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Archive for the ‘Home Life’ Category

Not-So-Secret Aid Worker, aka Daddy Aid Worker part 3

In Career Development, Home Life, Humanitarian Response, Kids, Travel on May 11, 2016 at 10:10 am

For the handful of you that read this blog – thank you very much, by the way! – you’ll have noticed that I’ve been open about my career development in relation to my personal life. I’ve written a few articles about being a traveling parent (Daddy Aid Worker 1 and 2).

Recently I got myself published in the Guardian Global Development Professionals weekly “Secret Aid Worker” column. The article was called, “Can only the childless and unattached manage the work we do?” I’m hoping that one and this blog post will be the epilogue articles about this subject from me (the daddy aid worker, “it’s so hard to travel and be away from my family” stuff), especially now that I’m out of the aid worker business.

I don’t feel any hesitation in outing myself as the author. Unlike some other Secret Aid Worker columns, I’m not putting anyone in danger, risking getting myself or a colleague fired, or otherwise alienating anyone. I just wanted to highlight my story about managing my specific situation, and what I had to say fit in with a call for articles that the SAW editors had put out there.

So obviously, if you’re reading this post maybe you care enough to click through and read the SAW story linked above. I’ll wait.

OK, first of all, they had to cut it back a bit because they wanted it to be more like 800 words or so. They also took out a little nuance. I didn’t expand too much more than they cut but there are some things I wanted to expand and explain from my end, given what they cut, and respond to some of the comments I’ve had from connections and publicly on the Guardian site.

First, I just want to reiterate how great my supervisors were at my last job. Both of them were also men with young families who also happened to telecommute, and they made every effort to be supportive and respectful of my desire to limit the length of my trips. And, I want to note that I even made these conditions clear throughout my hiring process, so it’s not like I went into my last job with any disingenuous promises. We all knew what we were getting into. We knew there would be lots of short notice travel – allowing me to work from home and move closer to family was supposed to mitigate that. We (meaning my wife and I) gave it a try for over a year, it wasn’t working for us and I took a great opportunity to transition to a different kind of job that works for us all. It was a little sooner than I would have originally intended, because I wanted to give the CRS job at least 2-3 years, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay anchored to my community and have a more family friendly, 9-5, US based job. I left CRS for the only opportunity I would ever have left them for, short of winning the proverbial lottery.

Secondly, we stopped making any attempt to live internationally 10 years ago when we found out our oldest daughter is autistic, so we’ve always been based in the USA. I’ve always been a HQ-based person who travels. Yes there are other people in similar situations (parenting special needs kids) who make that work overseas with various specialists people keep telling me about, in places like Nairobi or wherever, but I was never badass enough to be recruited into a position perfect enough to accommodate the kind of education and family support that my daughter needs. I didn’t think that was germane to the SAW format. Plus, it’s a super personal topic; I never write publicly about my daughter’s autism, because it opens the floodgates to advice from people who are not in our situation and don’t have the whole story. She’s doing very well now, incidentally.

Third, I’m completely aware of the “first-world problem” nature of this issue (“Can an aid worker with a young family make it work?”). I know there are a ton of people from the “global south” working outside their home countries – they get stuck as an expat because they’ll never make as much money at home, so they end up working away from home for extended periods of time, way more than I would ever be able to. More power to them, it’s really damn difficult. I tried hard as a recruiter not to put colleagues in those kinds of situations and impose the choice to separate from their families or not, at least without making sure they’ve thought about it. I would always keep in mind that if your HR is offering you an opportunity, it’s hard to say no, you worry what that would do to your reputation.

Another thing I couldn’t expand on as much in the piece is this idea of being so de-synchronized from my wife and kids. When you’re home all the time you have a daily knowledge of stuff – what chapter you’re on with the book you’re reading your 9 year old, where your son left a Lego figure when we went out to lunch the other day, what chore you need to do tonight, etc. That all goes away and takes days to build up again while you’re away, and it causes a distancing that, for me, started to feel profoundly shitty the more I traveled.

Finally, I want it noted, for the record, that my wife never felt any resentment, as I implied in the SAW piece. She just wanted to support me, and I read too much into things and assumed too much. I’m a lucky man.

