Heather recently achieved her life-long dream of finishing nursing school and becoming a nurse, but can’t find paid work in Germany. She is proud of overcoming the hardship of starting out as a teen mom, but is now frustrated that she isn’t able to work. She wonders if going back to school was a waste of time. The following are excerpts from my interview with Heather, which is not her real name.
I was in the Air Force. I was actually a single mom. I got pregnant at 16, had a baby at 17. And in order for me to join the Air Force I had to give temporary custody to my mom, because you cannot join the Air Force and be a single parent. So I gave temporary custody to my mom with the hopes him coming back with me once I finished tech school. I felt that the Air Force was going to better myself career-wise. I had gotten my certified nursing assistant license and I was a general receptionist for a couple years. I just kind felt like I was going nowhere with my career, so I decided the Air Force was probably the best for me. Plus I needed some discipline, so I joined the Air Force. Then I met my husband, and we knew the chances of us probably getting assigned (together weren’t good). And then it was just too crazy switching the custody back over with my first-born. At that point, I knew (my husband) and I were going to get married, and I just felt that the best interest was for me to get out and not let any of the whole custodial stuff take control. So that’s what I did.
(Being in the Air Force) was definitely a self-esteem booster at the time. But at the same time, I was separated from my son. It was always “service before self,” and I was like, “I’m sorry, but I’m not putting service before my kid.” That is what it kind of came down to. So I was using the Air Force as a stepping stone to further my career. I always knew I wanted to go into the nursing field, but being a single mom and trying to do it was just difficult. I felt like it definitely gave me the self-confidence that I needed though.
I don’t know if it was the discipline. I mean, my dad was retired military with 24 years in the Air Force, and so I was already used to the ways of the military. It just made me feel a little more at home. When I was in high school,that was the longest I had ever lived anywhere because all my life we moved every four or five years. So maybe it just made me feel a little more comfortable and relaxed because it was more structured.
Tell me what happened after you got out of the Air Force and got married.
Actually, I was pregnant and I still knew I wanted to be in the medical field. I always had that desire. So I started looking for work and I found a job at a radiology department in Washington, D.C. I did medical assisting there all the way through my pregnancy. And then, our oldest was five at the time. My husband was only a senior airman, and we lived in D.C. It wasn’t a good area of town, so we were paying for one to go to private school so he wouldn’t go to the horrible schools in D.C. So I was kind of iffy if I wanted to go back to work at that point, but I decided money-wise it wasn’t going be worth it for daycare and private school. I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom anyway so it was like, “You know what? I can put my career on hold and do what I gotta do.” So I never went back to work then at the radiology department after I had my baby.
It was hard at first because I had always been independent.
I mean at the age of 16 I always paid my own car payment, paid my own insurance. I got a job right at 15-1/2, as soon as I could in Virginia. So it was kind of hard for the first time to have somebody pay my bills. You know what I mean? And my husband would be like, “Look, you’re going to have to understand we’re married now and what’s mine is yours and vice versa.” It just was the best thing financially for us. And emotionally I felt good because I’ve always been the independent one, and for once somebody was taking care of me.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but my husband had his career, and was working on getting his Bachelor’s degree. I’m like, “Gosh, if anything were to happen and we would not be together, I don’t really have any skills.” I felt like he was getting his education but I was the one staying home, just with mommy skills. So I think probably right after we were in Okinawa, I said, “Okay, I’ve got to do something with my education. I gotta go back to school.” I don’t want to say it’s a jealousy thing, but maybe I’m envious. You’re envious of their career.
So I started doing my pre-recs for nursing in Okinawa. And that felt good. That was like, “Woo hoo! I’m doing something for me finally.”
I got to do this, and then in Florida I finished the rest of my pre-recs and got accepted into a nursing program there. But the thing you’re worried about the whole time is, “Okay, I hope we don’t get orders, hope we don’t get orders.” And then, before I even finished, this assignment came open in March and my husband was like, “Should we put in for it? It’s my dream job.” We wanted to go back to Germany. He was stationed in Germany before we had met.
