Category Archives: Getting it off my chest

On elections

Bertrand lost his mother a few weeks ago. She could have been saved had she had access to Western health care. Benin is a perfect example of a market driven health care system. Not enough patients have the money to pay for expensive treatments, so expensive treatments don’t exist.

The more time I spend in the developing world, the more I’m convinced of three things:

  1. Citizens and business should pay taxes.
  2. Governments exist to correct market failures.
  3. Governments accomplish #2 through #1.

Elections, indeed.

On loss. Again.

Last night, Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi.

Several years ago, Kate Puzey, a Peace Corps Volunteer, was brutally murdered in Benin. I had long since finished my Peace Corps service, and was busily running a business with my husband in the capital. I didn’t know the volunteer, I was in a different part of the country, and there was no expectation of further violence in Cotonou. The murder had nothing to do with me.

Except, when was the last time an American was murdered in Benin? I went to sleep that night a little sadder, a little lonelier, and a lot less secure in my safety as an American abroad. I was surprised by how personal it felt.

That’s how I feel today too.

Those who were lost, their colleagues, and their families will be in our thoughts here in Freetown tonight.

On having it all. Or opting out of the debate.

Nobody in the whole goddamn world has it all. Everyone has to make choices. Ignore, for a moment, the institutionalized sexism that women face every day. As an Angry Militant Feminist, I’m telling you that the sexism doesn’t matter.

Get angry about the sexism.

Fight the sexism.

But don’t let the fact that sexism exists blind you to the fact that everyone has to make choices. All grown-ups have to decide between having THIS and having THAT. Hvaing your cake and eating it too died out with fuedalism.

Guess what? This week, I had to choose between taking my daughter to visit her grandparents on her first birthday and being in Freetown to do my job on her first birthday. NO BRAINER. I signed up to do a job, and I am going to do it.

Guess what else? Today, I had to choose between going into the office on a Saturday and working for 3 hours, or writing from home, where I could be close to my daughter, and working for 6 (because babies require attention). NO BRAINER. I am at home.

More choices: ordering pizza for lunch or not eating dairy because it makes my daughter sick. Leaving my daughter with the neighbors so that my husband and I can have a quiet evening out or cabin fever because TOO MUCH BABY. Leaving the house before dawn every day so that I can get out of the office in time to spend the evening with my daughter, or sleeping in and getting to work at a reasonable hour.

These choices are not unusual. They are not rare. They are not an indication that I do not “have it all.” “Having it all” is code for, “Woman, you will never be good enough. Whatever choice you make, it will be the wrong one.” That is bullshit. I am good enough.

And so are you.

On Freetown and well meaning State Department employees

Please stop saying, “I’m sorry,” when I say that I’m going to Freetown. Bertrand and I are thrilled for many reasons, among them the fact that, of the many challenges offered by the Foreign Service, the challenges that we’ll face in Freetown are among those we are very familiar with. Power? Water? Lack of availability of Western goods? Corruption? Cultural differences? Income inequalities? No roads? Flooded out roads?

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

This time, we get to do it in a home with real air conditioning. We’ll have a car. We’ll be able to afford child care, so both of us can work full time. We’ll have the State Department supporting us! And keeping everything running smoothly will be my job, not just something that has to be dealt with between projects and client meetings.

We’ve got two weeks left, and I am so anxious to go I can barely contain myself. Maternity leave was an amazing change to spend time with my new daughter, but now I’m ready to get to work. We said we wanted to spend six months in the States, and we’ve done just that. Needless to say, I’m excited to go to Freetown. I’m excited to start working as a GSO. And I’m really really really excited to start my Foreign Service career.

On motherhood, careers, and having it all

I only talk about gender, motherhood, and families in the Foreign Service with other women. Is that weird? While I certainly have male friends here, I find myself reluctant to complain about the inequalities and difficulties that we face to what I imagine will be an audience made unfriendly by its blind privilege.

Maybe this isn’t the case! Maybe the men I know here at FSI would be thrilled to have an honest conversation about making the Foreign Service more diverse and more family friendly! But I’m unwilling to take the risk of exposing myself as a whiner, a complainer, an angry feminist by having this conversation.

Yesterday, Tales from the Hood hosted Angelica, an international aid worker and mother:

Fast forward a few months, I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty:

 

“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month but has decided to quit instead.”

 

As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…) but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.

I think about this every day in terms of my State Department career.

On consuming and consumption

Coming home has been harder than I expected. As long as I continue to think of living in America as a short break from reality, I’m OK. The minute I remind myself that this is permanent, that even though we’ll be posted abroad, we’re back to living a life of comfort, consumption, and red-white-and-blue, I start to panic.

Yes, of course I’ll be fine. Yes, of course I’ll get used to it. Yes, I love Starbucks and being able to buy 5 different kinds of berries at the grocery store. Yes, I’ve done far harder things in my life. Yes, I’m still freaked out by all of the choices everywhere I go.

The difference between rich and poor is choices. I can choose to involve myself in my kid’s PTA. I can choose to pay for music lessons. I can choose to serve good cuts of meat. I can choose alternative sources of protein. I can choose organic. I can choose to take a day off of work. I can choose to pack up my family and leave for another country because an opportunity presented itself.

Bertrand and I were quite well to do in Benin, but that wealth doesn’t compare to what we have in the States, and I haven’t even started work yet. I hate those people who constantly harp on the ignorance and selfishness of Americans, and yet I can’t help contrasting how aware the rich in Benin are with how aware the rich in America aren’t.

Americans are so friendly and helpful and God it is amazing to be home. My discomfort with the wealth and conspicuous consumption around me is my own problem, not anyone else’s. I just don’t know if and how I’m going to solve it.

On privilege

Let me be very clear. What goes on in my uterus is none of your motherfucking business. I doesn’t matter whether I abort, whether I don’t abort, whether I’m looking forward to having a baby, whether I’m terrified about having a baby, whether I drink, whether I smoke, whether I eat shellfish, whether I eat deli meats, whether I sit with my legs crossed, whether I take a shot of sodabi, whether I pat my stomach when I laugh, whether I do anything at all.

Because it is my uterus, and not yours.

Life changing events

Yesterday, I received and accepted an offer from the Foreign Service.

When I took the FSOT last June, I never expected to pass (OK, I kind of did, but I was more stressed about what my coworkers would think if I didn’t pass than I was worried about actually becoming a Foreign Service Officer). After passing the written exam, I never expected to get past the QEP (OK, I kind of did, but I really didn’t ever think I’d becoming an FSO, so I didn’t care). Once I got over the shock of passing the QEP, I went into the orals with minimal prep, and expected to fall flat on my face (turns out, I’ve actually acquired some social skills over the last few years in Benin). And of course, passing the orals meant I still had to get through several layers of clearances, before languishing on the register for a few months.

About 6 weeks ago, Bertrand and I discovered that we’re expecting. I’m now at 11 weeks, the baby is growing as it should be, and we’ve been slowly sharing the news with the world. Getting knocked up has been a wild and unpredictable journey that I have deliberately not documented here.

Six years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever have children. I didn’t think I’d be married either. I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with Bertrand, start a business, and then have to transform it completely exactly four years after we opened our doors. We’ve got a few short months to transfer our entire life to Washington, DC. We’re looking forward to it, but it’s very scary too.

The best advice I can give anyone who wants to become a Foreign Service Officer is to get a job as a local hire in an embassy. Barring that, read, read, write, and read some more. The more well-read and well-written you are, the easier it is to pass the gauntlet of exams and clearances.