The question was posed casually to my mother by a woman not quite retirement age on Cape Cod, where Mom and Dad had retired to in the 1980s: “What did you do while you were overseas?” Here is her answer, which she wrote out instead of saying, leaving the record for me to discover some 40 years later….
“I heard her question again in my head: “What did you DO?” Feeling wicked, I found myself answering, “Nothing.” I don’t usually consider myself capable of irony, but this answer could only have been understood by another foreign service wife for what it was. To soften the rather abrupt answer, I followed through with the usual recounting that no Embassy wife could work in a foreign post without the Ambassador’s approval. And only to accept jobs either as a teacher or as a nurse. That seemed to satisfy the questioner as to how I could have spent our 20-some years overseas, unoccupied.
Since that night, I have tossed over in my mind just how I could have responded to that younger woman. In her generation almost all women have held some paying job that is, as it has always been for men, the peg that identified their place in the larger community. So, “doing” means “being paid.”
Those of us married in the 1950’s were mostly, for the want of a better term, homemakers. Some had a taste of earning a salary during a few years of teaching, as I did, after college. In later years, few of us ever identified ourselves as teachers, as I think would now be the case.
So, during our 20-odd years overseas I continued in my homemaking role in an ever expanding way. I was responsible for:
- Packing, unpacking and resettling our household 10 times;
- Hiring and/or learning how to work and live with nine local household helpers;
- Learning how to shop in four foreign countries in two foreign languages;
- Enrolling our two daughters in seven English-speaking schools;
- Hosting large and small parties in our home to fulfill our obligation to promote our country;
- Serving as a guide for visiting official visitors, be they pleasant or unbearable; and,
- Being available to the Ambassador’s wife when she required help.
And in each post I found personal satisfaction in some type of volunteer activity. [This was particularly true in Bogota, where a group of Colombian and American women sponsored a child care center and numerous other social service efforts that were recognized by the Ambassador.]
The truth is, I was having a ball. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be having all of these new experiences. Bob and I were a Foreign Service team.
The old guard was challenged in 1972 by younger wives who were wary of “being taken advantage of for no pay.” The State Department drew up what was called The Pink Paper to deliniate the responsibilities and rules pertaining to Foreign Service wives: the Department of State “Policy on Wives,” asserted that ‘the wife of a foreign service employee who is with her husband at a foreign post is an individual, not a government employee.’ The Pink Paper, and the era that produced it, amounted to being a killer of the fun.”
Mom and Dad were teammates for more than 50 years.