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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Not Always Hospitable

I am American.  And being American, I have very strong feelings about being able to make my own choices and letting everyone else just have to deal with them.  That may be a little strong, but it's very much the American spirit.  We are a country full of people who told their home countries and cultures to stuff it and went off to do their own thing.  It can sometimes be obnoxious to others (and other countries) around us, but it's part of our national identity whether you like it or not.

This feeling definitely extends to my family.  I know that having a large family can offend people, but I really don't care.  It's my uterus and we don't ask anyone else to pay for it, so I can have as many children as I like.  Whenever people try to protest about 'social irresponsible' reasons for having so many dang kids, Brandon always likes to point out that our children will be paying for their Social Security.  I don't think that reasoning has ever convinced anyone that we're not irresponsible, but it always feels good to point it out.  I'm mostly presentable in public, but not quite all the time.

This is an interesting attitude to hold when one is employed by the U.S. Department of State, however.  I imagine it is also somewhat problematic if one works for the armed forces, as both organizations pay for your life a lot more than regular jobs do.  The jobs that most people hold just pay a salary and maybe insurance, but they don't much care how many people you're supporting because it makes no difference to them. 

When your job pays for your housing (which is dependent on family size), plane tickets, shipping of household effects, and schooling, however, it starts to make a difference.  Brandon and I have never experienced any outright discrimination because of our large family size - that would be an EEO (equal employment opportunity) violation and those are not taken lightly in the U.S. government.  But we have definitely run into the reality that State isn't exactly set up for larger families.

One of the biggest headaches about having a large family is our HHE (household effects) weight allowance.  State allows 7,200 pounds per employee.  It doesn't matter if it is a single guy straight out of grad school or a family with ten children - everyone gets 7,200 pounds.  I remember thinking that over three tons of stuff was a lot of stuff back when we had two children in an 800 square-foot duplex.  But when you have six children (and then you homeschool), 7,200 pounds goes very fast.  You can always pay out of pocket for overages, but I've heard of people paying $3-4 a pound.  There's not much that you want to keep at that price.  So all of the children's artwork gets digitally recorded and then tossed.  There's no room for sentimental keepsakes and hauling any extra furniture is a funny joke.  Many people here in Tashkent have beautiful coffee tables made out of antique wooden doors.  Instead we haul around six bikes.

We also run into weight problems with our consumables shipment.  Just as with HHE, every officer is allotted the same amount of weight - 2,500 pounds of consumable items - for a two-year tour.  That same single recent grad student gets the same amount of weight for all of the things you can't buy in Tashkent (think: root beer and brown sugar and laundry detergent) as we do with eight people.  This shipment I had prioritize items as there was no way I could get two years' worth of TP and cold cereal in our shipment.  Thank heaven we have the pouch.  When I occasionally hear complaints about people using the pouch to order consumables, I want to point out that if they gave us enough weight I wouldn't need to use the pouch - and it would be a lot cheaper for everyone.

One of the unusual problems we run into with a big family is housing.  When we joined, I mistakenly assumed that we would get a bedroom per child.  I had dreams of seven-bedroom houses and all of the different things I could do with that much space.  This is something that that single recent graduate likes to complain about - it's not fair that big families get nicer, larger housing.  But we came to Tashkent with one more child than we arrived in Dushanbe with and we now have a house with one fewer bedroom than we had in Dushanbe.  We will have seven children soon and we will fit those seven children into three of the four bedrooms in our house - only one more bedroom than the three bedrooms that some single people here have.  There's a good reason we choose to spend a hundred or so pounds of our precious weight allotment on bunk bed frames.

Cars are also a problem for larger families.  State will pay to ship one car to post for each employee.  Some people choose to simply buy a car at post so that they have one immediately after arrival.  We don't have that luxury as you can't really count on an outgoing diplomat selling an eight-seater car right when you need one.  So that means waiting months for your car to be shipped, cleared, registered, and plated while you rely on local transportation to get where you need.  I remember one evening when all six of the children and I got to squeeze in to the back of a Matiz (a car so small it's not made for US markets) for a very hot, packed ride home from the amusement park.

Once you top seven children, that story gets even more complicated.  State pays to ship your car, but it only pays to ship a car that fits into a regular shipping container.  It turns out that any car that fits nine or more people does not fit into a regular shipping container.  Which means that every time that car is shipped, you get to pay extra to ship your car with you.  We decided to skip that extra expense and just buy two cars.

I know that none of these things is intentionally set up to inconvenience large families.  It's just set up for average family sizes, which we are definitely not.  I know that having a family the size that we have is just as counter-culture as pink hair - these days it's probably more so than pink hair.  I certainly don't demand that anyone make special allowances for my special situation.  But it is something to think about if you're considering joining the Foreign Service.  It's not always easy to have a large family in this lifestyle.

The one time when we were purposely treated differently because we are large family was in the recent medevac debacle.  I'm used to systemic inconvenience, but I was surprised at the blatant discrimination based on our family size.  There was a definite undercurrent of feeling during our conversation about childcare that implied there was no way I could be a competent, responsible mother if I willingly had so many children.  After all, anyone with half a brain knows how to stop that from happening, so clearly I had less than half a brain.  When I mentioned Kathleen's ability to babysit her younger siblings (for only an hour or two!), one of the participants commented, 'Well, there are only so many children that one child can be expected to watch safely.'  The implication that I could even consider doing such a dangerous, irresponsible thing on a regular basis definitely set my teeth on edge.  I'm pretty sure you have to be more, not less competent to successfully manage a large family.

There will always by those who complain about large families in the Foreign Service (and in the world in general) and think that everyone should have a state-mandated number of children.  So far those people have not gained the upper hand so we will continue on with this job that works pretty well most of the time.  And when those people make veiled (or un-veiled) comments about how irresponsible I am, I will sweetly ignore them because rude people don't deserve my attention.  But I will mentally make rude gestures back at them.  Because I'm not that much of a good person.

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