Finding Peace in Your PCS

Finding Peace in Your PCS | Career | Military Spouse | Whole Spouse

It’s that time of year when masses of military families are on the move.  Are you one of them?  Even the best moves can be stressful, and are especially disruptive to military spouse careers.

If you’re in that boat, take some time to think about your goals for the next PCS before the moving trucks arrive.  How do you feel about the next assignment?  What do you hope to accomplish there?  Is this a good time to reach for a career milestone or focus on another priority?  Here are 3 things I recommend you do to help find peace in your PCS:

1.    Set personal goals for your next assignment.

Before you get caught up in the fast-paced blur of the moving process, take some time to reflect on what you want to get out of the next assignment.  I recommend keeping a journal and writing about your goals for the next duty station.  Visualize your best possible life and what it would look like.  Will this be a good time to seek employment, make a career change, go back to school, or take a break and focus on family?  What would give you the most happiness and satisfaction personally and professionally?  Then challenge yourself to set 2-3 personal goals for the next assignment that can guide you through the next chapter of your military life.  When I found out we were coming to Hawaii two years ago, I set 3 goals for myself:

  1. Maintain my coaching business.
  2. Write my book.
  3. Take up golf again (a much-loved hobby I had given up when I became a working mom).

I knew this assignment would be a good chance for me to slow down after having two kids, earning a PhD, and starting a business.  For me, this assignment wasn’t about hitting my next career milestone, but about enjoying one or our last duty stations before military retirement.  Having these goals clear in my mind has helped focus my energy and prioritize my time during this assignment.

2.    Make sure your goals fit with your 3M’s.

If you are going to succeed in meeting your personal goals, make sure they realistically fit those 3M roles in your life (marriage, motherhood/fatherhood, military life).  Will your spouse be supportive of your priorities?  If you have children, will you be able to accomplish your goals while still being the parent you need to be?  And are your goals realistic given the demands of your military life (e.g. expected deployments, length of time at this duty station, your service member’s work demands)?  I encourage you to dream big for yourself and craft the life you want to live.  But also do the work to make sure those dreams are achievable in the context of your real-world life.

3.    Expect to feel loss and look for unexpected gains.

Sometimes we underestimate the emotional toll of moving, especially when we think we’ve become experts at the process.  But the reality is that each move is a like a small death.  We experience some loss each time, no matter how small it may seem on the surface.  (Sue Jervis, a British military spouse and psychologist wrote a fascinating book about this if you want to learn more.  She says these losses accumulate over a life of repeated moves, and are often internalized in ways we don’t really acknowledge or learn to repair before the next move comes along.)

I’ve discovered for myself that 4 months is about how long I typically feel out of sorts.  I may be sad one minute and excited the next, or hopeful about one thing but really down about another.  So I’ve made a promise to myself not judge anything about a new assignment for the first 4 months.  I cut myself some slack about any ups and downs and try to withhold judgment if I find myself worrying too much.  I expect to feel some loss during those first few months and I try not to over-react when it comes.  At the same time, don’t wait to embrace new opportunities and look for gains that you might not have expected.  In other words, give yourself permission to accept the loss, sadness, frustration during the transition AND be open to the good stuff that will come your way if you let it.

If this is a summer on the move for you, I wish you peace in your PCS.



Bridging the Divide

Bridging the Divide | Whole Spouse

I’ve been feeling reflective lately about the state our country these days.  It seems like the only thing we can all agree on is that we are hopelessly divided.  And it feels like it’s only getting worse.  The more divided we feel, the more we stick to people like ourselves who will reassure us that we are normal and justified in our beliefs.  After all, it’s only human nature to avoid conflict.  Who enjoys getting their feelings hurt or being a part of those snarky conversations on Facebook?  Okay, maybe some people thrive on that kind of stuff, but most of us just want to get along and feel connected to other people.

While I am definitely not here to lecture anyone on politics, I believe that we as career-oriented military spouses can do some real good in this political environment.  As military spouses, we can help bridge the divide in our country because we are uniquely positioned to understand people and perspectives from so many walks of life.  We hear this all the time.  We live all around the world and get to know so many different kinds of people.  It’s a badge of honor that military spouses can and do connect with each other regardless of background or politics, and we are better for it.

But that’s not all.  Those of us who pursue careers outside the home have the potential to take this lesson a step further and teach civilians what it means to come together.  By getting outside our “military bubble” and interacting with other civilians, we can share what it’s like to be on this side of things.  Very often we may try to keep our military spouse identity hidden in the workplace, but in doing so we may be wasting an opportunity to bridge that gap in some small way.  We are unlike most Americans precisely because we are constantly being exposed to new people and different perspectives.  At the same time, the civilian world seems to be getting increasingly polarized, to the point where we cannot even agree on what real news is anymore.

One way we can help bridge this divide is by simply being visible in the workplace as military spouses.  By working in a professional capacity we defy the stereotypes on both the right and the left about the military community.  I interviewed one spouse named Grace awhile back who told me a story that really resonated with me.  Grace told me that one of her office colleagues was shocked when he found out she was a military spouse, believing that military spouses don’t work.  Although she was surprised by his reaction, Grace says, “I kind of felt proud because I’m not what outsiders think of as a military spouse.  You know, some lady who stays at home and is fat and wears an ‘I Love the Navy’ t-shirt.”

Grace and her office colleague might never have crossed paths in ordinary life, and he may never have given her the time of day if she was just another woman in an “I Love the Navy” t-shirt.  But because of their shared work, Grace changed his assumptions about military spouses, and perhaps opened his mind to other new perspectives as well.  I know one small interaction like this isn’t going to change the world or our political climate, but I do believe that being brave enough to share who you really are is the first step towards breaking down false assumptions and bridging the gaps that often divide us.


Know When to Play Big, Lean In, or Just Give In

Know When to Play Big, Lean In, or Just Give In | Whole Spouse

Despite all the advice we hear, there is no playbook for military spouse careers.  Ultimately we are on our own to sort out the complexity of military life and the ongoing process of reinventing ourselves at every turn in the road.  We can listen to our partners, trusted colleagues and friends, or maybe even hire a coach, but in the end each decision comes down to our own intuition about what’s best for ourselves.

