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Monday, May 9, 2011

Trailing Tandem

Trailing Tandem
By Clayton Bond

Clayton Bond entered the Foreign Service with the 104th A-100 class on Sept. 10, 2001, following internships as a Pickering Fellow in the State Department’s Office of Environmental Policy and in Embassy Gaborone’s political and economic affairs section.  Prior to taking leave without pay and joining his Foreign Service spouse, Ted Osius, in Jakarta, he served in Singapore, New Delhi, Washington, D.C., and Bogotá.  He and Ted married in Vancouver in 2006.

            I don’t recall ever feeling as lonely and sad as during my first night in Singapore, Sunday, August 16, 2009.  I was in a city-state where things worked; a fully developed, orderly, clean country, which couldn’t have been more different from the one to which we were previously posted.  But Ted wasn’t there.  And I had no easy way of communicating with him that night – I had no e-mail access yet in my apartment, and didn’t yet know how to dial Jakarta from my home phone. 
            It was just me, my two carry-on bags and a welcome kit from the embassy, with bed linens, towels, plates, glasses and related items to get me started until my own things arrived.  Why did I decide to do this?  Was it worth it?
            We had always known that if our Foreign Service careers both continued to advance, it would be increasingly harder to get assigned to the same city.  But that problem had seemed hypothetical until nearly one year before, when we were bidding.  And because we were both up for promotion, the process was more complicated than usual. 
            We thought it would be helpful to have some principles to guide us in thinking about which jobs we wanted and where we hoped to serve.  One of the main ones was to work in the same city.  And so we lobbied.  Then Ted got promoted and quickly pursued positions for which his more senior grade now allowed him to compete.  He was offered the position of deputy chief of mission of a very large mission, but one of the conditions was that I would not be able to work there, too, due to nepotism concerns. 
            Ted had 24 hours to decide, and we were visiting his sister in the United Arab Emirates at the time.  We agonized over the decision, ultimately deciding he should accept.
            Now I had to decide what I would do.  If I accompanied Ted to Jakarta, what would my status be?  (This was eight months before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s groundbreaking June 18, 2009 announcement that same-sex partners of Foreign Service personnel would be entitled to Eligible Family Member status – a major leap toward equality.)  What would I do for health insurance?  As a same-sex couple, federal law denies me the option of being covered under Ted’s government-provided plan.  Would I be okay with putting my career second?  How would I keep myself busy?  And could I deal with not earning my own money?  Could I be “kept?”
            Some friends noticed there were management-coned positions available at my grade in Singapore, which, according to maps and airline schedules, appeared a short journey away from Jakarta.  Maybe a commuting marriage was possible.  During the week, we could focus on our respective jobs and then share the weekends.  It seemed a workable compromise.

Time Management 101

            Almost as soon as I made the decision, I began to have doubts.  Ted and I had never before lived apart as a couple.  But I had committed to taking the position, so we began to think earnestly about how we were going to make it work.  We would see each other at least three weekends per month, and would not invite houseguests so we could have those days to ourselves.  And during the week, we would speak every day about mundane things, as couples experienced in long-distance commuting advised. 
            Then the reality came crashing down.  We went back to Washington for training between assignments.  Mine was eight weeks longer than Ted’s.  We were full of angst the night he left the hotel for the airport to begin his journey to Jakarta. 
            Remarkably, Ted and I managed to achieve and even surpass our goal of seeing each other three weekends per month.  But our weekends weren’t always our own.  For instance, I soon found myself coordinating the transportation arrangements for a U.S. delegation, headed by President Barack Obama, that would be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, hosted that year by Singapore.  That entailed long hours of extensive planning, countless phone calls and constant monitoring of my BlackBerry for several weeks. 
            Meanwhile, Ted and his team in Jakarta were contending with several natural disasters, terrorist bombings and other challenges.  Those pressures rarely allowed him to be away from the telephone and BlackBerry, or to miss meetings. 
            What our friends had told us about the importance of speaking every day about mundane events was true.  It helped us feel up to date with what was going on in each other’s lives, and helped lessen the distance.   One trade-off for me, however, was not going out in Singapore as often as I might otherwise have done.  We spoke in the evenings, often when Ted was en route to an event, stuck in traffic.  (He usually phoned me because initiating or receiving a call on my cell phone proved terribly expensive compared to him calling the land line.)  What little I explored of Singapore took place during lunch or on the few weekends we had together there.

Be True to Yourself and Your Partner

           Because of Ted’s responsibilities in Indonesia, he wasn’t as free to travel outside of the country as I was.  So I spent most weekends with him there, and that began to feel more like home. 
            Though on the map Singapore and Jakarta are very close, I found that the actual commute was much more time-consuming and stressful than I had imagined.  Without checked baggage, the each-way commute was about five hours: a 30-minute trip from the embassy to the airport right after work on Fridays, check-in at least 45 minutes before the flight, 1.5 hours in the air (assuming no flight delays), 30 minutes from the gate to the taxi, then a 1.5-hour journey from the airport to our home.  And then I reversed the process on Sundays.  Occasionally, I missed flights, which was costly in terms of time, hassle (when not flying Singapore Airlines) and money. 
            Despite our best efforts, the commute was taking a real toll on our marriage.  During a Thanksgiving trip to Vietnam, we spent a weekend in Nha Trang – a rare weekend for just the two of us.  That weekend brought to the surface my growing fear that Ted and I were beginning to drift apart, and that terrified me. 
            I had been wondering for some time whether it was worth the hassle for both of us, and now I had my answer: no.  Shortly after I returned to Singapore, I informed my boss, apologized, and began the arduous effort to curtail.
            Perhaps that decision betrays a certain generational sentiment: I love the Foreign Service, but I found that I was willing to give it up if I had to choose between my career and my family.  And it nearly came to that.   The bureau ended up opposing my curtailment and persuaded the assignment panel accordingly.  On appeal, my request for leave without pay was approved.       

Making the System Work Better

            I learned a lot through that process.   Most important, I learned the value of being true to yourself and to your relationship first.  Once you make that decision, everything else will work out, somehow, and a lot of personal and bureaucratic heartache can be avoided. 
            I also found that there were a number of trailing tandems who chose at the outset to accompany their spouses, and that individuals in the Department of State, on an ad hoc basis, helped them find creative ways to continue working in active-duty status.  There was one person in particular, in a regional bureau, whose name kept coming up as the go-to person for facilitating these sorts of work arrangements -- which wasn’t, as far as I know, among her official work responsibilities.   
            Still, considering the growing number of tandem couples in the Foreign Service,  and the financial and other benefits they bring, there really should be someone at State (perhaps in the Career Development and Assignments Office) whose official responsibilities include actively identifying opportunities for trailing tandems who desire to continue working.  
            By applying the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 and with the backing of senior management, it might be possible for that person to formally survey offices in the department and find out whether there might be projects that trailing tandems could complete while overseas, using Skype and other technology, including remote access to the Intranet.   This could be a coordinated effort, building upon the department’s Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas policy, which provides a formal mechanism for Washington, D.C.-based Civil Service or Foreign Service employees to continue working there, even as they accompany their FS spouse or partner on an overseas assignment.
            Though technology presents opportunities, the bureaucracy does not always eagerly welcome change.  There is institutional skepticism about teleworking.  And there are those who are afraid of the future.  But with bold leadership, such as Sec. Clinton demonstrated with respect to benefits for same-sex domestic partners, perhaps one day no trailing tandem who wants to work will have to take leave without pay in order to join a spouse or partner at post. 

(published in the May 2011 issue of the Foreign Service Journal)

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