Trials and tribulations of a development mum

Pregnant (Flickr/Frank de Kleine CC BY 2.0)

Those of us who aspire to procreate as well as forge a career in development are faced with tough decisions. One that many consider is whether to take their family and live in a developing country, or to find a development job in a developed country (with a likely need for frequent travel). There are lots of things to consider – schools, medical care, quality of life, proximity to family, cultural experiences and so on.

In this post I’m going to give you an insight into my experience juggling babies and a career in development. For me it has been a matter of trial and error.

Ever since I was a first year undergraduate student, I was sure that I wanted to work in development. Over the following few years, I did all the right things – I completed a Masters, got some international volunteer experience under my belt and found myself on a good wicket. I was in my mid-twenties, working as a consultant for the UN in Bangladesh, and the world was my oyster.

My world suddenly came tumbling down when I found out I was expecting a baby. At the time, I was on one of the UN’s notorious consultant contracts – with a forced one-month contract break after every 11 months of service. Because of this, maternity leave and other employment benefits could not be claimed due to lack of continuity of service. So I packed my bags and headed home to Australia.

So, since becoming a mum, I have tried a few career options. They include:

  1. not working in development;
  2. working in development, based in a developing country; and
  3. working in development, based in a developed country.

After the arrival of my first baby, I tried out Option 1. I decided that continuing to work in development was just too hard. I told myself to give up on the dream and focus on my family. After a couple of years however, I was unfulfilled in my work. I knew that development was my passion and realised I had to find a way to make it happen. So I signed my family up for 12 months living on a remote island in Vanuatu through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program.

The plans were now in motion for Option 2. Just as we were due to depart, we found out we were expecting baby number two. I was told we could still go but that I could only stay in the volunteer program up until 28 weeks of pregnancy due to insurance requirements. This seemed incredibly conservative to me, especially given my history of full-term, complication-free pregnancy. My assignment was to work as a Gender Equality Officer, advocating for better policies and programs for women in Vanuatu, however I was forced to cut my assignment from 12 months to 5 months because I was pregnant. The irony was not lost on me.

Island life in Vanuatu was an experience nonetheless. My three-year-old had a taste of life ‘off the grid’ (literally), went to kindy every day in the back of a ute and made friends that I believe will be lifelong. Some months after returning to Australia he told me about how he would sneak out and play marbles with the kids next door while our haus gel (nanny) napped in the afternoon. Naturally, I was shocked to hear that the person I paid to take care of my child was asleep on the job. At the time, I believed I was empowering a woman by employing her full-time in my house. Upon further reflection, I’m not so sure. She was not only working in my house, but also staying up late and getting up early so she could continue doing all the things she was expected to do for her husband and four teenage sons (cooking, cleaning, washing, etc). I think she was more exhausted than empowered.

Fast forward about 18 months and I am now trying out Option 3. So far it’s a win-win. My husband and kids don’t have to leave the comfort of their Canberra lifestyles and I get to work on something I’m passionate about. It’s not without its challenges though. My daughter is still breastfeeding so that makes overseas trips tricky. I’m fortunate to have a breastfeeding friendly employer and an incredibly supportive extended family; my mum and daughter come with me when I travel.

I was recently talking about my situation to a friend, explaining that this arrangement will continue until my daughter turns two – when I plan to stop breastfeeding (and also coincidentally when her plane tickets are no longer free). He remarked, in a well-meaning way, that I must be looking forward to that. Actually, quite the opposite. But what could be worse than travelling overseas with small children, you ask? Other development mums will know: it’s having to travel overseas and leave them behind.

Lindy Kanan is based in Canberra and works as a Development Manager for Femili PNG, which runs a family and sexual violence case management centre in Lae, Papua New Guinea, and which the Development Policy Centre supports.

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Lindy Kanan

Lindy Kanan is an adjunct industry fellow and PhD candidate at the School of Law and Society at the University of the Sunshine Coast.


  • Thanks for the post Lindy! I also found the balance difficult. I’d spent 8 years in Southeast Asia and New York before moving back to Australia to start a family. When he was almost one year old, I took one of the rare INGO jobs in Sydney. Lots of international travel and long hours. It didn’t work for me or my child. My mother’s guilt reached epic proportions and I wasn’t able to serve the organsiation as well as I could when I was single and time was my own. I am extremely lucky now to have a job which is flexible, keeps me somewhat engaged in the international space but without the travel. It’s not a job I would have chosen before, but it’s great for now.

  • Hi Lindy, fantastic post! It’s so heartening to hear your experience, and that you’ve found a solution that works for you and your family.

    I’m currently in maternity leave with my first little one, from a development job I love that involves a fair bit of international travel. I’d be interested to know whether your workplace’s breastfeeding policies extend to practical (and financial) support for your child and carer to travel with you on work trips? And if so, do you have any insight into how common this is?

    It could make a big difference to the type of development roles women with young children could take on, with support benefitting women and their families, as well as organisations who struggle to retain their future female leaders.

    • Hi Tessa. Thanks for the feedback. I’d be happy to share with you more details of the arrangements I have in place with my employer – perhaps offline (I have your email). I agree, better support for the needs of mums (breastfeeding infrastructure, flexible arrangements) could make a big difference. Some may be costly – such as paying for a breastfeeding child and carer to travel internationally with the mother – but there are also plenty of low cost ways to support parents with young children. For example, becoming a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace only requires three things – space, time and support.

  • Thanks for this story. I think we need a global scan of the situation for working mom’s (and dad’s) with children, and the extent to which they are supported by development organizations/agencies. I think many organizations that claim to be rights-based, maternal-and-child-health advocates do a poor job of supporting their own employees.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Lindy. I love hearing how other women have negotiated the liminal space of motherhood & involvement in the development ‘industry’. I was actively discouraged from continuing my job with a large INGO when I started my family. I am now at the other end with 17, 14 & 11 year olds, and have returned to full time study to curate a re-entry into the profession because it never left me.

    • Hi Sharon. Sorry to hear you were discouraged from your job when you started a family. I wish I could say that times have changed, but unfortunately it remains a real issue for women. From the discussions I hear at playgroups, it’s certainly not unique to the development sector either. I guess it’s up to us to keep advocating, in the hope that our daughters don’t face the same discrimination. Best of luck with the studies and your re-entry!

  • Hi Lindy… great post, and it’s lovely to hear that you have found rewarding work in Canberra since you left the TVET family! I hope all continues to go well for you. 🙂

    • Thanks Sara! You are living proof that being an engaged parent and doing meaningful development work doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    • Thanks Sarah. Really, heartfelt thanks to you and the Australian Breastfeeding Association who have been an integral part of my journey as a breastfeeding development mum!

  • Excellent lesson learned!

    It’s a complete reflection report of your life. I know little about you. This realization and analytical thought will help you discover your hidden potentialities.

    Go ahead Lindy.
    All the way best of luck.

  • Hi Lindy, wow fascinating to read that. I did not realise that you had to cut short your Vanuatu assignment due to pregnancy, how awful. I am a single parent by design – it’s always been just me and my son. My first assignment after he was born was to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh (where I met you!) and arriving there on my own with a small baby and trying to set up house, child-care and start a new job all essentially in the same week was the hardest experience of my life. I would not wish it on anyone and I think that the UN can do much better to make landings like that easier. The UN gave me plenty of settling money, but very little actual practical help and no TIME to adjust.

    However, I do fantastically appreciate being able to have my baby and young toddler in a country where child care is affordable. I don’t envy my sisters in Sydney who are faced with waiting lists and stupendous costs for child care if they want to continue work, not to even GO to the high cost of living.

    I eventually took a year out and bummed around in Thailand with my two year old son. One of the best years of my life.

    In my line of work (UNHCR), most of the best and most interesting work is in places I just can’t go – conflict areas or emergencies where being on duty 24/7 is the expected norm. I can’t do it. So I’ve been ‘getting away’ with assignments in quiet, family friendly places. Now my son is 6 years old and I further constrained – he needs to go to school in English which pretty much restricts us to capitals. With parents at home who are not getting any younger, the call to come home and be with family (as so many refugees would give anything to do) is getting stronger. Might be seeing more of you in the near future!!!

    PS: A few months ago, one of my mummy friends posted how proud she was that her six year old boy traveled unaccompanied to visit his grandma in Melbourne. When I read that I was so impressed by the bravery of that boy, but I also realized that I have pretty much never traveled on a plane without my son, forget about my son travelling without me. Travel is the real sticking point for me – I just can’t bring myself to leave my son with a nanny for a week while I swan off to Geneva or Bangkok or wherever. So my place in my chosen profession does feel quite precarious. What kind of humanitarian professional can’t travel anywhere? But I’m still happy and somehow I manage to keep doing what I love best.

    • Thanks so much for sharing you experience Jane. Your comment “What kind of humanitarian professional can’t travel anywhere?” really struck a cord with me. I think we’re definitely too hard on ourselves sometimes though!

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