Saturday, September 24, 2022

What's UNGA?

UNGA (pronounced "ung-GAH" and not "U-N-G-A") stands for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. It's one of the most important events of the year in international affairs, and - as I wish I had known earlier so I could have managed my expectations - it requires an immense amount of preparation before, during, and after. (For staffers like me, there's an emphasis on the "before" there.)

It was only my second week on the job when I was slammed with one of the busiest work weeks of my life (and that's saying something). Our team put together over 200 documents for our principals (i.e., the people we staff) and handed the final binder to our Assistant Secretary as she walked out the door with literal seconds to spare. When some details changed after folks had already departed for New York, we fixed materials in Washington, DC and made sure someone on the ground could get them where they needed to go. Several times, we were told at close of business one day that multiple documents had to be drafted and approved by multiple offices and several principals by opening of business the next day. I'm proud of the work my colleagues and I accomplished, but I'm grateful not to be working through nights and weekends every week.

UNGA technically goes on for months, but all eyes are on high-level week (HLW, also called high-level General Debate). This is where world leaders and high ranking officials meet and make speeches and talk with the press to help the public understand current events and (hopefully) advance good foreign policy. It's a unique opportunity, and it's the job of cogs in the bureaucratic machine like me to make sure we don't waste it.

I now have a whole new appreciation for how much goes on behind the scenes to make UNGA happen. All that being said, I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm relieved HLW is only one week out of the year. My advice to anyone transitioning to State Department headquarters in DC for the first time is to brace yourself for UNGA in advance. Cancel your night and weekend plans the week before UNGA if necessary. Arrange potential childcare options. Do what you need to do. (Or just don't do what I did and instead go for a job that isn't quite so affected by events like UNGA.)

Working on UNGA was a crash course in so many things I'm learning in my new position: how the building (i.e., State Department HQ) works (also referred to as how Washington works), how to balance the needs of drafting offices with clearing offices (I'll try to do a post about the clearance process later), when best to pick up the phone versus write an email versus walk over to someone's office, and so much more. I can already tell this is going to be a year of much professional growth and challenge. And now that UNGA HLW is over (and that I'm mostly trained and getting the hang of my job), I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Home Sweet Home: From Seoul to Denver to DC

After a very hectic week of traveling and celebrating, we are finally back in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia)! First, we travelled from Seoul, South Korea to Denver, Colorado for my sister's wedding. It was such a magical (and jam-packed) wedding weekend! I kept praying nothing would go wrong with our flight because I've heard so many travel horror stories this summer and we were already just barely going to make it, but thankfully we arrived without incident.

Following the wedding weekend, we arrived in DC late at night and a dear friend picked us (and our seven bags) up from the airport and took us to our hotel. We'll be living in the hotel for at least a month while we figure out our longer-term housing situation while I'm serving my one-year tour in DC. We were able to find a longer-term residential hotel with a kitchenette and living room suite at the government rate, and we chose a place that gives me a short walking commute to work. It was such a relief to arrive at our destination, take a break from traveling, and get somewhat settled.

S was such a champ handling so many flights and time zone changes, and I'm pretty sure he's relieved we finally got somewhere where he can return to his regular sleep schedule. Me being me, I already scheduled a bunch of things I've been excited to do, including visiting a techy art gallery, catching a musical, and eating at some of my favorite restaurants that weren't around in Korea. I've also already been asked multiple times whether I came from North or South Korea, with some people assuming North! (Trust me, if I'd travelled from North Korea I would not be referring to it nearly as casually.)

I got to work right away in my new job at the Department of State headquarters in DC, and I am learning so much: new acronyms, processes, and even just navigating the hallways of a very confusing building! There are so many differences from my daily work environment at U.S. Embassy Seoul, I'll admit I had a bit of reverse culture shock. In South Korea, everyone is still wearing masks indoors and outdoors. In DC, I'm pretty much the only one at work still wearing a mask. Lunch in Korea was borderline sacred time, and all my colleagues would go out to eat nearly every day. Now, I'm lucky if I get 20 minutes to eat a quick lunch at my desk, as usually I'm still working right through lunch. The days are also much longer: I work a 9-hour shift but it's sometimes hard to get out of the office on time even after nine hours, whereas I could count on getting my Consular work in Seoul done in a regular workday. (But hey, at least I get a pay bonus for it!)

PCSing (short for Permanent Change of Station) is our term for transferring from one post to another, and it's always a ton of work. Add traveling internationally with a baby for the first time, transporting 360oz of frozen breastmilk, attending a whirlwind wedding weekend on the other side of the country, taking only two days of leave to adjust, trying to figure out a place to live and whether we'll buy a car or furniture, bidding on my next assignment, and starting a high-intensity job right away, and needless to say we've had our hands full. I hope to do more posts on bidding, some life updates, and insights on DC life in a staffer job soon (when I get a chance), so stay tuned!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Best Advice I Got for Returning to Work after Maternity Leave

At this point, I've been back at work from maternity leave for a month and it was a big adjustment. I thought I would take a post and compile the best advice I received for making the most of work and home during my transition back to the office. Here are my favorite tips:

