Updated: Mar 10, 2021
How can growing up as the child of a diplomat affect how our children view themselves and their world?
My wife and I are parents to two children. Our children have lived in four different countries during their lives. I've lived in five countries in my lifetime.
I grew up in a small country town of under 1,000 people in regional Australia. I juxtapose this with the lived experience of our children to date: they've lived in five cities, two of which have over 10 million inhabitants.
The childhood I experienced looks very different to theirs.
Like those of you who are parents, we only ever want the best for our children. We want to give them as many opportunities to learn about the world, to learn about themselves and how they want to contribute to the world.
Also, like many of you who are parents, we have jobs to do. We all balance the many demands on our time and attention, working hard to make sure we are all where we need to be, when we need to be there. Indeed, we all struggle - parents and not - to find the balance every day.
We know the theory, don't we? The theory that we need to be the parents for our children - and everything that role entails. We don't want to get it really wrong, ever. We want to be the best parents we can be. We also want to have a fulfilling career and make our contribution to the world.
And therein lies the rub. Like all other parents, we juggle the sometimes competing demands of our personal and our work lives. Sure, many of our employing agencies have family-friendly policies, but these can be very difficult to implement when we're living and working overseas. Like all families, we have to make it work.
But what can 'making it work' do to our kids as they develop? We worry that we're getting it wrong. We worry that we're not being good enough parents. We just worry.
Once again, we find ourselves engaged in a topic in which there are as many stories and experiences as there are children who have grown up in diplomatic families and households. I want to say two things before we go on:
1. My coach, friend and mentor Mike Campbell often says: 'No one escapes childhood unscathed'. I find this oddly comforting; and
2. We can learn from those who have walked the path before us.
It's on this second point that I introduce Jaqueline Benndorf and her story.
As you'll soon read, Jaqueline grew up in a diplomatic household in Uruguay and became a psychotherapist in New Zealand. She is uniquely positioned to discuss her own experience and what it meant for her as she travels through life. I feel that we can learn from Jaqueline's experience and story.
But enough from me for now. I want you to read Jaqueline's story of her experience, in her words.
As we were getting ready to share an evening meal together with friends, I turned to Phil and said “… you know, one of the things I really enjoy doing in spite of my upbringing? I love eating garlic.” He looked at me slightly puzzled as I continued: “All I heard as a child, teenager and yes, adult, was to never eat garlic because of the bad breath.” Garlic was strictly forbidden in our household because we were the children of a diplomat. We could never ever have bad breath, at least, not garlic breath. "En casa no se come ajo!”
I was 35 years old when I dared greatly and finally ate some garlic. I loved it!
Phil looked at me and said, “what a good title for your story!" So here I am, with this lovely title, writing about my thoughts, memories, beliefs, the wealth and the challenges of my upbringing, a number of years ago, as the daughter of a diplomat.
I was born in Uruguay and my father, first became the Consul of Iceland due to some business deals between Uruguay and Iceland, and then was appointed Consul General for all of Latin America. In fact, he became Iceland’s longest serving diplomat, and for that, he received a medal, that we irreverently called 'The Order of the Chicken.'
Everything about my upbringing (and that of my siblings) was deeply connected with my father’s (and mother’s) role. From a young age, we learned all the things we were, and were not, allowed to do. We were expected to greet all our guests, smile politely and as my father often said, ”Look closely and listen carefully and always say and do the right thing.”
In my mind as a child I found this instruction bewildering as I had no clue what the right thing was. However, I found out without any doubt what the wrong things were. I was a rebellious, cheeky and bright child. Not particularly attractive as my mother and sister were, so I decided to become very smart. I watched all those frequent guests, diplomats, politicians, people of influence closely. I found them fascinating and much later in life, all this observing and instructions from my father came to a good use. More about that later. The reality was that I absolutely disliked having to show up in those frequent parties. I felt embarrassed, and more than once, I did the “wrong” thing, such as speaking my truth when someone asked politely “How are you today?” and I responded: “I am not feeling well, I have a very upset stomach and have to go to the toilet all the time.” It turns out that this is the wrong thing to say! I thought often of different disruptive things (in varying shapes and forms) I could do from time-to-time, as I watched all those “important people” having their cocktails and talking to each other and taking the attention of our parents away from us.
The best one was letting Sandra, my pet sheep, into the large, beautiful, living room during a function. Sandra was an extremely social sheep and jumped on the slippery wooden parquet floor in pure delight with an audience who definitely did not share her happiness. Sandra and I not only disrupted the party by running madly around the guests, but she also left lots of ‘presents’ behind. That was definitely one of the “wrong” things (and a highlight for me) and for that I was obviously punished and to my great relief, freed from further social obligations.
