Working Moms in International Development (Part 1: Surviving Travel)

by Shana Montesol Johnson

What are the challenges – and benefits – of being a working mom in international development? To celebrate Mother’s Day, I gathered answers to this question from aid & international development professionals who are also moms.

Their input highlighted a variety of issues, including travel, balancing one’s career with a spouse’s or with the needs of children, raising children abroad, and more. Today’s post, focused on travel, is the first in a multi-part series.

Why have I put this series together?

  1. For those of you who are working moms in aid & international development, I hope this series will serve to encourage you – you are not alone!
  2. For those of you who are potential/future working moms in development and wondering how you could possibly raise a family while working in this field, I hope this series will give you some inspiration and ideas – it’s not easy, but it can be done!
  3. And for those of you who are not now, nor will ever be, working moms in international development, I hope this series will still provide some interesting insight into the challenges that your colleagues/staff/boss/friends may encounter.

And rest assured, I plan to ask dads working in development for their perspectives as well…closer to Father’s Day in June.

Long Trips to Faraway Places

It’s no surprise that travel is one the most-often mentioned challenges for working moms in aid & development. As Linda Raftree, Senior Advisor, ICT4D, Plan International USA, remarks, “There are times when you miss really important things in your children’s lives, or they call you crying because they miss you and you carry that feeling with you that you’ve not given them everything they need because you are off supporting other people and their children, or you are somehow scarring your kids in the long term by your absence.”

The kind of travel that working moms in development must undertake also poses a particular challenge. “International development involves travel to poor countries with poor infrastructure,” remarks Lainie Thomas, Social Development Specialist (Civil Society & Development) at the Asian Development Bank and mom of four kids, ages 11, 9, 6, and 4. “It can be hard to get a call through to home; flights can be unreliable, which makes getting home on time stressful; Internet might be very expensive or slow and therefore hard to keep in touch.”

When they’re not traveling, some working moms work flexible hours or work from home, so they can spend more time with their kids. Linda remarks that she has been lucky to work in organizations that have allowed her this flexibility, given their awareness of the importance of family and children.

It can be tough on kids when their mother travels for extended periods, but it can also help build their sense of independence and self-sufficiency – which is both a strategy to cope with absences, and a result of not always being there, says Linda Raftree. “My kids probably matured faster than other kids because they had to get themselves places and didn’t always have help with their homework,” says Linda, whose kids are now ages 20 and 15. “This pays off for them now because they are self-motivated and responsible even if no one is pushing them externally.”

Moms working in development who are based in the field, as opposed to headquarters, report that travel is a bit more manageable. In fact, travel can be a plus. “It’s great that I can balance traveling and seeing some awesome things I would never see if I stayed in my home country without leaving my family at home for weeks on end,” remarks E.S., Senior Manager of an International NGO, based in Asia.

“Remote” Control?

“It’s challenging micromanaging the household from thousands of miles away,” shares Silvia Holschneider, Sr. Technical Advisor, University Research Co., LLC, based in the US. When she leaves her two grade-school aged kids for weeks at a time to travel to distant countries halfway around the world, she hopes “that no domino in that tenuous support system I’ve set up during my absence will topple — i.e., that the kids won’t get sick; that the sitter will show up; that my husband will come home at a reasonable hour so that the kids will at least see one parent for a few minutes before going to sleep; that he will remind them to study for their tests, to pack their lunches in the morning, help them do their homework.”

She illustrates with an example of an SMS exchange with her husband, during her most recent trip to Asia from the U.S.

Husband: “[Our son] isn’t feeling well…should he go to school?”

Me: “Does he have a temperature?”

Him: “I don’t know. Where is the thermometer? It’s not where it usually is.”

Me: “I don’t know. I’m half way around the globe!”

Silvia finds the following tips to be helpful in dealing with the challenges:

  • Be super organized. “Lists, lists, lists — lists for the sitter, for my husband, a calendar for the time I am gone, writing out what activities the children are doing each day.”
  • Stay in touch. “I call my children once a day and take the time to chat with them.”
  • Learn to let go. “My most important tip and lesson I’m learning is learning to let go: to know that everything doesn’t always have to go how I envision it, that my husband is fully capable of taking charge and taking care of the kids his own way. It’s healthy for all of us to shake things up a bit, and more fun that way.”

It Takes a Network of Friends

For a mom working in development, a supportive husband/co-parent can make all the difference. Yet travel can be more complicated for single moms, or women married to someone who also travels for work. Christine Albee Purka, Vice President & Head of the Asia Regional Office at Development Finance International, Inc. is based in the Philippines. She has two sons, ages 4 and almost-8, and her husband, also working in development, travels internationally frequently as well.

