“So, any regrets?” my friend Jen asked as we walked around the beautiful Pokhara Lake in central Nepal. “Any regrets about choosing not to have a family?” And there it was. The ‘F bomb’ tossed casually like a friendly grenade onto the footpath in front of me. The familiar sensitivity returned. Hidden purple bruises pressed upon by an insistent finger.
“Actually I haven’t decided that at all – I do want children,” I replied, equally casually. “It just hasn’t happened yet and it’s the one thing I can’t control.” Suddenly I wasn’t enjoying the walk so much and I launched into the same speech I’d recited countless times before. “I could have stayed in Sydney and ‘settled down’ and hoped to meet someone, but what if I didn’t?” I said. “Then I would have missed out on what I really love doing, and also still not have a family.”
It’s one of the big dilemmas faced by many people in aid and development work: what’s the personal cost of the job and the lifestyle? What do you unknowingly give up when you sign a contract to work in Ethiopia, or Gaza, or Myanmar? Do you sabotage your chances of finding a relationship and having children?
“If you were serious about meeting a man…”
My friend in Nepal wasn’t the only one who seemed to think so. In Islamabad, I lived with Doctors Without Borders colleagues in a seven-bedroom white house with a rooftop. After hours, we would gather in the living room, sharing food, expat gossip and of course discussing the challenges of relationships in our line of work. One day my boss, an experienced but jaded Frenchman, said to me, “You know, if you were serious about meeting a man, you’d be in Sydney and not here.”
I was indignant. And privately a little worried that he might be right. But after years of wrestling with other people’s opinions on this, I’m still not convinced.
Firstly, there would have been fewer opportunities for me to work on international issues – something I’ve been drawn to my whole life.
One family holiday, when I was in high school, I spent hours cutting out international news articles from The Sydney Morning Herald and pasting them into a scrapbook so I could be up-to-date on global affairs. Years later, if I’d stayed in Sydney just to try to meet a guy, I would have been pretending that teenaged girl didn’t exist. But I’m still her and she’s still me.
Secondly, I would have missed out on the experiences that have turned my perspective inside out. The generosity of Nepali farmers who lost homes and crops in the 2015 earthquake, yet still insisted on sharing their buffalo milk, rice and vegetables with me.
Or the pain of a Palestinian family born stateless in a refugee camp in Lebanon – the fifth generation in that family to live in the camp. Even the awe of floating over the ancient Buddhist temples on the plains of Bagan, in Myanmar, in a hot air balloon. I would never have had those experiences or learnt those lessons so sharply in Sydney.
Thirdly, countless people I know in this industry met their partners through work, or at least while living in foreign countries. I’m friends with a French man and Canadian woman who met in Chad. They’re now living in Myanmar with their two children. I’m friends with a Finnish woman who met her English husband in Lebanon. I know a Spanish woman who met her Australian husband in East Timor and after years in Cambodia, then New York, they moved to Jordan with their four children. An American friend met an English boyfriend in Pakistan and they moved to Sierra Leone. I could go on.
Where loneliness lives
Of course I’ve had lonely moments when I question whether everything wouldn’t be easier at home. Like when I pretend I don’t mind eating yet another dinner alone, next to a Thai beach, watching burning lanterns drift by in the night sky and listening to the chink of other people’s wine glasses. Or when I check in to a hotel on a short beach break in northern Myanmar and the staff member bluntly asks, “Only one?” Or when I join yet another expat social group in yet another city. But then again, loneliness is not something you only feel overseas.
So I come full circle, every time. No matter what doubts you hear in your own mind, or from friends or family back home, you can’t choose your life path based on dating odds, or the pressure to ‘settle down’ in your home town.
This life is who I am. So I live it. It’s up to us to be the best versions of ourselves—fulfilled, challenged and eternally curious people. When it comes to finding love, that’s the one thing that will never yield to a spreadsheet or a list, to planning or to wanting. It’s about your choice to have faith, not your choice of address or career.