  • If you have parental leave, negotiate the best format and timeline for your family. I know plenty of people who negotiated coming back to work part-time or working remotely more to help ease the transition back to work. In my case, my job is not conducive to telework but I was able to save several weeks of parental leave to use in my next assignment. Knowing I have those weeks saved for later has been such a relief during a hectic transfer season for my family. There's no one right way to use the leave you are entitled to, so push for what's best for you and your family. (And don't feel guilty about using the benefits you've rightfully earned!)
  • Treasure the time you have with your little one each day. Someone told me that there will be times when hanging out with my baby is boring because what interests him will seem dull and basic to me and because he doesn't seem like he's doing anything. But good parents don't just focus on doing with their kids; they focus on being with their kids. When I focus on just being with baby S during the short windows of time we get together during the workweek, I feel so much more connected to him. As a result, our time together - even if spent doing the most mundane things - feels special. Someone else suggested envisioning myself in the future 50 years from now, having travelled back in the past to hold my son as a baby just one more time. That also totally changed the way I see those tender moments of just snuggling him or playing with him.
  • Practice your work schedule in advance with your caregiver. M and I did a weeklong trial run of my work schedule where I pumped milk, M fed S my milk through bottles, and we timed S's morning and evening wake times to be right before and after my workday. It really helped me feel more comfortable my first day back in the office, and it helped us confirm the number of times I'd have to pump in a day and when.
  • Think carefully before attending that optional happy hour or scheduling things after work. I feel like I understand other working parents and caregivers so much better now that I'm one of them. One day, I scheduled a call for after work. To my horror, by the time I finished the call it was already past S's bedtime and M had put him to sleep. I was devastated because that one call prevented me from spending any time just hanging out with my baby the whole entire day and I had to wait until the next day to see him. That was such a hard lesson for me to learn. Although we can't always prevent scheduling conflicts, we can be thoughtful about whether they are necessary and whether there might be a better time. For example, now I try to schedule things after 7pm so it doesn't eat into my time with S.
  • Dress comfortably. A lot of postpartum employees are in a weird limbo where they're no longer pregnant but don't fit into their pre-pregnancy clothes, either. You shouldn't feel like you have to squeeze into painful or awkward outfits just because you wore them before. Your clothes at work (and everywhere else in life) should fit you, not the other way around.
  • Take care of your health and consider seeing a psychotherapist and physical therapist for postpartum care in addition to your OB/GYN. My therapist helped me immensely with recovering from birth, adjusting to parenthood, and preparing for the return to work.
  • Recognize the benefits you have and advocate for others to have them, too. I am so grateful to have had paid maternity leave, and I can't imagine how hard it must be to go back to work right away for those who would rather take time off but don't have the option. My experiences led me not only to be thankful but also to be even more committed to fighting for policies in the professional and political world that support families and working parents.
  • Ignore other people's assumptions and unwelcome comments. People will make comments and give you unsolicited advice on everything from your body to your childcare arrangements to your work schedule and so on. I find it helpful just to smile and brush off any unwanted comments and information, because people generally mean well and care but only you know what's best for you and your family.
  • Know and use inclusive language whenever possible. I already mentioned in a previous blog post that sex and gender are different. Some people prefer to reference nursing their infant as "chestfeeding" instead of "breastfeeding", so although I use the latter term for myself I am happy to use more inclusive language for others. I also don't like it when all caregivers are referred to as mamas or even parents because there are so many types of infant caregivers including grandparents, foster parents, siblings, cousins, godparents, etc. It doesn't cost me anything to use words that make others feel more seen and welcome.

Here are some additional tips specific to those returning to work and nursing:

  • Have a strategy to build a freezer stash of milk and start as early as possible. I know some add a pumping session each day to build up a stash, but another option (which is what worked best for me) is to use a silicone manual pump to catch let-down from the opposite side while nursing. Even though each session (especially in the beginning) only netted me a small smount of milk (e.g., half an ounce), those small amounts really added up over the days and weeks of maternity leave. By the time I went back to work, I had plenty of milk in the freezer to give me peace of mind knowing that there would be enough for baby S even if I didn't pump enough the previous day or if he was extra hungry (e.g., during a growth spurt).
  • If you're pumping, invest in accessories and make sure your manager is aware of your needs. In addition to my pump I have a nice pumping bag, flange spray, lanolin cream, and reusable milk storage bags. They have made my experience pumping much more convenient and comfortable, and I use all of the products so frequently I think they are worth choosing carefully. I also made sure to talk to my manager prior to my return and let him know my pumping schedule since I knew I wouldn't be working during those times.
  • If you need to travel for work, figure out the logistics in advance. How will you feed your baby? Does your employer support shipping pumped milk? What are the milk transport policies of your company/airline/train/country? Are there certain types of travel you're able to do and others you need to delegate or pass on to others? Are there work trips where you could pay for your baby and a caregiver to accompany you if you pay for an extra hotel room? These are all questions one should ponder in advance if your job is one that requires travel. (Not to scare any readers, but as Yun Sun put it in an excellent article in The Atlantic: "Had someone asked me when I started my first job what I thought would be the greatest challenge for a female professional, I probably would have popped out some big-concept answer: gender equality, equal pay, or work-life balance...Or so I thought before I became a breastfeeding mother. I can now say with confidence that traveling internationally with pumped breast milk has been the greatest challenge of my working career.") Consider products or services that can help make milk shipment easier; we had a fantastic experience shipping my 360oz frozen stash from South Korea to the United States with coolers from Milk Stork.
  • Make sure you're eating and drinking enough to maintain your milk supply. It is your legal, social, and moral right to breastfeed/chestfeed as long as you choose, so don't feel like you have to cave into pressure to diet, skip meals, or cut back on the nutrition you need to keep going.
  • Set your own personal nursing goals, but be flexible. Most working moms I know in the Foreign Service have a goal to breastfeed their child for one year. The American Academy of Pediatrics just updated their guidance this year to recommend feeding children human milk up to two years and beyond. Be informed, but do what works best for your and your family.

I hope this advice was as helpful for you as it was for me (or at least illuminating for some readers). It's not easy going back to work after maternity leave, but for many of us it's necessary and well worth the challenge.