I drafted, but did not send, the following letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last summer:
Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to live and work overseas, and that I wanted to serve my country. The Foreign Service, which seems like an obvious choice for someone with those goals, was a dream so big that I dared not dream it. I eavesdropped intently while college classmates asked our political science professors about the Foreign Service exam, heard the stories of those who tried (and failed) to pass it, and believed that I wouldn’t make it – so, for years, I didn’t even try. I joined corporate America, then the Peace Corps, went back to school for my Masters, spent a few years at a non-profit… good work, interesting work, but not quite the same as what I’d dreamed of. I finally worked up the nerve to take the written test, but was overtaken by jitters the morning of the examination, turned off the alarm, and went back to sleep instead of going to the test. A year later, I signed up, showed up, and passed the written exam. When the examiners at the oral assessment informed me that I had passed, I burst into tears and asked if I could hug them. To say that service in the diplomatic corps was my dream job is a huge understatement.
This is not to say that my work as a Foreign Service Officer has been easy. My first assignment – and first-choice assignment – was Sana’a, Yemen, as the Cultural Attaché. Because of credible information about active threats against the Embassy and its staff, we were on various degrees of lockdown or restricted travel more times than I can remember. For a period, even seemingly simple tasks like grocery shopping could only be done at certain times of day, at a rotating list of out-of-the-way stores, with permission from the Regional Security Officer. My husband explained our lockdown days – where we weren’t even permitted to leave the house in order to go to work – to family and friends back home: “It’s like a snow day… except the snow is trying to kill you.”
Despite the security environment, in my work as a public diplomacy officer, I needed to be out of the Embassy, meeting people, talking about U.S. culture, and promoting the educational and cultural opportunities that we could offer to Yemenis, like the Fulbright, International Visitors, and the Youth Exchange and Study programs. Lists of programs sound boring, don’t they? What those programs meant to the people I met was that Yemeni kids, who had never left their own city, much less their country or region, could have a chance to come to the United States to study. Men and women whose impressions of Americans were formed solely on the basis of what their mosques told them (yikes!) or the television shows and movies that we export (double yikes!) could come and see for themselves who we are, how we live, and what we stand for. One of my favorite parts of that job was debriefing program participants after they returned from the U.S. I loved the college student who told me that her summer-long trip to the American West had opened her mind to possibilities heretofore unconsidered, and turned her into a traveler. “I want to see the world! I want to go to Paris! To London! To Montana!” Participants on a six-week exchange program that examined the U.S. justice system came back to Yemen, wide-eyed, with tales of jails that they were actually permitted to see (with humane living conditions), honest question-and-answer sessions with law enforcement officials, and – this really blew their minds – non-lethal weapons carried by police officers. “Beanbags! They have guns that shoot beanbags!” Yes. Yes, they do. (It’s amazing what you can learn to appreciate about your own country when you have the chance to see it through someone else’s eyes.) Thanks to my job, I got to meet the brightest, the most inspiring, and the most fascinating people I could imagine, from a (then-future) Nobel Peace Prize recipient to families who scraped together their meager funds to send their son or daughter to English classes after school, in the hopes of giving their children a better life than they had. During my time in Yemen, I was spit at and grabbed in the street. I was called a sister and a friend. I was referred to in graphic sexual terms I hope my children never have to hear. I got to change lives, and found that mine was changed in the process. My time there was eye opening, sometimes terrifying, and, on the whole… awesome.
I mistakenly thought that my next assignment, working as a Vice Consul in Embassy London, would be a cakewalk. In many ways, it was – my husband, baby son (born in the U.S. after we returned from Yemen) and I lived in a gorgeous neighborhood in central London. My husband stayed home with our son and explored the city with him. I walked to work every day, felt safe and unthreatened, and relaxed in the evenings and on weekends with my family in beautiful parks and fantastic restaurants. The work itself, however, was anything but easy, with a heavy workload, diverse cases, and no room for error.
