First Christmas “At Home” in Eight Years

If we were to discuss what sucks most about the Foreign Service lifestyle, the majority of Foreign Service Officers would agree missing holidays or special occasions with family back home ranks near the top of the list.

Last December I went to the west coast to see my parents for Christmas. It marked our first Christmas holiday together since 2014 when I got a few days’ reprieve from full-time, mandatory Russian language training and flew with V to my mom’s for Christmas. If someone would have told me back then I wouldn’t come back for Christmas until 2022, I would’ve been dumbfounded.

You may be asking yourself, does this mean diplomats can’t take time off while overseas? Not exactly. Between arriving in Uzbekistan for my first tour in 2015 and returning from my third tour in Mexico in 2022, I certainly did take time off. I traveled within my countries of assignment. I also visited a lot of other countries (including the U.S.) both on annual leave and on temporary duty.

We all accrue annual leave each pay period, and since I hit 15 years of federal service in 2020 I’ve been accruing it at a rate of eight hours per pay period. That’s 26 days – nearly four weeks – per calendar year.

Christmas 2022 at my mom’s house in CA

Officers also accrue home leave days while overseas (somewhere around one day for each month at post). So we don’t even have to use paid leave for that mandatory stateside home leave requirement between tours. Not having the leave has never quite been the issue for me.

It’s more so that as an entry-level officer in an embassy, in practice, I often found I had lower priority for taking leave around the highly-desired periods like spring break, school holidays, the busy summer rotation season, Thanksgiving, and Christmas than other more senior officers or officers with school-aged kids. This was communicated more implicitly than explicitly, but I got the message.

There was also the whole dynamic of trying to prove yourself for promotion and tenure, and not wanting to tick off your boss who – of course – either wanted the time for him/herself or simply didn’t manage the first-come, first-served inequity of people scooping up all the holidays by submitting leave requests a year in advance.

Christmas 2022 at my dad’s house in WA

I spent plenty of time stepping up to take on more responsibilities and backstop other people’s portfolios during those holiday periods. That is, until I became jaded by burnout, it never really feeling like “my turn,” either for promotion or priority leave, and feeling bitter about the unrelenting demands to do “more with less” in increasingly dysfunctional professional environments.

Super happy in December 2022 with United’s new Dulles to Sacramento direct flights (No driving to/from San Francisco!)

To be fair, I was somewhat complicit in not going home for Christmas by not organizing things in advance (did I think someone would actually say, “Hey, you’ve been working really hard and should go home for Christmas!”) and by telling myself the holidays were quieter and allowed a period of “catch-up” because no one was really around. There wasn’t a single Christmas I was overseas where we weren’t short-handed, and I always felt the pressure to stick around and take my leave at less busy times. But I never meant for it to be eight years.

And I think over the last few years, workplace norms around the use of leave have changed a bit. Having a ton of “use or lose” leave to donate at the end of the year is no longer a badge of pride. There have been general shifts in awareness about the unfairness of assigning leave based on family status or people all racing to be first, and a move towards managers actively making sure everyone gets to use some time off in high-demand periods even if you don’t get your first choice of dates. I know this was a priority for me when I moved up to the mid-level and starting managing other American officers.

Also, the pandemic has created a different mindset about flexibilities on remote work, what constitutes “showing up” for work, and a general wish to avoid burnout.

Hiking with my mom at Independence Trail, Nevada City, CA
December 2022

Hiking at Independence Trail, Nevada City, CA
December 2022

And as much as it would have been nice to see my family for Christmas, I think V has gone even longer without seeing his extended family – who live neither in the United States nor in the countries we’ve served in – for the holidays. Part of the Foreign Service culture that we have had to adopt is accepting wherever you live as home with your spouse and/or immediate family. It’s a real Christmas, even without everyone together at once, even without your worldly possessions, even without familiar food, weather, and traditions, and the list goes on. This has been really important to me lest I develop an impression that nothing happening at present is my “real” life, and that some future life that happens “someday” will be more authentic.

I have also learned that in the Foreign Service, it isn’t likely anyone will tell you to go home, or take a break, or schedule your leave. Especially overseas where there is always more work to do than people to do it. These are things you as an officer with your family need to be cognizant of and advocate for. A tour can be short, especially if it’s only a year or two, and you’re at a post where everyone has paid R&R allowance and wants to jam in all their leave abroad before they PCS. If there’s no good system, communicate proactively with your manager and your backups (if you have any, or can arrange any), and try to come up with a system that works for everyone to take a break and not get slimed with all the jobs.

This is how it worked (or didn’t) so far for us.