My parents were busy parents, entertaining often, travelling, meeting “important” people, and to be honest, very self-absorbed. We kids were left to grow up in the care of “servants”, (I cringe about that name now, it is so offensive). In fact, a whole family devotedly took care of us for years. Doña Luisa did the ironing, Don Luis, her husband, was our gardener and Cora and Sonia, their daughters, cleaned. And there was also Mabel, not part of that family, our cook and the different nannies.
I was useless at anything practical, like tidying my bedroom, putting my washing in a basket because everything was done for me. Me and my siblings were charming, we knew how to hold interesting conversations, and despite our young age, we were prepared to engage with anyone from any walk of life in several languages. For that, I will always be grateful. I became so skillful at that, that today I can even engage a lamp post (well, not really, but it feels like that).
We spoke Spanish in our house, and we were taught German, French and English. We were taken to concerts of the local symphony orchestra, I learned how to play the piano and sing, how to eat properly with all the different forks and knives in front of me, we travelled. Looking back, I was being groomed to marry another diplomat.
However, the constant pressure of doing ‘the right thing’ in my case meant, I often did exactly the opposite. As a teenager I did not do drugs, but coming from a wealthy part of society I did not behave appropriately for the time. I walked barefoot everywhere to the embarrassment of my parents. I dressed like a hippie. I did not conform, and to the dismay of my parents, not only did I not marry a diplomat but in fact I married a Kiwi [a New Zealander] who lived in a house truck, whom I met while travelling in NZ, but that is another (interesting) story.
Do you remember the part where I wrote about my ability to observe people following the instructions of my father of always watching, anticipating, being interested in, and working out what people would like to hear? Well, all of that meant an obvious path for me. I first studied sociology, because I was fascinated and cared about people. It was a challenge because my father told me that I should be a secretary, and that after I married, I would not need to work. Now you can see how this would go down with a rebellious young woman! Not only did I study sociology but later I became a psychotherapist. All the listening, observing, assessing, noticing really helped me. I became a good psychotherapist and an artist and have never since childhood conformed to the expectations of my upbringing.
Reflecting on this now, I will always be grateful for being raised in the way I was as it brought such wealth of experiences into my life and allowed me to go in exactly the opposite direction. Had I not been brought up this way, would I have taken all the paths which I took? I guess I will never know, I just wonder. So how can I not be grateful?
Not long before my father died, he apologised to us children, regretting the childhood that we had had, with mostly present/absent parents. I wrote back thanking him for all the gifts. The culture, the languages, the exposure to different worlds, the diplomacy, the depth of understanding of others and thanking him for acknowledging that the way my parents chose to live their lives, had a profound effect on us children.
As I am writing this I have this irritating tune in my mind… “Do the right thing, do the right thiiiiiiiing, do it all the tiiiiime, do it all the time.” I wish I could sing it to you. That is one of the legacies of my upbringing. “Do the right thing” and “Do it all the time”. Can you see the predicament that such a behaviour can invite into your life? Is it a curse or a blessing? I let you decide! I know what I think. It is a mixture of both.
Growing up the daughter of a diplomat has certainly been challenging, and has been rich, beautiful, interesting, and has shaped me into to the woman that I am, and I really like who I am. Thank you for reading this.
I wish to publicly thank Jaqueline for her bravery in sharing her words, thoughts and experiences and what they've meant for her throughout her life with us. I know that her words will reach a great number of readers and given them pause for thought - and a little laugh at the story about Sandra!
Jacqueline: I honour the special kind of bravery you have shown in sharing your wisdom and lived experience with the world. Please be assured that I shall not think of garlic without thinking of you!
Thank you, most sincerely.
If you're like me, you may already worry about how diplomacy and being a diplomat affects those around us. This is a concept that's been explored in 'Love and Diplomacy' and 'Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite!' and will be explored further in the future.
When it comes to parenting advice, there is no shortage of advice for parents about how to raise children. Sometimes, it feels that some of the advice is contradictory and is simply aimed at making parents feel bad or starting a round of competitive parenting. I'm not in for that. I'm confident that you're doing the best for your child and children that you can within your circumstances, just like me.
Rather than shame you or send you on a guilt trip, I want us to use Jaqueline's story and her insight - especially her father's letter to Jaqueline and her siblings - to reflect on how we and all those with us cope with the diplomatic life. How do you ensure that your children feel seen, loved and that they belong? How do you balance the needs of your job with those of being a parent? I feel that some kind and honest conversations around your dinner table may be needed this week.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, resilience, loneliness and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above 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.