If you’re like me, you like knowing what other people think, and maybe you keep up with some of the latest advice gurus.  Two in particular come to mind when I think about careers:  Tara Mohr and her admonition to “play big,” and Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in.”  In Mohr’s case, she believes women often think too small about their careers and could accomplish much more if we had the courage and the vision to play a bigger game.  And most of you are probably familiar with Sandberg’s idea of leaning in when faced with challenges.  Don’t assume you aren’t up for the task or talk yourself out of it, but lean into the challenge and embrace it.

I agree with the spirit of both “playing big” and “leaning in,” but I also worry that this kind of thinking can be damaging to military spouses if taken too literally. 

I talk to way too many spouses who feel ashamed and guilty about not being successful enough in their careers.  Could it be that I just didn’t lean in hard enough or wasn’t smart enough to play a bigger game?

Coupled with the current narrative that military spouses are resilient amazing human beings who can do anything, this advice sets many of us up for unrealistic expectations.  If Tara Mohr can play big why can’t I?  What is wrong with me?  Well, maybe you just PCS’d to a location with few jobs and you are single-handedly running a household while your partner prepares to deploy.  In the short-run you may just be coping with surviving, and truly not have the capacity to play big.

On the other hand, military life can become an easy excuse for spouses who say they want a career but can’t seem to find a path forward. 

Maybe you’ve been in one location for a while and have a stable routine at home, but can’t seem to muster the motivation to get out on the job market or you just don’t know where to begin.  Then it’s time to just lean in, find the support you need and get it done.

So how can you tell the difference? When is it right to push yourself, even when it feels hard?  And when is it okay to give in and admit this is not the right time to reach for your next career milestone?

Only you know the answer for what is right for you, but here are some questions you may want to ask yourself the next time you’re faced with such a dilemma:

  1. How would I feel about this decision if my partner was not in the military?
  2. Is there a real obstacle holding me back or am I just afraid?
  3.  What will the consequences be if I wait or don’t take this opportunity now?

This is where your support network is more important than ever.  Utilize your inner circle of close friends and colleagues to give you honest feedback, or consider working with a coach to help you sort out your options.  Whoever you turn to for help, remember that each decision is yours to make, own, and live with, regardless of which path you choose.

Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses.  Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.

Beyond Silent Sacrifice: What you can do to make a difference

Beyond Silent Sacrifice: What You Can Do To Make A Difference | Whole Spouse

As a new year begins, I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages I received about my article, Silent Sacrifice.  So many people contacted me with their stories and asked me what they could do to improve spouse employment.  This made me stop short because I realized I don’t have a ready answer.  How do we make a difference on such an enormous problem?  Although there is no silver bullet, I do believe there are a few simple things we can all do to make a difference:

  1. Share your story:  I strongly believe our most powerful tool for creating change is simply talking.  By openly talking about our working lives and career desires as military spouses we help create a culture where it is normal and ordinary for spouses to have careers.  Don’t save it up for your military spouse Facebook groups.  Share it in regular conversations with neighbors, friends, and your military peers.
  2. Make your voice heard by policymakers:  Don’t be afraid to speak out and tell your members of Congress and state level representatives that you expect them to work on this issue.  Members do pay attention to constituent messages, and one thing we have in our favor is numbers.  We also have excellent military service organizations (MSO’s) representing us on this issue.  MSO’s like Blue Star Families, National Military Family Association, and the Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) are voices for us on Capitol Hill, so it’s important to remind them what we care about and that the current status of spouse employment is unacceptable.  An easy way to contribute your opinion is to participate in Blue Star Families’ Annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey.
  3. Take care of yourself:  While I do see hope for the future, change does not happen overnight.  So the reality is you have two choices – throw your hands up in despair and walk away from your career, or find a solution you can live with.  The most heart-breaking thing I often see is the military spouse who refuses to make a decision but simply hopes for the best that things will turn out.  Not a good career strategy or a satisfying way to live your life.  Instead, take an honest look at your situation and figure out a way to reconcile career goals with your family and military life.  And honestly, that may mean changing what your career goals are.  But there is nothing more freeing than letting go of a goal that is unrealistic, when that is the case.  Personally, I struggled to maintain a big-firm consulting career until I finally realized the toll it was taking on my emotional and physical health.  Letting go of that path is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it has opened up whole new worlds I had never even dreamed about.  And I can honestly say I have never been happier.

I believe in the strength of our community, and we do have the ability to make real change by simply opening up to those around us and speaking our minds to those in power.  And at the end of the day, your most important job is to take care of yourself and your family.  Find a path that you can live with and make the most of the military phase of your life.  For this too shall pass.

The Naked Truth: Olivia’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Olivia's Story

Olivia’s husband is approaching retirement after a successful 30-year career in the Air Force.  With 11 assignments under her belt, and a new job with each one, Olivia wishes she had been able to have a career rather than a series of jobs.  She reflects on her working life and what it has meant to her. 

I don’t think that I’ve ever had a career.  I have a job and there’s a big difference. I have nothing invested anywhere, except in my family and my marriage.  When my husband gets out of the military he’ll have done 30 years.  He’ll have invested his entire life, his retirement, his everything.  He has a connection there.  I don’t have that.  I have a connection to the military by being (around the) military every single day of my life.  My father was a Marine, then I was Air Force, and then I married him.  But I’ve never had a career.

It wasn’t until later on in our life together did it hit me when I would leave jobs that I really liked, because I’ve had a few.  I can honestly say I’ve been very lucky.  99% of the jobs that I’ve had I really regretted leaving.  There are a couple I was ready to go after a while, but I stayed for the money.  But I’ve been lucky.  I’ve been able to work everywhere I go because I’m so diverse in my skills.  I’ve had to be.  I’ve learned to be.  I don’t have the education though because I left college to go into the Air Force, and I’ve never gone back.

I’d always worked.  Even in high school and college, I’d always worked.  I’d always had that sense of freedom, having my own money, not feeling so dependent.

And I think that was a big thing.  I didn’t have that sense of guilt for being at home sitting there, feeling like I wasn’t doing anything while he’s out working so hard making all the money for the house.  I was able to contribute, knowing that if we go out and we spend money, it’s not putting a strain on our finances because I was contributing too.  And that’s important to me.