During Christmas 2015 and Christmas 2016, V and I were serving in Uzbekistan, a majority-Muslim country in Central Asia that literally couldn’t be further from the west coast. There we paid 150 euros to a commercial landscaper just for one live Christmas tree. To soothe my wish for a more traditional Christmas environment, I took a side trip in early 2017 to celebrate the spirit of Orthodox Christmas in St. Petersburg, Russia. V opted out of the blizzard I’d find there and went to see his daughters in the milder climes of the Carolinas instead. I’m pretty sure the first year my boss and the more senior officers in my section took holiday leave, and the second year I deferred until February. Besides my boss, I was the only officer in our section without children at post.

My mom and nana in San Leandro, CA, December 2022

My mom did come to visit Uzbekistan in 2016 during our tour, and I did go back to California twice in 2017: in February to surprise my dad for his 70th birthday and later in the summer during our home leave following our first assignment to Tashkent – just not during the holidays.

Hanging out with my dad on the property behind his house, December 2022

Then V and I spent both Christmas 2017 (days after I had foot surgery, and was getting ready for back surgery) and Christmas 2018 – during which I reflected on the differences of a southern hemisphere Christmas – in a summery Australia.

In 2018 my dad and stepmom came to visit us in Canberra followed by my mom in early 2019 for her own 70th birthday. V and I returned to the west coast next in 2019 for home leave following our second assignment to Canberra, breaking up the trip between Hawaii, California, and Washington state (the latter being the place where my dad and stepmom had relocated to in 2018).

My dad and stepmom, December 2022

Having way too much fun driving my rental back down to my mom’s after visiting my dad in December 2022
Weed, CA

Christmas 2019 I almost missed. First, because all 7,000 lbs of our household effects – including Christmas decorations – were in transit between Australia and Mexico while I studied Spanish at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. And second, because I was heading off to my language immersion program in Ecuador and wouldn’t return until hours before Christmas Eve. However, I hurriedly bought an artificial tree and some ornaments at Target when I learned my stepdaughter A would visit V during my absence. I didn’t want our corporate-looking apartment to be totally lacking the holiday spirit!

Cornish Christmas, Grass Valley, CA
December 2022
Where I dropped a credit card but no one ever used it during the two months I spent convinced I would still find it before finally giving up and cancelling it – someone must have put it in the shredder for me as an early holiday gift 🎄

And finally, Christmas 2020 found us in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, near El Paso, Texas. I went all-out with the decorating, gifts, cooking, and baking, even though I was covering both my job and my boss’s job while he holidayed in the States with his kids.

It was a good thing V and I had a tasty if COVID-induced lonely holiday; by Christmas 2021 we were pretty dejected and curtailing out of our assignment, so we did not even celebrate. Nothing. Not a home-cooked dinner, not a Christmas card, not a single decoration or gift. The need to prepare and pack out the house to leave in early January was more urgent. Plus COVID was raging through the consulate and some locally-employed staff and their family members in our mission had died from it, and I was eating according to the AutoImmune Protocol (AIP) and could barely eat a thing I would have wanted.

To compound the unfestive feeling, I didn’t know it yet, but an old friend of mine who had been missing since September 2021 had been discovered by a hiker a few days before Christmas deceased in the woods near where we grew up. His skeletal remains were at that moment laying unidentified in the local morgue, and no one would be sure it was him for over two more weeks. I knew nothing of this. But I had been sending him messages for a while that he did not read. I didn’t notice he didn’t read them because we didn’t talk often and I never made time to visit him, even though he tried to see me in 2017 right as I was leaving for Australia.

Hiking with my mom at Wolf Creek Trail, Grass Valley, CA
December 2022

At the 2021 Christmas that wasn’t, I was too busy being infuriated and hurt about the treatment of immunocompromised people in society as masks came off, and stressed about the details of moving and resettling in Virginia. I was ill with multiple autoimmune diseases. Despite getting an onward assignment I wanted, and nearly having met my 100-lb weight loss goal, I felt a huge burden on my heart I couldn’t explain. I was kind of just living hour to hour, trying to do what I needed to do to get by.

So Christmas 2022 the following year with my family was a gift. It wasn’t perfect; there is illness and hardship in my family that makes some things harder than necessary. But it was our Christmas and I loved it. The years that came before and everything I learned from them made me want to be less focused on work, and more focused on life and showing up for the people I care about. Our presence back in the United States has made everything easier and closer for me to do that.

It’s true that my perspective on what’s “close vs. far” probably differs drastically from many other people’s. Driving for three days to get somewhere is no big deal to me. Some people don’t want to even drive three hours to visit someone they truly love. When I went away to college nine hours south in San Diego, my friends complained, “Dude, that’s hella far.”

I frowned, puzzled. “Dude, it’s in the same state.” I came back all the time. In my car, and sometimes I flew. No big deal.

I know what far away is. Uzbekistan and Australia are far from the United States. And you can get pretty far away from what matters – no matter where you live – when you forget to set some boundaries and prioritize what matters most, while you still can. While people are alive, there’s no distance too far.

Wolf Creek Trail, Grass Valley, CA
December 2022

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Sarah W Gaer

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