I had the chance to meet approximately 125 people every day, each of whom just wanted to come to the United States, for every reason I could have imagined (and many that I couldn’t have). One hundred and twenty five yes-or-no decisions, spread out over one work day, meant very fast decisions on what were sometimes extremely complex cases. Elderly British snowbirds who wanted to spend a few more months in their condo in Florida, starry-eyed couples in love who wanted to get married and start a life together, students, nannies, reporters, engineers, Disney-goers, actors, businesspeople – all looking for a visa, a chance, a foot in the door. I met good people with stories so sad I’d cry at night because there was nothing I could legally do to help them. I still remember their names, their faces, their histories. I wonder where they are now, and what they’re doing. I met conniving liars with pasts so dark I’d pray our paths would never cross again, and, because of the way our laws are written, I’d have to say, through gritted teeth, “your visa has been approved.” There were days I skipped lunch because my stomach was too unsettled. I learned, for the first time in my life, how to say “no.” How to not just say it, but to say it decisively, firmly, and in a polite manner that welcomed no response other than “Thank you for your time, ma’am.” (My children, I’m sure, regret that I learned this lesson, but for the rest of my life, I’ll be grateful.)
Within a few weeks of our arrival in London, my husband returned to the U.S. to start his new job, also with the State Department. Our son and I stayed, and my mother and mother-in-law took turns flying to England to live with me for six weeks at a time to watch our son during the day while I worked (because we couldn’t begin to afford the childcare there, and frankly, I loved knowing he was still being cared for by family). After an early miscarriage and finding out that my husband would be assigned to the U.S. for at least two years, I asked to curtail my assignment in London and return home. We’d had all of the family separation that we could handle at that point, and I needed time to recover, see my husband, and cocoon with my son. I requested, and was granted, a year of leave from the State Department.
Believe me when I tell you that I never thought that staying home with a child would be of interest to me. I was not a little girl who wanted to play house, who longed to be a mommy, who dreamed of changing diapers. I always believed that motherhood was in my future, but I had other things I wanted to do first, and so, I did. Despite marrying young and knowing that we wanted children together, my husband and I waited eight years before trying for our first child. I have always loved working, and have found a strong sense of pride and identity in my work – never more so than during my time as a Foreign Service Officer. Upon joining State, I believed that, if the powers that be would have me, I would keep this job until age requirements forced me to retire. What more could I ever hope for in a career, in a life? It never occurred to me that becoming a parent would change the way I felt about work. My own mother worked when my sister and I were growing up, and I always assumed that I would do as she did. She, like I, took pride in her academic and professional accomplishments. She, like I, defined herself as more than a mother. Why on earth would having a child mean that I would no longer work outside the home, at a job that I loved and was good at?
And yet, upon leaving London, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to be at home with our son – at least for a while. If I hated it, I told myself, I could always come back to work before my year of leave was finished. And, in the blink of an eye, it was finished… and I was giving birth to our daughter. Perhaps another year off would be enough. That way, I’d have the chance to spend time with our daughter, just as I had with our son. It seemed only fair to her, and I just wasn’t ready to go back to work yet. I asked for, and was generously given, another year of leave.
After all the time I’ve now taken off, I’ve learned, to my surprise, that I really love being at home with my children. There is nowhere else I want to be at this point in my life, and nothing else I want to do for now. It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that last sentence without wincing. I’ve overcome the fears that asked “What would my college classmates say if they found out I’m now a stay-at-home mom?” and “Does this mean my education was all for nothing?” and “Dear Lord, will this child ever sleep through the night?” (The answers to my fears, in order, are: Who cares; absolutely not; and, at 3.5 years old, not yet.) I’ve learned to silence the voices of my critics, real and imaginary, which say things like, “I could never stay at home. I’d be so bored.” “How will they ever learn independence if you’re there all the time?” and “What about your future?”
