Daddy Aid Worker Part 2

In Career Development, Home Life, International Development, Travel on September 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Daddy Aid Worker Part 1 was published on DevEx.

The HQ-based view:

Traveling when you’ve got a young family at home is a blessing and a curse. My younger daughter gets especially indignant and dramatic from the moment I tell her I have to go on a trip. Her goodbyes are the hardest to take, but it also makes our reunions more meaningful. It’s flattering and painful. My older daughter focuses on the cross-cultural and geographical aspects of my trip: Where on the globe will I be? What do they eat there? What will I do there? I hope when they’re older they’ll appreciate what I was doing – that my trips ideally resulted in better projects that improve livelihoods in the communities IRD works in. In the end, I fear that any pride in the work their dad was doing will be tempered by the disappointment from me missing any key childhood events, and I’ve already missed a couple, unfortunately.

I’m a program officer with International Relief & Development (IRD). I’m married with three young children – two daughters 8 and 6, and a 16-month-old son. In the last two years I’ve been to Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, and three times to Niger, almost all three-week trips – an average of 25 percent travel. In most of my trips, I was able to stay in touch via Skype through hotel or office Wi-Fi. There were a brief few days when I was out of touch along the Ethiopia-Somalia border, but that was more because I was too cheap to buy a Somali SIM. Earlier on that same trip, I experienced the DC earthquake while on a video-call with my wife.

I actually do love travel. For all the guilt I feel and any pain I’m causing my family, I feel equal excitement for an upcoming trip, especially if I haven’t visited before. I love visiting a country for the first time, getting stamped through customs and seeing everything for the first time, learning about the local culture, picking up a few words, trying new foods – not to mention the professional challenges of accomplishing work goals in difficult environments. For me, though, almost all of these pluses start to lose their appeal after about 18 days. It becomes harder to focus on work, the calls home start becoming harder to end, the days start feeling longer, and I start looking forward to the plane ride home. Everyone wants their old life back.

On the home front, my incredibly supportive wife teaches one evening a week. She needs a babysitter for that, which costs money. Being gone makes my wife’s life much more physically demanding; it’s like doubling a parent’s workweek, all the home hours where I’m not around to be helpful, not to mention weekends. She has significant logistical challenges covering whatever childcare or chores I would normally cover. Not to mention sacrificing a normal exercise routine.

If I could give advice to those in a similar position, I would say first – know what your and your family’s capacity is to accommodate your travel. Once you’re all generally okay with that, you’ll need to be open with your employer. The key is to be clear about what you’re able to do and not do. That is, how long can a trip be before it becomes a burden on everyone? If you take a job that expects 25 percent travel, that’s 13 weeks of travel a year. For me that has ended up being a burden. Ironically, I’ve been strict – I try to limit my travel to three weeks or less, if possible. I target any trip as two weeks, and if it needs to be longer I feel like I need justification. This may hurt my chances of advancing unless I change the type of position I’m in or until my kids are older.

The wider issue is the culture of international development. At my headquarters, we support our 35 field offices, and when we’re in the field we have to answer for HQ. We are pulled to the field for critical management situations or to support emergency relief projects. Some things won’t get accomplished the way they need to unless a headquarters person does it, and there are times when I’m traveling that headquarters adds one thing after another to my scope of work. The people who are fine being away for months at a time really raise the stakes for those who might not want to maintain that pace. Others would do whatever it takes, but as soon as they have kids, they start pulling back a little, which can be a difficult adjustment for the die-hard types who used to be able to fly off at the drop of a hat.

Again, it all comes down to what you and your family decide they can handle, not just financially, but emotionally. We talk about “having it all,” but at this point I am content with having most and putting certain personal and professional goals on hold until my family and I can handle it, adjusting my career in the process. My mantra is that your kids are young once. Don’t miss it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: