Who Are You Calling “Eligible”?

As an Eligible Family Member (EFM) I am permitted to apply for for embassy jobs. So, why don’t I?

This question has come up repeatedly over the last 25 years. As we prepare for our next post, it’s coming up again. So, maybe it’s time to write from the perspective of one who will probably always be counted as “not actively seeking employment” at post—as if that were happening in anything resembling a normal job market.

For the first few years, I was asked why I didn’t take the Foreign Service exam myself. After all, I was a Georgetown University graduate, just like my husband, with a BA in Government. Surely, I wanted the same type of career?

Well, no, actually. Being a diplomat is my husband’s dream, not mine. Though I’ve worked consistently ever since I was a teenager, I became a Foreign Service spouse right out of college, before I had a chance to occupy a career-oriented position. While I have always liked to travel, I had no great ambition to work in international affairs then, and I don’t especially now. (Oh, the irony …)

I didn’t want to become half of a tandem couple, either. Particularly since the one area of the Foreign Service that I find at all appealing is Public Diplomacy—my husband’s section. What a bidding nightmare that would have been!

Management at our next post, along with a few other forward-thinking embassies, has done a very smart thing. They compiled a list of all the EFM positions that are coming up this summer and sent it out to the incoming EFMs directly, at their personal email addresses, not through the officers. How very sensible!

Unfortunately, most the job titles are nothing to write home about. Consular Assistant. Secretary. Roving Security Escort (known colloquially as “watching paint dry.”)

There are two Professional Associate positions, which is a good thing for those who wish to work full-time in political affairs–and more power to them. But just two professional (if entry-level) jobs available for a pool of what must be around a hundred spouses is still slim pickings.

Many have suggested to me that I apply for a CLO (Community Liaison Office coordinator) job. I have the organizational and information management skills, for sure. Heck, I co-wrote a manual on developing embassy websites and Facebook groups. I have edited newsletters at three overseas posts and am currently telecommuting as part-time content manager for AAFSW, producing both print and email newsletters and managing content for this website.

However, the rest of the CLO position also encompasses all the stuff I least like to do. Information, yes, people, not so much. I hate organizing events, and I am not good at hand-holding. Content management is a completely separate skill than people management—and these two skills rarely exist to the same degree in the same person, in my experience. (I know a few other writer/editor types who are of same opinion!) It is unfortunate that the CLO position requires both the aptitude and desire to do both. Then there’s the bureaucratic hurdles. I realize that even if I wanted one of these jobs, getting any of them would require filling out mountains of paperwork and a lengthy wait (we’re talking many months) for a security clearance before I could start working. A situation that is getting worse, not better, as far as I can tell, to the detriment of both spouses and the embassy sections that need their skills..

And it could all be a waste of time. Any spouse can tell you about jobs that are advertised, but actually “reserved” for the spouse of a certain officer. Or jobs that are not advertised at all, even though they should be, because someone has already been handpicked for the job. Any spouse can tell you about jobs that were assigned to someone who might not even have arrived at post yet, who might even be on their first FS tour, who simply kicked up more of a fuss than others. Any spouse can tell you about positions that were mysteriously created out of thin air for male spouses who “have” to have a job (sorry, but it happens).

So, let’s not pretend that this system is working as advertised. If it did, then frustration probably wouldn’t be as rampant among the EFMs who choose to participate in it. Spouse employment is always named as the number one morale issue in the Foreign Service. There are valid reasons for this—and they can’t all be blamed on shrinking budgets or post 9/11 security requirements.

A good friend who was once an EFM and is now an FSO says that you have to choose. If you are serious about having a “real” career as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, the only option is to become an FSO yourself. If you don’t do that, then forget about having a linear, highly remunerative, career. It’s not a popular point of view, but I have to say, based on over 25 years of experience, that I agree with her. Repeatedly having to compete for scraps at every post is just not a satisfying trajectory.

So, those are some major, and I believe, rational, reasons that I have opted out. I understand that a conventional career is just not going to happen for me. My husband and I are both comfortable with that choice, and with whatever financial consequences there are to it (though we are doing just fine).

Of course, there are other factors. While I have always worked part-time, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to work full time when my kids were young under any circumstances in which I had a choice about it. I was glad that I did have a choice, and I was a good primary caregiver. There was quite a bit of job satisfaction there for me.

I’m an introvert, so I don’t need to be around people all day. I don’t mind being Family CEO. I’m also a creative type, and over the years, I have found so many other ways to stay busy (writing, crafts, genealogy, photography, art classes, language classes, lots of exercise…) that it would be difficult to give them all up now, even for an awesome job.

But give them up in order to be a secretary? Or to watch paint dry? I don’t think so.

Kelly Bembry Midura is Content Manager for AAFSW. She has accompanied her husband, Chris Midura, to six posts in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. She blogs about many and varied topics at wellthatwasdifferent.com

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