Trials of a “Trailing Spouse”

The expat life offers many delights but one element I’ve found challenging? Being stuck in the role of a “trailing spouse.” Yes it’s 2015. And yes, this term is still used widely.

Maybe it’s just my ego (I don’t necessarily excel at taking the back seat) but I think it’s more than that. It’s something to do with a sense of self and career being an integral part of identity and–sure–ego.

I find the term “trailing spouse” off putting because it suggests my sole career–and identity–is being a spouse (and a trailing one at that!). I loved this blog post on The Trailing Spouse Identity Project about the challenges of life, career, and identity as a trailing spouse, and how to stay positive and seize the opportunities it presents. The author astutely explains what I’ve struggled to convey:

What we do for a living is an inherent and (un)conscious factor in how we value ourselves— whether we judge it in terms of contribution to society or the money we make. When I stopped work I lost the measuring unit or reference point for judging the value of ‘me’.

Love this post and plan to start following the Time of Tea blog – check it out!

And shine on!

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Feeling Inspired!

Blue Smocked Dress with Blue Elephant Close

Lately, I’ve been spending lots of time diving into beautiful, handmade children’s and home designs… And the women behind them. I’m LOVING this creative energy. I haven’t felt this inspired in years!

More to come…Very soon.

Shine on!

Friday Inspiration

Reading this article from Parenting Magazine was just the inspiration I needed on this Friday morning.

Have you heard of PowerToFly? I’m so inspired by this company and the women who founded it. You may have read Katharine Zaleski’s open letter in Fortune Magazine “I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with” that went viral on social media.

While dealing with the issues common to all working parents, she took action and helped found a company to help other working women. I love the concept! As Katharine wrote in her letter:

By enabling women to work from home, women could be valued for their productivity and not time spent sitting in an office or at a bar bonding afterwards. Mothers could have a third option that would allow them to either remain in the workforce or be a part of it even from areas with few job options.

Genius, huh? And there’s even research to back up this approach:

All the tools exist for remote work – Slack, Jira, Skype, Trello, Google Docs. Research shows remote workers can be more productive. Furthermore, millennials – with or without kids – want that flexibility, a Harvard study found.

This is the future and I’m thankful for trailblazers like these women who are making it happen for the rest of us! Shine on!

IMG_1584Multi-tasking in the air

Check out the PowerToFly website and app for flexible tech opportunities and resources for working women.

Way to go, Facebook!

#Facebook #like

I was psyched to see Sheryl Sandberg’s announcement that Facebook now has new standards on benefits for its largest contractors and vendors, including paid parental leave:

Today, I am pleased to announce that we are implementing a new set of standards on benefits for contractors and vendors who support Facebook in the US and do a substantial amount of work with us. These benefits include a $15 minimum wage, minimum 15 paid days off for holidays, sick time and vacation, and for those workers who don’t receive paid parental leave, a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents. This will give both women and men the flexibility to take paid parental leave, an important step for stronger families and healthier children. 

Why is this so important? Because, according to this report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The United States is the only high-income country, and one of only eight countries in the world (Heymann and McNeill 2013), that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns.” I won’t go into paternity leave or shared parental leave, but suffice it to say, it’s no better.

It’s great to see a U.S. company leading the charge on changing parental work policies – not because they’re forced to, but because it’s good for their employees AND for their business.

Bravo! Shine on!

Leaning in, Girlie-style

Loved this Vanessa Friedman piece in last Monday’s NYTimes about Michelle Obama’s “girlie” style. The author raises such a good point: why do we have a double standard about how powerful women should dress? It’s 2015, people. I love a great business suit, but it’s not the only game in town.

As Friedman wrote, “How do you erase a stereotype? You confront it, and force others to confront their own preconceptions about it, and then you own it. And in doing so you denude it of its power.”

When I first moved to D.C., I pretty much wore suits every day. Boring suits. Boring pumps (yes, pumps). Boring pearls. I thought that to be taken seriously as a young, female professional, I had to dress the part.

Slowly, I realized that I could ditch that drab suit but still dress professionally, “cute,” and me. And that didn’t mean people wouldn’t take me seriously. On the contrary, I think that adding a splash of style and personality tended to leave more of an impression.

I was so excited when Condoleezza Rice wore knee-high boots in 2005. I thought, If the Secretary of State can get away with wearing knee boots to the office, I certainly can! But here’s the point, why did I have to “get away” with it? Condi looked great  – classic, conservative suit and a nice pair of black, knee-high boots. She was showcasing her own style, and I loved it (still do!).

