The year was 1997.
My husband, two children and I were poolside at a hotel in Jogjakarta, Indonesia when it happened.
The hotel was managed by the father of one of my children’s friends. Even though I was only in Jogja for three months to improve my Indonesian language skills so I could interpret for the ambassador, my kids attended the international school.
The general manager was from Switzerland — not a nation known at that time for advocating women’s equality. In fact, the country was the last in the world to give women the right to vote in 1971.
The manager looked at my husband, and asked, “So what position will you occupy at the embassy?”
My husband quipped, “You’ll have to ask my wife. She’s the diplomat.”
The manager looked over at me, somewhat disinterested now.
“I’m going into the political section,” I answered anyway. “I’ll be covering domestic politics, security, human rights and more.”
Little did I know I would also be covering East Timor as it headed along a rocky path to independence.
He smiled politely, if somewhat awkwardly, and left us to it.
Would I say this is what being a female in diplomacy was like? Yes and no.
I found Indonesians to be the least sexist people I’d ever encountered. The women I met were strong, independent, owned their own businesses, worked in human rights, cared for female victims of violence and oppression, and had buckets of courage.
Not once did an Indonesian man assume I was accompanying my husband in his role.
It was liberating.
This feeling didn’t cross over to my life in the Australian foreign service, a place I would describe as paying lip service to equal rights for women, but in truth being full of conservative, white-skinned entitled men, the kind who didn’t even know that was what they were, because they had no awareness of other realities.
I had to tread a fine line of being confident but not too self-assured, for fear of appearing bossy or bitchy.
Not long after I arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia experienced a political revolution sparked by an economic crisis. Soon after, I was given the job of covering East Timor, which also underwent political upheaval.
This meant that just a few months into my posting, I was working 12 to 18 hours a day, six to seven days a week. This included frequent travel around the country and significant time away from home, especially when East Timor heated up, and I would be gone for up to three weeks at a time.
Who looked after my children? I was lucky that my husband was an artist and was happy to do that, although with a lot of help. Like many wealthier Indonesians, we had a cook, a maid-slash-babysitter, a driver, and two security guards who doubled as gardeners and pool cleaners.
I considered myself lucky. Lucky that my husband had something to keep him occupied that he loved. Lucky that he was happy to be there for our children.
It was far tougher for the partners of other colleagues, both men and women, who were used to paid work.
Many countries like Indonesia didn’t have reciprocal work arrangements, meaning if a spouse wanted to work, they would have to forgo their diplomatic passport and be sponsored by a local business or organisation. There were security implications in doing this.
I suspected this was why, in the diplomatic service, there were plenty of single women and men who married people they met during postings — partners who knew from the beginning that their life together would involve frequent displacement.
I soon found myself in the traditional male role of the household. I earned all the money on which my family relied, worked the crazy long hours, was away a lot and had to attend many work functions.
It was exhausting and I found myself being a ‘telephone mother’— but, if truth be told, I also loved it. My work was fascinating and had meaning, and I never planned on being a stay-at-home mother.
In other words, I revelled in playing the so-called man’s role.
I remember one period when my husband was away and my son became ill enough to require parental care. It was in the middle of another looming political crisis.
Generally, there was an expectation that having children on posting during a crisis would not interfere with your work. Thankfully my boss allowed me to work from home, just as long as I completed what needed to be done. There’s no doubt my son suffered from my less-than-full attention.
From afar, I could organise everything from my children’s play dates to excursions, birthdays, functions and weekends away, even presents and clothing.
What I struggled to also do was remain the emotional lynchpin of the family.
There were times when I needed to referee the sometimes ‘difficult’ relationship between my husband and our daughter and try and temper the favouritism that existed over my children.
It wasn’t playing this motherly role that was an issue because that was who I was — my children’s mother. It was that if I wasn’t available to do this, my husband was incapable of stepping in. He was unavailable emotionally in the way my children needed, which put immense pressure on me and — here comes that word that permeates the consciences of many working women — caused me guilt.
I felt guilty for not being there for my children 24/7. Guilty for working even if I was the breadwinner. Guilty for needing some time out and spending even more time away from my children. Guilty for not wanting to be a full-time mother. Guilty for paying other women to do some of ‘my’ work.
Like so many women, I tried to act like superwoman.
Admittedly, I did it with the help of my husband and our staff. In an ideal world, and with the perfect relationship, perhaps we could have shared all our parental roles. But that’s what an expat life where extraordinary events occur does — it puts everything under pressure and pushes people to the extreme.
Later, I also realised that, despite his art work, my husband was lonely and went a little stir crazy. I’m sad to say I didn’t have much time or emotional capacity left to support him in the way he needed.
While I enjoyed that extraordinary time in Indonesia and East Timor where I learned things about myself I would otherwise never have realised — playing that role was not something I wanted to continue.
When I came back to Australia after working for the UN in East Timor, my priority became my children — because all the political crises, danger and thrills can’t replace the love for and of your child.
As for my marriage, it drifted apart, although that happened well before the telling events of Jakarta could take their toll.
Did that mean I retreated back into roles that were traditionally known as women’s in the workforce? Not at all. I continued to take roles that I wanted to do regardless… including working for a shadow minister who later became Prime Minister of Australia. It’s just that this time I did it my way, and not according to men’s rules.
Nore Hoogstad is the author of Gunfire Lullabies, a gut-wrenching, fictionalised account of East Timor’s turbulent 1999 independence ballot, which ended in mass-scale destruction and death. It’s a story about two women living in a man’s world and an insight into life as a female diplomat.
Gunfire Lullabies was published 31 August 2021 and is available from Booktopia and all good bookstores.