Would my children be happy, healthy, and well adjusted if they were in full-time childcare instead of at home with me? I have no reason to assume that they wouldn’t be, and feel no motivation to find out. I am emotionally, socially, and intellectually challenged by the daily act of living with my children. I love discovering the world through their eyes. I love being the one to see and experience their developmental milestones as they happen, rather than hear about them from someone else – first words spoken, first steps, first skinned knees. I love seeing them develop a spark of interest in something – construction equipment, sea life, the solar system – and exploring that topic with them to the nth degree. I try to get them outside in the fresh air and filthy dirty from play once a day. I try to see things from their perspective. I try to listen more and yell less. (I fail. I try again.). Because I have been at home with them full-time, my children know how to vacuum and mop, what groceries we need to get through the week, and how to make a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar. We go to the Air and Space and Natural History museums so frequently that my children believe that the Smithsonians are theirs alone, and they visit their favorite exhibits like they’re visiting old friends. The three of us are thriving. (Things are not all sunshine and roses, of course. I put my head down on the breakfast table this morning and cried with frustration at my son’s behavior. To be fair, I put my head down and cried with frustration while working at State, too – several times.)
With our third child now on the way, I know that another year of leave will not be sufficient for me. My husband is out of the country more frequently than he’s in it these days, and even when he’s home, he’s working long hours and rotating shifts. Given his schedule, and the knowledge that we will hopefully be moving overseas again (and again, and again) within the next few years, I believe that our children benefit from the stability, the predictability, and the comfort of having a parent at home with them full-time, and I am thrilled to be that parent. It won’t be like this forever, I know. As our children get older, their needs – and mine – will shift and evolve. I will be needed by them, not less, but differently. Gradually, my time will become my own again, and the day will come when I feel ready to reenter the workforce. I know that I will have (and have already) given up years of regular earnings, retirement savings, and promotions. I’m comfortable with my choice.
Anna Quindlen wrote, “When in doubt, choose the kids. There will be plenty of time later to choose the work.” I hope she’s right. I can’t imagine any parent not having doubts about their work/life balance choices at some point. We each choose the path that we believe to be best for ourselves and our families, cross our fingers, and hope for the best. Every family, every parent, every child has different needs and different desires. What is right for my family is not right for all families – but I’m not worried about all families. I need to do right by mine. I already feel a pang of envy when I see my State Department colleagues posting on Facebook about their new assignments, the honors they’ve received, the work that they’re doing. Someday, the scales will tip, and the feeling of wanting to be a part of that world again will overtake the feeling of wanting to be at home. I hope that there will still be a place in the Foreign Service for me when that day comes, although I know that there may very well not be. Regardless of what the next chapters of my life have in store for me, I cannot imagine looking back at the years of my life that I spent at home with the children with anything less than gratitude.
I think that part of me will always worry that I’ve sold feminism out, that I didn’t do enough for myself, that I didn’t do enough for my family, that I’ve not been the role model to my children that I could have been. What lessons am I teaching them by resigning in order to stay at home? Will this decision impact the way they view the role of women in the workplace? If I chose to remain at work, I’d have a different list of worries, but a list nonetheless. These aren’t easy decisions that families face.
And so, Madam Secretary, with hope that my decision is the right one for my family and me, I respectfully submit my resignation from the Foreign Service. My work with the State Department has been an honor beyond description. Raising my children full-time is, as well.
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I did send this one, though:
I wish to submit my resignation from my appointment as a Public Diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service.
I am half of a tandem State Department couple, and, given the schedule, pace, and travel required of my husband’s and my work, I believe that it is in the best interest of my family that I now resign in order to be at home with our young children.
My six years of service with the State Department have been an honor, challenge, and privilege. I could ask for nothing more in a career than the opportunity to serve and represent the United States overseas, and will be forever grateful that I had the chance to do so.
(Oddly enough, the second letter took longer to write.)