Tracey Koehlmoos: Beating on the glass ceiling

Tracey KoehlmoosIn July 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter, who is a professor at Princeton, resigned from her high profile position as the director of policy planning for the US State Department in Washington in order to spend more time with her teenage sons. Her resignation was accompanied by her well circulated article, “Why women still can’t have it all” in The Atlantic, that discussed the hardships in achieving work-family balance—and perhaps discouraging younger women from trying to “have it all.”

Several other high profile women joined the discussion and there were additional resignations. The struggle to find time to spend with one’s children seems to be a consistent theme in the reasons women resign from government service. To have it all would be to achieve that great career, and that great relationship with a loving spouse and spunky children—all while having a clean house and manicured lawn.

If you have been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you will know that the Colonel, my husband, died in a road traffic accident in Jakarta in August 2011, and thus that my life as a trailing spouse finished. Whereas most recently widowed people do not have to give up their home and their way of life, the boys and I were repatriated to the United States during the summer of 2012. (I am thankful to the US Army that the boys were able to complete the school year in Jakarta.) Now, we are living just outside Washington, DC, which I selected because most of the global health systems and policy work done in the US is done in and around Washington. I spent six months doing consultancies, working on publications, wrapping up a few projects, and setting up a new house.

However, while these high profile women resigned to spend more time with their children, I have entered the fray of working in Washington. In January 2013, I became the special assistant to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and senior program liaison for community health integration. Am I, I wonder, doing the right thing?

I do not question the scope of work—the work has the potential to be that rare public health amalgamation that is simultaneously inspired and humbling and makes real improvements in the lives of the population, which in this case is Marines, their families, and the communities in which they serve. In Dhaka, the team and I would talk about “the magic” that enabled us to dream of and deliver amazing work—networks of clinics for the homeless, introducing a new research methodology across our region, developing a centre for non-communicable disease research, scaling up zinc, etc. I have that same sense now—at the start of something completely different. However, if so many better educated, more successful women with a living husband/partner have had to step back—and have written high profile articles about it, am I doing justice to my family to jump in?

Years ago a book came out about the lives and careers of the first women graduates of Harvard Law. In Pinstripes and Pearls each woman seemed to echo the same mantra: I wish I had spent more time with my children when they were young. When I read that book, I had been home for almost a decade between the birth of my first son and the start of first grade for my third son. In those days I knew that I was fortunate to have a husband who earned just enough money for us to live modestly, and who provided the support for my masters and my doctoral work. Even then I knew that I would never say, “I wish I spent more time with my children when they were young,” because I was there for them every day.

The boys are older now and I have spent a decade working on the front lines in the war against poverty and disease. At first I was frustrated to be so old yet relatively junior, but have always felt fortunate to have bosses who understood the need to balance work and family while unflaggingly encouraging me to take on new and more challenging research, teaching, and leadership positions. I cannot imagine that it is easier to balance home and family while travelling the planet to scientific seminars or to the field in support of programmes. For the last three years I travelled up to 50% of the time and fell into the bad habit of taking teleconferences during dinner or in the middle of the night because of living in such glamour spots as Dhaka and Jakarta—when meetings would be planned for Washington or London time.

However, thus armed, I am poised to learn how hard it is to be there for the boys, and the dogs, and the house, and the yard, all while working in Washington. I recognise that with the Colonel dead, having it all might exceed my grasp. In the wake of his death, my self-actualisation disappeared and I was back at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy thinking about food and shelter for the three boys, two dogs, one cat, and myself, left at the bottom of the planet with a broken heart.

Perhaps for now my public health desire to work hard and do good work might have to sit alongside no greater ambition than to achieve a “happy family life” and “make ends meet.” The barriers to making a difference in the lives of a new population are tremendous. Although I am no longer living and working in South Asia, Gandhi’s oft quoted advice to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” resounds in DC as well as it does in Delhi. Should I be discouraged by those women who blazed the trail successfully before me and stepped down while saying, “Don’t do as I have done?” No. Fingers crossed and prayers said, I think I’ll charge into the fray.

Tracey Pérez Koehlmoos is the special assistant to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and senior program liaison for community health integration for the U.S. Marine Corps.
The opinions expressed in this article are her own and in no way reflect the opinions of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency.