Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite!
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Let's have a conversation about what it's
really like to be a diplomatic spouse.
In 'Love and Diplomacy', I started a conversation about how we diplomats, our significant others and our families balance this all-consuming job and our wish to be human and have human connections.
This post continues this conversation. This time, it's from a perspective of a diplomatic spouse.
Where to start? There are as many stories about what it's like to be a diplomatic spouse as there have been diplomatic spouses.
So I asked Georgie, a dear and long-time friend (I'd never want to call her an old friend), to share her experiences of being a diplomatic spouse with you. You're about to read what she's written. If you're a diplomatic spouse (like me right now), I feel that you'll see some of yourself in her words. If you're not, you'll soon get a very clear idea of what it can be like.
If you don't know Georgie, you certainly know the type of person she is. Everyone needs a Georgie in their lives to call them forward when they're not living up to their potential. Every diplomatic mission either needs, or has, a Georgie in their community - be they a posted diplomat or a spouse. The Georgies of the world - and this Georgie, in particular - are those who muck in, do what needs doing and make sure that everyone is well looked after. Diplomatic missions run on the - often unpaid - goodwill of diplomatic spouses who do what needs to be done to get it done.
As for Georgie, her story is similar to mine: she was born and raised in a small country town, earned herself a great degree at a great university, met someone and had to decide if the relationship was worth the commitment that came with an overseas posting.
This is Georgie's story. In Georgie's words. I'll say this: We need to look after all of the Georgies in our lives.
That's enough from me. Let's read.
Call me a trailing spouse and I will politely put you in a headlock and rearrange your pretty diplomat face to the point that you’ll need your fingerprints to prove who you are when you present your credentials.
I haven’t trailed anyone. I’ve been beside. I have been an equal partner in an adventure on a global scale. For those of us who’ve put our personal ambitions aside for the greater good of the diplomat in the family, or done the rotational ‘your post, then my post, then your post, then my post’ like my boy, The Lonely Diplomat, and his brilliant diplomat partner, this diplomat spouse gig isn’t without its challenges, its pitfalls, its moments of extreme grace, of unparalleled joy, hope and despair.
I’ve seen, heard and done things I’ve never imagined in my wildest dreams, all because I said yes to a diplomat. Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our careers and hope of advancement, occasionally our friendships, our sense of self, our sense of home, and our family relationships and, and….
we do it because we love it. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the bigger picture.
Ah, the bigger picture. We’ve made an active decision to put our career ambitions, our needs, and potentially those of our family second to those of the country that has asked us to go half way around the world, so your spouse can do their thing working on behalf of your government – whatever that is. We’re doing something for the greater good of our country. We’re letting go of everything we know to be true, and what makes us comfortable and safe, to step into the unknown.
I never thought I’d put myself second to my country, but I did, four times on four different continents. And yes, it was a conscious decision, and he applied for these jobs with my support, and we agreed to take them, and we knew what was involved. Each posting was not without consequences, and man, can they be huge. For me, a stalled career, a hit to the pocket (I’ve missed a decent amount of superannuation contributions [retirement savings in Australia] not being in full-time paid employment), dislocation from family and friends, being far from home when the shit hit the fan. I missed births, deaths, marriages, graduations, anniversaries and other life milestones. I agreed to move to a country with internal security issues, or horrible weather (-30c in winter anyone?), or bad pollution, or high levels of crime. I don’t regret it for a second.
It takes a lot of grace to put others before yourself, and it’s not for everyone. Self-absorbed wankers need not apply.
A stalled career is the albatross around the neck of the diplomatic spouse, and for any spouse or partner that chooses to love anyone that works away from their home country. I’m one of the lucky ones. As an employee of the Australian Government I was eligible for leave without pay, meaning that I could take leave to cover the period I was on posting, and slide back into a job when I returned to Australia. I’ve taken four large chunks of leave from 1994 to 2017.
