassy. Again, HR stands ready to help you, but you must be decisive.

Embassy personnel will regularly visit your house, and not just to attend receptions. An annual inventory of all furnishings in the house is required, including the most private corners of it. Photographs will be taken of the residence interior, sometimes without your permission or knowledge, to establish what it looks like with your particular family in residence. You may have to get used to clutter being documented and shown to future residents.

Embassy employees will occasionally troop through your home on independent errands. Shortly after arrival at one post, I was awakened one morning when American staff let themselves into the DCR and walked upstairs, right through a closed door and into the master bedroom, to investigate an issue with a phone. They had been used to the house being unoccupied during the weekday under the previous DCM and it never occurred to them to act differently.

You will have a full-time cook. If you enjoy cooking, or need to on weekends and holidays, you will effectively be doing so in someone else’s kitchen, because the space needs to be organized for the person doing the daily work. Similarly, you might be constrained in other, simple tasks. The washing machine and dryer in one DCR were reached only by walking through the personal quarters of our live-in staff. Any personal laundry I wanted to do at that post, I did by hand.

Finances and unpaid administrative work

Your family cash flow and out-of-pocket expenses will change. Representational events are reimbursed, but you must provide substantial funds upfront to the staff for the food and preparation. Events for embassy personnel – holiday receptions, hail-and-farewells, retirement parties – often are paid for by the DCM or the Chief of Mission. Most are happy to do it, and it goes with the territory, but I am surprised by how many officers do not know about this arrangement.

Record-keeping can become a major responsibility for you, the spouse, primarily to ensure reimbursement for these many cash outlays. If you are lucky, the DCM’s Office Management Specialist will take on this task, and you will merely have to collect and organize the receipts. But if that’s not the case, you might spend a lot of time totting up accounts and making sure everything gets filed correctly and on time.

In my experience, even at big posts DCRs do not employ a household manager. At our larger post, my house staff handed me tiny scribbled receipts in the local language (which I could not read) from their market shopping, and told me that I had to compile them to get reimbursed for event expenses.

I could barely make out the numbers in this language and convinced a Foreign Service National accountant to work for the DCR in her off-hours in exchange for the occasional cheesecake, baked in our kitchen (I hear that they still do it this way at that DCR). At our mid-size post, I was kind of stuck. I drew the line at filling out official forms, but spent many hours reconciling spreadsheets and receipts.

Basic maintenance is often ignored at official residences. American management officers have told me that they left appliances broken, upholstery with holes, and drapes colonized by lizards because they were “sure that you would prefer to supervise the repairs yourself.” I have pulled many shattered, dented, entirely unusable utensils out of three embassy kitchens. All were carefully ticked off in those annual inventories, creating the appearance in Washington, DC of a fully stocked kitchen.

Social obligations

Many spouses worry about official commitments when faced with the possibility of a DCM bid. Generally, this can truly be worked out between the DCM and the spouse/partner. No one ever raised an eyebrow when my husband appeared at receptions without me. My general attitude has been a sincere and friendly, “Oh, I would love to, but just can’t. I’m so sorry!” Frankly, keeping the official appearances on the low side conserved my energy for the occasional “command performance,” and also allowed me to enjoy events that I truly wanted to attend.

The DCM has to attend and host many events after a very long workday. If you show up yourself only once in a while, it does signify that you have other interests and are not pursuing some lockstep “DCM spouse” agenda that puts people on alert inside the embassy–and obliterates you as an individual outside the embassy. Just as importantly, it demonstrates that you also are neither hostile nor a hermit, and would like people to know you as “Susie, who is married to the DCM” and not just “the DCM’s wife.”

However, the “optional” aspect to all these events can create confusion inside your own embassy. You might be surprised that you are not actually included in many post events. Sometimes there is a real need to keep the American-to-local ratio right for representational funding. Sometimes the embassy staff is inexperienced and does not understand which events really should include the “front office” (most senior) spouses. It can result in your suddenly learning that you must attend something important at the very last minute.

It is sometimes difficult to understand official invitations–which may never reach you. Sometimes the DCM’s name alone will appear, and you are to deduce that you also are invited (though sometimes you are not). Or, front office staff will decide that you are not invited, and you will inadvertently snub someone by not attending their event.

All of this speaks to the ill-defined role of “official” spouses in embassies, who can be made to feel simultaneously essential and superfluous. It is a big topic! The point of this article is that if the FSO you married becomes a DCM, the job will entangle you on several levels. Your work will be invisible to most, and discounted by many others. You have to decide how much that will bother you. Only the two of you know whether the joint effort required by the DCM position makes it the right job to undertake.

The author is married to a career Foreign Service Officer and has accompanied him to three overseas posts.

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