There are a core group of aid workers (and many professionals in general I guess) out there that always like to bear a cross and show the world how busy they are and how hard they work… my view is that EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. that I’ve ever admired in terms of their professional accomplishments (like “dent in the universe accomplishments”), when you do the research and read the biographies or other various accounts of their real lives, that because work came first – they either never started a family or their family life suffered. I liked what Anne Marie Slaughter had to say on the subject. Something’s gotta give. I don’t want that.

So I choose family over career. I’m lucky enough to be able to make a living where I can make it work. I mean no disrespect to those aid worker parents who can make it work, other families have a higher threshold for this lifestyle than we do. This is my story, opinion, and situation. I do not mean to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m only sharing this all as a way to help others who could foresee the same choices in their lives. If you like working in the field for months at a time, racking up the hazard pay and post differential, and your family’s functioning and everyone’s fine – wonderful, I’m happy for you.

I’m really hard on myself and maybe this is a grand bargain I make with myself, in the vein of procrastination – because if I don’t try I don’t fail, or “look how well I did considering I was barely able to work on it” – so who the hell knows what I could be doing or if I’m not giving my all or whatever… but I’ve always wanted to put my family first.

I guess I follow that old quote from John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, “Like your job, Love your wife.” That is working out for me and I’m really happy with the way things are.

We’ll see where  I can go with this blog from here. Look out for stuff about career development and general family life.

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Smelly T-Shirts and Shaving… Teleworking at it’s best

In Career Development, Home Life on November 2, 2015 at 1:55 pm

As some of you read in my last blog post, I just switched jobs. One thing I might not have brought up is the fact that I’m giving up teleworking. I was allowed to work from home from August last year until I left at the end of October, so I’ve now got a solid 14 months of working from home under my belt. I’ve learned some lessons along the way.

My telework has been by choice – I wasn’t assigned to work out in California. So this means I didn’t get any financial support to have a home office – like my employer paying for part of my internet service provider bill, or printing, etc. My employer did pay for my mobile bill the whole year, although I had to reimburse for some personal use fees when I was traveling, that’s another story… But some people who are assigned to work from home might have some benefits that I couldn’t take advantage of, including writing off some costs on your tax return.

Working from home has been amazing, but it’s not without its tradeoffs. I’ve loved not having to iron my clothes, or shave that often. I had to make sure that I at least looked relatively neat in case someone wanted to do the Skype video. Mid-day walks/runs/whatever with my wife while the kids are at school were really nice. Being able to control when I worked was great, I was able to be there for my kids more than when I have to work a solid 8-hour day at an office I have to commute to. I could step out and pick up my kids from school, drop them off, go to those random mid-day events. I chaperoned a couple of field trips. I could go work from my daughter’s Gymnastics class, where I could clear my inbox and do some weekly organizational tasks that didn’t require as much attention. I could work from the library while my oldest daughter devoured library books. In theory, we could travel the world as long as I was getting my stuff done on time and being responsive. Modern technology is amazing.

The total blending of work and home has its drawbacks, though. While it’s great to have control over when I work, I had to constantly police myself. My wife learned to stop being mad at me (at least outwardly) when I had my phone out all the time, because she knew I had to be responsive, this was part of the deal. “Is it a work email?” she would say. I still would feel bad about it – there’s a level of constant stress to be responsive. My colleagues were all over the world, and I was also acutely aware that teleworking was a privilege; I never wanted it to be a hindrance or to attract negative attention because my time zone or responsiveness was the problem. So, I never grumbled when I had to hop on Skype conference calls before dawn or late at night. I would wake up to Skype messages piled up on my phone, I’d lay there and try to get back to people, mostly on their time. I’m sure that’s a nice image for my former colleagues to try to get out of their heads…

Because my work was paying for my mobile phone, I felt like my work was with me all the time. In some ways, it’s great – if you allow yourself the confidence to think you’re spreading your work out all day – that you’re genuinely putting in the full time work that you would if you were commuting to an office. But sometimes that confidence is hard to find. The more efficient you are, the more will be expected of you. Creating some ground rules in the beginning, and discussing the expectation of your work output with your supervisor is essential. You have to feel like someone has your back, and that it’s OK to respond on your time. At least you need to define what is urgent and what can wait. In reality I think we all believe we’re way more important and critical to our organizations than we really are.

