Foreign Service Family Challenges

By Patricia Linderman (archived from “Personal and Confidential,” an advice column that ran on this website for two years.)

Dear Personal and Confidential:

I’ll be joining the Foreign Service on January 12th. My wife and I are both third-culture kids (TCKs), although she spent most of her childhood in just one country, whereas I grew up in 4 or 5. We also have a 6-month old who has no idea what is ahead of him. What are the most important things I can do to help my wife with this transition? What are the biggest challenges spouses face?

And also, what can I do for my baby? What are the biggest challenges for kids?

-New Officer

Dear New Officer:

Both you and your wife have lived in other countries, so you already know about the upheaval, confusion, and culture shock-as well as the rewards, of course-that come with an international move.

I think that the greatest challenge for your wife will probably be, as it is for many of us, the adjustment to the role of “accompanying spouse” abroad. Officers arriving at post have a job title, a sense of purpose and a network of helpful, English-speaking colleagues. Spouses, on the other hand, often find themselves isolated, limited in their employment options, and stuck with the drudge work of settling in (unpacking, figuring out how to buy groceries), with many aspects of their lives controlled by the officer’s job (housing, furniture, when to cash checks, and so on). They may even feel that they have no identity: nobody knows anything about their background, skills or interests-and worse, people seem not to care, because they are “just spouses.”

The presence of a young child is probably a positive factor in your wife’s case. If your wife has already made the transition to at-home parenting, she’s probably faced some of these issues already (isolation, drudge work, giving up employment …). And in fact, having a young child with you abroad can help lessen the “spouse-adjustment problem” because at-home parenting can be seen as a kind of “portable career”: it can certainly give a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning, if not a fancy job title or salary. Parents of young children are also natural “colleagues,” and they quickly form playgroups and other informal associations at post.

Nevertheless, the transition to life as a Foreign Service spouse is still a tricky one. To support your wife in this process (and I salute you for thinking about this now!), I suggest that you consider the following:

1. Encourage her to control the aspects of her life that she can.

Inevitably, your wife will be giving up a lot of control over her personal life because of your job. In exchange, encourage her to make her own choices in other areas without pressure from you, for instance whether or not to work for pay, which child care options to use, when and where to travel, what to do with her free time, and so forth.

2. Support her interests and activities.

You (I hope) will find your work as a Foreign Service officer interesting and satisfying. Make sure your wife can view her life abroad in the same terms. If she is looking for an employment opportunity, offer her your full support. If she isn’t interested in a traditional job, encourage her to think about the interests she has in addition to parenting (such as travel, study, a hobby, art, writing, volunteer work, freelance work, etc.), and support her in pursuing them. Free yourselves from the culturally-based notion that making money is the most (or only?) valuable use of a person’s time. Instead, encourage your wife to find activities abroad that are meaningful and satisfying to her-whether or not they involve any payment-and make them a priority within your family.

3. Help her network.

If you were raising your child in the United States, you and your wife might rely on a network of extended family, friends, neighbors, babysitters, child care centers, doctors, and so forth. Overseas, however, your network might consist of domestic help, your colleagues’ families, an international playgroup, and the Embassy medical unit. Help your wife put this network in place as quickly as possible by asking your Community Liaison Office coordinator, your sponsor, and your colleagues about existing parents’ groups, recommendations for household help and/or child care, and other families with small children at post who might be willing to exchange e-mails before you arrive. Networking is also vital to support the interests mentioned in point #2 above-for instance, if your wife is interested in taking art lessons, you might ask about the availability of classes or private teachers, as well as recommendations for art supplies to bring with you.

I also encourage your wife to join AAFSW’s Livelines e-group and to read up on your new lifestyle (see the recommended reading areas of this website, and browse the Overseas Briefing Center if you’re in the Washington area), as well as taking the Transition Center classes offered to Foreign Service spouses.

As for the challenges ahead for your son, you know a lot about them already, having lived in other countries yourselves. During his first move, the challenges will be mainly yours, as you struggle to transport diapers, car seats, toys, and other baby equipment quickly from one country to another. (Check if it is possible, for example, to mail baby things to your sponsor or to your office address in advance of your arrival.) The trick at this age, I think, is to maintain your son’s comfort level at home with as many familiar objects and routines as possible (the same blanket, teddy bear, lullaby, bathtime routine, songs on tape, etc.), while not being shy about asking for and accepting help from other families. You’ll find yourselves helping the new arrivals yourselves before long!

As your son reaches school age, the transitions will become more difficult, because he will have more connections to the world outside your home (school, friends, the local culture). You can support him by:

– acknowledging his negative feelings about the move,
– making time during the moving process to be together as a family,
– helping him maintain contact with friends in both countries and his extended family,
– encouraging visits to and from friends and extended family in other countries, if possible,
– taking family pets with you rather than giving them away,
– helping him feel involved in the move by letting him make some decisions (for instance about what to pack),
– giving him something to look forward to during each move (such as a significant new privilege, possession or activity),
– setting up his room first when you arrange your new home,
– helping him make new friends quickly (for instance, inviting children over to play even if your new home is full of boxes),

and many other measures.

As your child grows, you’ll have to pay special attention to medical and schooling issues. Overseas schools are not required to accommodate children’s special needs as American public schools are, and schools as well as health care systems vary widely from country to country. So if your child has any issues that are out of the ordinary, from a food allergy to the need for an accelerated math program, you’ll have to be proactive about making sure his needs can be accommodated at every new post.

Even if your son doesn’t face any particular schooling or medical challenges, it’s a good idea to be especially vigilant as Foreign Service parents. Watch out for safety concerns for your baby in your new housing. You should also know first aid and CPR, because emergency services may not be as reliable overseas. When your child goes to school, keep close track of his progress and curriculum (and any gaps in it).

Most of all, the best kind of support you can give your wife and son during your Foreign Service career is a strong family. Stay aware of everyone’s ups and downs (which may not follow the same pattern). Try to avoid giving all your energy to your job so that you come home burned out or “used up.” Spend your family time doing enjoyable things-pack up the baby gear and get out and explore your new country. Face the challenges as a team and laugh together about the things that go wrong.

From the concern evident in your question, I can tell that you have a great head start on this. Keep in touch and tell us how it’s going!

-P and C
Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.