Daddy Aid Worker: Balancing Life and Career in Development
N.B. - This post is an perspective piece, authored by IRD Sustainable Foods Officer Scott Webb, that also appeared on the international development website Devex.
We had been meeting on Skype for about 20 minutes when suddenly, it happened. Through the live video feed, I saw my wife turn around, things shaking in the background. I heard a crackling sound.
That is how on Aug. 23 last year, I experienced one of the strongest earthquakes the U.S. east coast has ever seen – from more than 7,000 miles away.
I’m an international development professional and father of three. I’m based at International Relief & Development’s headquarters in the Washington, D.C. area, but have to travel from time to time. In 2011 alone, I visited Africa three times, all of which were three-week trips: to Chad in January, Ethiopia in August, and Kenya in October. Our son was born in April, which provided me a much-needed three-month paternity leave. Otherwise, I probably would have had to go to Tunisia.
Fortunately, only Chad was a Danger Pay country – the telltale sign that there was a little bit more than malaria to worry about. It was worse when I visited Iraq at the end of 2009; my entire extended family was on pins and needles. No matter how much you reassure them, people still freak out about the unknown. I’ve always felt a special responsibility with my career to help bring new cultures into my loved ones’ lives, but changing perceptions can be an uphill battle, as most of you reading this will understand.
I got into international development, in part, because I love to travel. I love the rush you get when visiting a new country. We’re all a little bit selfish and adrenaline junkies in that way. Despite the hardship and worry I caused my family, one of the coolest experiences I ever had was completing my Iraq trip. I’ll admit: At IRD especially, it’s de rigeur to work in Afghanistan and Iraq for months on end, and I only visited for a week with a highly professional personal security detail paying close attention. But not a lot of Americans can say they’ve visited Iraq. I’ll keep that visa forever.
The rush of travel is balanced by the dread of leaving my family, every time. It doesn’t get easier. So far, my kids – especially my 5-year-old – make a very big deal about me leaving, missing me, crying about it. It’s flattering, but it also feels awful to put them through that. While I’m traveling, most of the places I’ve been have had Internet connections just good enough to use Skype – usually just for voice, but sometimes video. The video can be amazing and frustrating, as you get to see your family and spend a little time acting like a fly on the wall. The downside being that you also watch your spouse deal with an upset baby and fighting siblings while you’re sipping a latte in a quiet hotel room.
I’ll admit: Being able to sleep through the night is nice, but when you get back home, the traveling aid worker better be prepared to make it up to their spouse. A nice scarf from the hotel airport doesn’t cut it as a thank-you gift.
We’re fortunate enough that my wife can stay at home with the kids; she has been working part-time teaching yoga since we started our family. Day care is not a problem, just the babysitting for the 2-4 hours per week my wife teaches, which my extra per diem usually can cover. This is not nearly as bad as some other aid worker friends have it.
International development families have an array of choices and decisions and sacrifices to make, especially when you’re under the pressure of having to build your career and establish your credibility. One couple I know is basically taking turns with their careers, with one parent working for an NGO and traveling 5-10 weeks per year while the other took a 9-to-5 federal job. Their lives have to be strictly regimented – day care is closely scheduled, minutes are precious and expenses are legion. Another friend, who was very established at her NGO when she and her husband (who was not an international NGO person) started their family, eventually just took her baby son with her on her trips to East Asia a couple of times. It’s not easy.
Many families, when given the option, just pick up and move back overseas to accompanied posts where the schooling can be very good and day care is cheap, and you can all be together more. But those posts can be very competitive to get and, more often, the stars have to be aligned to make it work with two professionals trying to build their careers.
The best part is coming home, especially seeing my wife and kids in the car when they pick me up. I miss them all so much when I’m gone. I always picture myself running to them, breaking down in tears, legs crumpling as I embrace them. More often, it’s a couple of minutes of big hearty hugs and then I have to shift right back into parenting mode, regulating backseat arguments, calming my son in his baby seat, and telling my wife about the flight, which is the longest period of time we go without talking while I’m traveling.
We’re originally from California and have experienced our share of earthquakes. Last August, the shaking I witnessed via Skype lasted just a few seconds; the kids and house were thankfully fine. But after working on relief project proposals all day, I had a front row seat as my wife carried her iPad around the house as she inspected the aftermath. I monitored Facebook and Twitter, and we maintained the connection and talked for another hour.
As global development professionals, we tackle some of the most complex challenges of our time. But there are other, more personal challenges we all encounter – as I did watching my family react from afar to that magnitude-5.8 earthquake.