Other colleagues haven’t been so lucky. Private sector friends had to quit their jobs, with zero guarantee of a job being available when they returned. Professional friends – doctors, lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, nurses among them – often had to put their careers on hold because they were unable to get the necessary clearances or qualifications to ply their skills in the country they were posted to. Three to four years out of a profession can be highly detrimental to advancement or keeping your skills current, but many people I’ve known have taken the plunge regardless. Their time has been filled volunteer work, further study, or just taking time out (I’ve done all three at various times).
This, my friends, is commitment. Real commitment. While there was no financial compensation, you’re paid in kind with a lifetime of experiences and memories. But as I recall saying to someone many years ago when I was living in a first world country with an appalling exchange rate and no allowances because the standard of living was the same as Australia, and I couldn’t find a job, memories don’t pay the bills. This leads me to something very near and dear to my heart – having your spouse skills recognised (and appreciated) in your workplace when you get home, or not, which is often the case. Let me step out for a second to talk about this.
Many years ago, I didn’t get an interview for a job I was highly qualified for (both in formal qualification and experience) because ‘I hadn’t done enough time behind a desk in Canberra’. Legitimately. Cue the mouth drop - not only that that could be a considered thought, but that is what was articulated to me. Being a spouse of a diplomat teaches you an abundance of skills that any boss worth their salt would embrace with a bear hug – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, patience, cross cultural communication, working in a team, working by yourself, tact, judgement, liaison, networking, dispute resolution (clients, colleagues and cantankerous toddlers who throw tantrums in the middle of official functions because you’re not paying attention to them – a lot like the workplace at times), canapé making and cranking out dinners for 12 with a few hours’ notice.
I’d like to hope that this perspective has changed, largely due to changes in the way we work (thank you internet), and the global nature of the way we live, but I wasted a lot of time worrying and explaining how my experiences, both personal and professional, made me exceptionally employable.
When I was overseas I became a ‘Yes Gal,’ taking pretty much any form of paid work I could find. I also did a lot of volunteer work that nourished my soul and put my skills to good use for a good cause, but a small amount of money here and there made a lot of difference to the family bank balance. A lot of my work around the world has parlayed into a series of work experiences (that’s another story in itself) that have led me to a current job that actually uses my lifetime of skills, experience and academic qualifications in event management. It took just over 20 years, but I got there in the end.
Here’s a quick rundown of the gainful employment I found taking the ‘Yes Gal’ approach. I have, at various times:
looked after Royal Australian Navy ships:
managed Defence personnel,
was a passport officer,
had a baby,
audited client files,
got a formal event management qualification (and interned with the Canadian Governor General. A fairly mind-blowing experience),
was an event management consultant,
was backstage staff at the Ottawa Tulip Festival,
did business planning,
was a learning and development officer,
was a visit liaison officer,
managed a ministerial office,
managed a scholarship fund, and
did logistics logistics for a royal visit.
I can’t complain.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? And yes, it was. I’ve done some amazing things and worked with some incredible people. But I’ve also been victim of perception.
Perception is a concept that I have lived with my whole life. A life lived in a context only me, and those who’ve done the diplomat thing, can only really understand. The Lonely Diplomat talks about this a lot, and his website (the one you’re on right now) is a place where diplomats can go to share their experiences, often at the mid point of their career (or me, who’s now finished their career, but can share some of her experiences to make the path a little easier for those who come after me), but that some others have construed in a less than flattering light. You’ve heard all the stories – the cocktail swilling, private school educated, plum-nosed diplomat who spends all their time at fancy parties drinking too much, making too much money, swanning around the world, and generally being a tool.
Whatever the perception, we know that it’s just not true.
You give up anonymity when you’re a diplomat at post. Living your life is a real challenge, and something you don’t realise will happen when you’re sitting around with travel guides, or googling supermarkets in your new city (the internet is truly life changing for those living overseas. I faxed photos of my firstborn from Hong Kong in 1995. Now you can make free phone calls on a phone the size of your hand that has more computing power than all of NASA had during the days of the Apollo program).
