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.