The other thing that a lot of people discuss about teleworking is the lack of physical face time with people – the chance meetings in the hall, the spontaneous collaboration, or missing snap meetings. I was fortunate in that almost all of my colleagues also teleworked or were located in field offices where I would have worked with them in the same way. I wouldn’t have collaborated much with my colleagues in person at HQ anyway – other than being social. I found that being logged into Skype could be a great way to poke my head into the hallway to ask a question. I found in my last office job – that I would waste a lot of time chatting about random personal stuff, not necessarily coming up with groundbreaking new initiatives. Not that I didn’t really like my colleagues, but I felt like there was room for more productivity and less social drama.

I did learn a more valuable skill, especially for this day and age – being able to answer most questions myself. When I’m in an office with colleagues, in a cubicle or shared space – you can kind of blurt out a question or pop up and ask someone something – and chances are you could have Googled it or dug a little deeper through your intranet to find the answer. Of course there are always deeper or confidential verbal-only talks that need to happen, especially for me since I was into some occasionally sensitive Human Resources issues. I never felt like I was unable to engage in those when I needed to.

Now that I’ve been in my office job for the last week, I’ve noticed that I am slow to re-engage in the office-style workflow. I haven’t had to greet everyone (other than my family) for a long time. I struggle to not spend money on food again – when I was home all the time I could pop in for a snack, I seem to need constant food.  I am holed up in an office but I need to take advantage of being around some very interesting and experienced people. We’re all busy so it’s not like I look stand-offish, but this is a level of outgoing-ness that I hadn’t fully considered.

The best part of this new configuration, especially since I live in a beautiful place and my work is really less than 3 miles away from my home – is being able to incorporate exercise into my commute. When it’s not raining, I ride my bike to and from work. I plan on walking it from time to time. That should make up for any excess sugar I’m consuming, hopefully. At least I am generally cleaner, I shave more often, and am remembering to use deodorant more.

Transitions, 2015 Version

In Career Development, Growing Up, Home Life, Humanitarian Response, International Development on October 20, 2015 at 9:57 am

It’s time for another career transition. I’m leaving my job with Catholic Relief Services. I know many will think I’m crazy. And maybe I am a little bit – but this is a decision with two very great reasons justifying it: family and timing. I want to share my reasoning because this is illustrative of a lot of people around my age, where we’ve got a young family and are still trying to develop our careers and figure out what we want to do.

On Family…

My CRS job has had me traveling at just over 30 percent. This is actually less than the JD had required, and not nearly as much as some of my other colleagues on the Humanitarian Response Department, who are up in the 50-60 percent range. I thought being able to work from home, being much more available when I’m home, and relocating my family to our forever home in California to be near extended family would help mitigate the effects of me traveling a lot. Maybe if my travel were more predicable, but my trips have come with at most three to four-weeks’ notice. The Nepal trip had me on a plane within three days, and I was gone for four weeks. Almost all my trips are at least two weeks, if not three or more.

To do this job right, I should be willing to go whenever and wherever I’m needed. I feel like I’ve cut a few trips short when I probably should have stayed longer… it felt like doing a better job would have required more from me, and consequently more from my family. As time went on, trips were getting harder and harder for me. I’ve written about this in previous blog posts. Each departure would hurt just a little more, the homesickness would nag at me – right around the two-week mark as I would reach the home stretch I would start to feel worse – more homesick and less productive. It wasn’t good for me, my family, or my employer and colleagues.

In the end – CRS and my position deserved more. The coolest aspects of travel and the work itself were not making up for the negatives. I was tired of missing my kids’ events at home, being the dad who’s almost never around, and having adventures without my family with me to share.  I was also risking my professional reputation by not giving my all. Maybe I’m hard on myself with my self-assessment, but this is my perception. So overall: I loved the job, loved to work for CRS, but the travel was going to push me and my family to a breaking point, probably in the near term. And, even if I wanted to remain with CRS and continue to develop my career there, the options would have almost certainly involved either more travel or moving, two things we’re not prepared to do any longer. My last day with CRS is this Friday 23 October.