When we went to Izmir, I had an 18-month old and a 3-1/2 year old at that point.  I met a lady there and she was a GS employee.  Her husband was Army and they had a 3-1/2 year old who needed a babysitter.  So I said, “Oh, well until I get a job I’ll watch him.”  He was a terror, a holy terror.  He broke our sliding glass window with his head, and it didn’t faze him at all.  That’s when I told my husband, “I can’t do this.  I am so miserable here.  I’m literally stuck in the house with three kids all day long every day.  I can’t do this.”  He said, “First off, you need to quit babysitting him.”  So I did.  They found childcare for him.

And he said, “And then you need to get a job.  You’re happier when you work.”

I didn’t want the girls in daycare because it was way too expensive for two in daycare.  I got a job working at the NCO Club as one of the head cashiers from 5:00 to 9:00 in the evening.  (My husband would) get off at 4:00 and come home.  We’d switch places and he’d take care of the girls in the evening.  He would feed them, bathe them, and get them in bed while I went to work for four hours.  And it seemed to make a world of difference.

I had that sense of independence.  I didn’t feel trapped.

I didn’t feel completely dependent upon him.  I had adult interaction.  I had adult conversation.  I was my own person again.  I took care of the kids during the day and took care of the house, and then I was my own person for those four hours a day.  It made the year and a half we had left there fly by, and it turned out to be a great assignment.  But I was miserable for the first six months.

There is a difference between being a military spouse and a dependent wife.

You picture these women who go to the commissary and they’ll throw a fit about something stupid.  Or they go to the clinic and demand to be seen because of who their husband is or what their status is in the community.  It always seems their entire life was negative, and it all revolved around their husband, their status, their position, and their job.  And it was never about them.  They didn’t seem to have their own identity and I never wanted to be a dependent wife.  I wanted my own identity.  I wanted my own sense of self-worth.  And the first six months in Turkey, even though I was helping another military family take care of their child, I didn’t have a sense of self-worth.

Not that I’m thinking a stay-at-home mom is bad, because there are absolutely wonderful stay-at-home moms.  And their whole purpose in life, or their whole world revolves around their home, their spouse, their children, and that’s perfectly fine for them.  That’s just not fine for me.  And I realize that.  I recognize that and I’m happier when I’m working.

(Olivia later worked as a school secretary and nurse in England.)

In England, it was more something to do, something to keep me occupied so I’m not sitting at home not doing anything.  I can’t do that.  That bothers me.  I think if I didn’t have those jobs, I would’ve felt more useless.  Being at home, especially when the kids were older.  You get up, you clean the house, you make the bed, you do the laundry, and then what?  What’s left?  I don’t have a whole lot of hobbies so to spend all day knitting or spend all day writing a love story… I would literally be sitting there bored stiff.  And I’ve done that a couple times.  Then I went out and got a job.

I don’t think I know anybody who wants to sit there and feel useless.

I mean I’m certain that everybody wants to feel like they have a purpose, like there’s a reason for them to get up every morning.  I just needed something more outside of the house for me, to keep me occupied, to give me a sense of self-worth, and not financial worth.  Everybody wants to feel needed.  I mean once the house is clean and the kids are in school, they don’t need you anymore.

(After several more moves and jobs, Olivia found herself in New Jersey as an empty nester.)

By that time both of my children were gone.  And it was hard for me at first.  I didn’t want to be at home when we went to New Jersey because the day after my youngest went to college, we packed up and moved to New Jersey.  I got a job so I wasn’t sitting at home all the time, so I had something to occupy my time.  And it wasn’t for the money.  It was for something to do.  And within three months I was promoted to one of the managers and got a huge raise.  That was the hardest thing I ever walked away from when we moved here, because I never thought as an uneducated woman I would ever make $50,000 a year.  It was so good!

(Now in Germany, Olivia has an administrative job and explains what work means to her now that her husband is approaching retirement.)

Before, I had something at home to keep me occupied but it wasn’t fulfilling enough.  Now, I don’t want to go back home and sit there and do nothing.  I want to be busy but it’s more important for me, even though I’m not happy in my job, to make the money knowing that in a year we’re going to be retiring.  So right now we live off of my income and we bank his.  And we put money away for a cruise this summer with our girls.  One last trip before my daughter gets married and we’re paying for the wedding. But we have been able to pay for their colleges, both of them, and we’ve paid their cars off, so they’re walking out of college with no debt.  That’s important to us.  So now I’m back to working for the money.  I’m not back to working for the satisfaction of working.

My husband and his career truly are the most important thing to me, because it’s had to be.

He has risen to the highest rank he can rise to an enlisted member.  He has a Master’s degree, and by him getting that I helped pick up the slack at home.  I took care of the kids a little bit more.  I did all the running around.  We sacrificed as a family to get him where he is, but it’s been tough too because I’ve had some really good jobs that I really, really loved.  But I feel that his career has been more important above and beyond anything else.  If he wanted to try a new job, we would go.  There have been times when I’m really happy in my job and I’m having to leave a home that I love, a job that I love, my friends, my church, my family, so he can fulfill his adventure.  That’s been tough.  I think that’s been the hardest.  And maybe that’s a reason why I do work, because I want there to be something else that is just me outside of the home.  Because he has his something else.  He has his career.

I always had my own self, sense of self-worth and my own sense of independence.

And I had my own little work world. I had my own life.  And that was important to me.  I was me.  I was my own person.  I wanted (my girls) to see the importance (of my working) because it taught them a sense of self-independence and a sense of self-worth, and I always taught them you are your own person.  What you do with your life is your choice.  And you can either choose to be with someone or you can choose to be by yourself, but you need to make sure you can take care of you.  Don’t rely on anyone else to take care of you because when you start relying on somebody else to take care of you financially, then you get stuck with somebody that you’re not meant to be with.  And you have no way out.  Always have a way out.

I think it’s hard for me justifying why I work because there are so many women that don’t.

And I don’t look down on them for working, but the higher my husband went in his rank and the more prestigious his position became, some women couldn’t understand why I worked.  Like when he became the command chief, and they introduced me to the president of the enlisted spouses club.  I had never been involved in the spouses club before then, and I was going to be their advisor.  What was I going to advise them on?  I had never, I didn’t even know where the spouses club was, because the military was not my focus.  It just wasn’t.  It was where he worked.  I had a whole other life outside of the military, and I was happy about that.  And she came up to me and she says, “Oh I’ve heard about you.  I hear you work full-time.”  And I’m thinking out of everything they could have told her about me, that was the one thing she focused on.

