Diplomatic Spouses: Mother, Wife, De Facto Public Servant
By Loraine Balita-Centeno
It’s not always a bed of roses. Being a diplomat’s wife is not all pomp and pageantry in diplomatic events, or jetting-off and getting to live the privileged life in exotic locations around the world. For most, it involves significant sacrifice, a dash of homesickness, a tinge of loneliness, lots of unconditional support for their husbands, and a great big balancing act between family and responsibility to country and community.
Most diplomatic spouses had to give up fulfilling personal careers and trade it in for a life of living around the world, of adjustments and voluntary uprooting the entire family repeatedly, of resettling from one foreign country to another.
Author and journalist Brigid Keenan, in her best-selling book ‘Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,’ talks about giving up her career as a fashion editor for The Sunday Times to support her husband’s diplomatic career. “One minute, I was sitting on a gilt chair at Dior in Paris in my high heels. The next, I was living in what looked like a wooden chicken shed in a snake-infested forest clearing in Nepal,” she shares.
Keenan, who lived the life of a diplomat’s wife for more than 30 years says “it can be very hard”. In an article for the UK’s The Independent and The Telegraph she talks of the different trials of being a diplomat’s wife. “My mother died while I was abroad,” she shares.
She also believes that the life away from friends, family, and relatives can, sometimes, take its toll on the marriage. “You have to have a very good marriage to be a diplomat’s wife,” she declares. “Because it can be very lonely.”
But despite all the pitfalls, looking back she thinks “this curious, disjointed life was worth it.” She feels that it was an incredibly rich life. “I think we probably had the best of all worlds,” she concludes.
And like Keenan there are thousands more women around the world who are fulfilling the role of mother, wife, and de facto public servant. These are the women who wear numerous hats, not just to provide stable family support for their diplomat husbands and a consistent home life for the kids, but also to promote the interest of their country and help serve the needs of their countrymen living abroad.
Diplomatic spouses based in the UAE share about the exceptional life they lead.
“I consider myself as the mother of the Filipino people abroad,” says Yoko Ramos-Vingno whose husband is currently the Philippine Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
This mother of seven juggles her responsibilities as a mother to her children, a wife to her ambassador husband and a public servant to her kababayans in the UAE. Despite the rigors of raising seven kids, she tries her best to be active in “social and cultural promotion,” attending gatherings with social relevance sponsored by Filipino groups and the Diplomatic Corps. “This is the best way to connect with the people: interact with them to understand them better and to identify those who need help,” she says.
To her, being a diplomatic wife is both an honor and a responsibility. She understands fully that as the Ambassador’s other half she needs “to ensure that every Filipino who is in need of the services of the Embassy is catered to accordingly”. She uses her voice to inspire and motivate her kababayans, to “help them help themselves.”
And her passion for public service didn’t just start out after becoming a diplomatic wife. Even before joining her husband, she has had a fulfilling career back home: in the Senate, supporting one of country’s seasoned senators and then eventually, moving on to Malacaňang Palace to work as a Director under former President Gloria Arroyo.
To those who are considering a life as a diplomatic wife, she tells them to be ready because it’s definitely not an easy task. “It takes a lot of passion, perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and character to be able to fulfill what’s expected of you. If you love your husband, you will find yourself supporting him in any way, at any cost. If you care for your country, you will be amazed to see that you have become a catalyst of change.”
“The life I live as a diplomatic spouse and as a regular citizen representing our country, the Philippines, to the rest of the world is not an easy task. It takes a lot of passion, perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and character to be able to fulfill what’s expected of you. To those who are new diplomatic wives and will be diplomatic wives, definitely use your heart and you will never go wrong. If you love your husband, you will find yourself supporting him in any way and at any cost. If you care for your country, you will be amazed to see that you have become a catalyst of change. Touch lives, make a difference.”
Giving up a Career
For some, the challenge comes with letting go of a fulfilling career back home.
Norzelah Zakaria has had to make this sacrifice. She had to leave her job as a Human Resource Manager for Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas. She gave up her career in order to support her husband who is currently the Ambassador of Malaysia to the UAE, and who has also been previously assigned to Thailand, Austria, USA, Singapore, and Pakistan.
Norzelah, who was a student of Economics at The National University of Malaya when she first met her husband, says that she wasn’t aware at first that she will eventually be “globetrotting”.
She shares how difficult it was for her to adjust from being a career woman to a full-time housewife. “It was certainly a big change – from waking up to go to work to waking up to do wifely [domestic] duties,” she quips. And the life of moving to different countries one after another was a challenge to her four children as well. After every few years they’d have to move to a different place and make new friends again.
This former HR manager now spends her time helping her kids adjust to life abroad. “I help them by giving moral support, educating them about the culture of the new country, taking them [out] to visit places, museums, the countryside, to make them appreciate their new life,” she shares.
“Have a positive mind and enjoy each country that your husband has been sent to. Learn about their culture their norms, and language. Enjoy your stay there. If the country that your spouse has been sent to is not interesting, then it is your job to make it interesting – whether you work with the locals or with your own community. Then you can look back and say that it’s one of the best postings ever!”
