How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children

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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.

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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.

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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.

OWN YOUR DECISIONS

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.

But I sought other assignments that allowed me to serve my country, pursue my ambitions, and rise through the ranks while raising my family the way I feel most comfortable. Even as plum jobs have sometimes gone to other officers, I've have remained fundamentally confident that I've chosen a path that is right for me.

So the bottom line for me in "having it all" is: own your decisions. Know what your own priorities are, stay true to them, and understand that every decision has consequences. If you have made a choice that is true to your priorities, the consequences will be far less painful.

NO ONE HAS IT ALL -- AT LEAST, NOT MOST OF THE TIME

After I read Dr. Slaughter's article, I was struck by how two-dimensional her vision of "having it all" had been before her Washington experiment. My experience has been much messier than my high-ranking job and happy family might suggest from the outside. Maintaining that balance is a challenge and a struggle every single day.

Just as I have passed up dream jobs and professional opportunities, I have missed the chance to be as involved in my children's school, extra-curricular activities, and homework routines than I would have liked. It was hard to let my husband take our son to the doctor when he was sick and we both could have used some extra snuggles. And the pain of my first grader asking me why I couldn't pick him up every day after school "like the other mommies" was a thousand times worse than turning down my dream post in Jerusalem. My kids knew by first grade that they should sign up to bring water to school parties, even though I love to bake. I would like to have closer friends, but that would require time I simply cannot give. And I would love to exercise and get haircuts when I need them, but those, too, are luxuries that do not go along with the life I am leading at the moment.

I have been incredibly gratified to see that as my kids begin to understand some of my choices, they are (occasionally) proud to have a mom who works hard to shape and execute our nation's foreign policy. But I don't believe there are any women -- or men -- on Earth who feel that they "have it all" at every moment of every day.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE ISN'T ONLY FOR PARENTS

The red herring of this conversation is the implication that work-life balance is all about kids. I speak on panels at the State Department about work-life balance, and I always try to point out that the "life" part of the equation means something different to everyone. If we are genuine in our desire to create an environment that allows balance, then we want everyone to have a life, whether that means running marathons, caring for aging parents, supporting a partner in his or her career, playing in a band, or getting a good night's sleep before going back to work.

It is here where I was most distressed by Dr. Slaughter's article. One of the questions that lingered for me after reading her story was how her vision of herself as a feminist, and the pace she set at the State Department, impacted the people on her team. We have many more choices now, thanks to the generations before us who blazed so many trails. Don't we owe the women coming after us even better? If we wish things were different still, rather than pronouncing the game over, shouldn't we use the stature we have achieved to continue to create change? Do the young men and women we mentor really need us telling them whether or not they can "have it all," especially when that means something different to each of us?

As someone who came up through the ranks and now leads a team of over 250 people of varying ages, ranks, and backgrounds, I feel responsible for how my leadership impacts their lives and careers. I want my people to have meaningful personal lives so that they can make positive and optimistic contributions when they are at work.

I want my office manager to leave early and bowl her heart out two nights a week; I know she works hard, and I know she will make up those hours on other days. I want the young dad on my team to take his daughter to the doctor and the other young dad to be there when his wife has her ultrasound. And I want the newly divorced young woman to get out with her friends and have a social life she feels good about. I want the pregnant hard-charger to be able to take maternity leave without a single shred of guilt.

Even though I have reached a leadership position, I remember all too well what it was like at the lower ranks and how grateful I was for supervisors who supported my attempts to find balance. And I am grateful now that the State Department is led by a woman who understands the challenges we face and supports us as people, not just professionals. I realize that I have a responsibility to think beyond my own daily successes and disappointments and set an example for those coming after me.

I went into foreign policy because I wanted to make the world a better place. I now feel an equal desire to make my own immediate world a better place. I try every day to lead by example, and occasionally achieve some balance. Sometimes that feels pretty close to having it all.

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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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