The Art of Balancing: A Single Girls Musing on an International Life

Random travellers that you meet in Africa always have the most interesting stories.

My first weekend in Dar, I was at a rooftop party overlooking the ocean. There was a huge full moon, thousands of stars, and just the right amount of alcohol to make people in a bit of a mood to impress. Take for example the woman from the State Department, who was living in Tanzania to collect HIV data for a new USAID program. Or the man working as an elections specialist, who had just finished several postings in post-conflict countries. Or the colleague who had worked as a journalist following international sporting events, who had just switched over to covering women’s rights issues. Their conversations were filled with interesting stories, telling me about all of the crazy adventures they had had, the prestigious organizations they had worked for, and all of the destinations they had worked in. Beijing, Kenya, Lebanon, Rome, Germany, Sierra Leone, Argentina, Mozambique…they had literally worked all over the world.

Out of these conversations though, one thing stood out to me. Within all of the women that I was talking too, most of them were alone. Sure, they were all there with their friends, dancing and having a fun night out with the expat community. Most of the women were in their thirties, they had some of the most interesting career paths, were extremely vibrant individuals…and they were completely alone.

When I went home that night (weaving around potholes with my probably half asleep tuk-tuk driver), I couldn’t help but wonder, is this what is in store if I choose the international development worker life? All of these women had interesting careers and beautiful travel moments, and I was envious of their high positions in great organizations. Yet, where were the stories about family, relationships, kids or a home? If this is the life I wanted, was that going to be me?

Every-time I go to Africa, friends always make up these grand, romantic stories for me and my dating life. Either I’m the main character in a daring, safari back-dropped love story with some sexy expat doing humanitarian work, or I fall in love with a local, whom I then proceed to marry and have cute halfer-children with. There’s always this romantic ideal attributed to all of my trips. “Well obviously, you like to travel, so of course you will meet someone abroad,” they say, as a justification of why I can never seem to really figure it out when in comes to the North American dating scene, “It’ll be so much better when you meet someone who is into the same issues as you.” Sure this sounds all well and good, but let me tell you this folks – while those stories might be nice, the range of people I most often meet when abroad falls somewhere along the spectrum of crazy, religious missionaries on a colonizing journey, to the cynical development worker who thinks Africa is a sh*t-hole and can’t wait to get his next posting. African savannah love stories might be the dream, but in reality, its ordinary people, with the same sorts of problems you would find back home. The idea of, ‘you’re into international issues, and travelling, so when you go abroad you’ll obviously meet people exactly like you’…sadly, doesn’t actually work in practice.

So where am I going with this? I can hear you saying, Kailee are you really in Tanzania right now, worrying about not finding someone to date?! Or you’re going, seriously, you’re 24 why do you need to worry about this anyways? You’ve got years to go. I’ve got to admit – this is a vulnerable topic. If I was discussing this with you at home, you’d probably be telling me its okay, and I’d be awkwardly laughing and trying to change the subject to get away from your sympathy pat, because no one wants to be the single girl talking about relationships, right? But it’s not about this trip, or where I am at this point in my life (lets face it, as a 24 year old grad student working for the UN, I have it relatively good). As a woman who wants an international career, but who also wants to have a fulfilling personal life, I think this is something that really does need to be discussed.

The debate on can women have it all, has been going on for a significant amount of time. Regardless of where they are placed in the world, women face specific challenges in balancing the work/family divide. For me, and for many of my fellow colleagues and friends, it’s not just about the work/family balance, but the work/family/where-the-hec-in-the-world-are-you balance. How do you create relationships, let alone sustain a lasting one, when you are constantly travelling, moving, and don’t have a stable home?

Over the past year, this has been a theme that’s repeatedly come up, in discussions with colleagues, friends, and in interactions with those who work in international careers. What about kids, have you thought about if you would relocate your family, what will you do if you and your significant other don’t get jobs in the same place? Women would warn that it was extremely difficult to raise children in foreign environments, and that travelling could put a lot of strain on a relationship. Stories were told about the perils of taking maternity leave if you had secured a much coveted international gig, or about how hard it was for spouses to sustain an international posting for a significant portion of time. Usually I would just brush those discussions off, as something I could worry about when I actually was confronted with the issues. Now that I’m actually working in a country posting though, it’s hard to escape that this life comes with certain challenges. Take for example the coworker who has a new baby son, but gets to the office at 7am and leaves at 8pm. Or the lady I met who has left her 5 year old daughter back home in Europe for two years, so she could take a higher job position and move up the office ladder. Or the tons of vibrant, thirty something year old women who have lived in Tanzania, Lebanon, Italy, or Kenya – but who don’t seem to have any sort of permanent home. For many of these women, this sort of life works perfectly. They seem perfectly fine with the fact that they get to jump from place to place, picking up and starting over, every several years. But if I’m about to really start pursuing a career working in any sort of international sector, don’t I owe it to myself to ask, am I okay with that kind of life?

Sustaining a relationship, of whatever kind, is really hard. It’s been really difficult the past year – going from Uganda, to Vancouver, to Toronto, to Tanzania – to see my family and friend’s lives progress when I can’t be there with them in person. It’s hard see a friend plan a wedding, and not get to be there for the little moments along the way. It’s hard to constantly worry that you’ll drift apart from those that you care about, because you don’t get that everyday interaction. Its hard to realize that if I ever was to move to Africa, because of her illness, my mom would never be able to come visit me. Skype, Facebook updates, or emails are great to stay in touch, but it also means you get to be a part of everyone’s lives an arms reach away. I’m so happy to have this opportunity (Working on gender issues in Tanzania? That’s the dream!), but it’s also a trade off. I get bumpy bus rides through random African towns; my friends get to plant ties and build communities around themselves at home. I get to experience different cultures halfway across the world; others get to wake up every day next to the person that they love, creating a life together.

At the end of the party, the only two people that really stood out to me were this older, middle-aged couple. They were in their fifties, but they had decided to move themselves and their teenage daughters to Tanzania, because ‘life’s adventures were better when you lived them together.’  Out of everyone that I met that night, they were the ones that I thought had the most beautiful story. I know there’s nothing to do but wait – who knows if I’ll be the thirty year old career women jet-setting all over the world, or the fifty year old couple who starts travelling together later in life, or maybe my mothers nightmares will come true, and I’ll decide to settle down here and stay for the indefinite future. But I do know one thing. As much as I want to be a woman who gets to pursue her passions and career goals, I also want to be a woman who is able to build relationships, a life, and a home. So I guess the question that I’m asking you is…how do you do both?




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