Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Realities of Foreign Service Life for Families with Young Children

There are lots of great reasons for a family to join the Foreign Service, including all the opportunities the kids will get to experience from a very young age. There's a lot to the concept of being a "Third Culture Kid," which is why there's a book about it. Actually, there's more than just a book. If you've never heard of "TCK," watch these videos so you know what I'm talking about. But the primary focus of this post is on the Pre-kindergarten kids (and their parents).

The miniature Model UN
I think it's safe to say that having young children (ages 0-6) can be a challenge anywhere in the world. But the point that I'm going to expand on is that it can be quite a bit tougher for expats overseas who are outside the local culture and still developing the local safety net that is often taken for granted when you've lived in a place for a while. While I don't qualify as a TCK because I resided within the US for my entire childhood, I did end up moving across the country several times and was immersed in various American sub-cultures (four, according to the map below). 
And while I think that helps me fully appreciate the richness of American culture, I did often feel like an outsider looking in. Our kids, however, are in for an entirely different experience. 

By definition, living abroad makes you an expat, though being in the US Foreign Service has some perks over being an expat without diplomatic status (but there are lots of similarities between the two groups). And, likewise, there are some cases where the non-government expats get a better deal. For instance,
many corporations will pay for an expat's kid to attend preschool if that means retaining the employee. However, U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Schools clarifies that Department of State education allowances only covers grades kindergarten through twelve (K-12) of primary-secondary education, as "this is what public schools offer in the United States." Which is technically correct, but ignores the states, counties, and cities in the US that offer universal preschool.
Now, we're from Florida and as you can see from the chart above, our kids would have been attending state-funded preschool if we were living there and not in Saudi Arabia. So, what about the Pre-K Foreign Service kids ages 2-4?

Well, while The Office of Overseas Schools provides a list of at-post schools which may have Pre-K programs available, there's a catch. Most accompanied posts have some affiliated International School, and many of them offer some form of preschool. But international schools are pricey. And yes, the State Department does pay the tuition for kindergarten and above, but that still doesn't make it financially viable for a young family to send their preschooler(s) to the same school as their older sibling because it means the (likely very junior) government employee is paying the entire preschool tuition out of pocket.

That said, it's been particularly difficulty to find preschools here in the Kingdom. I'm going to assume that also may be true in other countries with cultural norms that differ significantly from the Western education model. As you can imagine, in many, many other countries there are several (even numerous) other options for preschools "on the economy." It varies post to post, but rarely is there just one half decent option other than the international schools. So it's a seller's market here and they know it.

Before you go "boo-hoo", keep in mind we're talking D.C.-priced Montessori private school tuition for a 4-year-old...which is out of range for most government workers. Some embassies have worked out sponsorship arrangements with the school that results in the government employee paying the same rate that the teachers pay since both groups are effectively public servants when compared to the corporate expats. However, other posts have not worked out these details which can force the decision to keep the little kids home even if the parents want them in school.

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Like many preschools in the US, there might be rules that require a parent to escort the preschooler to and from the classroom. This is particularly inconvenient in our current assignment, since women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The motor pool driver can't escort the kids per policy, and while we could have a nanny (which we don't have) do it, it still means additional coordination to get the nanny there (because she also isn't allowed to drive herself).

Which brings me to another point: the availability of child care centers overseas varies greatly, as does the quality and cost of caregivers in the home. I've seen examples where one housing complex has daycare but another does not, so which government leased residence you get assigned to live in might make all the difference on whether you have any available daycare. Some Foreign Service folks have nannies for their kids, but that's often because it's very hard to find a teenager to babysit. And you can't just drop the kids off at mom & dad's for the night...because they live on a different continent.

While the majority of Foreign Service assignment moves occur in the summer, FSCEs like me might have to PCS (Permanent Change of Station, government speak for "move") in the middle of the school year because that's when the project starts. Obviously, mid-school year moves can be hard on kids, but they can be surprisingly resilient. We came to Jeddah and dropped our older one off at school 14 hours after landing. At the end of the school year, she had not only caught up but also surpassed some of her classmates (not bad for being the youngest in the class). Oh, yeah, that's another issue: the grade cut-off ages vary significantly, so if you're unlucky enough to be an Aug-Oct birthday, expect some debate on which year they should enter kindergarten.

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That's about it for the school side of things. But there are some social issues to consider as well: Many post events start shortly after work and can run well past the little ones' bedtimes. So, if you're at post and you have to go back to get the family to bring them back to post, you end up arriving late and then only get to stay a little while until the kids start melting down. This is when the nanny/babysitter is most beneficial. Alternatively, you just don't go to the event and everyone wonders why you aren't there.

Hopefully this doesn't scare off anyone with little kids who is considering joining the foreign service. We honestly do think that the benefits outweigh the costs (otherwise, why do it?).  But it's true, there aren't that many resources out there informing you of what the costs and considerations are before you sign up unless you know where to look. And in true State Department fashion, "it depends" on which post you get assigned to, so that makes generalizations very hard. For me, the biggest pain was having to switch the car seats every time we used a motor pool vehicle (you can't just leave them in there like you would with your own car). But kids grow out of car seats eventually, so really, once all the kids have passed the 6-8 year old range, things get easier. Right? I hope so, since we don't have first-hand knowledge of the challenges associated with having kids older than six. Yet.

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