Archive for the ‘Kids’ 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.


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.

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!

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.

Back to work…

In Career Development, Home Life, Kids on June 21, 2011 at 9:30 am

Well… That was fast… But delightfully slow. I’m at the tail end of my 12 weeks of paternity leave. For the first several weeks, I was always saying, “I’m happy to be home but I’ll be ready to go back.” But now, faced with heading back to work with a 3 week West Africa trip in my near future, I’ve got mixed emotions, to say the least. Happy I’ve got a good job in a tough economy, happy it’s a job I am excited about, but very sad to think about missing my wife and kids… Especially when my 4 year old starts crying a lot when I leave.

It took a few weeks, but I learned to love being at home. I have really enjoyed seeing my kids off to and then picking them up from school. I like being around for them, answering questions, getting to know them… This time has been invaluable. My girls are now 7 and 4, just great ages where they can have interesting conversations and hang out in more fun places. My son is now almost 3 months, and has become very interactive. I’m extremely grateful to my employer, IRD, for their generous family leave policy. This has been great for me and my family.

So Monday I’m back to the grind, full time. I’m looking forward to re-engaging and to seeing where my new team takes me, I know I’m going to learn a lot. Hopefully my re-learning curve won’t be too steep.

Transitions… Again

In Career Development, Home Life, Kids on February 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm

The next few weeks are going to hold quite a few changes for me, big and small.

First the professional change.  I’m transitioning from the “Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems” (aka SFAS) unit at my NGO to the “Relief and Humanitarian Assistance” (aka Relief) unit.  The reaction to this has been generally very positive, in an eerily comforting way.  Comforting, in that people seem to be saying it will be a great fit for me; eery, because people are either generally acknowledging my weaknesses in administrative backstopping or recognizing my strengths that can be used on the relief unit.

The other big change is more personal – my wife is due to deliver our third child, a son, at the end of March.  My employer actually has a very generous family leave policy; employees, both men and women, with at least two years tenure are eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid time off.  The catch is that I sign a document stating that I must remain with the organization for a full year after I return from leave, otherwise I must repay the compensation I received while on leave.  This is more than a reasonable stipulation for me.

This will be a great time to really reconnect with my new family configuration, kind of Webb 3.0 in a way.  I’m excited for the changes and looking forward to re-balancing my life.

I’m hoping to use the free time that I’ll have to read up on emergency relief, like sphere standards and other relief theory, so I expect my blogging and tweeting will be mostly occupied with either that or stuff related to parenting.  Like everything else in my life, I am generally refraining from letting my expectations go crazy – there are tons of things I want to do with my “time off” (play lots of tennis, blog, play music, coffee shops, long walks) but I expect to be needed at home, so my family can all adjust to our new little dude together.

Skittishness and homecoming

In Foreign Policy, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Peace Corps, Tchad on February 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve been home from Chad since Friday evening.* The flight out of Chad was fine, my flight from Paris to DC was delayed, but otherwise fine.

Spent my last evening in Chad drinking, basically. I got to hang out at a very cool Ethiopian restaurant, the food was great, and I got to have a couple of beers under the stars with my feet in the sand, so to speak. The problem was my sudden anxiety when I got to the restaurant.

A few weeks ago, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped by Al Qaida from a busy restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger. The restaurant was a regular expat hangout, in the middle of the neighborhood where all the NGO’s are, including the Peace Corps and their hostel. The poor guys were killed before their kidnappers were subsequently attacked in a failed rescue attempt.

This kidnapping had ripple effects; the Peace Corps program in Niger was suspended indefinitely, and travel is generally going to be more difficult in the region. Personally though, this whole thing had me freaked out from the second it happened.

Call me a defeatist or weak, but terrorism scares the crap out of me. I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, very far from home, and be kidnapped or killed because of this whole amorphous and hard to understand global war on terror.

I took a calculated career risk in 2009, working with Iraq programs, thinking that might earn me the chance to work on projects in more peacefully, chronically poor countries in West Africa. This chance ended up panning out for me, but now this kidnapping has really messed things up.

