We all know how unpredictable military life can be, and it’s a huge reason many military spouses don’t maintain a career. But here’s the thing. Some of that unpredictability is real and some of it is a myth I call the “excuse job.” Actually, a spouse I interviewed in my research (Brenda) coined this term when talking about her husband’s job, and it has stuck with me ever since. Brenda describes the phenomenon this way: “The excuse job kind of gets you off of any responsibility at home until you want to jump back in. I don’t have a choice to jump out and in. I always have to be the leveling figure, the one that makes everything happen and everything smooth at home.” Sound familiar? The military has a long history of maintaining this narrative of the all-consuming military lifestyle. After all, that is why we spouses are the ones who keep the home fires burning, right? That may be true much of the time, but the trick is finding a balance between supporting your spouse’s career while not letting it become a blanket excuse for not supporting yours. Let me explain what I mean through an example in my own life.
Trying to get my husband to come home for dinner on time was a battle I waged for years. I was more than willing to be a part-time worker and be the one to get kids from school, help with homework, and get dinner on the table. In return, I wanted an equal partner to be there for dinner and bedtime and take on some of the evening household work. It was an agreement that mattered to me, but often wasn’t kept when my husband got absorbed in his work and stayed late at the office. Some friends told me to let it go, but it gnawed at me. This wasn’t a case of getting called off to go fight bad guys at the last minute. I understood when there was a real emergency or something mission-critical he was working on. I’m talking about an ordinary day at the office, being able to set a reasonable boundary between work and home life, and coming home on time to fulfill your responsibilities there.
When we went to a communications workshop for military families, and I brought up this problem in our marriage, the facilitator lectured me on the importance of being a military spouse who has to understand the demands of military life. I was furious that she pulled out the “excuse job” card to explain away everything, and essentially let my husband off the hook!
In the end, my husband and I continued to work on this and now have a system that works pretty well. We aim to have dinner at a standing time, and he knows that if he can’t make it he just has to call and tell me before dinner time comes. On my end, I’ve agreed that I won’t get mad as long as he remembers to call.
This may seem like a ridiculously minor example, but the little things matter. Recently I ran into a friend whose husband and mine are in equivalent jobs. When she lamented that they never have dinner together because she never knows when her husband is going to be home, I shared my experience.
She seemed truly dumbfounded that there could be a solution to her dilemma. She had fully accepted the myth of the “excuse job” and had already written off the possibility of regular family dinners. In her case, I think this also played into her calculation to take a break from her career as well.
After all, if everything is unpredictable and you can’t count on anything from your spouse, how could you possibly add your own career to the mix? This kind of thinking and buy-in to the “excuse job” myth keeps a lot of us on the sidelines rather than pursuing the careers we dream of having.
For me, knowing that I have a partner in family life that I can count on is critical to my ability to work and maintain a business. It’s been a few years since we were in the thick of dinner negotiations, but that experience laid important groundwork for me to start up my own consulting and coaching business. Now when I have client engagements, I can count on my husband to be there to cover family responsibilities. And we know how to negotiate when we both have conflicts over work and family.
A few months ago, I had an all-day offsite with a client and my husband knew he had to do school drop-offs that morning. A few days before my offsite, when he called to say he now had a meeting on the same day, I fought the impulse to take care of it for him. This was his commitment to figure out, and we discussed the options, including sitters to call if he couldn’t change his meeting. It worked out fine, and it made me feel good to know that his job doesn’t always have to come first.
These kinds of negotiations aren’t easy, especially when two demanding jobs are in the mix. The path of least resistance is often for one person to stay home and take care of the household, and that works for many couples. But so many spouses tell me how much they long for a real career, and surveys consistently show that the majority of stay-at-home spouses want to be working. So what’s the answer? There is no silver bullet, but challenging the “excuse job” is an important first step to practice with your spouse. When you reject the “excuse job” myth, you are asking your partner to meet you halfway, to validate your work, and to create a true partnership that is big enough for two thriving careers. Anything less than that is inexcusable.
Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses. Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.