The Naked Truth: Lisa’s Story

The Naked Truth: Military spouse Lisa shares her career challenges. via Whole Spouse

An aspiring pilot from the UK, Lisa met her husband in flight school when she was 19. Since then, she has moved 7 times during her 12 year marriage, making significant career compromises along the way, but never giving up on her dream to fly. The following are excerpts from my interview with Lisa in Germany.

I was 19 when we moved and I got married, so I probably wasn’t thinking a great deal at all in some ways. But my career plan at the time was to fly commercially. So one of the attractions was really to finish my licenses, qualify and fly for a living. And my husband had this expectation that he’d do another 10 years or so and then he’d retire and I’d be making enough money to keep both of us. Of course that really didn’t work out. When I arrived in California, I couldn’t work. I didn’t have the paperwork, the work permit and that sort of thing. I spent most of the time that I was there was focused on the training, looking towards being qualified to fly for a living.

I think we’d been there about eight months when I got the work permit. And as I started looking around there wasn’t (much). I could have worked just to have some money. It would have been retail, that sort of thing. Also knowing that we were at least half way through the time we were going to spend there. We were only there for 18 months.

It was hard in the sense of independence.

I’ve never liked the idea of not working and therefore being dependent for money, for things for me. My mother’s always worked. My grandmother always worked. It’s just something that I’ve got a mental block about. I’ve never really been comfortable with it so that was difficult. We didn’t need money to maintain a household or anything like that. But it’s an independence thing. I’ve always had an issue with not being able to work at the times that I couldn’t.

I went back to school, and that helped because that was me doing something constructive with my time rather than just sitting at home really doing nothing very much but keeping house, which is fine. I don’t have any issues with people that choose to do that. It just doesn’t work for me. And I felt I’m just sitting in a house all day and not sitting and watching television all day but I just didn’t feel like I was being productive.

I grew up in quite a socialist background. So I feel that if I’m going to be getting something from the Air Force…you get all your medical care and everything like that taken care of…that I ought to be putting something back in some way. And of course if you’re working, whatever you’re doing you’re paying taxes or you are contributing in some way even if it’s not a direct route. You are contributing back into the system.

(When we went to Alabama) I took a job bar tending in a restaurant, which I loved. It was a lot of fun. It was very easy. I mean it was not something I had to put a lot of effort into, but I could earn a bit of money. If I decided I wanted a new pair of jeans or something I didn’t have to think about it. It gave me that independence to do that. So it was regular bit of income that gave me something to do while I was still studying at home in between. It was a little bit strange when my husband’s colleagues came in. An officer’s wife bar tending is probably a little bit strange to some people. But I was enjoying myself and that was more important. While we were there I did actually finish my commercial licenses for the FAA. And I did start flying for money, but it was (only) four or five hours a week.

(When we got to Florida), I started flying full-time. We could be gone from 6am on a Monday morning to 10pm on a Friday night, and we’d fly every day in between. So that was almost the ideal. That was really what I wanted. I mean it was tiring. It was hard work, but the flying itself was fantastic.

I suppose at a very basic level I don’t think I’ve ever gotten out of an aircraft without a smile on my face at the end of the day. I suppose some of it’s independence, some of it’s the achievement of a challenge. And it’s just simply fun.

I wasn’t making a lot of money. I suppose by flying hours I was probably just about making minimum wage. But it was another step closer to where we thought we wanted to be. It was an achievement…that I wanted to keep going.

(Then we) left for Paris and we knew it was 18 months. We assumed it was 18 months and back to the States. So, knowing how complicated and expensive and difficult it was, I had decided that I was not going to try and get European licenses and try to fly. So I decided that I would just find something else to do for 18 months until we go back to the States and I’d pick up more or less where I left off. As it turns out, some years later, we are still here (in Europe).

And were you still thinking that your husband would be done in a few years and you would be the breadwinner?

I think that was probably changing a little bit, partly because he wasn’t showing that many signs of wanting to retire and get out. And I wasn’t progressing in experience quite fast enough to be in that position for him to be able to retire completely and do nothing, if he wanted to do that.

(Flying) was still something I always thought I would go back to one way or another. But I was prepared to supplement with a second career or a parallel career at the same time to supplement. I suppose I was realizing that it wasn’t going to be absolutely everything in one career forever. It wasn’t a dramatic thing, it was sort of a slow realization. So I don’t think it was a huge impact emotionally. It was just sort of an acceptance that things don’t always go the way you planned when you were 19 or 20 years old, and life puts other challenges in the way. And you sort of deal with everything as it comes along and adapt with it.

After the Paris assignment, Lisa’s husband deploys for a year and she returns home to the UK. Then they moved to Belgium. She describes the employment she found with an aviation contractor in Belgium.

I suppose I saw it as a little bit of a compromise. It wasn’t flying but it was still in the right field, so it was still experience, and it was still relevant. So it wasn’t quite real, but it was close enough. It was still something that was interesting. I suppose in many ways it was the first job that was a genuine salary. We actually did live off my salary because (I was paid in Euros) and then you didn’t get into the issues of converting dollars into Euros.

That was a real achievement. It sounds ridiculous, but at 28 or 29, that felt grown up, I suppose. That was real independence and productivity, being grown up and adult work that wasn’t just part-time. It wasn’t working for minimum wage. It wasn’t working just for expenses. This was for real. And that was good. It really was. It was a real contribution to things.

Being just the stay at home wife, housekeeper, potentially mother was never, ever going to be an option for me. I just couldn’t do it. So in some ways that never changed, and this filled that in probably the biggest way than anything else had because as I say it was a real salary. It was real full-time work, 8-5, Monday to Friday, every day. So that really did feel like a proper achievement.
When we (got the Germany assignment), my husband came down to Ramstein first. My husband moved down here in March. And we agreed that he would move. I would leave our house in Brussels and take a small apartment, and I would basically commute weekly to start with. And we would try that for that for a year to see out the end of my contract year.

Well, I was okay with it. He was not.

We’d given it a good shot and decided it just wasn’t worth the stress. I was driving back up Sunday nights. And so I didn’t even have a whole weekend down here. I was leaving before five in the evening to get back up there. And so we just decided it’s not worth it for us to go through that. And so I simply resigned.

I didn’t want to do it. I loved the job. I loved the people. Again it was sort of facing reality. It didn’t quite come down to it’s the marriage or the job, but there was a potential that it was going to go that way, that it was just not sustainable. It was easier for me possibly because my parents did it when I was growing up. My father was gone four days a week. So for me it was fairly normal. But my husband was adamant. “I did not marry you to live in two separate cities for four or five days every week. That’s not what I wanted this life to be.” I didn’t really want to do it but it was, again it was sort of pragmatism and facing reality.

But my team boss came back to me the next day and she said, “If we can rewrite the contract to allow you to work from home, will you stay?” And I said, “Right, I’ll stay! You just tell me what you need from me to rewrite the contract and I’ll take it.” So she called the company and said this is what we’re proposing and they said, “Great, fine.” So now I drive up there four days a month. I do two days every two weeks and just work the rest from home. And that was the deal we came to and it’s worked fantastically for…a little over a year it’s been.

Looking back on all this, how do you think being a military spouse has impacted you and your career?

You are very much on your own if you want a career. Maybe it’s easier if you teach or you’re a nurse or something that’s easily transferable. I don’t know. It’s been a challenge. I would like to have been further on in a career. I probably would have been if we hadn’t moved, but that’s reality. And if you marry into the military, to a point you just have to accept it. You can fight the system but the system is not going to change for just a few people…If you marry into the military, it’s not a stable life.

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