On Timing…

I was offered a job with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (aka “MIIS” – www.miis.edu) as a Career and Academic Advisor. I’ll be advising about 180+ students in the Development Policy and Practice Degree program. This is the degree program I completed in 2007, with a Masters in Public Administration. I know the MIIS team pretty well, and have collaborated with them for years. They very generously gave me the Alumni Volunteer Service Award in 2012 – one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me. They proactively recruited me over several months and showed sincere interest in having me come be a part of the team. I demurred when I hadn’t been with CRS for a year, but I was swayed after two long trips to Nepal.

Maybe I could have played coy for another year or two and tried to hold on to my operational Global Development -Humanitarian Response career a little longer – but see above on family concerns… and I would much rather take a job where I’m recruited and they’re psyched to have me, rather than me sticking it out a little longer, my family hitting a wall and I go begging for a new job… I just couldn’t delude myself any longer. Plus there are other pretty decent benefits that made working for MIIS an attractive option. Besides decent benefits (health plan, retirement, annual leave, etc), it’s a super close commute to my home, and I am happy I’ll be able to leave my work at work. I loved working from home but it will be nice to be more turned off from work after hours. Overall I’m excited for the change and I’m surprised how happy I feel about being more anchored into my community. This will be like a real homecoming for me in many ways.

So – while I have absolutely loved working for CRS, it was time for me and my family to make this change. I’m hoping to dig into the academic side of poverty alleviation, program management, and humanitarian response, and to parlay my experience into trainings and ultimately teaching. My pipe-dream is to somehow get a PhD before I’m 50, but I’ve probably already punished my family enough, that’ll go in my parking lot for a while. I start at MIIS on 26 October.

Gratitude and Growth…

CRS has been everything I hoped it would be, and I’m so grateful they approached me for this position last year. I consider my supervisors to be good friends now – they’ve always been supportive and helpful, among the best supervisors I’ve ever had. My recruitment colleagues have been great – they all really care about CRS, the mission and values, and projecting them from a candidate’s first impression of CRS all the way to on-boarding. I think this translates into recruiting the people that CRS has in abundance – dedicated to improving the human condition, committed team players, nice people, super smart and fun to work with – the kind of team you don’t mind working with for 10 years or more. CRS’ retention rates confirm this. It’s an awesome place to work.

And working within the Humanitarian Response team has been a truly humbling experience. It’s been an honor to work with this team, I’ve learned more in the last 15 months about real humanitarian programing than I did in my previous six years with IRD and RI. They’ve got strong leadership, some very smart people, the kind of high-caliber, good humored, and dedicated humanitarian professionals anyone would want to have as colleagues. CRS has the resources at their disposal to do what they feel needs to be done, rather than looking for what a donor will fund – and they can support a robust monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning (aka, MEAL) system that helps contribute to the state of the art of humanitarian response. I feel better about walking away from the humanitarian sector after having worked for one of the most effective humanitarian NGO’s in the world. They’ve shown me what a thorough, well-done job looks like.

My blog, twitter feed, and public Facebook page has been pretty quiet since I’ve worked at CRS, in fact this is probably the first time I’ve even referenced them in my blog other than linking my LinkedIn profile in my “about me” page. I’m hoping to be more active on my blog and through social media as I ease into my new job and start learning about and sharing new things. I’m genuinely excited for this change and I look forward to what’s to come!

Breaking Face

In Gen X, Growing Up, Home Life, Kids, Politics on October 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm

So some of my friends may have noticed I had a mini meltdown and stormed off Facebook a few weeks ago.  I’ve barely been on FB for the last month.

Here’s the story…

The breaking point happened to be a stupid debate with some friend of a friend on one of his posts.  It was a sensitive issue for me and I was feeling angered and annoyed, one of those feelings where you want to come back with a howitzer of information to crush the dude, and I had all these terrible negative feelings about it.  Then, there was just a crush of other political rantings from other various groups I had followed during the last few election cycles (god FB has been around forever now)…  I was annoyed with what I was seeing, then mad that I was mad.  That was what moved me to take a Facebreak.

