We’re a Foreign Service family. My husband works for the U.S. Department of State, and we move across the globe every two to three years for his job. We’ve spent most of our parenting lives overseas, trying to adapt our parenting styles to local customs while still keeping our kids grounded in what it means to be American.
Our parenting style is influenced by our nomadic lifestyle and our service to our country. Here’s what I’ve learned about parenting from life on the move.
Get Off Your Pedestal: My U.S.-based friends seem to be Authority Figure No. 1 for their kids. Mom and dad always have the answers. Not so for us diplomats. I showed up in China with not one word of Chinese; my kids watched me veer between embarrassment, anger, confusion and downright fear as I tried to find a grocery store and procure dinner that first day. They spent the next three years watching in amusement my attempts to speak Chinese, drive without a GPS or even just park a big American minivan in a tiny Chinese parking lot. As a diplomat, you have to accept the fact that you’ll look like a fool in front of your kids on a regular basis. Your children will know you seldom have the right answers. I’m hoping that watching me struggle will teach them that it’s O.K. not to have all the answers in life— it’s the willingness to search for answers that counts.
Sometimes You Just Have to Fly Solo: When my husband was given a year-long assignment in Iraq, I stayed in Jordan with the four kids and unplugged the TV; I had no desire to track the daily explosions over there while I was simultaneously trying to work full-time, cook dinner, and help the kids with their homework.
Foreign Service personnel deploy alongside the military, tackling similar problems from different angles, leaving their families behind. You can’t get promoted unless you’ve done your fair share of hardship posts, danger posts and unaccompanied posts, so almost all of us have spent time apart, worried sick about spouses in faraway hot spots while trying to be positive and even upbeat in front of the children, who don’t need to take on our stress.
When our friends in the States complain because their spouses had to go away on business trip for a night or two, we try to be sympathetic, really we do. But we’ve spent so many days, weeks and months apart as a family that a week-long business trip means nothing more than a few cheat meals, like pancakes for dinner, and less laundry to do. It’s like a mini-vacation.
Rethink Your Cultural Stereotypes: I couldn’t find a place to park on a busy street in Amman, Jordan. But I’d promised the kids falafel sandwiches for dinner. I screeched to a halt in front of the café, turned to my 5th grader in the front seat and commanded, “Jump out. Run in. Tell them we need six sandwiches. I’ll drive around and come back for you.” “Do they speak any English?” he asked dubiously. “None,” I said, as the horns behind us began to blare. “GO! You’ll be fine!” And I drove off, leaving my child on a street corner in the middle of the Middle East.
That scenario sounds implausible to my friends back home. “You left your son where?” they ask, envisioning terrorists and refugees and war. Meanwhile, I’m more worried about returning to the States when I have to send them alone to school, or a movie theater. “You let your kids go where?” I ask my friends, envisioning gun-toting crazy people on every corner.
Expect a Different Response to Danger: Of course, it isn’t always safe overseas, and as diplomat parents, we have to prepare our children for the worst possible scenarios, teaching them how to use the emergency radio and what to do when the duck and cover alarm sounds.
Just a few months ago, an intruder made it over the walls of the Embassy compound where we live. The whole Embassy went into lockdown mode while the Marines and security personnel— including my husband—tracked him down. One of my daughters was terrified at the thought of her dad out there, battling a bad guy, while she stayed inside with the blinds drawn and the doors barred. My eldest son just rolled his eyes at the sound of the alarm. “Again?” he sighed. “I guess dad’s not going to be able to help me with homework tonight.”
Be Ready For Extreme Contrasts in Wealth: We’re government workers, neither rich nor poor. But we tend to move in wealthy circles. Our kids attend private international schools with children of our host country’s elite families. This leads to some uncomfortable discussions at home. “No, we won’t be jetting to Cyprus for the weekend.” “No, we won’t be giving iPhones to other classmates.” “I’m not sure why Natasha has an armed bodyguard and I’m not going to ask.”
What they see at school leads my kids to question whether we’re poor. Yet at the same time, they think back to our weekend bike rides through the hutongs (alleys) of Beijing, which made them feel incredibly wealthy. They remember the refugee boys searching for food in a garbage can in Jordan, and they know they should be grateful for what they have. “Average wealth” is hard to explain.
Act Like You’re in Small-Town America: Most international posts aren’t big. A mid-sized post might have 50 employees and their families, while small posts can hold just a handful of families. Many of the spouses— the moms, usually— don’t work, because there are few jobs to be had at post. It feels a little bit 1950s; everybody knows everybody else in our small communities.
Rumors spread, small barbs leave permanent scars. If your child does something stupid, your boss will know about it by lunch time. When your teenager starts dating another teenager at post, you cross your fingers that you won’t lose a friend when the kids break up. On the other hand, it sure is nice when a neighbor shows up with a plate of cookies because she heard you were having a bad day.
Rethink Your Parenting Safety Standards: When you’re driving around town in a standing-room-only bus with gas canisters strapped to the top, a little thing like lack of seatbelts won’t bother you. And if you refuse to buy food from the toothless man who cooks jianbing on a greasy wok strapped to his bicycle by the side of the road in China, well, your kids aren’t as likely to get food poisoning, but jianbing are delicious, and well worth the risk. That uncovered pool in the playground at my son’s Kazakh preschool? He needed a school, and they weren’t about to get rid of that pool because of my American safety standards.
Diplomats all know someone who has died in a horrific accident overseas, but we learn to carefully evaluate the risk-reward curve–after all, the more risks we take as a family, the bigger the adventures we’re going to have. But when we’re stationed in countries that lack quality medical care, we need to look before we leap. Risk. Reward. It’s a delicate balance.
Be Both Emotional Glue and Adhesive Remover: You help your children make friends those first few days at post, holding them close when they cry about missing their old home. Two years later, you wipe away their tears once more when it’s time to move on, again. It’s emotionally exhausting, for us and them. Every time we diplomat parents go through it, we wonder: is it worth it? We give our children so much, expose them to so many new languages and cultures and ideas, but at the same time, we steal from them. We steal their friendships and their grandparents and their roots.
Sometimes this leads to anxiety, loneliness and depression–for both parents and children. More often, though, it brings us closer together as a family. Every time we move, we’re a blank slate, and we have only each other to hold on to. Well, that and the contents of our suitcases. As a result, the bonds that bring us together as a family are virtually unbreakable. We bend in the craziest of ways, we diplomats, as we struggle to keep our families intact. But you’ll rarely see us break.
Donna Scaramastra Gorman is the author of Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse. She, her husband and their four kids have been posted in Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Jordan and the U.S. They are currently living in Moscow.