Just because I work outside the home doesn’t mean I’m not involved in my husband’s career.  When we moved to New Jersey, one of the ladies asked him, “Well, is Olivia going to work when she gets to New Jersey?”  And he said I probably would, because I’d always worked.  And she said, “Well that’s too bad.”  She says, “Maybe it would help your career a little bit more if she didn’t work.”  How much more could I help his career by staying at home waiting for him to come home?

Thank God I have a husband who doesn’t want me to be submissive.

He wants me to be my own person, have my own individuality, because I’m not happy when I don’t feel that.  I feel like there’s something missing in my life, because it’s my own little piece of life.  And if that’s missing I don’t feel whole.  I don’t feel complete.  I feel like I’m not doing what I’m meant to do on this earth.  I needed that and he recognizes that, and he’s tried really hard to make these moves as easy as possible on me.

Sometimes it’s hard.  I always give him the analogy that when you have an assignment change, you pick up your coffee cup on your desk and you set it on the next desk, and you’re there.  I have a house I have to pack up and unpack.  I have children I have to pull out of school and deal with them leaving their friends and the church and leaving everything behind and getting them settled in a new home.  I have to deal with all of that while you go off to your office.  I’m there dealing with all of that.

The Naked Truth: Maria’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Maria's Story

Maria was an ambitious and successful attorney determined to keep her career going through every PCS.  Currently a stay-at-home mom, she shares the sense of failure she felt when she was unable to sit for her third bar exam.  Ultimately, she says she had to forgive herself and move on, but is critical of the roadblocks military life imposes on professional military spouses.

I was a domestic violence prosecutor in Puerto Rico, and I had a lot of prestige because I was prosecutor.  But because I was in love, and my husband was an American military guy, I had to leave everything behind, my family, my friends, my career and move to Biloxi, Mississippi.  It was a sweet and sour experience because I was a newlywed.  I was so much in love.  But it was tough leaving everything behind.  And I had to focus on perfecting my English, so I started taking English classes on base. It was stressful.

It was a tough decision.  All my family were like, “Are you sure about this?  You’re going to get married and leave everything behind?”  But I was in love.  And I said, “You know what, I’ll find another job.  I’ll pass the bar in the United States.  I’ll do whatever it takes.  This doesn’t mean the end of my career.” Or so I thought.

I didn’t understand what it means to be a military wife at all.  I didn’t understand that I had to move all the time.

The first couple of months, because I was a newlywed, everything was like an adventure.  But it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that I depend on my husband.  Like I was making my own money and I was buying fancy clothing or nice stuff because I could afford it.  And now I felt so guilty that I had to use my husband’s money.

My mom worked all her life so my example was a working mother.

My mom has her own business, a very powerful lady.  So I felt like, “What’s wrong with me?  I live off of my husband.”  So I was focusing on perfecting my English and being (fully) bilingual because I wanted to go back to work as soon as possible. I was afraid I was going to be discriminated against with a Puerto Rican diploma.  So I went back to school for my LLM in health law.

So then we moved to Florida.  And it was a lot of sacrifice once again, but I passed my bar (exam) the first time.  I was very proud of myself.  A lot of people didn’t pass the bar and English is their first language, and I was able to pass the bar and I did very good.  My dad was so proud of me.

I tried to find a job in my line of work, in health law.  And I kept applying, applying and I couldn’t find a job.  And after months and months I found a job in a field that I never even considered, in insurance defense.  But I didn’t like it because insurance defense has nothing to do with family or people.

I wasn’t enjoying my job.  I was miserable.

And my husband said, “Maria, this is not worth it.” I was working seven days a week.  So I quit.  My husband supported me a hundred percent.  But it’s tough because I was making my own money again.

(I decided) I’m going to go back to my roots.  I’m going to go back to family law and domestic violence because I think that’s my calling.  So I started working as a volunteer (for a legal services agency).  And very quickly they were very happy with me.  So the first time they had open a paying job, it was a temporary attorney job, substituting for this lady that needed breast cancer surgery.  So she trained me and I did her job.  It was helping people represent themselves in court.  And it was with the public coming, walk-ins and I loved it.  I loved it.  It was a very good job.  And they were very pleased with me.

Right after that, they had an opening for a family law attorney…yes!  And they wanted a bilingual person.  The problem was my husband had to PCS.  We were hoping to stay in Florida.  But unfortunately it didn’t work out, so we had to go to San Antonio.  So that was bad news.  I cried so much.

I was devastated because I was so happy with my job.

They said, “It’s too bad you have to leave, but we don’t care.  You give us whatever time you can give us and we’ll have you.  And then when you’re leaving then we’ll put out an advertisement to look for somebody else.”  So I loved it.  I was so happy.  I would be singing in the morning going to work.  It’s so hard for a person to find a job that you look forward to go to every morning.

When it was time to say goodbye I cried a lot.  When I arrived in San Antonio I was so depressed.  I stayed a whole week in bed.  I didn’t want to get out.  I said, “No, I don’t want to go anywhere.  I don’t want to see San Antonio.  I don’t want to be here.”  I felt bad for my husband, but it really hurt me so much leaving my job.  And I had to say goodbye and start all over again.

You know the thing is, every time you PCS your life is in pieces and you have to start all over again.

It is very hard to be a military wife.  People don’t understand that but it’s a lot of sacrifice.  That’s why when you see people criticizing benefits to military people I say, “They don’t understand.  This is a lot of sacrifice.  It’s not only the soldiers but also the families.”  Oh, my God.  I’m sorry… (Maria is crying)

I felt so miserable.  I wanted to be an attorney.  But I didn’t have the bar (in Texas) so I couldn’t work as an attorney.  So I decided to take the bar for the third time.  Then I found out I was pregnant.  It was a very tough pregnancy.  Two weeks before the bar I started getting very, very, very sick.  I started having contractions.  And I feared that I was going to lose my baby.  So something told me inside, “Maria, if you keep pushing yourself, and if you keep doing this you’re going to lose your baby.  You’re harming your baby with all this stress.”  So I told my husband, “I’m not going to do this.”  So I postponed it.  I said, “I’m not going to take the bar.  I’m dedicating myself to my baby.”

But it was hard.  I got depressed.  I felt like I failed.

