I mentioned in my last post that things have been kind of a bummer Foreign Service-wise around here lately and that I wasn’t ready to blog about it yet.
Well, I think I am ready now.
We found out a few weeks ago that my husband will most likely retire at the conclusion of our current tour. I won’t get into any great detail, and no situation like this is simple to explain anyway, but there is just one relevant point I have decided to blog about. That’s the impact of having a special needs clearance in the family.
If you have a special needs child in your family, it will affect your career. And it will affect your career more than it has to because there is no real system in place to deal with officers who have class 2 special needs kids in their families.
To start with, very little support is given to Foreign Service families when it comes to finding which posts will actually work for them. For each post, the officer (or more likely the spouse, who doesn’t even have access to the Department Intranet!) starts from scratch, researching school, specialists, etc. Every bidding cycle for the parents of a special needs child is therefore a case of reinventing the wheel.
If you do not have a special needs kid, think back to your last round of researching posts and then double both the labor and the frustration factor. Then double it again if the kid is a teenager. This so-called system is a waste of everyone’s valuable time.
Furthermore, MED will tell you where you can’t be posted, but they can do nothing to ensure that you do get posted where you need to be. I’ve written before about how I think that a memo from MED or ECS explaining why a post (or list of posts) would work well for a particular officer’s family’s needs would be useful information to ensure successful assignments. Because that is what this is all about, after all: ensuring successful assignments for both the officer and the Department.
The disconnect is mirrored by the promotion system. Promotion panels are given no context for an officer’s assignments. Parents of class 2 special needs kids simply don’t have the same array of choices that other parents or officers have. They do the best they can, given the restrictions, but they may not end up in the most “promotable” position that they could have been assigned to because the choice may literally be between living together as a family and separating for a year, two years, or more. And not once, mind you, but repeatedly.
It’s important to note that the need for special educational or medical facilities, is most often temporary. It is very rare that an officer has a class 2 in the family for an entire career. Most kids outgrow the need for speech or occupational therapy, for example. Many parents who would not consider a boarding school for a six or ten year old might well consider that alternative for a middle or high schooler. And of course nearly all kids eventually grow up, leave the nest, and bestow worldwide availability on their parents once again.
The trick to getting to that point, I guess, is to know in advance that you are going to have special needs kid, anticipate exactly what his or her needs are going to be for the next 18 years, and schedule all your assignments and promotion panels to accommodate all that and your desired career trajectory as well. Good luck with that.
In fact, we bid with a class 2 just one time. Previously, my husband chose to do an unaccompanied tour, and so we were able to stay in the DC area for seven years. The State Department was only asked to accommodate my son’ s educational needs for one tour. But even that almost didn’t happen.
I do not regret the choices that we have made. Neither does my husband. The answer to our situation two years ago was not to “just go to AIP” or to put our son in boarding school as many suggested. For one thing, my husband had already done one unaccompanied tour. For another, it became increasingly clear that “regular” boarding schools in the U.S. and overseas were not willing to consider my son. It was not at all clear that a “special needs” boarding school was the right solution. Even our therapist advised against that option, because my son wasn’t that “special” and we had a pretty good family dynamic that was an asset to him in and of itself.
Nor was the answer to cover up my son’s difficulties and hope they would just go away, or assume that things would somehow work out once we got to post. We have never done that, but we were at one previous post at which adequate medical and educational support was not readily available and almost had to curtail. We were not going to repeat that experience, and I don’t think State would have wanted us to, either.
With a relatively mildly special needs high schooler, whose disabilities were reflected primarily in his report card, not in any kind of delinquent behavior, we were between a rock and a hard place. We understood that he had real problems requiring more patience and understanding than is found in many high-powered international schools with their overwhelming emphasis on the IB diploma requirements. And he frankly needed to have a qualified psychiatrist around to manage his medication and keep an eye on him. We never argued that point: in fact, we insisted on it.
Here in Vienna, there is an Regional Psychiatrist at post, and plenty of good local medical care available as well. Perhaps most importantly, the expat community here is large enough to support a third major international school (that I found myself) which was willing to accept him when the other two were not. Educationally, he was not only able to make a much-needed fresh start, but he got the small classes, individual attention, and true learning support that he needed. He has made so much progress, and we are darn proud of him.
We have also held our family together, keeping my my son together with his dad during the crucial teen years. No career can possibly be as important as all of that.
My son will graduate from high school here, and we will once again be truly worldwide available. But State is not going to take advantage of that fact. Nope, the way the system works, my husband will most likely be obligated to retire at the conclusion of this tour, and take his 25+ years of experience and expensive training with him. Oh, and my experience and skills too. (I happen to think they count for something.)
This was, as you can imagine, less than welcome news. We’ve been though quite a bit since my husband joined. Some great times, but some really, truly awful times as well. Let’s just say: they don’t call them hardship posts for nothing.
To top it all off, it seemed like our last bidding cycle would never end. Not only was there a tremendous amount of research involved, but a handshake on a great assignment for both my husband and my son fell through at the last minute when a more senior officer pulled rank late in the process. Then we ended up almost curtailing from Vienna when the first two schools changed their minds after seeing my son’s report card and refused to accept him. OMG, I get a headache just thinking about it.
With school issues finally out of the picture (hallelulah!) I was all set for a bid list that that might actually be fun once again. I was, quite frankly, pissed as hell about losing that opportunity. I mean, we knew it was a possibility, but the way in which it happened was especially inexplicable and disappointing, let’s leave it at that.
Anyway, it’s been a process for me. Like turning an ocean liner on a dime. What are the stages of grief, again? I think I’m over the cussing- a-blue-streak stage, just past the venting-to-everyone-I-know stage, and and entering the acceptance stage. It is what it is. Om…
Now I’m thinking about all the little things that bug me about the Foreign Service, and how glad I will be not to deal with them anymore. Except they still bug me! And now I really don’t care who I offend by pointing them out. Or maybe fixing them. Or maybe just going around them and doing whatever the hell I want. Because, what are they going to do? Fire me?
At some point, I need to pour myself a glass of wine, sit back, and contemplate the sum total of our Foreign Service career. Right now, though, I am just glad that my son was able to get the overseas experience and private school education that I knew would be good for him. And that we are able to enjoy this three years in our one and only western European post before the ride comes to an end. It’s not the only kind of good posting to have, by any means, but it is well-timed for our family. Teenagers need their independence—and their newly-liberated moms need to have a little fun, too!
I am looking forward to living near both my kids and the rest of our families. I am looking forward to living in, and fixing up, my own house, with my own garden (o joy!) I am looking forward to not moving for a very, very long time. I am looking forward to listening to Kojo Nnamdi while I work and All Things Considered while I fix dinner. I am looking forward to high-speed internet, thrift stores, air conditioning, and stores that are open on Sundays. I am really looking forward to strip mall Vietnamese, Thai, and Mexican food. And I am looking forward to living around people that smile and talk to me for no reason whatsoever.
America is a great country, and I’m ready to call it home again.
Except for the awesome two-week overseas vacations that I am planning to take every year for the rest of my life!