Female Diplomats' Challenge — The 'Trailing Spouse': One, Who Left The NYT, Speaks Out From Mozambique

View of a market in Maputo, Mozambique
A Maputo marketplace. Image via Wikipedia

One of my fantasy careers — until I totally flunked Canada’s Foreign Service Exam — was working overseas as a diplomat. I love to travel and explore new cultures, but it quickly became clear to me that the life demands tremendous commitment to a larger set of goals, not your own agenda of seeing the world.

One of the many challenges, especially for women serving in these essential roles, is that of finding a partner both willing and able to table or shelve his own career ambitions to follow the demands of your new employer. So I read with interest this great piece in the Financial Times what life was like for Britain’s first female foreign service employees.

Then I remembered I actually know a “trailing spouse” and asked if he’d be willing to share some of his life with us. I’m delighted that he agreed; his answers to my many questions are below.

Michael Barrientos started out as a photo editor for The New York Times, which is how I know him. He and his wife are heading back to D.C. soon for two years, awaiting their next posting. I have always wondered what it’s like to be(come) the trailing spouse and know that many ambitious women with global careers and ambitions face these issues as well.

As you might imagine, it requires tremendous flexibility and grace to manage a marriage, two careers and kids while moving from one unfamiliar nation and culture to the next. Thank heaven for such men!

Many thanks to Michael for his time and candor…

I’m a professional photographer and photo editor, age 41, born in Compton, California and grew up in Paramount (Long Beach area in Los Angeles County.)  I graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in communications.  I became interested in photography late in college and did a photo internship at the Pasadena Star-News in my final year of college.  In 1993 I took my first newspaper job as a staff writer at the Porterville Recorder, a small daily newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley.  I was asked to be a full-time photographer by the executive editor after I did a number of photo essays.  A new position was added for me.

I was drawn to photography in my first photojournalism class which I admittedly took as what I thought would be an easy elective.  The turning point came during a class trip to the National Press Photographer Association’s flying short course when I saw Donna Ferrato and several other documentary photographers.  I changed my concentration.

After my time in Central California, I moved to the U.S./Mexico border to take a job in McAllen, Texas.  I worked as a staff photographer for the Monitor newspaper.  I left the paper to study Spanish in Guanajuato, Mexico.  I began freelancing for the AP and moved to San Antonio where I worked for the San Antonio Express-News.  After that, I took a job at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida, a New York Times newspaper.  I spent six years there:  three as a staff photographer and three as deputy director of photography.  I then went to The New York Times.

Neither my family nor I had any foreign service family or background.  My parents were blue-collar:  my father is a retired truck driver and union activist, and my mother continues working as a hair dresser, an admission clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, and a longshoreman.  My only preparation was occasional family trip to Tijuana.   The transient lifestyle of journalism, however, made it a good fit.  My background moving around the country working at newspapers or on assignment, particularly during my time on the U.S./Mexico border, along with personal travel helped.

This is my wife, Sarah’s, third posting.  She served her first post in Algiers when I was still at the Times. Her second post was Lisbon, where I first joined her after our first child Thomas,  4, was born in Washington, D.C.  Our second son, Charles, 2, was born in Lisbon.

Preparation is not required for spouses but there is training, classes and other resources available for any family member interested.  I learned Portuguese and took other university-level courses at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.  You are given security briefings about the countries you go to in preparation for a posting.  The State Department makes an effort to make trailing spouses satisfied with jobs and activities.  The training I have received was invaluable.  The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute was an invaluable experience with their famous language training.

The toughest challenge has been leaving my job and career.  I really loved working at The New York Times. I had the highest regard for the newspaper, what we did, the people I worked with, and hated to step away.

We had a lot of conflict early on.  I was resentful about leaving a job that I deeply enjoyed and was very satisfied in.  It was a hard transition to becoming an instant stay-at-home father and trailing spouse.  Gradually, I have adapted and gotten used to it.  I had been in newspapers for so long that it was tough to get used to being out of the industry.   There were a number of issues at play, such as Mexican-American family pressure and lack of full support of my decision to step away from my career.

I had told my wife that I would open to joining her at some point overseas, but I honestly never expected that we would come to that point and especially not so soon or abruptly.  Cultural differences were at play.  My experience with my own mother, my three sisters and extended family was that women left their jobs especially when a baby came along.  Yet, I have been a big supporter of women’s rights and have been a mentor to women photojournalists.  I was active in recruiting and hiring female photographers.

My newspaper in Sarasota, Florida was hailed in the industry while I was there for having a female publisher, executive editor, managing editor and AME/Visuals who were all women.  I admired them; they were great teachers and mentors.  I had pushed my own sisters to advance themselves.  It would be have been hypocritical of me and sent a bad message to a lot of people, especially my wife, if I would have pounded my chest and rescinded my agreement.

