The Unaccompanied Tour: There are pros!
I know, I know, I'm a little late in the game, but from the title, you can probably guess why (ye old UT). As you probably are well aware, my friend, Jill, runs the FS Round Up and did a fabulous piece last week that linked to many blogs around the world. The bloggers wrote up the pros and cons of their current posts and shared for the world to see.
I was debating submitting a post on the DC area, when another friend sent hers in. I knew her post would cover my pros and cons and did not submit anything. Then it hit me: why not pen a post on the pros and cons of the unaccompanied tour? After all, they do exist, whether or not it's always apparent. Let's jump in with the happy parts!
Positive Aspects of an Unaccompanied Tour
1.Well, duh, the money! Quite honestly, sometimes this is the ONLY thing that seems to be positive. Yes, between ISMA (which is dependent on the number of family members and family members location), danger & differential (must be "Boots on Ground" or at post for this to kick in), OCP (overseas comparability pay, yes, it helps) and overtime or other special pay, the paycheck can seem inflated. This is a wonderful thing, as you can now afford babysitters, maybe a dinner out when you are exhausted from being a single parent (or take-out), a special family trip may be in the offing, summer camp, going back to school or home repairs. All may have previously been a bit too much, but now suddenly seems feasible. Sure, you've done without it in the past, but isn't it nice to not stress so much when you suddenly have to plunk $2900 down on a new air conditioner for the house?
Oh, and if you are worried that we are suddenly overpaid, I assure you that's not an issue. Look at it this way, we are certainly contributing to the economy (even) more than we have in the past. Win/win, right?
2. The travel for children: Granted, this does not apply to those without children, so I apologize if this seems like a family-centric item. However, knowing that one round-trip (per tour) will be paid for chidren to meet up with their mom or dad during R&R is a huge benefit. Travel home from most UT locations is long and arduous for the deployed parent. Knowing that one trip can be cut in half by meeting at an alternate location can make the R&R far more enjoyable and relaxing. Please note, the trip can be taken domestically, but why not take a chance to travel overseas if you can?
3. The free time! Yes, you might have extra time on your hands. I can't say I have much extra during the day, but find that I tend to have more free time at night. I don't feel as though I have to reserve time for Peter and I to have "quality time" at night, since we have generally chatted several times during the day.
If he were at home, I might feel more pressured to have dinner at a set (read: much later) time so we could eat together or arrange our schedules differently. Having one less person in the household means an easier schedule in some respects, as fewer aspects to worry about. I also have more free time at night to work on projects that I otherwise might put off. Thus, Peter came home to a far more (yes, more) organized house on his first R&R.
4. R&R (Rest & Relaxation) is uninterrupted vacation! Yes, every few months your loved one will come home (assuming 3 R&Rs vs. 2 R&Rs & 3 Regional Rest Breaks) and he or she will be on vacation. No checking that Crackberry (well, not as frequently), no early morning meetings, no 16 hour work days/7 days a week. Just pure, unadulterated quality time with the family. You don't have to worry about a babysitter just to go to the grocery store (shopping alone IS a vacation for me), you are not the only one who can fix the toilet and someone else can cook dinner for a change. I remember being worried about getting home late from our beach trip last week, and had to remind myself that Peter had no place to go the next day, as his entire trip is a vacation.
5. Resilience and/or independence: My catch-phrase when Peter was on the Secretary's Detail was, "Whatever doesn't kill me, just makes me stronger." Now, this tour is actually far, far, FAR easier than SD, so not quite sure it's applicable, but definitely related. You realize during a tour like this where your strengths (and weaknesses) lie. You may normally run late, but suddenly start showing up places 20 minutes early (or vice-versa). You previously had trouble saying no and tended to overcommit, but now realize there is only one of you and you (or your kids) can't be in three places at once.
It may have previously seemed like a missed holiday or birthday was the end of the world, but now the distance allows you to become more creative in such situations. The kids don't mind the video camera so much, as they know Dad or Mom will be really excited to see them open that special present. Kids realize suddenly how much the missing parent contributed and even teenagers are over the moon when the deployed parent comes back for R&R. I don't know about other households, but my kids tend to pitch in more when their Dad is not here as they know otherwise the onus falls completely on me, which means less family/fun time.
So, there we have the good, but doesn't a UT mean rough times, too?