What got me to the edge was this long process where I had just been feeling more and more unable to focus.  My concentration has sucked lately.  I was having trouble staying focused on detailed tasks for a long time, getting distracted, either by an email notification, a tag on my FB app showing something… all the various essential viral articles, memes, and other junk that comes across FB and twitter that you just have to check out, otherwise your finger is off the pulse of modern culture…  OMG, OMG, look how many likes I got on this… wow, who was that person who commented on the article I posted?  Who is this person I let friend me a while back?  How do I know this person?

In summary, a flush of information that was requiring more and more mental energy from me to keep on top of, with increasingly diminishing returns.  There’s been this idea of cognitive poverty where the more decisions you have to make, the more tired your brain is and the less effective you are at complex tasks to higher levels of thought.  I was already feeling the crunch of having to make more micro decisions in my average day before having to care about my online image.

So to sum it up, I needed a break.  I needed to make a change.

In the last several weeks, I feel like I went through a bit of a Facebook withdrawal period.  It’s not like I went offline entirely.  I still posted stuff to twitter (@voxsouley, go there if you missed me…) and I connected with people on LinkedIn.  I use HootSuite and generally have been just unchecking FB, to avoid having to go check on how people “liked” me or not.  But I did start to think about the day to day things that I had felt moved to put out there, and it was a good chance to question what I really want everyone to know about my day.

It was kind of a relief to get off, not have to check through the likes.  To be immodest, I felt like I was kind of starting to get the hang of FB, I was getting “likes” on a lot of my posts.  I had a consistent following of a handful of people that seemed to pay attention to what I was posting, liking it or commenting on it, even bits that I’d just kind of re-posted without adding any comment or value.

Once I mistakenly reposted something from an old HS acquaintance of mine that was against my generally liberal progressive leanings, and within moments there was a veritable uproar of 4-6 people (which for me is a lot, another reason I needed to log off and chill) chastising me and debating amongst themselves.  I felt the need to take it down (and did) as I was afraid of how it would look.  Indeed, that might have been one of the seeds of why I went on a FB hiatus. Having to care so much about what you put out there, to fastidiously curate your online life, can really be a pain in the ass – it’s like adding another task to your workday that you’re not really getting paid for.  At least no one is paying me yet.  Who knows, maybe I’ll get a real angle and be the next “I fucking love science” but that’s pretty highly unlikely.

I have slowly started to get back from time to time, ideally using my new perspective and freshly honed FB self-control.  I realized that despite all the junk, it’s nice knowing the people I know, I miss the happy moments that people share – when their kids do something great or they get the new job or notice something beautiful and share it.  That’s when modern social media is worth it, and that’s what I’ll strive to share from here on out.  There’s already too much negativity, I don’t need to add to it.

2012 in review

In Career Development, Home Life, Kids on December 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.  The main takeaways?

I’m happy to see visitors from all over the world.

Curious that mostly people just go to the “About me” page.

That I need to write more.  I didn’t make the time to blog; when I’m at work I both can’t take to much time away to write, and I also don’t want to complain about my work here.  It’s hard with kids at home, I get home from work and need to spend time with my wife and kids, then go to bed… ah… the life of a parent.  It’s OK though.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

Daddy Aid Worker

In Career Development, Home Life, International Development, Iraq, Travel on January 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm

This blog post was written for the Career Matters blog hosted by DevEx.

We had been meeting on Skype for about 20 minutes when suddenly, it happened. Through the live video feed, I saw my wife turn around, things shaking in the background. I heard a crackling sound.

That is how on Aug. 23 last year, I experienced one of the strongest earthquakes the U.S. east coast has ever seen – from more than 7,000 miles away.

I’m an international development professional and father of three. I’m based at International Relief & Development’s headquarters in the Washington, D.C. area, but have to travel from time to time. In 2011 alone, I visited Africa three times, all of which were three-week trips: to Chad in January, Ethiopia in August, and Kenya in October. Our son was born in April, which provided me a much-needed three-month paternity leave. Otherwise, I probably would have had to go to Tunisia.