Christine shares, “For us, it has been helpful to have a ‘one-parent always home’ policy that we are both committed to as much as possible. This requires continuous updates to each other before confirming [travel plans] with our respective organizations and we maintain a shared family calendar on Google. Living in hazard-prone locations makes this especially important to us to ensure the kids always have a parent in-country for their responsibility and safety. But, in the event simultaneous travel is unavoidable, we try to arrange extended family visits or tap our network of close friends to ask for sleep-overs for the kids so we have confidence the kids have a capable, resourceful adult responsible for them, especially in the event of a crisis. One of the realities of living in international development is that we need to be prepared for the unexpected.”

For working mothers who bring their infants along on business trips, a strong network of friends can also provide inside information and access to resources in the field. “I have a fantastic network of similarly driven, nurturing, humorous and amazing women who have the low-down on childcare and parks throughout Asia,” says a Australia-based researcher who spends extended time in the field with her young son. “Seriously, friends are the best.”

The Upside to Mom’s Travel

Despite the challenges, working moms find that they – and their families – are learning and growing through the process. Silvia Holschneider reflects, “My absence gives the kids and my husband a chance to bond more; [my kids] learn that their mom always loves them whether near or far; and my husband and I appreciate each other more for what we do professionally and for the family.”

Some moms take the opportunity to bring their kids along on their work trips. Linda Raftree remarks that this has given her kids “a wider view of the world and a better understanding than many of how things work. It’s made them question things that some other kids might not even think to question.”

Similarly, E.S. shares that having a mom working in development gives kids “a broader perspective in life and a chance to develop great qualities, such as adaptability, stronger problem solving skills, and the ability to see issues from different perspectives.”

An Encouraging Word

Linda Raftree remarks, “You appreciate the quality time you have with [your kids] when you are home.” In a comment that may be encouraging to working moms with young kids who feel guilty about leaving their kids during their long work trips, Linda, whose kids are now ages 20 and 15, shares, “I have a beautiful relationship with my kids, so something went quite right even though I had to juggle work, travel and family.”

What has been your experience with travel as a working mom (or dad) in development? Please share your challenges, horror stories, tips, and encouragement with the Development Crossroads community in the Comments below.

And if you’re not a working mom/dad in development, but may be someday, what questions do you have?

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, focused on challenges that working moms in development encounter in terms of balancing their careers with those of their spouses, and with the needs of their kids. I’ll also write about dads dads working in development and their perspective on work/life balance.

Sign up below for the Development Crossroads email newsletter so you’ll be sure not to miss any of the future installments in this series!

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }


my kids are smaller that those presented here, so I think my travel weighs a bit more on them, we have a live-in baby sitter because otherwise we would not be able to manage, period. We try to make my trips coincide with the visits from the grandparents so that they have something exciting going on that distracts them, (planning). There is always an up to date check list of schedules and medicines left behind.

One up side that I have noticed is that when I am away they have a lot more quality time with their father. Since I work from home I am generally more present, so they tend to come to me more and first, when I am away it brings them closer to their father.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Angelica, thanks for your comment! I agree that different strategies are needed when kids are at different ages. And visits from grandparents can also be a remarkably effective strategy!


Michelle Jackson

Thank you so much for this message. I am a young mom, studying International Development, working part-time and volunteering to gain experience in this field. I don’t travel yet, but I will in the future, so thank you for sharing these insides. I am thinking about this subject a lot. After receiving my BA I plan to work abroad for some time and will take my now 2 year old with me. I’m sure it will all work out but it is good to read stories of other moms who are doing the same thing. Thanks again for this nice blog post.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Michelle, I am so glad that you have found this blog post encouraging. Best of luck in your studies, work, and volunteer work! I am sure you have many tips of your own to share on how you manage it all.



Thanks for the interesting post, Shana. I don’t have kids yet but am working in development and it is really interesting to read about different moms organizing their life with families and travels. Surely took away some ideas for the future!


Shana Montesol Johnson

Claire, I’m glad you found the post interesting! Stay tuned for the next installment!



I’m married to an international development worker and we’re parents of a 14-month-old, and I see this issue in a different way from what you’ve presented. The system that one of your interviewees describes would simply not work for us:

she hopes “that no domino in that tenuous support system I’ve set up during my absence will topple — i.e., that the kids won’t get sick; that the sitter will show up; that my husband will come home at a reasonable hour so that the kids will at least see one parent for a few minutes before going to sleep

In my view, this is unfair to both parents. It’s unfair to the mom because it puts the responsibility on her for setting up a “support system” that will function while she is thousands of miles away, and for then “micromanaging” it from across thousands of miles and a significant number of time zones, while at the same time engaging in the most intense aspects of her professional life. And it’s unfair to the dad because it puts him on the same level as the babysitter, just another person that mom has to reluctantly trust to take over “her” responsibilities in her absence.

