Isabelle has an established contracting career in the GS system, and is a newly married military spouse. Saying the “grass in not always greener,” she talks about her decision to keep working even though she used to long for the opportunity to stay home when she was a single parent. Although she used the military spouse hiring preference to obtain her current position, she dislikes being seen as a “stopper” and thinks she will get a job “on her own” next time. The following excerpt is from my interview with Isabelle in Germany.
I married my husband right before we moved here. So this is our first duty station together. I met my husband about two weeks after I finished my masters’ degree, and prior to that had no time to date or do anything because I was working on my degree. I was a single parent. I was also doing what I do now. I’m a contract specialist for the government. At that time I was working for a DOD agency. And we met, got engaged very quickly and then he got orders to come here. I was looking for opportunities outside of the organization I was working at because I had finished my masters’ degree and was looking for something else.
So it was very quick. He got his orders in December. I decided in January to go with him. And then we were gone in February. So I didn’t have time to look for a job. And as a matter of fact, I was kind of looking forward to not having a job for a while, because I had not done that. I had my daughter when I was 20 and worked every day since then. And I was thinking, “Oh this is going to be nice to have a break!” So we got here and we went to the newcomers briefing, and Civilian Personnel had a table set up. My husband went over and he was talking to them about what I do. And they said, “Oh we have so many vacancies for that. Are you interested in starting to work?” And I thought, “I know how it is with the government employment process.” I thought, “Yeah okay,” knowing that it would take a while. But I got an offer two days later.
Well, I may have to start a little further back than that. Before I had my daughter, I was going to school to be a psychologist. That’s what I wanted to do and then got pregnant. So I got the first job that I could get that was going to make me any kind of money. And that was in contracting with the government. It was an internship. So time just went by. I got more experience in it, was being looked at as knowing what I was doing, and got promotions and it kept going and going. And I still hadn’t finished my degree. So when I had the time to go back to school, I really had to think did I want to start over entry level in what I wanted to do or keep going with what I was doing. And that was kind of an easy choice because as a single parent you don’t really get to make those decisions based on what you want to do.
So now that I have my masters’ degree, I thought maybe I can move into a different career, something similar, still something with business, not psychology, but maybe something a little bit more me. So I was putting in for jobs across the country, even across the world still thinking it’s just me and my daughter. But then we got married and came over here. I guess I could have not worked or waited to find the perfect job but I don’t think there’s a lot of perfect jobs at my level in the GS system. So I got into contracting again.
If I didn’t accept that job I could not use my military spousal preference again all year, so I took it. It wasn’t necessarily what I would have chosen on my own if I was the one picking where I want to work or what I want to do.
What was it like in those first few weeks before you started working again?
I had the idea of not working because since my daughter was born, I’ve worked full time.
And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great. I’ll take her to school in the morning and then I’ll come home. I’ll make her snacks and I’ll pick her up from the bus stop.” I was very excited about that stay-at-home mom aspect that I’ve never gotten to do. And then when I started doing that I thought, “This really isn’t for me.” She’d come home and I’d have her cute little snack that I worked all day on and she’d say, “Can I go play over at my friend’s house?” And I’d be like, “Okay, bye.” So it wasn’t what I envisioned it was going to be.
(I thought) that we would spend time together and go for walks and we would bake. Just those things that you want to do with your children when you’re stuck at work and you think, “Oh, if I was at home this is what I’d be doing.” But the reality of it was she was at school all day. My husband was working very long hours and when we first moved here we only had the one car. So he would take the car and I’d be stuck unpacking boxes all day long, no TV, nothing to do, no friends. She’d come home, “Mom, I want to go play with my friends down the street.” And I could have been at work interacting with people. I guess that’s what I thought I was going to be doing at home. Instead of interacting with customers and people, I’d have my family to interact with. But I didn’t even have that.
I think I really realized who I am and who I’m not.
I had eight years wishing that my life was different, that I could stay home. And I think that really helped me realize that the grass isn’t always greener. That’s not who I am. It’s not like you see on TV where you’re in the kitchen with your daughter and you guys are baking and having fun. It’s not that way. So it really helped me to go back to work and not be wishing that I was at home. But that didn’t last long, because when I have bad days at work I think, “Gosh, if I was at home right now…”
Later on, I took an entire summer off because my son was born in the beginning of the summer. And for the first month I was like, “Oh, I want to do this. I don’t want to go back to work.” And then it got to that third month and I was deciding every day whether I should bathe. And my daughter is still wanting to go hang out with her friends. And I love my son, but all day long it’s just me and him, and I thought, “Yeah, this isn’t it. I need more interaction.”
It’s not like I need to be around people all the time, but I need to be around people sometimes. I need to have some adult interaction. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if my husband was not working such late hours or TDY all the time. But I would go three or four days and realize I haven’t spoken to an adult. And I need that on a daily basis. I need to have motivation to get up in the morning and bathe and brush my teeth and have a plan. And I think left to my own devices I would not do those things. If I didn’t have a reason, I would probably sit in my living room and play with my baby all day long, and slowly get fat and not bathe. I need motivation to do something.
I feel for the most part I’m accomplishing things (at work), and I think everyone needs to feel like at the end of the day.