Fortunately, only Chad was a Danger Pay country – the telltale sign that there was a little bit more than malaria to worry about. It was worse when I visited Iraq at the end of 2009; my entire extended family was on pins and needles. No matter how much you reassure them, people still freak out about the unknown. I’ve always felt a special responsibility with my career to help bring new cultures into my loved ones’ lives, but changing perceptions can be an uphill battle, as most of you reading this will understand.

I got into international development, in part, because I love to travel. I love the rush you get when visiting a new country. We’re all a little bit selfish and adrenaline junkies in that way. Despite the hardship and worry I caused my family, one of the coolest experiences I ever had was completing my Iraq trip. I’ll admit: At IRD especially, it’s de rigeur to work in Afghanistan and Iraq for months on end, and I only visited for a week with a highly professional personal security detail paying close attention. But not a lot of Americans can say they’ve visited Iraq. I’ll keep that visa forever.

The rush of travel is balanced by the dread of leaving my family, every time. It doesn’t get easier. So far, my kids – especially my 5-year-old – make a very big deal about me leaving, missing me, crying about it. It’s flattering, but it also feels awful to put them through that. While I’m traveling, most of the places I’ve been have had Internet connections just good enough to use Skype – usually just for voice, but sometimes video. The video can be amazing and frustrating, as you get to see your family and spend a little time acting like a fly on the wall. The downside being that you also watch your spouse deal with an upset baby and fighting siblings while you’re sipping a latte in a quiet hotel room.

I’ll admit: Being able to sleep through the night is nice, but when you get back home, the traveling aid worker better be prepared to make it up to their spouse. A nice scarf from the hotel airport doesn’t cut it as a thank-you gift.

We’re fortunate enough that my wife can stay at home with the kids; she has been working part-time teaching yoga since we started our family. Day care is not a problem, just the babysitting for the 2-4 hours per week my wife teaches, which my extra per diem usually can cover. This is not nearly as bad as some other aid worker friends have it.

International development families have an array of choices and decisions and sacrifices to make, especially when you’re under the pressure of having to build your career and establish your credibility. One couple I know is basically taking turns with their careers, with one parent working for an NGO and traveling 5-10 weeks per year while the other took a 9-to-5 federal job. Their lives have to be strictly regimented – day care is closely scheduled, minutes are precious and expenses are legion. Another friend, who was very established at her NGO when she and her husband (who was not an international NGO person) started their family, eventually just took her baby son with her on her trips to East Asia a couple of times. It’s not easy.

Many families, when given the option, just pick up and move back overseas to accompanied posts where the schooling can be very good and day care is cheap, and you can all be together more. But those posts can be very competitive to get and, more often, the stars have to be aligned to make it work with two professionals trying to build their careers.

The best part is coming home, especially seeing my wife and kids in the car when they pick me up. I miss them all so much when I’m gone. I always picture myself running to them, breaking down in tears, legs crumpling as I embrace them. More often, it’s a couple of minutes of big hearty hugs and then I have to shift right back into parenting mode, regulating backseat arguments, calming my son in his baby seat, and telling my wife about the flight, which is the longest period of time we go without talking while I’m traveling.

We’re originally from California and have experienced our share of earthquakes. Last August, the shaking I witnessed via Skype lasted just a few seconds; the kids and house were thankfully fine. But after working on relief project proposals all day, I had a front row seat as my wife carried her iPad around the house as she inspected the aftermath. I monitored Facebook and Twitter, and we maintained the connection and talked for another hour.

As global development professionals, we tackle some of the most complex challenges of our time. But there are other, more personal challenges we all encounter – as I did watching my family react from afar to that magnitude-5.8 earthquake.

Eleven to Twelve

In Career Development, Growing Up, Home Life, Kids, Travel on January 1, 2012 at 11:18 pm

I had a few minutes and decided to go ahead and throw my hat into the ring, however briefly, for a new years blog post. 2011 was actually a very crazy year for me. A ton of stuff happened, to me and in the world, and it was surreal and exciting, exhilarating and exhausting.

