In Australia for the UN conference on arms trade, we become psychologists and psychoanalysts of the US Foreign Service
Uncertainty, expense and recurring goodbyes: The life of a US Foreign Service family
If and when we are even marginally relieved from our Common Foreign Officer lives at an international conference, we are close to euphoria.
We are in the uncommon life of the “foreign service”.
The genre of current news coverage of the family lives of middle-class parents of the consular section – the agency for all types of Australian consular matters – is that of the young couple accepting their lifetime responsibilities without the voice of global anxieties audible in the head.
With diplomats deployed across the globe, we might hesitate to sound a note of even the mildest holiday glee from this everyday existence.
But paradoxically, there is beauty in the ordinary. The basic fact of life in the Foreign Service is so painstakingly regulated, every rule in the book was kept just so, so one bureaucracy in Washington follows another and no nuance is allowed – let’s say unspoken – between those miles apart.
In circumstances like these, where the simplicity and order of daily life is the twin reality of others across the world, it can seem impossible that any contentment can be found at all. But if there is a pull of this life, there is also a pull to poetry and expression, for on the journey across thousands of miles, and thousands of atmospheres, the only missing element is the one in one’s own heart and mind, too.
A few years back, before realising how the US Foreign Service had acquired so much about my own life and activities, I began to pity it, not for not having achieved more, but for being a place to which I had no personal attachment.
Like me, there were only occasional contacts with my parents in the overseas postings. In diplomatic circles in Washington, the practice is that we are great strangers to any known second family until we return home – unless it is for a visit, travel or conference. That practice is a huge joke with foreigners.
In 2008, I came to Australia for the second time in my life. Upon arrival, only my mother’s personal greetings and 10 photographs were received by me. The 80-year-old was not exactly shocked. She had seen me and told me she would visit when I was settled. I was posting here as a Washington bureau chief, albeit one without a parent figure; she still lived in the US.
I have come full circle – I will visit my parents on the weekend I am in Australia – and I do not regret anything except the lack of personal connection with them.
As my overseas career extended from Cairo to Bangkok, to Sydney and now Canberra, my sense of detachment from my mother seemed more frequent. It is strange – having been home frequently, I wish more than anything that I were able to feel a connection with my mother.
As diplomatic spouses at the UN conference on the Arms Trade, reporting from the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Guatemala, and asking around in Washington for a video conference meeting between myself and my parents, I have come to realise the missing emotional voice in the voice of someone who was not there.
That need to relate to people may in large part explain why at the age of 52, with a child in my second term of residence, I begin this work-from-home role at this point in my life.
At the US Africa-Southern Asia ministerial meeting, I was led to great sadness as we had to spend the day watching another childhood childhood dream from my childhood who was sworn in as a member of the US House of Representatives the day before.
At the conference, I was keen to see my mother while down here at the UN. In truth, I was keen to see my fellow ambassadorial colleagues and colleagues in the media. I was going to be stuck behind them for the next eight hours.
But for me, it was cathartic. The way I look at it, like everyone else, I only get two endings to my life – each with its own set of possibilities. My one life, one I get to choose, a completely different life. I did not choose my mother, and I had no choices to make. In the interests of time, I saw her.
And so I made the journey home. When I walked through the entrance gates of our modest suburban apartment block in suburban Washington, I realised, it was the beginning of a story.
Robin White is the director of an Australian NGO, Caritas Solomon Islands, where she works in the region on child rights and post-conflict development