I felt like I couldn’t do it.  It was important for me to have another bar like ooh, I will feel prestigious.  I got really depressed, to the point that I was in bed crying.  And my mom said, “Maria, you have to forgive yourself for not doing this or you’re going to harm your baby, you’re crying so much.”  But I felt defeated.  It took me a while to accept that I didn’t do it.  I couldn’t do it.  But it’s okay. I’m a human.

I felt like I was like a school drop-out.  I was ashamed of myself.  And you always have the fear that if you take a pause in your career then nobody will want to hire you.  I set myself a goal and I didn’t do it.  I had never dealt with failure before in my life, never.  I’ve always been so successful.  I was also worried about other people’s opinion.  I know it’s silly but they’re going to think less of me because I didn’t do the bar.

It took me a while to accept, because I never thought of myself as a stay-at-home mom.

I always looked at myself in the view as a professional.  Every time I saw a lady with children, staying at home, “No.  That’s not going to be me.  I’m going to be the professional.”  So it was hard to accept my fate that I’m going to be a stay at home mom.  It was hard.  It took almost two months to forgive myself and not feel guilty anymore.

All my memories are of my mom working and being dressed up to go to work, with her makeup and her high heels. I always looked at her and admired her so much.  That was the kind of example that I had.  So that’s my role model, my mother.  And that’s what I wanted to be.

Maybe it’s silly of me for thinking like this, but sometimes I’m afraid.

My husband has such a very nice prestigious job.  He does something really, extremely important, saving people’s lives every day.  And he can come home and talk about work and he feels so good about himself.  I can see it in his eyes.  That passion, he loves his job.  He loves it and I cannot share.  I don’t have any input.  And sometimes I’m afraid my husband is not going to find me interesting anymore.  What do I have?  What can I talk about, what I saw on TV or what I talk about with the girls out in coffee?

I never thought it was going to be this hard to the point that I tell girls, “Oh, are you dating a military guy?  End it now before you fall in love.”  I’m sorry, but as I said it’s hard.  If you really love your job and your career you have to think twice.  You have to sacrifice a lot for love, for the love of your husband.  You have to sacrifice practically who you are.

The Naked Truth: Phoebe’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Phoebe's Story

Phoebe is struggling with feelings of depression after transitioning out of the Air Force and becoming a stay-at-home mom and student.  Although she had no desire to leave the military, she decided that was her only option when she learned she was pregnant and the Air Force rejected her and her husband’s requests to be in the same location.

I was hoping to get the 20 years.  I didn’t want to get out.  I loved the camaraderie, the feeling that you get when you’re around other people.  I liked the service to your country that you do and how much people respect you for putting your life on the line.  I didn’t even feel like it was a job because I wanted to do it.  I melted into the military really well.  And I like it a lot.  I did.  I still do.  It was everything about me.

Even when it was the worst day ever, I still loved my job.

I feel very comfortable putting on the uniform.  I felt very comfortable with finances.  I was really good at that.  I felt even more comfortable being in the Air Force.  I felt more comfortable as a mom because I have more patience.  I had all the patience in the world and I had the power to stick up for myself.  I had the staff sergeant rank coming to me that I worked hard for.  It satisfied me so much as a person, I didn’t need anything else.  My work was enough.  And then when I came home I had all the patience left in the world for my child.  When I came home, even though I was exhausted from work sometimes, I would get a second, third, fourth, fifth wind after coming home.  However exhausting the day was it didn’t matter.

I started going to school here and I get paid $2,000 a month to go to school full-time, so that’s kind of nice.  But it’s just not the same.  It’s not the same satisfaction as being in the Air Force.  It was doing a service to my country and I always was proud.  I was so proud of my dad every time he came home.  And I loved the uniform.  People think I’m silly because when I was in basic training I put on the uniform and I just did a little dance.  Because I was like, “I have my own!”  I used to wear my dad’s and pretend that it was mine and now I had my own.  My dad and I developed this really strong bond too.  I’d be like, “Did you get your ABU’s?  I went and bought mine!  Did you go get your stripes?  I bought mine!”  And then he was going to come and tack on my staff sergeant stripes for me.  He was going to be in his blues.

When you got out, what did you think you were going to do?

Go to school.  I always had that in my head, not realizing that being a stay-at-home mom you don’t have time for anybody or anything else except for them.  It was hard to get all that school work done.  When am I going to get it all done?

And when you move to a new place you don’t develop a support network overnight.

I tried to get involved in the spouses’ club.  That’s a big gossip spider web of women.  I’ll tell you that much.  I’m sure some spouses’ organizations are great, but this one is not.  It doesn’t fit me.  The Air Force fit me.  Not the spouses “gab-gab” session.  That just doesn’t suit me very well.  And all these people would say, “Oh I’ll help you, but you live too far away.”  Okay, then don’t tell me you’re going to help me, especially when I call on you and I need it.  It’s just so hard dealing with this.

Stay-at-home moms always seem so happy and great, but when you get in their cliques, they’re mean.  They’re so mean and then they suck the life out of you.  At least that’s what it felt like for me.  The Air Force was awesome.  At least I knew what to expect from the Air Force and I was okay with that.  There were rules.  There were guidelines so you know exactly what’s going to happen if you mess up, because it’s written right out there.  But in this civilian life, there are no rules.  There are no expectations.  There are no guidelines.  People can hurt you and just walk away and it’s okay.

Little things started to affect me tenfold, more than they normally would have.

Then I started paying attention to things.  I realized that I had feelings of not wanting to live anymore.  Every morning I’d wake up and I didn’t want to be here.  I just didn’t want to do anything.  I didn’t want to run a marathon anymore.  I feel more exhausted now being a stay-at-home mom than when I ever did being a single mom, working and pregnant.  I mean, how is that possible?  I wonder if it has something to do with the way I’m thinking, more of a mind-over-matter type of thing.  I think my brain is just messing me up with my new life.

It’s not fitting like I thought I would.  (Staying home) is not as rewarding as I hoped it would be.  And it’s very selfish I think to say that.  I feel guilty saying it.  But it’s really not as rewarding.  I need a break and I don’t get a break anymore.  Or they’re very far and few between.  Little things get me down and depressed very easily.  I don’t feel the same satisfaction I did from being in the Air Force.

