Working parents in international development: The trade-offs

Beyond the challenges of travel, there are many trade-offs that parents working in international development make. Photo by: Benjamin Earwicker

Raising children while pursuing a career in international development is not for the fainthearted. Beyond the challenges of travel, there are many trade-offs that working parents make. They may:

  1. Choose to forgo certain jobs or projects that require too much travel.“I was highly qualified for the position [that required 30 percent travel], but I would not agree upfront to miss 30 percent of my daughter’s third year of life,” shares E.S., an aid worker based in Asia. “They ended up hiring a guy who travelled less than I did at 20 percent.”

  2. Switch to part-time work to spend more time with children.J.P., a microfinance professional, switched to part-time work after becoming a mom. “I started to feel that I was ‘marginalizing myself’ by limiting my time at work, not engaging as much in strategic conversations, and avoiding travel.” When she returned to work full time, she found she was “earning a lower salary than before I left, reporting to someone who had formerly reported to me, and former peers were now the senior leaders in the organization.”

  3. Not pursue specific positions because the posts are not family-friendly.Angelica, a freelance consultant in humanitarian work, shares that becoming a parent has meant she no longer pursues nonfamily duty stations. Further, she and her husband “are now committed to staying longer periods of time on each posting so that [our children] may learn to develop friendships.” She also has to think about the quality of education available, security, and what types of diseases her children may be exposed to at a specific post.

  4. Quit a full-time position to become a freelance consultant — trading flexibility and autonomy for lower pay, no job security or career path, and no benefits. Angelica lists “going freelance” as one of her main strategies to cope with the challenges of being a working mom in development. “This means we don’t have to live where I work, I just go back and forth.”

  5. Choose to leave work earlier than they did in their pre-children days because they have parenting responsibilities in the early evening.Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, recently admitted that she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. every day so she can be home by 6 p.m. for dinner with her children. This announcement was newsworthy because it’s unusual in the corporate world. Likewise, in many corners of the aid and development industry, employees are expected to put in long hours. One talented development professional I know who recently became a mom found that she can no longer work the hours that made her a superstar in the past — not if she wants to be the kind of mother she has chosen to be.

  6. Spend time as a solo parent, or be separated from spouse and/or children for long stretches.Marisia Geraci, CEO of Heifer International South Africa, relocated with her twin daughters from the United States. For personal and professional reasons, her husband chose not to move with them. “I am essentially a single mom,” Marisia shares. “I have a Skype marriage. My husband usually comes to South Africa once a year and we go to the US one or two times.” Without the day-to-day logistical support of a partner, she must carefully plan each workday and every trip. “Who is going to keep the girls? What do they have going on at school? Will I miss something important? If I have a late meeting, who can I call to pick them up?”

  7. Make daily trade-offs to balance their time between work and family.“Sometimes I have to work late and my boys eat dinner without me,” says Alanna Shaikh, health sector consultant and blogger at Blood and Milk and U.N. Dispatch. “Sometimes I have to miss a staff meeting to attend a Christmas pageant.” What has helped her is to reflect periodically on this mix. “Every few months I sit down and really think about my children and my work,” Alanna shares. “I deliberately consider whether I am correctly prioritizing my time. I want my life choices to be deliberate, not just to happen to me.”

  8. Downshift their career, or “take turns” with their partner in pursuing an ideal job, in order to enable the spouse to work in a certain job.“My spouse and I both work in international development, and it’s challenging to find a location where we’re both locally employed,” says Lisa McKay, author and psychologist specializing in stress and trauma issues related to humanitarian relief and development work. “Currently we are living in Laos where he is full-time employed. I work as a consultant and have also recently taken on the job of new parent.” Compromises like this can be painful and stressful, but Lisa remarks that experience and perspective help: “We’ve come to recognize that our marriage and this season of early parenthood are both priorities, too, and that career opportunities are no longer the only variables we take into consideration.”In some families, the wife sacrifices her career to spend more time at home with the children. In rarer families, the husband is the one to do this. “My husband has stayed at home for the past six and a half years looking after our two lovely, dynamic children,” says E.S., an aid worker in Asia. “We’ve observed that it takes a man who is confident in his sense of being to be content and thrive in the stay-at-home dad role.”

  9. Raise their children in a foreign culture, away from extended family and many of the comforts of home.For a development professional, being based in the field can mean less frequent travel, and/or shorter trips. Many working parents choose this path, relocating their families overseas. Yet raising children in a foreign culture brings its own set of trade-offs — that’s another blog post in and of itself.

For those of you who are contemplating combining working parenthood with a development career, I hope this list is not overwhelming. Remember, no one makes all of these trade-offs, and certainly not all at once!

These are highly personal, potentially emotional, usually difficult decisions. Why do people make them? For many parents working in international development, this is the work they are passionate about, they’re great at, and they find joy and meaning in doing. Through these trade-offs, they have found a way to make their careers work in the context of raising a family.

Read last week’s Career Matters.

About the author

  • Shana Montesol Johnson

    Shana Montesol Johnson is a certified executive and career coach who works with international development professionals who want careers they love, that make an impact, and allow them to have a life outside of work. She has coached clients working for such organizations as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Health Organization, U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corp., among others. Born in the United States and raised in Mexico, Shana has been based in Manila, Philippines since 2004. She also blogs at