Such is life as a diplomat
MICHELLE GYLES-MCDONNOUGH boasts that she is a pro at commuting. After all, over the past few years she’s had plenty of practice as a diplomat, and in her current post as UNDP Resident Representative and United Nations Resident Coordinator.
“Life as a diplomat has its challenges and its benefits,”says Michelle. “You get to learn about this very diverse world that we live in and the challenges that people face.
“The work of the UN is what you look at as a calling. I think that is what drives me and what drives many people that work in the UN system. It is this hope that you can contribute in a small way for a better life for people on this planet.
“On the other side, it is demanding from the perspective of the job, it’s demanding personally, and it’s demanding on your family. You have to want to do this work because it’s very easy for people to focus on what they consider the glitz and the glamour. But you also have to deal with the demands that it puts upon you as an individual and as a family.”
That calling has taken Jamaican-born Michelle at different points in her life to several countries around the world such as Grenada, Trinidad, Zimbabwe, the United States (Washington, New York) and now in Barbados.
Some of those destinations saw Michelle as a single woman while other destinations saw her with a husband who is also a diplomat and eventually children in tow.
“I lived in Zimbabwe — that was pre-family.
I didn’t live there for a very long time, but it is a part of the world that I’d love to get back to.
One of the things that left an imprint on me there is how a common history shapes the life of people. As a Caribbean person in Zimbabwe, I didn’t have a big adjustment. Hirare is like one big Kingston. That wasn’t part of the UN stint, but I find the globe very interesting. I just like cultures and I like people and have this curiosity of how different places work.”
Her Barbadian assignment, though, is the first time that Michelle and her husband are living in the same place together.
“I tell people I’m a pro at commuting,” she says, laughing. “It’s not something I want to do, but we’ve had to find a way to do it because we also have small children and you want them to feel that they’re part of a cohesive family space. That takes its own investment, planning and work. So far I think we’ve done decently. I think they probably don’t know what the other alternative is. That takes strategizing and planning.”
While one does get to see the world working with the UN, it also means that you’re never in one place too long. So making the decision to start a family with the demands of the job wasn’t initially easy for Michelle.
“I think I grappled with many of the same questions lots of working women do,” she says. “You have to deal with the questions of, will this slow my career because I’ll be out for a certain amount of time? I love my job, so will I be able to devote the time I need to doing what I love to do, and also the time that you need to raise a family.”
Michelle said she initially struggled with timing in terms of starting a family.
“I suppose there is really no right time. You just have to do it and then you manage it, because if you wait for the right time you’ll never do that part of life that is important,” she said. “I had all those considerations that every woman has but I knew a family was important to me so I knew I had to find a way and balance it out.”
In many ways Michelle, who is an international trade lawyer, used her legal training and problem solving in many aspects of her life.
“I think legal training is valuable and applicable across several spectrums, which is why you see lawyers in so many different disciplines,” she says. “My practice was focused on international trade and international trade policy, so I really focused on a policy level. For me it was important to focus my practice on that because my concern has always been one of development. If you don’t focus on the setting of the rules and what the field will look like, you can’t address how that will impact people. For me it was moving from private practice to working for the government of Jamaica in Washington.”
Michelle admits that at the time trade lawyers were very few in the Caribbean, so her position in that role was of great importance. Her work as a trade lawyer also helped in her work with the UN.
“I think I’m very fortunate because I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I’m one of these strange people that are kind of clear in terms of what I wanted to do and where it is I wanted to go and I’m doing exactly that.
I think that’s important in doing a good job because I don’t believe in working hours just for a pay cheque. I believe you better enjoy what you’re doing or else you lead a pretty miserable life.”
Despite the demands on her time, and the constant travelling and time away from her family as her job mandates, Michelle is enjoying her life.
“What you have to have at the end of the day is a sense of achievement and satisfaction on the work side and your personal life,” she says. “I feel equally passionate about my children and family. So when I’m there I feel like I need to be there 100 per cent. If that means going back to finish something work-related at one or two in the morning, then so be it. That also is something that needs to be managed because a family is a husband and children. So my weekends are for my family and we try to do things together. Supermarket shopping is great bonding time. But you know you have to maximize the weekends especially when you have two travelling parents.”
Michelle says that while they do have a lot of movement within the family they’re trying to build a sense of cohesion.
“With all of the travel we make sure we’re there for all the important moments,” she says. “If not one parent, then both and usually we try to make it both. Whether it’s the sports day or the Christmas concert we’re there. They don’t have important moments without parents.”
Michelle also admits that extended support and Skype are key to doing the work she and her husband do.
“I know I couldn’t do this job without support and without people you can trust leaving your most precious children in their hands and go halfway around the globe and come back,” she said. “The fact that I’m not worried means they’re not worried and things are on cruise control.”
Despite the delicate balancing act it takes to make her personal and professional life work, Michelle wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m very happy with where I am,” she says. “Everything has it ups and downs and its challenges, but when I look at the broad canvas I don’t think I would want it any other way.”