The reason that we’ve been able to make both parenthood and my spouse’s career in international development work in our family is that we work together as a team, as two equal partners. When she is traveling, I’m the primary caregiver; when I’m away or slammed with work, she’s the primary caregiver. We work these things out between ourselves and maintain constant communication so that we always know who’s “on.” It’s not a responsibility of hers that she then delegates to me when she has no other choice. It’s our responsibility that we share and enjoy together.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Daniel, thanks for your feedback. It’s always interesting to hear how different families, and different couples, handle the challenges of a career (or two) with international travel. It’s heartening to hear that you and your wife have found an approach that works well for both of you.


Miriam Yiannakis

I laughed when I read this article! I work in international development, and travel a lot. I’ve had both my kids (now 4 and 2 yrs) while working. When they were really small, I just strapped them to my body and carried them with me… my daughter was in 8 different countries by the time she was 8 months old… countries like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malawi…. my son is about the same. wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t leave them, and couldn’t take time off work. Now that they are getting older, I don’t travel with them, but have a very supportive husband who really steps up! We live away from extended family so can’t call on grandparents etc for help, but somehow we are making it work, and the kids seem to be surviving.

While travelling i’ve had far too many sms’s like the one above… !! “Where is the thermometer???!!!” or, “how much infant tylenol should I give him?” (my response was, “I can’t read the label that’s in front of you while i’m 3000 miles away!!”)

Working from home and having flexible work hours is the thing that keeps me sane, and in relationship with my kids, and husband! I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. It’s definitely hard sometimes. You do have to learn to let go.

I am super grateful for things like Skype… every time my 2 yr old hears Skype ringing on the computer, he runs to it shouting “Mama! Mama!” … even when i’m standing next to him in the kitchen!! 🙂


Shana Montesol Johnson

Miriam, thanks for sharing your adventures as a working mom in international development! It sounds like you could really relate to the blog post. I chuckled over your son’s reaction to the sound of Skype ringing — not something we encountered in our own childhoods!


Marisia Geraci

Love the article! I can totally relate to everything! I moved to South Africa with my twin daughters 3 years ago. My husband was supportive of the move in the beginning and then decided it was not something he really wanted to do. So, in addition to trying to keep up a marriage from 8,000 miles away, I also have the challenges of running an NGO and traveling a lot with a very small, but supportive network. I have worked in international development for 11 years, way before my daughters were born so they are used to mommy going all around the world. The wonderful thing is that they are now accompanying me on my travels both here in South Africa and to other countries. We recently returned from a 17 day trip to Rwanda and Kenya. A short video of this trip is found here:
I love seeing my children develop a compassionate and caring spirit for others as they follow in my footsteps. Though it is not an easy task taking it on alone! Just yesterday, I was due to travel and had to cancel at the last minute because the school called for me to come pick up one of my daughters who had a fever!

Thanks for the great article!


Shana Montesol Johnson

I’m so glad you liked the article, Marisa. Thanks for sharing your story, and your video! That will be a terrific electronic keepsake for your daughters to look at when they are older — and maybe even show it to their kids. How gratifying to share your work with your girls. Best of luck on your continuing adventures!



I loved this article! Thank you for posting it – it is difficult to find information on the subject. I am pursuing a PhD in development and am considering having children in the near future. My husband and I have been discussing the pros and cons of bringing young children to the field. I would love to hear more from parents who have brought their young children (babies, toddlers) to live in more rustic conditions for extended periods of time.



Hi all,
My name is Giulia and I’m writing an essay for my BA in international development on just this topic! thanks for the great insight. i was just wondering if anyone here has ever thought about/had any difficulties with trying to explain to their kids the kind of work that is typically done in international development. Has anyone ever tried to explain the issues that are faced within the development context that relate to various inequalities that are found when being a development worker. Ultimately trying to explain issues like for example poverty, famine etc to their children that are very relevant to international development but are not often directly experienced by children of international development workers that often have a more privileged lifestyle. There doesn’t seem to be a lot on this kind of issue and was just wondering if anyone had some first hand insight. It would be greatly appreciated!


Annie Pyron

Thank you so much for this incredible resource! I am a single-mother of a two year old, and in the middle of a degree in Critical Languages & International Studies. I studied in France for a month last summer, and this week will be in Shanghai for 5-10 weeks studying Chinese.
Some days my bigger fear in life, that ‘I’m a bad mother’ creeps in and I question everything that I’m doing. But most days I know deep in my heart that raising my son to be multilingual and a truly globally-aware citizen is my most important mission as a mom. So despite an judgement I move forward, knowing that the career that I’m creating is truly valuable for the both of us! <3


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