In a nutshell, my wife and I welcomed our 3rd child, a son, into the family in April, after which I got to take 3 months of paid paternity leave. I went to Africa 3 times for work, once before and twice after the paternity leave. At work I was moved back and forth between teams twice, while finally getting a long overdue promotion… And in the end we remodeled the kitchen while 3/5ths of the household, myself included, were on antibiotics. Lots going on.

Watching the world move… While I was in Chad in January I watched as Tunisia overthrew its ruler and the Arab spring began, which became an undercurrent in the background of all international news the rest of the year in all my travels. Also during my time in Chad, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey, Niger and subsequently killed in a firefight, this lead to the suspension of the Peace Corps program there which I had hoped to reconnect with in my future work with IRD. It was also a sad event as it meant hundreds of long time Nigerien Peace Corps staff were going to be out of work. Not to mention the sudden cutoff of all their various projects.

In the late summer, after my first few weeks back at work, I was asked to travel to Ethiopia to assist with emergency drought relief proposals and project start-up. It was a long 3 week trip but one of the best of my career so far. After about 3 weeks back, I ended up going back to Africa, spending almost 3 weeks in Nairobi, a less good trip for me but still interesting and reasonably productive given the circumstances. Quadaffi was killed while I was in Nairobi, a pretty brutal counterweight to how it went down in Tunisia earlier in the year.

So, from where I sit now, looking back, 2011 was a really big year for me, personally and professionally. 2012 will bring a lot of new opportunities and chances to grow and learn, as well as to teach. Hopefully I can get more of my thoughts down as I go!

My view from Nairobi

In Home Life, International Development, Kenya, Travel on October 24, 2011 at 9:42 am

24 October, 2011 Nairobi, Kenya

This has been the weirdest trip on the overall spectrum of my 2011 trips, all to Africa. January, N’Djamena Chad, 3 weeks. August-Sept, Ethiopia, 3 weeks. October, Nairobi Kenya, 3 weeks. I say Nairobi because that is where I have mostly stayed – my NGO has no real operations in Kenya and what I’m working on involves places where I can’t travel.

I’m here to shepherd my NGO’s relief efforts in Somalia. Maybe some day I’ll move my blog to an anonymous format where you don’t know who I am and who I work for, and then I’ll feel more free to write about what I really want to write about…

So I’ll just stick to venting a little on being a traveling dad again. It just plain sucks, no doubt about it. The trip started out as a voyage to a relatively mundane, well known and well travelled and documented place – Nairobi. I almost don’t feel like writing about it because there has been SO much written about Nairobi. It’s the quintessential, anglophone-friendly stand-in for an African city. What could I bring to the conversation? I haven’t really had the time or motivation, and now I do not have the nerve, to go out exploring too much on my own and meet Nairobi like I have in other cities I’ve visited.

The main issue is that the reason I came here ended up making my trip a little more restrictive, stressful, and annoying. Somalia is a mess because of Al Shabaab. Somalis have been experiencing a famine exacerbated by a messianic cult cutting off people’s access to their livelihoods. Somali pirates have been taking advantage of the instability to venture into Kenya’s territory and kidnap foreigners for ransom. Kenya sees these kidnappings as attacks on their sovereignty and as a risk to their tourist-led economic growth. Therefore, Kenya saw fit to attack Somalia and beat back Al Shabaab and the pirates further away from their borders.

In general, I think the Kenya invasion is a good thing, and one Somali-Kenyan friend of mine thought it was too, and implied that his community was in support of it. However, it’s more complicated than that. There are Al Shabaab sympathizers here in Nairobi, here because they want to mess with Kenya, and they have promised mayhem and retaliation.

I would say that in general, I’m about as safe as I am in New York or Washington DC on 9/11. The Kenyan military, not as bound by civil rights laws as in America, has cracked down and rounded up “illegal” Somali’s in Nairobi. But that doesn’t lower my stress level, and it certainly kills any motivation I have to leave the hotel on foot or go to other, cheaper places to eat than my hotel.

