As single parents become a significant demographic in the U.S., it is not surprising that their number is rising in the Foreign Service.
BY TAMARA SHIE
As I prepared to head out to one of my early overseas assignments, I received a puzzling email. It concerned a housing issue at my upcoming post. I read it over several times, not quite believing I had read it correctly: “We are sorry about this, but there is no way we could have anticipated this. We have never had this kind of situation.”
What was the situation? That I am a single parent.
In 2011 I joined the Foreign Service as a political officer and a pregnant, soon-to-be single parent. I certainly did not anticipate being both a single parent and a diplomat would be easy, and here I was taking on both at the same time; but it has been both more rewarding than I could ever have predicted and, at times, quite a bit stranger.
When I joined, I did not know of any other single parent serving, so in 2015 when I met a single mother specialist online we formed Single Parents in the Foreign Service (SPiFS), an affinity and support group on Facebook for single parents serving in any of the foreign affairs agencies—including the State Department Foreign Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Commerce Department’s Foreign Commercial Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service—and professionals in regular overseas positions with the Peace Corps and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
One of the biggest challenges for SPiFS is that we do not fit into the usual categories at the embassy or consulate and can sometimes feel excluded: we are not singles without kids, we are not married without kids, we are not married with kids. Single parents have the same sort of interests as anyone, be it hiking or wine bars or book clubs; still, sometimes embassy communities do not quite know how to include us. Though we come to single parenthood in a variety of ways—by choice or adoption, or through divorce or death—stereotypes of single parents persist, and negative characterizations may extend to our children.
I also found that single officers who were raised by single parents were among my greatest champions.
As both single officers and parents, we often straddle the line between the two. We understand our single colleagues’ frustrations with managing the logistics of a packout solo or meeting facilities at our home during the workday. We appreciate the struggles of tandem parents trying to arrive in a new country, start their respective jobs, and manage the hiring of childcare and/or registering kids for school.
Over the course of my time with the State Department, I have had some surprising reactions to my serving as a single parent officer from both within the department and from locals where I have served. An instructor teaching my basic consular course made a joking but derogatory reference to children of unwed mothers acquiring citizenship. At a Fourth of July fair in Shanghai, a Chinese woman with tears in her eyes pressed a free mug into my hands when she learned I was an unmarried mother.
On another occasion, a med unit emailed me about a surprise-to-me medevac, asking if I would like to depart in one day or three; but when I asked about my toddler accompanying me, the individual responded: “It would be best if she stayed here”—“here” being another country five hours away by plane from the medevac point. My question: “Best” for whom?
So, what attracts single parents to the Foreign Service?
In most instances, the reasons are the same as for everyone: to serve our country, make a difference, and spend time overseas. Additionally, single parents report affordable childcare, community support, educational support, and opportunities to expose their children to different countries and cultures as significant advantages to the lifestyle. When I asked some fellow single parents to give me the highlights of single parenting in the Service, here is some of what they said:
“The amazing cultural and educational opportunities for my kids ...”
“The Foreign Service has given me the opportunity to bring my girls all over the world, introducing them to all sorts of cultures where women have large roles.”
There are nearly 11 million single parents in the United States raising nearly a quarter of our country’s children.
“[My] biggest surprise was how supportive my little communities are (other friends, male and female and parents—mothers and fathers—single and otherwise) to help me fill in the gaps.”
“As a family we are extraordinarily lucky, blessed beyond words, because I have her, she has me, and we live a very diverse, culturally rich, and extremely privileged life.”
“Even if I leave before mandatory retirement age, I will not regret the career choice and tours I’ve had because they’ve all shaped me personally and helped all of us grow as citizens of a fascinating world.”
I, too, have had some great experiences. Allies, in the form of supportive colleagues at my posts, have made good tours into better ones. Though many were parents themselves, I also found that single officers who were raised by single parents were among my greatest champions. In China, where single mothers are often ostracized, I found unexpected connections with Chinese women looking to have children on their own. In Malawi, where single moms are far more common, my similar parental status helped me to relate with Malawian women in many circumstances, especially other public servants.
When my colleague and I started the SPiFS Facebook group in 2015, we began with five members. Today we have more than 250. Although I know of no official statistics, single-parent families are still underrepresented in the Foreign Service. Yet single parents are a major U.S. demographic: According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Press Release Number CB22-TPS.99 of Nov. 17, 2022, there are nearly 11 million single parents in the United States raising nearly a quarter of our country’s children. This is more than in any other country, according to the Pew Research Center. It should then come as no surprise that single parents are joining and remaining in the Foreign Service in growing numbers, and a department that seeks to build a diplomatic workforce that reflects America’s diversity should become increasingly inclusive of single parents.
Recently, the State Department has made some significant strides in incorporating measures that improve the lives of SPiFS. The department’s Employee Consultation Services currently offers a once-a-month virtual discussion group for single parents in State, USAID, and other federal agencies under chief of mission authority. In 2021 the department recognized Singles at State as an employee organization; it raises awareness of and advocates for single employees, including single parents. And in late 2022, the department announced a change to housing space authorizations starting in 2023 that would better accommodate the needs of single parents.
For years, single parents were assigned accommodation based solely on the number of family members and not family roles. For instance, my daughter and I were on two occasions given one-bedroom apartments in PCS Lodging. Noting that previous “space authorization did not account for the practical reality that a single-parent household generally has the same effective space needs as a dual-parent household,” single parents are now counted as two parents in housing considerations.
These are welcome changes, but there is more that can be done to better include single-parent employees. For instance, several SPiFS have mentioned their interest in taking on longer temporary duty opportunities. However, though the employee pays out of pocket for the air tickets, lodging, and meals, the children are not granted access to the health unit of a diplomatic mission of temporary assignment. This limits some excellent officers from taking on assignments that fill critical gaps.
Although marital and parental status do not fall under the protected classes covered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protections against discrimination in the federal government based on these statuses are covered under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and Executive Order 13152. Every diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) group at the State Department should integrate single-parent voices, and DEIA policies, programming, and training should incorporate single-parent needs.
The bottom line is, single parents are serving! We serve alongside you at home and abroad, representing America in every foreign affairs agency and every rank from entry level to the front office. We are generalists in every cone and specialists in every field, from office management specialists and political officers to information specialists and general service officers, from regional security officers and deputy chiefs of mission to consular and medical officers. Single parents are your neighbors, community members, and colleagues.
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