How to Survive and Thrive as an FS Spouse

Tips to Survive and Thrive as a Foreign Service Spouse

Collected by Pat Olsen, veteran econ officer spouse, still surviving after 17 years, 3 boys, 3 pets, and 5 countries.

  • BE SOMEONE. Maintain your professional self – or develop a new one. Most of us have learned first hand the lack of availability of spouse employment. Limited job opportunities, sometimes excessively applied nepotism rules and poor wages can dash employment hopes. You might find a job, but you can also keep up with literature reviews, do research or degree work, explore the new possibilities opened up by distance learning, find volunteer work. Even if you choose, as I did, to be a stay-at-home parent, stay as current as you can. Job re-entry is not easy during or after a life of overseas assignments.

  • BE A LINK IN THE FS CIRCLE. The Foreign Service family has a singular closeness among spouses who help each other through difficult times. When you’re part of the circle of support, the circle is there for you when you need it, and we all need it in turn. We had been five weeks at our first post when the death of a loved one required that we return home. With three pre-schoolers, we were planning on only one of us attending, but the circle provided care for the boys among new friends so we could both make the trip home.

  • BE A PART OF THE MORALE SOLUTION. Morale is your life overseas. You can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Energy, attitude, creativity, and caring will contribute to your good morale and to the overall morale of everyone at post. Organize anything: a walk, a pot-luck, a movie night. You’ll be amazed at the positive response and the positive effect for all.

  • KNOW YOURSELF. No matter where you are, you will need to find opportunities to do what energizes you. There can be a lot of solitary time for a trailing spouse. Know what you need to do to stay charged or to get re-charged. Music, travel, art, discussion group, books, working with kids, being involved, volunteer work. Look hard within the local community for activities that interest you. Often many activities are available, but the Americans just don’t know and will tell you it’s hopeless. If you can’t find what you want, try creating it and asking others to join you.

  • PLAN AHEAD. Bring with you a reference library for your family’s activities and supplies to keep you happy. No longer do we have to bring an entire tour’s worth of "stuff", however, thanks to the increased national popularity of mail-order. Become a catalog expert and take advantage of electronic shopping to order items that are important to you. As trivial as it sounds, one of our greatest benefits overseas is our ability to receive packages, via either an APO or the diplomatic pouch, the only limitations being package size and speed of delivery. I don’t know how I would have survived without it. Search hard for local sources and become the community expert in your areas of interest.

  • KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. If you are not a story-teller, become one. It gets us through the tough times. We now have three story-telling young adults. Everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, becomes a potential story, even if only other FS friends can appreciate the full flavor.

  • FIND FRIENDS. MAKE THEM. KEEP THEM. You need your friends back home, your friends in Washington, your friends at post, your friends from previous posts. Children need to keep their friends as best they can just like we do. Look for friends outside the Embassy, both local nationals and international ex-pats. Be active in areas of interest to you and you will likely find people with whom you connect. Finding friends takes time and effort, as does keeping them.

  • SHARE. Be generous with your knowledge, your abilities, your books, your chocolate chips, yourself.

  • MAINTAIN YOUR HEALTH. Be vigilant and conservative. Exercise. Keep up on what is new at the consumer health level in the U.S. Many in the Foreign Service feel that for significant medical concerns, "there’s no place like home."

  • BE A TEAM MEMBER. Being in the Foreign Service is not a one-spouse activity. Be certain that the working spouse brings home daily information of all sorts, including newsletters, and considers you part of the team. You will probably be largely responsible for making numerous moving decisions, school selection, figuring out where to buy light bulbs and replacement parts in a language you don’t know, learning your way about strange grocery stores looking for dinner – in short, managing the day-to-day life of your household. The employee, on the other hand, drives in and out to a well-defined job where the language is English, and a staff and peers provide a ready source of information and social opportunities. At times, theirs is the easy life compared to ours. Don’t underestimate your role. Work together as a team.

  • ADJUST. Stand firm where possible, bend as necessary.

  • HAVE FUN. Give yourselves and your kids the gifts of travel, cultural diversity, adventures and a lifetime of memories.