*At the time of this interview, Phoebe was seeking professional help for her depression, a problem she has grappled with at various points in her life.  Free and confidential counseling is available to all military spouses and their families at Military One Source.

The Naked Truth: Emily’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Emily's Story

Emily immigrated from Russia at 18 and says that experience prepared her for the adventure of military life. Although moving around has delayed her career progression in the human resources field, she has just landed a GS job that she hopes will put her on a career path she can take with her to future assignments. She says it is like checking the last box, and she is happy that her life feels complete.

When I was working in Montana, I was working as a social worker and I became a good friend with one girl. Her husband and my (now) husband were best friends. So when my husband was stationed in Spokane, they introduced us. I just quit my job to move with my husband, and I wasn’t really planning to work until we moved to a different station because he only had one year left. And then I just became bored, so I applied to the CDC and got a job because it seemed to me this is the easiest job I could have gotten. So I just applied to CDC and worked there for about a year until we PCS’d (to Washington DC).

I started working in downtown DC. That was my first human resources job. I wanted to do something different and human resources was something I was interested in. I loved my job so much. Meeting new people, having this busy schedule, payroll, and the people I worked with. It was just a good environment. It was just perfect. If you describe your perfect job where you feel like you want to go, you want to get up and go, that would be it. That’s why I liked that place. And the boss was great, the president of the company. He was taking care of their employees and my pay was good.

(I felt) good, like I was going up the ladder, a ladder I wanted to start climbing. I felt like I accomplished things.

I was really happy with my job position, the people I was working with, the responsibilities I had to do. Honestly, my husband knows that if he was not in the military I really would like to be professional. I would really love to make a career in human resources. So I was real upset to leave because now I feel like every time I have to start from the bottom. So I didn’t want to go (to Misawa).

I just always wanted a career but, like I said, being married to a military man, you know you have to sacrifice something.

He keeps telling me maybe when he retires I will start my career, but I don’t think I will want to at this age. I mean, it’s not that important. I’m happy where I am, but for your own satisfaction that you did something in life you want to say, “I have a degree and I’m a professional.” That’s important to me. I don’t know why. I think everybody wants to be successful in life.

(Emily goes on to talk about her next assignments in Japan and Turkey, where she had two children and became a stay-at-home mom.)

It was just a different job, staying at home, and I figured I’m still going to try to apply for a GS position. So I was fine. Plus I didn’t trust anybody to take care of my kids when they were that age. Even if I had a job, I don’t think I would be going back to work so soon.

For some reason we have been so lucky with our assignments. Every assignment we’ve been happy about, and every time we were ready to go. We were ready to start from the beginning because we enjoy the change of scenery. Even with my job in DC, we were ready to go. We wanted adventure, especially when we found out we’re going to Japan. We can just travel and enjoy.

I still think I loved my job in D.C. It’s been six years? I still think that was the best employment I had. But I can’t think, “Oh I wish I stayed there.” That’s not what I chose. I chose to be married to a military guy so something better will come up.

Then another thing I was thinking if I get a GS position, I will be able to go up.

(Now in Germany, Emily explains that she has just accepted a job offer as a GS employee in a human resources function.)

I’m excited, but also I was doing good. I mean, I was enjoying it too because I like to exercise. So when I drop my kids I go to exercise. I do some groceries. I do whatever, clean the house. You know, just me time. But I can’t say no to a job in HR. (I can) get that experience, so I can start climbing the ladder in (the) GS (system). At least in the back of my mind I know that I will have preference when I go to a new place to get a job. It will be much easier for me to get a job if I want it. So it just gives that security feeling of, “Okay, that’s it. I’m in.”

What do you think you’ll get out of this job for yourself?

I guess just that fulfillment that I’m back being a career woman. It’s not like I have anything against staying home moms, but I always knew that I’m not going to stay home forever. I always knew that I’m going to start looking for a job and I just want to be busy. I just want to do something besides clean the house and take care of my kids. I love my kids. But it’s my time. I go and I do something. And I still want to go up the ladder.

It makes me happy. I don’t know how to explain it. Like inside of me, it’s like a “check box.”

And now that checks the box in me. The kids are taken care of, and every aspect of my life seems good. We are in Germany, we are enjoying it. So there are all these little check boxes, and then there’s this thing like, “What am I going to do with myself?” And then finally this is like the perfect ending to the story. Just check the box. You are in.

I hear these people talking about their bad days, but to me we are lucky.

We’re lucky on all our assignments. We were lucky that we got our degree before kids. We did that check box. I’m happy with our military career and myself. There’s nowhere to go for me. It’s taken care of.

My husband was my Prince Charming who came and rescued me. He took me out of that hole. No offense to anybody from Montana. He took out me out that hole and just pretty much said, “Here, do whatever you want.” And he has always been supportive of me. That’s important too. He’s always been supportive with me getting an education. He was supporting me not having a job if that’s what I wanted. And he’s happy that I’m happy.

The Naked Truth: Tanya’s Story


The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Tanya's StoryTanya is staying home with two toddlers and has mixed feelings about her experience. She wants to work and get out of the house, but doesn’t like the thought of childcare. She’s proud that she’s been there for her children, but says it’s been the worst three years of her life. The following is an excerpt from my interview with Tanya in Germany.

If I actually had a career, I would make sure it was in something that I’ve been studying for, which is essentially a glorified secretary. Every business in the world needs a secretary of some sort, so I know I won’t have a shortage of opportunities to find a job. It’s just the way my mind works. I can focus on weird menial tasks – stuffing envelopes, typing, stacking, collating, and organizing. That’s just the way I like to work. I don’t have any opportunity to do that right now. I mean I can organize my kid’s clothes into color-coded stacks but that’s about all I get right now.

This has been the worst three years of my life.

I mean, I love my kids, but I’ve basically been pregnant and/or nursing since we got here. And I love my girls, but I want to get away from them for a few hours every day at least. And if I get a job doing the Exchange or the commissary, my paycheck’s going to pay for their daycare. So I’m doing one thing to pay for another.