Oddly enough, during the 2008 presidential campaign, I got a lot of comfort seeing Todd Palin and Bill Clinton standing back and supporting their wives.  If anything, it shows how the Foreign Service is changing and, more broadly, the workplace.   It was amusing watching the film Julie & Julia about Julia Child.  Much of it revolves around her staying busy as a trailing diplomatic spouse, which is actually instrumental in her ultimately becoming who she became. It is an arcane look at what the foreign service used to be and shows how far women have come in the modern diplomatic corps.  There is a growing number of male trailing spouses which in the grand scheme of things is a good thing.

I have adapted to the life and just finished a Master’s program through University of the Arts, London.  I have started a new life as a freelance photographer and have changed my outlook on photography where I used to be entirely focused on newspaper photography.  I just had my first two consecutive solo photography exhibitions ever in Maputo.   Advantages for a photographer in diplomatic life are becoming clearer.

Maputo has been a good post for us.  I’ve adapted to the Foreign Service lifestyle and being a trailing spouse.  I am a freelance photographer and am represented by Polaris Images and do stock photography for Corbis and Alamy.  I also do contract work for the embassy producing their newsletter and other occasional projects, have spoken and presented workshops, and taught classes here on freelance work.   I’ll now be focusing on a new use of my background and education looking at the potential of the Internet, news agencies and the rapidly changing journalism field.

Advising a Foreign Service spouse would be difficult.  It’s an individual decision and not everybody is cut out for it.  I have seen a number of spouses and foreign service officers who could not handle the changes in lifestyle, culture and being away from family and friends.  I had grown accustomed to it over my career despite growing up in a tight-knit family.

Work, weather and culture took getting used to.  Maputo is what is known as a hardship post.  The weather is hot and humid like Florida and South Texas.  Culturally, my only comparison is Mexico with a huge disparity of wealth with extremes of wealth and severe poverty, endemic corruption, infrastructure problems, crime, pollution, and other problems.

Maputo is a former Portuguese colony that gained its independence in 1975, suffered through years of civil war which ended in 1993 and is still one of the poorest countries in the world.

I have made local friends.  My closest friend, Carlos Litulo, is a Mozambican photojournalist.  My wife and I have become good friends with a Mozambican businessman married to a former British diplomat.  Our family travels to the U.S. once a year during our mandatory “R&R” which is paid for to our home city there,  but many families return more often on their own dime.  We try to do leisure travel but it can be difficult with small children.  We take regular trips to South Africa to take a break from the harsh aspects of Mozambique.  Being able to drive on a pot hole-free road or walk through a mall can be a great relief.

Mozambique is not known for its cuisine outside of the availability of fresh seafood.  The Portuguese did not leave cuisine behind like the French did in their former colonies, however, they did leave their café culture.  You can’t drink the water (we are issued a water distiller), and we do most of our shopping on monthly trips to South Africa.

Our income has been affected.  I was paid well at the Times and it was tough giving up two incomes to become a dependent while contributing with my supplementary freelance money.  Our marriage has had tough challenges.  Not having support of family and friends is tough.  The Internet helps tremendously with Skype, social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs and e-mail.  We stay involved in the diplomatic community and established a daily family routine.  Families in the Foreign Service are often close because of its nomadic nature.

As far as the places we live, I do have a say in her choice of postings.  In the past, diplomatic spouses used to be part of an officer’s evaluation.  It wasn’t long ago that how well you entertained and presented yourself to the diplomatic community were points taken into consideration for promotions.  Family still has influence on whether one gets a posting.  We discuss it intensely taking a number of factors into consideration.  Posting lengths vary but generally they are between two to three years.  On occasion they can be extended or for a non-accompanied hardship post like Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, they can be only a year.

2 thoughts on “Female Diplomats' Challenge — The 'Trailing Spouse': One, Who Left The NYT, Speaks Out From Mozambique

  1. Nice posting. As someone who has traveled a lot — and who gave up a foreign assignment to be a (temporary) stay-at-home dad — I could relate to Michael’s situation. Like you, I had a fleeting fantasy about being a diplomat. I grew up working for a man who was a former big-wig at the United Nations. In the mid-1990s, when I lived briefly in Pakistan, I met many American diplomats. It seems like an up-and-down life, but there are definitely ups. Reading your posting was a chance to reflect anew on that.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks. My cousin was married to a man who was an ambassador in Morocco, Italy and elsewhere and I know that life brings all sorts of adventures. A good friend in Toronto was born in Peru where his father was then serving. I still remember some of the Foreign Service exam questions all these years later as a few seemed so bizarre — until I read a newspaper story with almost exactly the same scenario. I have great admiration for these professionals, whose work is largely invisible to most of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s