Madame Secretary at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield, February 23, 2005

A few years later, when the Obamas moved into the White House, I appreciated the First Lady’s independent style. One day, she ventured across the street to visit the OMB career staff, and I was so excited I wore a magenta dress inspired by her Vogue Cover (granted, my dress wasn’t Jason Wu, but I think I still looked pretty good).

https://i1.wp.com/content.hollywire.com/sites/default/files/2009/02/13/michelle-obama-march-vogue-cover.jpg

I tend to speak my mind. So when Mrs. Obama shook my hand, I couldn’t help but blurt out: “This is my Michelle Obama on the cover of Vogue dress!” My colleagues looked at me with horror, but the First Lady laughed and laughed and repeated, “Cover of Vogue dress!” She seemed to get a kick out of it. By the time I’d made it up ten floors to my office, the story had already made it back to my boss.

Michelle ObamaBefore the handshake

My embarrassing stories aside, I agree with Ms. Friedman’s closing point: “Think of [Michelle Obama’s style] as a twist on Gloria Steinem’s wake-up call to 40: That is what a successful, well-educated woman looks like. Carnations, acacia blossoms, full skirts and all. It’s probably about time we learned.” Bring it on.

Maternity Leave Madness

It’s not breaking news that maternity leave policies in the U.S. leave something to be desired. And by something to be desired, I mean they’re pathetic.

With both of my kids, I was “lucky” because I was able to take three months (R) and two months (MK) of paid leave. My husband and I wanted to take our leave sequentially, so we could extend the at-home time with the baby before full-time daycare. But he wasn’t allowed to take sick-leave past the eight mark. Apparently, caring for a newborn baby is not considered a medical requirement – you know, because they’re so independent at two months old. I was also “lucky” that I was able keep up with emails while I was home on maternity leave. This was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it made transitioning back to work a little less stressful; on the other hand, it was a distraction that kept me from making the most of my few months home.

Maternity Multitasking

Maternity leave multi-tasking.

After my maternity leave was over, I had no option to transition slowly back into work – it was all or nothing. To add insult to injury, I had to use all my sick and annual leave to get paid during maternity leave, meaning I returned to work with ZERO hours of leave on the books. Not good when you have a kid in daycare (i.e. constant colds). And God forbid you want to take an actual vacation (because maternity leave is so relaxing!). The crazy thing is, I’m one of the lucky Americans who at least has some paid parental leave. According to statistics Sheryl Sandberg cites in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead “Forty percent of employed mothers lack sick days and vacation leave, and about 50 percent of employed mothers are unable to take time off to care for a sick child. Only about half of women receive any pay during maternity leave.” And we wonder why working moms are stretched and stressed?!!?

I’m sure most of you have read (or read about) Lean In. I loved it. Alone, the arguments weren’t groundbreaking. But I loved the smart way she dug into a broad, controversial, emotional subject (motherhood, work, and life balance) and backed it up with facts, figures, and examples. I liked that she started a dialogue on issues that mattered to me. Her book – and the publicity it received – validated my feelings. Instead of feeling whiny, I felt energized. It spurred both women and men to have tough talks about why women are underrepresented in the executive levels of business and government and how to change this. At the end of the day, a woman struggling to balance everything will need a reliable partner and they need to be part of the dialogue too.

That’s why reading this Washington Post article (posted by a male friend!) on Vodafone’s new global maternity leave policy, which sets a minimum for maternity leave, made my day. It’s awesome to see a company leaning in and changing the way women are expected to behave in the workplace and at home. The best part? Vodafone isn’t changing their policy because a government regulation told them to. They’ve changed it because it’s good for their business and their employees. According to the Post article:

Indeed, talent retention was one of the very goals Vodafone had in mind when it designed its new policy. On a global level, women comprise roughly 35 percent of Vodafone’s employees, but only 21 percent of its international senior leadership team. Moreover, 65 percent of the women in the past who opted to leave the company following maternity leave did so within the first year.

Sharon Doherty, a director at Vodafone who was the architect of the new policies, went looking for ways to address those numbers. She noticed that in Italy, Portugal and Romania, where mandates are in place for companies to help women transition back into the workplace after maternity leave, the company’s retention rate was higher. “That led me to ask more questions and find out why,” she said. She decided to pitch the idea of a company-wide global policy.

It’s so refreshing to hear an international company recognize that women–with or without children–bring something special to the workforce. And taking leave to care for our children shouldn’t mean we have to sit in the penalty box for a few years (until the kids are old enough to care for themselves and we can return to work). Because the truth is — and Sheryl (my buddy) talks a lot about this in her book — the longer you’re out of the workforce, the harder it is to get back in. I wish I’d had maternity leave options like the ones Vodaphone is proposing and hope this is the first of many companies to think smart and change the way the do business.

Kudos to you, Vodafone!

Time to Shine

Back when I lived in DC, worked full-time, and fancied myself a young urban professional, I used to say I didn’t want to turn into one of those moms who wears Lululemon all the time. My thinking was, “Just because you spend $100 on yoga pants doesn’t mean you should wear them all day long.”

