Secret aid worker

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James Foley had just been beheaded and I was not in the best mental state to be planning a trip to Iraq. How do you tell your wife that your NGO’s emergency response work in Kurdistan requires you to be based just 60 km away from ISIS strongholds? It doesn’t make for a great conversation starter at dinner.

That I’d been in this situation before and my wife had also worked in the aid sector should have made things easier. We’d both been Peace Corps volunteers in a west African country when the president was assassinated in the 90s, and we had come to understand that unrest is often very localised. The chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – if you’re being smart – are usually very low. But all that is little consolation to a family member on the other side of the world, feeling very far away and thinking of their loved one alone in a scary place.

I was an aid worker for eight years before leaving the sector last year to work in higher education. I have three children and am happily married and to begin with my various jobs – as a programme officer, and doing HR in emergency response, allowed me to work mainly in the US, with a few trips “to the field” when necessary.

But as my career developed, I was under pressure to travel more and more. Like many aid workers at first I looked forward to the opportunities to travel, which were also essential to my career development, since I needed the experience, exposure, and credibility that successful field visits provide, but by my last year, I was at 35% travel. It wasn’t nearly the ‘up to 50%’ that my job description had warned me about but it was already uncompatible with parental duties, especially given the short notice I usually received. When the Nepal earthquake happened last year on a Saturday, for example, I was on a plane on Tuesday and away for four weeks. A few weeks after that I headed back again.

I’m certainly not the only aid worker with a family and I am curious how others juggle their work/life balance. When I started my first job, travelling to the field was the only way to really “break-in” to the sector. You’d get deployed and create a sense of need for your services that would require them to keep you out there, eventually transitioning to a regular position.

But each deployment always felt bittersweet. The excitement, fulfillment, respect, and new experience gained diminished with each homecoming. I missed birthdays, my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, her county spelling bee competition.

I wanted to be there for my kids, share responsibilities and support my wife’s aspirations. Could that co-exist with being an aid worker? I think there comes a point where these things cannot reconcile.

Speaking to my wife regularly when I travelled helped. But mess up the time zones, and catch my wife trying to get the kids to eat, bathe or go to bed, a child in one hand, and her half-listening on the phone in the other, and I was drowning in guilt again. There was an unspoken resentment – we’re both tired and stressed, frustrated our partner isn’t listening to us but at the same time feeling selfish for not being sensitive to their needs in the first place.

Any excitement I felt about the job, seeing anything new, experiencing anything that made me feel grateful about having this career, felt empty. I wished I could share these fantastic experiences for once, especially as my kids got older and expressed interest in all my adventures.

Ultimately I had to step out of the game. I go back and forth on which way to look at how this affected my career – was it that my family was keeping me from being an effective aid worker? Was I even cut out for this if I couldn’t handle the separation? Was there anything my employer could do?

My employer was first-rate overall. However, you have a job description, deliverables, and accountability. Is aid work for the childless and unattached? Maybe.

I had several colleagues with families. Some of the men were married to women they’d met in the field – women from developing countries where maybe their expectations of gender roles are not like an American woman’s. The women I worked with were mostly single, occasionally complaining about not being able to maintain romantic relationships with their heavy travel schedule.

The one woman with kids was my boss’s boss, a legendary aid worker who had the strongest work ethic of anyone I’ve ever known, traveling easily 50-60% of her year. But she is an outlier. Even when I was recruiting emergency aid workers, many respectfully declined for family reasons.

Hopefully one day I’ll be able to step back into the aid game. But I can’t miss my kids’ childhood right now. You never get those years back.

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