Like The Lonely Diplomat wrote in his post on being ‘on’, you are on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everyone knows you’re a diplomat, especially if you’re in a non-English speaking country. All you have to do is get out of your car with the diplomatic plates on it and open your mouth. Hell, open your mouth anywhere and you’re betrayed by the accent, because people will always ask you ‘and what are you doing here?’ When you say ‘Embassy’, the judgment is more or less automatic, even for spouses. You are judged on how you look, what you wear, and how you act, all because you’re a ‘diplomat,’ with all the labels and myths attached to that perception (there’s that word again – perception). Normal human decency usually applies, such as treating others you way you’d expect to be treated, but sometimes I felt held to a higher standard, purely because of the employment of my spouse.
If you want to build character, have a diplomat working in visa world during the handover in Hong Kong, and get used to being crash tackled out of conversations (I’m completely serious – physically pushed aside almost to the point of falling over) when overzealous locals thought a quick conversation would guarantee a visa.
I’ve also spent years being challenged on my Government’s less palatable policies or asked endless questions that required a personal opinion. That’s just a no-no. Giving your personal opinion opens a pandora’s box with the potential of being quoted as a representative of the Australian government, and that’s bad.
The challenge of being a diplomatic spouse is one that I embraced wholeheartedly. I gave up a lot for the diplomat I loved. At the time a career wasn’t high on my priorities. Rather, I was attracted by the promise and the attraction of a life lived globally. I look back and think ‘yep, I could have climbed the ladder and been more senior, but I’d probably have been in Canberra all this time’. In itself, this isn’t a bad thing - far from it. I wanted more, and I was lucky to have met the person I did at the time I did.
My life as a spouse changed me in the most profound way, and one that I didn’t appreciate until I hit 50 last year - I found myself. All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost. I worked out what I wanted from life, and what was important to me. I was 26 years old when I started postings and 48 when they ended. That’s a whole lifetime when you look at it. And the world has changed so profoundly that I changed along with it. I was a different person when the circus started, and I’m entirely a different person some 22 years later. My life is taking a different path now. While I have time left, I want a career. I want to put myself first. I treasure the memories, the people I’ve met, the life I’ve lived. I regret the friendships I’ve lost, the milestones I’ve missed, the relationships that have fractured, including my marriage.
Seeing the world expand beyond my front door when I said yes to a diplomat taught me who I was, what I am, and what I can be. For me it’s been the greatest journey of my life – to myself and who I am.
I still have a long way to go.
I want to thank Georgie, publicly and most sincerely for her candour, grace, humour and honesty in this post.
It is never easy putting oneself and our personal stories into the world, especially on such a private topic. It takes a rare bravery.
Georgie, I admire you. I recognise your bravery.
I now invite all of you, especially diplomats and their significant others, to make time to talk about how they're going as a couple.
Life happens. We can get caught up with the busyness of work, kids and life and forget about the most important person in our lives (beyond ourselves): our partners.
We'll be returning to Love and Diplomacy and doing more kind and honest conversations.
We are going to have another conversation with those we love at home about this diplomatic lifestyle: the good, the bad and the ugly.
So if you are – or will be – accompanied on your posting, put the kettle on or pour a glass of something nice and then talk openly and honestly with those around you. What do you love about what you're doing? What do you miss? What frustrates you? What can be done about it?
If you’re unaccompanied, have that some conversation with yourself. Truly. If that’s a bit weird, call someone who you know will listen with empathy.
Then, have that conversation with colleagues at the office. Appropriately, of course.
In all cases, speak honestly and kindly and listen with empathy. There is no conversation that cannot be made better than with an abundance of kindness and honesty.
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I've written a book on how living the highs and lows of this amazing diplomatic life can affect us and our mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Let my book serve, support, challenge and inspire you as you reflect on how you're living your diplomatic life (or if it's living you).
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the author's and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.