Now, before I offend half of my (two) readers, hear me out. First of all, I love Lululemon – I dream of having racks of coordinating yoga outfits and to look fashionably fit while walking out of a yoga sculpt class, glistening with sweat, to pick up my kids from school. But the all-day Lulu outfit was a symbol, the uniform of many a—gasp—stay-at-home mom! I’ll admit it, I used to be one of “those” women who worked full-time and couldn’t imagine not putting on professional business attire to start my day. I knew being a full-time mom was incredibly challenging and admired all the women who did it – my mom, some of my best friends – but I just didn’t want to do it myself.

The truth was, I was insecure about who I was and how to balance my family and my career. After having kids, I felt like my career took a nosedive. I wanted to move forward but I didn’t have the energy. And I felt guilty. It sucks to drop your three month old off at daycare at 7:30 pm, pick her up at 5:30 pm, and put her to bed two hours later. I felt guilty. But I also felt guilty because I didn’t want to be a full-time mom either. I looked enviously at my friends who’d already made that choice and felt like there was something wrong with me for not making that sacrifice and for not even wanting to try. I felt guilty. Was I missing a maternal gene?

Fast-forward a year. I’m getting ready to move to Hanoi, a city I’d never visited in a country I’d never set foot in, where they speak a language I don’t understand. 26 hours away on a good day. And I was flying with a 2.5 year old and a 2 month old. I’m organized. I plan. That’s what I do. So I had a plan: I was going to have my second daughter, move to Hanoi, take a few months off, start a part-time job, while simultaneously pursuing an Executive MBA. I was so smart. I even interviewed for my Embassy job the night before my scheduled c-section! I took a perverse delight when I casually mentioned I was delivering a baby the following day and the interviewers gasped and said, “Well, we’ll hurry this interview up then.” I was ON IT. Ah, “the best laid plans…”

So we get to Vietnam, spend a few months settling in, and I’m ready to start (chomping at the bit, that is) to start working. Well guess what? That wasn’t going to happen. Gotta’ love government bureaucracies. I thought I’d start in a month or two so I focused on my Executive MBA program and headed off for the retreat weekend excited to embark on a new adventure. Well, the program wasn’t what I expected, and I didn’t want to spend time away from my kids pursuing a degree that I didn’t think necessary nor desirable. Scratch that off the strategic planning chart. If you’re keeping score, this left me with no job, no MBA program, and NO PLAN. Plan B? Stay-at-home mom. OMG.

So, I donned my Lululemon uniform and plunged into mom-dom: breastfeeding, (literally) cleaning up spilled milk, school drop-offs, swim lessons, sitting cross-legged at baby music class, watching bad TV while the kids napped. There were certainly upsides: I spent time with my kids, including doing all things I’d never had time to do in D.C. But I still felt anxious, like I spinning my wheels. I wanted staying at home to be my choice, and it wasn’t. Which left me a healthy dose of resentment on top of my trash heap of a plan. Slowly, and I mean slowly, some things started to click though.

1) The Lulu uniform ain’t so bad. Comfortable, stylish, adaptable. (Far more embarrassing was the Southeast Asia version I began to adopt. I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say that it involves $5 elephant pants sold to Millennial backpackers throughout the region… Seriously.)

Elephant Pants for BlogRocking my new uniform: elephant pants.

2) Personal goals still mattered. Check that, they mattered more than ever. And fitness became a huge one. I achieved a personal fitness goal of getting into crow pose this fall and then, this winter, finally getting into full wheel. I used to tell myself I’d never be able to do either. When I pulled off crow I screamed – in the middle of yoga class, very un-yogi of me – “I did it!” It felt awesome. I felt like me. I felt like I was shining again and my perspective began to shift.

3) Usually when an older person tells me how lucky I am to be staying at home “because I’ll never get these times back,” it’s when one or both children are wiping snot on my pants or exploding their fruit squeezies on themselves. And I want to punch the well-intentioned stranger in the nose. But in those rare (very rare) quiet moments, I begin to realize they have a point. The chaos is kinda the good stuff.

These are among the many things I’ve gained perspective on having quit my job, left my friends, family, dog, and home, moved halfway around the world, and gone waaaaaay outside of my comfort zone. And that’s what Shine is about. I’ve spent lots of time in the past few years reading, thinking, and over analyzing life. And doing it amidst the craziness of Hanoi has given me a new appreciation for the things that matter in my life: family, fitness, food, and frolicking (traveling, kids, having fun). I hope my crazy ramblings might be helpful to others going through the same life adjustments. And I hope you’ll share your ideas with me. Because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to find balance.

Riley Boat Pose for BlogR rocking a boat pose in Bali.

P.S. I can still rock a D.C. business suit with the best of them!

Biz Suit for Blog