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?
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
“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.
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