I need to look back and say, “This is what I did today. This is who I helped today.” If I have a day where I think I didn’t do anything or accomplish anything, it’s kind of sad for me. So when I’m working, I feel like at the end of the day I have a story to tell my daughter at the dining room table, something funny to tell my husband. Otherwise you spend the day at home and it’s like, what do you have to talk about? Nothing, I did laundry today. So it’s a sense of accomplishment I guess.
It’s just that long term, if that were my life plan to stay home, I just don’t think I would feel like I accomplished much. Of course I would be raising my children and spending all day with them. And I hate to make it sound like I don’t want to do that. I absolutely enjoy the time that I spend with them. But I think going to work and spending the day not with them, means the time that I do have with them is quality time. Because when I would spend all day with them, it’s kind of like, “Well, we have all day to fit in all the fun stuff we could do.” And now we have three hours. So I make it a point to do what I can do with my daughter in that time or on the weekends. We make sure that we pack it full of fun things so that it’s quality time since we don’t have the quantity of time.
How do you think being a military spouse is going to affect your career in the future?
Well it definitely it changes how I take ownership of my own future and even my current situation.
When you know that you’re short term, that I have three years here, for me it really changes what my goals are while I’m here. When I was on my own, getting a promotion was solely based on me and moving to another place was my decision. And now I kind of feel like those decisions are just kind of out of my control. So of course I strive to do the best that I can do on my job, but I don’t have that extra drive that this matters so much because this will change my career. On my own, I had done very well and people looked to me as being an expert. And then I come here and got hired as a spouse. They don’t even look at your resume. They make sure you’re qualified, and then you hit the list, meaning you’re qualified, and then they have to pick you.
Maybe it’s not this way everywhere, but I’ve heard from other spouses that are in the GS system that it’s typical. You come into work and you’re given the lowest duties no matter what your capabilities are because the expectation is
“She’s just a spouse. She’s a stopper. She stopped me from getting the person I really wanted.”
I’m not knocking the effort, because it is great that they make an effort to put a program in place to hire spouses. But knowing my experience here where I came in and had this experience, had this level of appreciation, and was really looked at as an expert in my last place, and then coming here and people don’t ask you a single question about your expertise. They just give you the smallest duty that they could possibly give you so that you won’t mess it up. It didn’t take very long for them to realize I know what I’m doing. But I feel like now every time I move, this is something that I have to prove.
Every time I’ll just have to prove myself and that is really going to impact my ability to promote.
When I came here, I had been a GS-11 for quite awhile in my old agency, and was being looked at for promotions. But I came here as a military spouse preference, GS-11. If I leave here as a GS-11 I’ll get stuck as a GS-11 somewhere else and have to prove myself. By the time I do, it’ll be time to move again, stuck as a GS-11 again. My mom was a spouse and my dad was in the military. She retired as a GS-7 because they moved sometimes every year during his career. And I never understood why it was so hard for her. A lot of times she just didn’t even want to work because she had to start fresh every time. And I get it now. I get it. But now I realize I have to take more ownership of my career. And that’s why I started looking external to my squadron. And hopefully when we move this time we’ll have more notice and I can start putting in for jobs that won’t even know that I’m a spouse. I’ll just have to try to get a job on my own. Honestly, I probably won’t use the spousal preference program again.
I think I’m at a level where I could get a job on my own. It wouldn’t be as easy. It certainly wouldn’t take two days to get an offer. It would take longer. But I would prefer for somebody to hire me looking at my resume and knowing what I’m capable of than to get hired faster just because of the spousal program. I do think that it’s great for entry level spouses because that’s how you’re treated anyway, as an entry level person that doesn’t know anything.
I guess I have a little bit of bitterness because I feel like I’ve already proven myself. I can stand on my own. And now it’s not me. It’s Sergeant X’s wife. That’s who I am now, even in my own career. And that’s so weird to me.
Yes, it’s just weird to me. It’s not a bad thing. I’m very involved in all the spouses’ groups. The second day we were here, I went to a spouse’s meeting and it was the same thing. “What does your husband do?” was the first question. “Who’s your husband?” Not, “What do you do?”
I’m not knocking it, you know. I’m very proud of my husband but it seems like military spouses, at least the one’s I’ve encountered, tie their identity very close to what their husband does, and who he is. But that’s not me. And it certainly doesn’t reflect where I’m at in my career.
(Being a spouse has) really made me question things that I thought I knew about myself, just what my values were.
I always just did put my interests first, my career first. And I’m very surprised at how easy it is not to do those things. People say all the time it’s weird that I’m following him around rather than him following my career, because I’m further into my career. My career is still important, just not as important as I always thought it was. And I know that one of the reasons my career was important was because I needed to keep making money to support my daughter. And it’s not so necessary now that I’m not living on one income.
I think I’ve realized that I’m more flexible than I thought I was. I have always been very much a planner. And now since so much is out of my control, I think a lot of that has been forced upon me, and you just can’t plan. How do you plan when you don’t know? Based on my personality, I thought that I would have had a harder time letting go of that control of my career, my life, my plans. And it’s just been really easy to just give that up.