So there I was on my last night in Chad, arriving at the restaurant in N’Djamena, in the middle of a quiet neighborhood where other NGO’s and expats live. It was my very last night at the end of a long trip that I couldn’t wait to finish. Wouldn’t it have been just my luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

But after two grand Galas and a satisfying plate of tef bread and spicy meat, plus some informed words from my new friend, who is a young US Foreign Service Officer (and Mauritania RPCV) on his first tour, and I felt a little less stressed.

Being home has been great. A few weeks more, and my third child – a son – will be born. Who knows what my next trip will be, but I know I’ll put myself through another wringer emotionally, balancing uninformed fears and calculated risks.

* I’ve actually been home for about four weeks, but sat on this blog post until I had the time to look it over before posting. I know that isn’t saying much but thanks for reading this far! Ah life with full time work and always-on family.

The Traveling Dad

In Career Development, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Tchad on January 2, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I’m off to Chad for about 3 weeks tomorrow.  I’ll cover my thoughts and reactions to my work in Chad in future posts.  But, what I’m in the middle of right now is what a lot of us working parents would call the hardest part – leaving my family for a long business trip.  It sucks, for sure.  The kids start hugging me longer, I have to watch my wife make her logistical arrangements for the evening fitness and yoga classes that I’m usually there to pick up the childcare slack for, and my extended family treats it like a big deal.

When I was a kid, my dad went on trips all the time, at least 3-5 times per year, all over the world.  I missed him, but generally, the time went quickly, we got along well enough and I was interested in hearing about his trips and seeing the pictures of him all over the place.  When I was young, and my dad was about the age I am now, his trips were all to new places he hadn’t been to, so there was this sense of sharing in his adventures.  He would bring me back little tchotchkes and show me some pictures.  I went through a rough time around age eleven, where I was very much afraid of my dad dying on one of his trips.  So the half-dozen trips he went on while I was going through that were especially stressful.  But logic and pragmatism eventually won out.

The thing is, my dad is a scientist and was visiting conferences in Europe, Australia, and Japan.  I’m an international development professional and the places where I have to go are much more dicey, at least to people who may not be as thoroughly informed.  I went to Iraq in late 2009.  I was in Niger last September.   Now I’m going to Chad.  My dad didn’t exactly collect danger pay when he travelled.  This is why I learned to not really worry about him.  He was safer in the air than I was being driven to school.

This leads me to the second hard part about leaving this time  – I’m not only leaving home for a long trip away from my family who are making a show of missing me – but I’m going to a place where I’m really going to have to take care of myself.  In Iraq, I had a personal security detail (PSD) worrying about my security and I was in a secure compound in a walled neighborhood.  In Niger, I had the advantage of my Peace Corps experience, language ability, local knowledge, and friends to not feel stressed about it.

Chad is different – this is all business for me this time.  I’ve got my work cut out for me.  It’s a very challenging environment, even for experienced development professionals.  A former colleague of mine who used to work in Chad was unequivocal – don’t go out alone, in fact don’t go out, unless you’ve got professionally armed accompaniment.  They say by all measures, Chad looks, smells, and feels like any other Sahelian country, of which I’ve now visited seven of them (Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, in case you were wondering) – but Chad is different.

So, as I write this, I’m feeling the gut feelings of a father of two (with another on the way in the Spring) who lost his right to die a long time ago.  I need to make this trip for my NGO, I have no real emotional attachment to Chad (yet) and I’m going there to do a lot of work that I want to prove to my NGO that I can do.  So logically, I know I need to go.  The gut has the excitement of going somewhere new doing battle with the sickening parts thinking about worst case scenarios.  The logic is winning over my gut for sure – Chad is a poor but quiet country – corrupt and hard to govern or manage, but not insanely dangerous or boiling over; I’ll be with my colleagues all the time in controlled situations which I’ll have a hand in planning.

But it still doesn’t make leaving any easier, especially as my younger daughter, having trouble sleeping, feels the urgency of my suitcase at the foot of the bed and hops up to spend the rest of the last night she’s going to spend with me for 18 days.