On Motherhood & Sanity

Thursday, February 17, 2011

So you think you want to be an aid worker?

So here’s my current situation: We are likely to move before the end of the year.

If you’ve been reading for a bit, this will ring a bell. That’s because I said it last year, and then it didn’t happen. I’m not making it up though, we are on “loan” from one post to another, from one organization to another, from one continent to another, which essentially means that every year we count down to November in order to find out if we stay for another year, or if we have to pack our bags and move along.

Unsure of our destiny, the past two years have been a continuous mental exercise of “where should we go next?” Trust me, it is an exhausting exercise.

Satori Worldwide wrote a great post on how to go about making theses calls, and with time we have learned some tools for making these decisions, but the most important thing – for me- is that you have to come to terms with what is really important to you, and be brutally honest about it. You have to go beyond what you think you should want, what you would like to want, or what your ego might want. Then you have to find a compromise between your ideal place and that of your partner, and then pray to god you get a posting that fits at least the most basic criteria from that list.

And with time things get more complicated.

When we first set out we only had to consider if the destination was a place our partner would be able to get a job in: did he speak the local language? Where there many agencies there that might be able to offer him a job? Now we have two kids, so there are a lot more things to consider: what level of insecurity are we willing to expose our kids to? What kind of tropical diseases are we comfortable with? Are there good schools in a mainstream language like English, Spanish or French?

My youngest has asthma. Back in Cambodia every time the poor bugger could not recover from a fit he had to be medically evacuated to Thailand, so what should have been a simple visit to the local hospital turned into a flight to another country with a few nights hospital stay, dropping anything that I might have been doing, and leaving his sister behind. The last time it happened my husband had already moved to the next destination, so I was alone, with two kids, and to make things just a little more interesting, Bangkok airport had been taken by protestors so we could not fly there and had to choose another destination where we did not already know the hospitals and the doctors.

So now to our list of requirements we have to add that the place a) should not have high levels of pollution, and b) has good local healthcare.

I’ve noticed that many people that read aid blogs are somewhat hopeful of joining the ranks. So let me just say this straight: it is fucking hard to balance two careers and a family with a lifestyle that requires constant movement, and where most destinations have some degree of hazard. You should also know that it is those “unsafe places” that I just crossed off my “potential destinations” map where you go to get ahead, to move up the ranks fast, so make sure to pile them in and spend as much time as you can on emergency or hardship duty stations (technically referred to as “shit holes”) before you have a little asthmatic mongrel on tow. The divorce rates are sky high, and the families that are still together fight over the few family duty stations available like our beneficiaries fight over the food we deliver. If you should be so lucky to get one of those postings, then you struggle to get a place for the kids in the (usually) one or maybe even two good international schools available.

So here I am, waiting again, except this waiting and moving game has meant that my 4 year old daughter has already been to five different day cares/ preschools. This is because there is never any planning, and there is never much time to make arrangements, as soon as you are offered a post you are expected to be able and willing to transfer (a family, a life) in one, two month max, so we have never been able to get her into our first choice school on arrival, and had to settle for something else while we waited. It kills me she has paid the price for my choices.

I am adamant that this wont happen again, but given I don’t know when or where we will be moving, it is kind of hard to avoid so, believe it or not, I am currently researching and applying to schools in the most likely destinations, in a sad attempt to ensure she has good schooling organized come September regardless of where we end up.

This is on top of the day job. So add “ample ability to keep a lot of balls in the air” to your list of required skills for working in development.

Have you done this whole school application thing these days? 400 word essays to describe strength, weaknesses and why your child is the right fit for this school; interviews; school evaluations… for a four year old!

I’ve moved country 12 times in my life. 7 of those posting I’ve done together with my husband. My four year old is on her third country. There are a lot of upsides to this lifestyle, and I will write a post on this some other day, but just make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. The logistics are hard.

Just saying.


Steve said...

Great post, and so indicative of the complexities of managing careers, family and transition! It's interesting how priorities change over time, and how choices get reduced to the basic elements of what is really important to the whole family....from the "ideal post" to that which "fits at least the most basic criteria".

It is worth pointing this out to people starting so all eyes are wide open. One of the biggest sources of familial stress in the aid world is one spouse feeling dissatisfied with the professional opportunities available to them, and resentful of being taken to a place where they have limited chance to work.

Good luck striking the balance!


pipbest said...

Really interesting post - not just about aid work but about the challenges we all face in juggling our personal needs/aspirations with those of our children, and searching for an elusive balance between our need to be a mother, a partner, and a human out there in the world.

Anonymous said...

Very good post, I'm always happy when I find aid workers who see the madness of aid work!

I'm a psychologist too, have been an aid worker myself and figured that we as aid workers were in great need of psychological balance and support, rather than the so-called beneficiaries. So this is my focus now.

I moved to wanting to change the world out there to believing (and hopefully acting in the belief) that we need to start from ourselves.

My favourite verses by Rilke to help you strike the balance:

Let Everything Happen To You Beauty and Terror
Just Keep Going
No Feeling Is Final

Good luck!