The negative aspects:
1. The money! Yes, the paycheck will go up, however, generally your expenses go up, too. You have a separated household to deal with and while one person may not have many day to day expenses, there was the laptop to buy before departure, new sheets, towels, 'disposable' clothes (the UT environments aren't always kind to clothing), and possibly consumables (Peter has zero storage and no kitchen, so he opted out of the consumables shipment). I know it seemed like everything suddenly needed repairs the minute our paychecks increased, so the money went out as fast as it came in.
Then there are the special family trips. Yes, more money, but you might take a fancier trip that costs more. You might eat out more, treat yourself to something special occasionally, babysitting fees add up and you begin to wonder how such a large paycheck suddenly seems so small. Don't forget that you may need to adjust your tax withholdings. You may have previously expected a large refund, but now that your salary has gone up, so will your taxes. It's a great time to consider upping your contributions to a favorite charity or at least estimating your tax rebate/amount due every few months to ensure you are on track (or at least aware!).
It's also important to save as much as you can, whether in your TSP and/or savings account. I know we did not go nuts spending money when Peter was deployed to Iraq (our first UT), but when he had to curtail, the sudden drop in paychecks hit us hard. It was combined with the fact that our medical expenses increased greatly, but it's still something to keep in mind. Emergencies can and do happen, and that cushion doesn't hurt.
2. The free time! What free time? You are busy morning, noon and night. Your one day to sleep in (if that happens) occurs on the day the landscaping people show up, so the entire household is up at the crack of dawn. You are running yourself ragged trying to get things done for the house, as if you don't do it, it won't get done. Repairs are completely and totally on you, as is car maintenance, kitty litter clean-up, grocery shopping and the like. You might fall in love with your crock pot (a good thing) and/or suddenly not mind pasta night twice a week. You find yourself running errands at night, as you know the gas fairy won't visit magically during the night...and an empty gas tank in the a.m. is not something you need. Your kids have to decide which events are truly important and your electronic calendar becomes your best friend.
3. R&R. You have been coasting along for 10.5 weeks when your spouse comes home for R&R and you suddenly have a two parent household again. You are shaken by the fact that you can just go for a run or not worry about hiring a sitter (or your daughter) for every evening out. It seems wonderful, but then there is the nagging sense that it will all disappear when the deployed spouse/partner departs for post. Return to normal life after the R&R can be difficult, as the R&R might have seemed like a vacation for all of you. Now it's back to the 24/7 grind and where IS that fourth cup of coffee?
4. Resilience & Independence: Yes, you have to do it all. No one else will run out for toilet tank parts or remember that it's garbage night. Yes, the kids will do the dishes, but you are the only one (physically present) to remind them (emails only go so far....). You are completely and totally responsible for everything, from the house to the kids to everything. It suddenly seems like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you realize just how nice it was to have that person around, even if just for a few hours in the evening.
5. The logistics. It is insane, especially if you work in Peter's line of work. We lucked out with our posting for Managua for next year, but he bid on an out-year language position, as he is fluent in Spanish. Follow-up posts are not locked-in for Diplomatic Security, so you will have no idea where you could end up once the UT is over. It makes it difficult to plan whether you are single, married or have kids, as you could theoretically make two international moves in two years (with varying amounts of stuff). In fact, one of the things that made this UT (remember, it's our second) so tolerable is that we knew where we were going next year. Bidding on an out-year language isn't always an option, but it's a huge relief when it does work out in your favor and gives a light at the end of the tunnel to the UT.
So, there we have it! The pros and cons, if you will, in my opinion. I did not include every possible pro or con, as we have not experienced them all and this list, of course, is based on my husband having been deployed to specific locations. It is also based on a family of 5 who decided to remain at their current state-side location. There is (occasionally) the option to remain at post overseas (however, you will not get ISMA), but we were not eligible for that since Peter was previously posted to the DC area. There is easily a separate set of pros and cons for that type of posting, but I can't touch that one having not experienced it.
Last, but not least, please remember that this post might be most relevant to those in (or considering) the Foreign Service. Lest anyone think that it appears whiny or unreasonable, well, I invite you to join the FS and do at least 7 stints of significant separation from your spouse over 15 years of marriage, with kids and without. I do hope that that this list is somewhat helpful, especially if an unaccompanied tour is looming in your future...