When I initially got here, I had about a month left in my classes, so I didn’t really look for anything at that point. I’d already been awarded a clearance, so I was thinking, “Ok, I’ll try to get a job, maybe at the hospital, or just any kind of secretary job.” It didn’t have to be anything fancy. But I was waiting until I finished my schooling so I could say, “I have an Associates’ degree.” At that point, I found out I was pregnant and thought, “Do I really want to do that to an employer? Do I want to get in, get trained and have all these appointments that I’m going to all the time?” So I said, “I’ll wait. I’ll have my kid, get through the maternity leave stage, and then I’ll look.” And by that time I was so tired from my daughter, and my husband was always at work. He’s a typical dad. He’ll change a diaper, he’ll feed them, but when they cried it’s, “Go see your mother.” My expectations of what I thought I would be doing over here definitely have fallen through.

It was a choice between staying home and taking care of my kid versus working.

It was an easy call, because I didn’t want to let somebody else raise my kid and throw them in the CDC or whatever. Then you get to see all those moments. I get to see the first steps or the first tooth, all that. I didn’t want to give up all that and give the moments to somebody else.

That first three months when you nurse and the child will get all the anti-bodies from the breast milk and everything. I wanted to get through that without having to worry about having to pump and everything. And once I got to that stage, I started filling out applications online and submitting resumes. I just never got any call backs.

I went on USA Jobs and the Services website and I just did anything clerical, office automation, administrative assistant, anything in that generalized category. Either they hired other people or I wasn’t clicking all the right boxes to get the spousal preference. I don’t know. I never got any notifications back on any of them, so I never got a reason why I wasn’t selected.

I was very discouraged.

I thought, “Hey, I already have this clearance. That’s $5,000 they’re not going to have to spend on me to get it covered. That should give me a little boost up, and I have this degree…” And nothing, so it was just, “Ok great. I feel worthless.”

About the time I just kind of gave up on it, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. And then we were also trying to move out of our off-base house because our landlady was not being pleasant. So I was searching online trying to find houses, trying to take care of my first child, and it just consumed my time. Plus I was trying to finish up a second Associates, and starting to work on my Bachelors. So everything just had me preoccupied, and I didn’t really have time to think about trying to find a job.

Right now we’re looking to get my oldest signed up for German preschool in the fall, and then the following year my second daughter will be able to go into preschool. Hopefully at that point, I’m going to try and get my resume looking really nice so I can start submitting it for jobs.

For the most part, knowing that I’ve been there for (my kids) and that I’ve been there through everything makes me feel good.

But there are just those days where I want to say “Somebody come take them.” I’ve been getting a little stir crazy, sitting at home when they’re asleep. I don’t want to make any noise, because then they’re going to wake up and then I’m not going to get anything done. So I just sit there and quietly type on my homework right now. Stir crazy would probably be the best way to describe it.

What is that you feel like you’re missing?

Just the constant work flow, something that I could always be doing. Whether it’s typing up the minutes from a meeting, typing up a report, proof reading somebody else’s paper, or email. Just something that I could be focused on for five or six hours out of the day, where I’m helping people helping get tasks done that need to be done that nobody else wants to do. I know I’m crazy for it, but I like that kind of thing. I like the hard tasks that nobody else wants to do. The one that everybody goes, “Oh, I have to do that again.” Those kinds of tasks.

I think for me it’s the same as when people jump out of airplanes and go bungee jumping or ride roller coasters.

That’s their kind of thrill. For me, it’s taking on those jobs that nobody wants to do. It’s not exactly a thrill, but it’s the same kind of a feeling. I don’t know a better way to describe that.

I like it because then I know I accomplished something. I can see the physical results of the work, especially when it’s stacking, organizing, and everything. When you see the mess, and then you see the organization, everybody can find everything. That just makes me feel better, which is good. Everybody can say, “Oh, I need a…” And it’s there. They don’t have to dig through a drawer, look in a box. They can find exactly what they need, right in front of them.

When I organize or straighten things up at home, then my husband comes home and can’t find anything. And then he and I get into an argument about why I put this there when it should go here. So I don’t get the thanks at home that I would get from a job. I don’t know…For whatever reason, if I’m outside of the house the tedium and the repetition doesn’t bother me.

When I’m in the house, it wears on me more because I’ve been stuck in the house for the last three years.

It’s like, “Great, laundry. But I just did laundry yesterday, and I don’t want to do laundry today. Now I have to do dishes.” It wears on me, but if I had a job, I’d have that break from the house and the dishes and the laundry and the tedium. So I could switch back and forth between the two.

It’s kind of the way some grandparents feel about their grandkids. They love to have them but they’re so glad when they get to give them back. Same thing at a job. You love the work, but you can leave it there and take a break from it. I need the break from the house. That’s what I’m looking for.

The Naked Truth: Vanessa’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Vanessa's Story

Vanessa has her own photography business and two small children. She met her husband in high school, and describes how they made the decision together for him to join the Air Force. Although it has been a roller coaster in many ways, she is proud to be a part of the military and wouldn’t trade it for the world. The following excerpt is from my interview with Vanessa in Germany.

I had never had any sort of military experience at all. So it took a lot of prayer and thought to decide if this was the best decision for our future family. Once we looked at all the benefits and also looked at whether or not he was just going to enlist or be a commissioned officer, it was a no-brainer for us. When he joined ROTC that was great because we got benefits right away. They started paying for his school right away. They started paying for our housing, which was a big deal.

He was trying to lean towards a career where it would be a normal schedule. And they told him he’d probably deploy, but at the time it was four month deployments. Maybe every couple years kind of thing and we were like, “Okay, that’s doable.” All the benefits, the healthcare benefits, steady employment, and the thought of traveling for us was actually really exciting.

Coming from a really small town myself, I was ready to get out. I wanted to see the world. So we made a decision and he signed on.

I was probably more in love with the idea of just being with someone and getting ready to start a family and moving somewhere than I was about trying to pursue my own career at that point. I just kind of felt like everything would fall into place. Either I would get a job and I would do it, or I wouldn’t and I would have a family. So I wasn’t, “Well I need to do this. I need to have my career so how’s this going to work.”

I wasn’t career-oriented at that point.

I started off working in a preschool classroom, and that was useful. I’ve always liked working with kids. And then once I graduated, I was able to move into the Kindergarten. (At the next assignment), I still wanted to work with kids, but I wanted to focus more on children that had disorders, some sort of early intervention, something like that. And I thought that it was going to be easy for me, I guess in my immature mindset, thinking that getting out of college I’m not going to have a hard time finding a job. But it took me almost five months to find employment, and for me that was very frustrating.