In general, this is par for the course in international development. We work in unstable places where bad things can happen. But this is just an annoying trip where the circumstances changed in the middle. My friends and family members saw on the CNN website a sensationalist headline warning Americans about “imminent attacks” on us in Nairobi, which caused a flurry of emails and frightened calls, which is totally understandable. The other thing is that on the home front, my kids have been sick a lot, my son’s got his first two new teeth, and it’s just damn hard to Skype home and be interested and present in the job I was sent here to do, especially with the other extenuating circumstances that I should just not write about.

So that’s where I’m coming from and how I’m feeling now. I needed to get that out of my system before I wrote anything else.

I did get out and about over the weekend, I got to see the “Out of Africa” house of Karen Blixon, as well as check out some of the various animals in medium captivity here in the Nairobi national park. Yesterday, I got to hang out at a kind of garden restaurant on the outskirts of Nairobi where a lot of expats hang out. The atmosphere was very festive, with many many families present – large tents were set up with widescreen TV’s, and a seemingly equal measure of French and New Zealand fans would roar as the momentum changed. There were lots of kids running around, the restaurant had a bounce-house set up for the kids and the non-Rugby inclined (myself included) were just chilling out drinking beer and watching the scene. It was nice.

I then got to leave Nairobi for Naivasha lake, about 90k northwest of Nairobi. It was a beautiful ride, as you leave the city, small suburbs give way to forested hills, then you come out over the hill and suddenly the Great Rift Valley is spread before you. It was a view that definitely lifted my mood a bit. The view was expansive, and reminds you what a big place Africa is – savannah bordered by extinct, jagged volcanos, with the puffy rainy season clouds casting shadows and sunbeams on the acacia trees and villages below. Masai herders occasionally walking with their animals, and small villages with their pubs, butchers, grocery stores, and mobile phone places lining the road every few kilometers.

Lake Naivasha is beautiful, but it’s threatened. Expat-targeted lodges rim the lake, which is shrinking because of the acres and acres of industrial flower production greenhouses that share the edge of the lakebed with the lodges. The flower companies are sucking too much water from the lake, which was already threatened due to climate change. Therefore, when we walked along to the lakefront, you can see where the trails and boat-moors have had to shift. In some places you see abandoned old boats, too far from the lakeside to move.

Still, it was new to me and beautiful – the air was clear, there was some nice, natural quiet, beautiful big sky with the puffy clouds, and some true wildlife nearby. I got to walk within 10 yards of Zebra, baboons, monkeys, some really big horned animal I can’t ever remember the name of, hippos, and countless exotic birds. Not a bad way to spend a day.

I leave here on Friday. I would love to come back here to Nairobi with my family some day – take my kids on a Safari, drive out to the big country, enjoy the nice restaurants and friendly Kenyan service. But for now, I need to summon up a little more professional motivation to push me through the next few days so I can get home safe and move on to my next (and former) gig at my NGO – supporting their food security projects in West Africa. After this I’m done with emergency response (such as it is has been for me with the short notice long travel) for the time being.

Back From Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, Home Life, International Development, Kids on September 8, 2011 at 8:57 am

I got back from Ethiopia last night. It was a great trip overall – I was able to fulfill my scope of work and help lay the foundation for our relief projects. We hired staff and formally negotiated a few different contracts for water trucking and the various materials. People are being helped that needed it, simple as that.

On the personal level, it’s amazing coming home to my family. My son, who turned 5 months old last Friday, is almost like a whole new kid, he changed so much in 3 weeks. He’s so much more interactive, staring and following things more with his head and eyes. The best part is that he totally laughs now, which is super rewarding. My daughters both started school on Tuesday, which was very significant for my 5 year old, who started Kindergarten. Things are copacetic.

I want to commit to blogging more – but I need to decide what I should blog about. I’m of the opinion that I shouldn’t pontificate about something unless I feel strongly about it and can put in the effort to defend my point of view empirically. That’s mostly why I don’t blog all the time – I’m working or home with the kids, and I don’t have time to articulate anything online. So, it seems like for the last 2 years, I write when I travel and am not around the kids. But that’s not a formula for a well-regarded blog…

In any case, hopefully I’ll give my 2-3 loyal readers something useful and thought provoking at some point.