Did you know the majority of military spouses are active in the labor force, either currently working or seeking employment? Although it’s a fact that most of us have a career of some kind, the military culture often still clings to the stereotype of a working military member and stay-at-home spouse. Sometimes, as spouses we even perpetuate this myth by avoiding our own careers as topics of conversation. As a result, we continue to preserve a culture that doesn’t accurately reflect reality, and leads many of us to feel isolated and unsupported.
I’ll give you an example from my research with Air Force spouses. Roberta is a midwife by background, and was a newlywed to her military husband when I interviewed her. As a newcomer to the military community, she was eager to make friends and meet other spouses, so she joined the local spouses club. But she found herself bewildered by the experience. She wondered why other spouses often asked about her husband’s job, but never her own. She came away thinking that either she was the only one with a career, or that having a career was somehow unacceptable. Why else would it not be mentioned in ordinary conversation? My answer was, “It’s not part of our culture.” Although it may seem like a minor oversight, this interaction took an emotional toll on her.
She says, “I just felt sad. It just felt like I wasn’t important, like I just didn’t matter.”
Roberta’s story is a great example of the power of conversation. The words we exchange with other people shape how we see ourselves, other people, and the communities we engage in. I’m a big believer in the idea that change only happens when we begin to talk differently about something. In effect we change organizations and culture by talking a new norm into existence. The things we say or choose not to say craft our reality and send a signal to others about what we value, what is unimportant, and what is taboo.
So, what do you do if you find yourself in Roberta’s shoes?
My solution is to turn the tables and ask the other person the very questions I wish they would ask me. “What do you like to do with your time? Tell me more about yourself.” Not only is it a great gift to take interest in someone and see them for who they are, but it also creates a culture of inclusion, one conversation at a time.