(The job I got) was dealing with children with special needs and also children in a low income setting and how that affects their development. (It was a) really phenomenal organization. I was able to do all kinds of things with my career.

I really felt a sense of accomplishment because I found something that I had actually gone to school for and was utilizing my education.

I was pursuing what I thought was my dream of working in child intervention. It was a really rewarding job. I really liked it. (Then) we found out shortly after my son was born that my husband was going to be deploying. That was really devastating. It was hard to tell our families too, because they didn’t want to see him leaving plus leaving me and a new baby. So that was really hard. But I had made the decision to quit working before we’d found out that he was going to deploy.

I just knew that I wanted to be home and raise our children. It wasn’t even an option to put them in childcare.

I saw that from my experience working with the 0 to 3 year olds. I saw how devastating it was to some of these children to have their parents gone the entire week. When we had early care and late care, some of them would come in as early as they possibly could and leave as late as they possibly could. And I didn’t want that for my kids. I just didn’t want that, and we were financially able to make that decision and stay home. I was just fortunate to do that. But yeah, that was solidifying for me to see these little babies being left, and I just couldn’t do it.

It was good (staying home), but I started to realize that I needed to be doing something.

But I didn’t want to be doing something that would pull me away from my kids all of the time. And actually, that’s when my love of photography really started to take off. I had these cute precious little babies, and I’m trying to capture everything I possibly can. In my ever-failing mommy brain I’m trying to picture them in a newborn phase and I can’t do it. All I can think about is the spit-up on my shirt or whatever. So I started taking snapshots, and then it developed into more stuff. I got a nicer camera and took some shots of the boys and printed them in a decent size and hung them on the wall. I got a lot of encouragement from friends and family to pursue this. And never in my mind did I think that I would go to school in developmental psychology and end up being a photographer. But it just sort of fell into place. I didn’t think I’d be going back to work, but I thought I could do this.

I could start a business and I could travel with that business, because I could take it wherever we go.

I could do it out of my home. And with the military, it wouldn’t really be an issue because it was there with me. It was just a part of me. So it seemed really reasonable, something where I had a creative outlet. I could be contributing to society or be a part of something bigger than myself, still creating my own schedule. I was still able to be there for the boys when they needed me.
I thought that being the caregiver for my children would be enough for me. And it was enough, but it still felt like I needed to be doing something outside of them. I realized I still needed a piece of me that was separate from my children. Because I didn’t want to continually see myself as a mom. I mean you never break free from that role, but I didn’t want that to be my only label. I wanted something for myself and I needed something where I was pursuing something individually that wouldn’t necessarily affect my children, but still I could go off on this career path and still feel like I was accomplishing my own goals.

The business idea started to really grow when my husband came back from his second deployment.

And then he found out a few months later that he was going to be gone for a year. And I thought, “This is awful. You’ve already gone on two deployments, and you’ve only been in for a few years. This is not what we signed up for.” So we had made the decision that he was going to get out because it was just too much on our family. He actually submitted his paperwork and everything. Sorry, I’m going to cry….

But after searching and searching and trying to find something that was comparable to what he was doing, it was nearly impossible. We decided together that it wasn’t going to work. We were just going to have to push through whatever deployment we were going to have to go through and he was going to stay in the military.

It was really hard seeing him as the caretaker for our family struggle so much. I didn’t want that for him.

I didn’t want that for us. And I knew he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. As hard as that is for our family, I knew that’s what he was supposed to be doing. So he pulled his paperwork, and they were like, “All right, but that means you’re going to leave. You don’t have a choice. You have to do this 365.”

We made the decision that I would go back and be with family. I registered with the state of Wyoming and that was a really proud moment. But I think my children probably suffered a little bit in that time because, not only was their dad gone, I was sort of not there emotionally. It was hard with your husband being gone and he was doing convoy missions in Afghanistan. So that part was hard, but I think I turned that emotional part of it around and used that for fuel for my own personal thing that I was trying to do. I needed that distraction. I needed something for myself while he was gone.

What were your hopes for the business when you thought about coming here to Germany?

I thought it was a great opportunity.

I’m going to be surrounded by military community where word of mouth within spouses is the most powerful form of advertising. I started just doing some friends and that kind of thing. But right away, it was just like wildfire. Just exactly like I thought it would be. There would be a huge need and I would have a huge target market here and it would just take off. And that’s exactly what happened. So at some point, especially around the holidays, I had to tell some people I couldn’t take anymore clients. And that was a first for me to have to tell people “no” because I was so busy. But it was really good.

I’m really, really proud of my work. I stand behind it 100%. I really love being able to give people something that they love and are going to cherish forever. I think it’s a priceless gift that you give to somebody. Yeah, it’s fantastic. I feel like I have a purpose.

(Vanessa explained before the interview that the Air Force has told her to close her photography business because her home-based business does not meet the requirements of the local Status of Forces Agreement. Although this was later rectified, during our interview Vanessa’s business is currently on hold.)

I feel like this has been taken away from me, like I’ve been cheated. There could be some kind of exception to the law. There’s this stereotype that military spouses don’t do anything. They kind of sit on their butts, or do whatever. They’re just there as caretakers. But I feel like they almost push us to be that way instead of allowing us to do these things and be a part of these things. It’s as simple as selling Pampered Chef or the other little franchise companies that military spouses are a part of. It creates camaraderie between us, and as silly as it is, you create friendships from a Pampered Chef party. That one important person could change your life later on down the road in your military career. So, by making it so difficult they’re taking stuff away from us.

I like being a part of something bigger than myself. I like seeing my husband in this role and him being a part of something bigger than us. I think it’s great and I stand by him 100%. I’m really proud of him. We went through that transition of him getting out, and I can’t see him not being in the military. And I’ve been able to have such great friendships and meet some of the most amazing people, and become part of such an amazing family. There’s a whole difference between being in a group of people that are in the military and those that are not. It’s like night and day. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I like being a part of that, just the sense of family that I have being a part of this. I really love it.

I’m proud to be a military spouse.

For myself personally, I think the hardest part is just dealing with the rules, with the military way. This is what it is. This is what you have to do. But I wouldn’t change it. I don’t want to not be a part of this, as crazy as that is, because as sad and emotional as it has made me, a part of us will always be military. Once you get in it, you can’t separate yourself from it.