How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children

It's possible to travel the world with the State Department and still be a devoted parent. It just takes a lot of ingenuity and hard work.


Like many women in Washington -- and a lot of men, too -- I read with fascination Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic about the challenges she faced in her time in government and the conclusions she drew from her experience. As a career Foreign Service officer currently in a high-level position, and as the mother of two boys aged 8 and 11, I was riveted by Dr. Slaughter's description of the environment in which I work every day. But while Dr. Slaughter concluded that it was impossible to "have it all" as a high-level official in government, my experience could not be more different.

A debate on career and family See full coverage

In conversation after conversation, my colleagues and I puzzled over why Dr. Slaughter's experience had so contrasted with ours. Was it because she had tasted another life, that of an academic who had a level of control over her schedule that we could not even imagine? Was it because she tried out government work while living in a different city from her family?

Regardless of why our experiences differed so greatly, I was left thinking not only about my own experience, but about the responsibility we women have to create change by introducing a different environment for the younger, more junior officers -- both male and female -- whether in government or elsewhere. After a stream of officers in the bureau I lead stopped in to tell me that they wished I would weigh in, I decided to add some of my thoughts and experiences to the conversation.


I joined the Foreign Service at the young age of 21. I was single and certain I would only do the job for a few years until I settled down to a more typical career. I never gave much thought to what it would mean for my personal life, much less what it would mean when I became a mother a decade later. Over the years, through assignments to Cairo, Tel Aviv (where I met my husband), Amman (where I had son #1), Taipei (with #2 now in tow as well), and Dubai, I never really considered another way of life. I was having too much fun and wanted to achieve more, reach higher, and become a leader in my field.

The pain of my first grader asking me why I couldn't pick him up after school was a thousand times worse than turning down my dream post in Jerusalem.

Along the way, I turned down assignments that I desperately wanted but that I knew would not be a good fit for my family. The same went for my husband. I took the full permitted leave after the birth of each child, and so did my husband. [Note: I am still in disbelief that there is no such thing as maternity leave in government, when it's government that should be setting the example. Instead, an employee takes sick leave. So non-parents can get seriously ill and have sick leave available, but not parents?]

I established the unheard-of practice of taking a week off upon arriving at each overseas post in order to get my family settled before jumping into work myself. And I've set hard-and-fast arrival and departure times on normal days, making my supervisors aware of those hours before taking an assignment.

By using mobile technology and consistently selecting jobs that handle mainly unclassified material, I've been able to continue my work regardless of my physical location and late into most evenings after my kids are asleep. I am focused and efficient during working hours and am rarely far from my blackberry when I'm not at the office. These were all choices available to me within our system.

My husband has made similar choices -- regularly leaving the house while it's still dark out so that he can get his work done in time to do his share of the carpool duties and choosing assignments that kept him with the family, even when that meant slower or fewer promotions. Just as Dr. Slaughter recommends, we are always honest with our colleagues about where we are when we are not at work.

We are clear in our own minds that in this phase of our lives, so-called "work life balance" means work and family. Full stop. Social life is on the "nice to have" list, not the mandatory list. We haven't seen a non-animated movie in a movie theater in a decade. We collapse from exhaustion most evenings and are each settled in with a book by 10 p.m. We watch almost no TV and shop for everything except for groceries online. Fun for us, at this point, is family dinner time, walking the dog, camping with our kids for a night on the weekend, or maybe getting together with another family.

You get the idea. Everything else is work. Friends and colleagues are surprised, and occasionally offended, when I categorically state that I do not agree to engagements on weekday evenings (with the exception of my monthly book club, which keeps me sane).

It was painful to turn down a dream job in Jerusalem that I once would have killed for. But I knew my kids would have had to spend at least 2 hours a day on a bus commuting to and from school, and I would have been consumed by always-urgent work. It was hard to face colleagues when I did not serve in Iraq, though I speak fluent Arabic and could surely have made an important contribution. And it was excruciating to face one of my best friends who made the choice to leave her two daughters for a year to lead a critical mission in Iraq.

Presented by

Dana Shell Smith is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State. She is currently the State Department's principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.

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