I was like, “Well, am I going to be able to get a job?” That was my top priority. I worked my butt off for this. I want to be able to work. And I actually called Landstuhl from the states and inquired and they were like, “Well, it might be tough. You might have to volunteer first, but try to get as much experience there.” So we put in for the assignment with the hopes that we would get it and I just kind of left it in God’s hands and figured if it was meant to be, we would get it. If it wasn’t meant to be then we would stay there until we got another assignment. And then we found out just two weeks later.
So then I graduated and it was like, “Okay, well we don’t leave till September what do I do in the meantime?” So I ended up taking a job and not telling them we were PCS’ing because number one, I needed the experience, and number two, I didn’t know if we were going to get the clearance for our son because of his past medical history. So I figured I’ll take the job because our orders could get canceled. I had a job at a hospital in Tampa. I was very excited about it. As soon as we definitely got the orders and got the A-Okay, I just let them know and they were fine.
Having that job, that was good. That was the first time I had a paycheck in 10 years.
It had been 10 years since I had worked. I mean, I know that his money is our money but it was like my first paycheck. So it was good. It was definitely rewarding, and ever since I can remember I knew I always wanted to be a nurse. So I was like, “Okay, this is a real thing.”
Now I’m volunteering on the mother-baby unit (in Germany), and it took months to get on there. It just kind of stinks. You have this dream all your life and something you want to do, and we were finally at the location we want to be, and I can’t get a job.
You’re giving all this education and experience for free, but there’s only so long you want to do it (because) you’re not getting paid. I just remember one of the Colonels coming in and saying, “This hospital wouldn’t run without our volunteers, and they save us a hundred and something million a year.” That’s great and all, but they’re in desperate need. They need more nurses to come forward but they don’t have the positions. They don’t have the funding to do it. They would just continue to take volunteers. Somebody said to me the other day, “Well why do you even volunteer? That’s just less of a chance for you to get a job when they’re getting all this free work.” Well, I need the experience. I need the continuing education. So I guess it’s double-sided.
What is it that you want to get out of working? Why is it important to you?
I think self-gratification. It just makes you feel better as a person. You feel like you’ve done your share to help someone else out. I feel bad for my husband too because he makes those little comments like, “I wish I could stay home.” I’m like, “No you don’t! I wish I could work. I’ll trade spots with you. I’ll go in and you stay home for the day.” I want to be able to contribute even though we share everything. I want to be able to have extra money. I want to be able to have a savings account. I want to be able to not live paycheck to paycheck, which is what we’ve done for ten-plus years. And that’s a big thing. And of course, you’re in Europe. You want to be able to travel and go places and do stuff. It’s the chance of a lifetime here. Oh my gosh, I wish I had a job!
I may have to go back to just being a receptionist somewhere. You go to school for all these years to try to finally get your degree, and then it’s like, well there are jobs at the CDC. You feel like you’re almost taking a step down, but what do you do?
It definitely makes me feel like crap, having something and not being able to use it.
You work hard for something and then it just kind of sits there and collects dust, which is what I feel like my education is doing. It’s funny because I remember when I was at orientation, I met a couple girls that said, “If I can’t get a job here I’m just going back to the states and then I’m just going to come see my husband every couple months.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry, but that’s not happening.” Where the Air Force sends my husband is where he sends all of us. We’re going together as a family, and that’s what you have to do. You have to make do and it’s his career. I’m following him around and trying to just kind of fit in where I can.
It stinks. I told my husband joking, “Okay when you retire in the next couple years, you’re going to follow me. I’m going to take jobs all over the United States and you’re going to have to follow me and find a job wherever.” He jokes and says he’ll be a stay-at-home dad.
He’s definitely good and he’s been very supportive. But, yeah, who knows? I’m sure I will be the sole breadwinner in the beginning, once he retires, because he’s still working on his education. I have to give him the little kick in the butt to get this done. And he’s kind of undecided. He’s like, “I’m not like you. I wasn’t five years old and knew I wanted to be a nurse. I’m almost 40 and I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
How has this experience in Germany impacted you?
It definitely is a blow to your self-esteem once again because you start getting proficient in something and you have confidence, but you can’t do what you set out to do. It definitely makes you feel horrible. (Heather is crying.) You want to do something better with yourself. All my life I’ve always not wanted to be labeled as the teen mom who’s not going to amount to anything. I’ve finally gotten over this huge label and then you really can’t do anything with it. So maybe I shouldn’t even have went to school. Maybe it was just a waste.