Vivi Ruzylinanissmah Mamud the wife of the Ambassador of Brunei Darussalam to UAE, shares the same sentiment. “I was executive officer in the airline industry when I first met my husband. After five years, I shifted to being a technical instructor in technical institutes. I did my teaching practice in the University of Brunei Darussalam. For now, I’m taking my leave to follow my husband whose first posting as Ambassador is the UAE.”
She shares, “I found it a huge transition, especially since this is my first time to be away from Brunei. The most difficult challenge is having to adjust my life from working full time to being a housewife cum spouse of the ambassador.” She adds, “With the support of the staff in the embassy and Bruneians in the UAE, I easily adjusted.”
Despite the trials, both Norzelah and Vivi have a very upbeat outlook about their situation. Norzelah shares, “Have a positive mind and enjoy each country that your husband has been sent to. Learn about their culture their norms, and language. Enjoy your stay there. If the country that your spouse has been sent to is not interesting, then it is your job to make it interesting – whether you work with the locals or with your own community. Then you can look back and say that it’s one of the best postings ever!” Vivi adds, “You take it as a new challenge in life, enjoy and be positive. Manage well by prioritizing what’s important. Family always comes first. “
“Take it as a new challenge in life. Enjoy and be positive. Learn the cultures of the people of the country, and get along with the community and other spouses as they are doing the same as you. You [can] manage well by prioritizing what’s important. Family always comes first.”
Away From ‘Home’
For others, being a diplomatic wife can at times be painfully lonely. In the book Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives, author Katie Hickman encapsulates the various aspects of the lives of 100 diplomatic spouses. Through letters, memoirs, and diaries, Hickman paints a picture of the lives of the wives and daughters of diplomats assigned to “far-flung corners of the globe”. And homesickness is a common struggle for all of them.
Making the decision to follow and support the ‘love of your life’ as he pursues his passion, advances his career, and serves his country is tough, to say the least. Other than leaving a job behind, diplomatic spouses also leave behind family and friends — basically their entire support system.
After a while, homesickness kicks in, and this could be very challenging for some of the spouses. Such is the case for Farida Abdullah, whose husband currently works as the Indonesian Ambassador in Abu Dhabi. She feels the biggest sacrifice she has made as a diplomatic wife was choosing to be away from her family back home. “It was difficult because I didn’t get to spend much time with my parents when they were getting old,” she laments.
She along with her husband and four children have spent six years in Egypt, four years in Japan and three years in UAE, where her husband is currently posted.
Diplomatic wives also tend to bond together to form their own support system. Farida expounds, “There were many other diplomats’ wives who quickly became my friends. So I got a lot of help from them. I guess after a while, you get used to it, so it (being away from your homeland) becomes the new normal.” She continues, “It has been a great experience for me. I get to see different countries and learn from different cultures. So, enjoy the whole experience – the good and the bad. They make the whole story.”
“It has been a great experience for me. I get to see different countries and learn from different cultures. Being a diplomatic wife has exposed me to people from different embassies too, and I have made some good friends. Enjoy the whole experience – the good and the bad. They make the whole story.”
Our Family’s Career
To some, moving abroad to serve the needs of their countrymen is not just the job of the husband but the entire family as well. They see the diplomatic post as a career that involves the commitment of both husband and wife, and even their children.
“Our husband’s career does not simply become his but ours as a family,” says Yasmin Balajadia-Cortes, whose husband currently works as the Consul General for the Philippine Consulate in Dubai and Northern Emirates. “My husband’s career is mine as well,” she adds.
Yasmin, a licensed optometrist, worked for a family-owned clinic in Baguio prior to moving abroad with her husband. “He was not yet in Foreign Service when I met him. I met him while he was in the professional performing industry. He was a vocalist at a local jazz spot in Baguio,” she shares. After passing the Foreign Service exam, they got married and then had their first born. Soon after she says: “we got sent to our first assignment in Europe”.
The decision to pursue this career for her family was not a difficult one she says. As soon as they got their first posting, she knew that this was the life that she and her family would have to live. She has accepted playing co-star to her husband’s career, and family life as her priority.
She advices would-be diplomatic spouses to “review their goals in life and priorities,” and to make sure that they are willing to plan their lives within the parameters of a diplomatic life. To her, a diplomat’s career becomes his family’s career since they are the support system that will make sure that he represents and serves his country well.
“Our husband’s career does not simply become his but ours as a family. Diplomatic spouses should review their goals in life and priorities, and make sure that they are willing to plan their lives within the parameters of a diplomatic life. A diplomat’s career becomes his family’s career since they are the support system that will make sure that he represents and serves his country well.”
Beyond the elegant official events and the globetrotting life, notwithstanding their sacrifices and the compromises they’ve had to make to support their husbands’ duties, diplomatic spouses are not only uniquely challenged. They are also uniquely placed into a multi-faceted and excitingly rich role that offers an opportunity for self-realization unlike any other.
LORAINE BALITA –CENTENO
Loraine Balita-Centeno has been writing and editing for magazines and newspapers based in Manila and abroad since 2005. A mother of two, she is currently the Director of the Student Media Office in DLSU-Manila and a part-time faculty in the university’s Department of Communication. She spends her days managing the media office, teaching college kids and scrubbing baby food, goo, and crayon marks off her work clothes.