The Naked Truth: Maria’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Maria's Story

Maria was an ambitious and successful attorney determined to keep her career going through every PCS.  Currently a stay-at-home mom, she shares the sense of failure she felt when she was unable to sit for her third bar exam.  Ultimately, she says she had to forgive herself and move on, but is critical of the roadblocks military life imposes on professional military spouses.

I was a domestic violence prosecutor in Puerto Rico, and I had a lot of prestige because I was prosecutor.  But because I was in love, and my husband was an American military guy, I had to leave everything behind, my family, my friends, my career and move to Biloxi, Mississippi.  It was a sweet and sour experience because I was a newlywed.  I was so much in love.  But it was tough leaving everything behind.  And I had to focus on perfecting my English, so I started taking English classes on base. It was stressful.

It was a tough decision.  All my family were like, “Are you sure about this?  You’re going to get married and leave everything behind?”  But I was in love.  And I said, “You know what, I’ll find another job.  I’ll pass the bar in the United States.  I’ll do whatever it takes.  This doesn’t mean the end of my career.” Or so I thought.

I didn’t understand what it means to be a military wife at all.  I didn’t understand that I had to move all the time.

The first couple of months, because I was a newlywed, everything was like an adventure.  But it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that I depend on my husband.  Like I was making my own money and I was buying fancy clothing or nice stuff because I could afford it.  And now I felt so guilty that I had to use my husband’s money.

My mom worked all her life so my example was a working mother.

My mom has her own business, a very powerful lady.  So I felt like, “What’s wrong with me?  I live off of my husband.”  So I was focusing on perfecting my English and being (fully) bilingual because I wanted to go back to work as soon as possible. I was afraid I was going to be discriminated against with a Puerto Rican diploma.  So I went back to school for my LLM in health law.

So then we moved to Florida.  And it was a lot of sacrifice once again, but I passed my bar (exam) the first time.  I was very proud of myself.  A lot of people didn’t pass the bar and English is their first language, and I was able to pass the bar and I did very good.  My dad was so proud of me.

I tried to find a job in my line of work, in health law.  And I kept applying, applying and I couldn’t find a job.  And after months and months I found a job in a field that I never even considered, in insurance defense.  But I didn’t like it because insurance defense has nothing to do with family or people.

I wasn’t enjoying my job.  I was miserable.

And my husband said, “Maria, this is not worth it.” I was working seven days a week.  So I quit.  My husband supported me a hundred percent.  But it’s tough because I was making my own money again.

(I decided) I’m going to go back to my roots.  I’m going to go back to family law and domestic violence because I think that’s my calling.  So I started working as a volunteer (for a legal services agency).  And very quickly they were very happy with me.  So the first time they had open a paying job, it was a temporary attorney job, substituting for this lady that needed breast cancer surgery.  So she trained me and I did her job.  It was helping people represent themselves in court.  And it was with the public coming, walk-ins and I loved it.  I loved it.  It was a very good job.  And they were very pleased with me.

Right after that, they had an opening for a family law attorney…yes!  And they wanted a bilingual person.  The problem was my husband had to PCS.  We were hoping to stay in Florida.  But unfortunately it didn’t work out, so we had to go to San Antonio.  So that was bad news.  I cried so much.

I was devastated because I was so happy with my job.

They said, “It’s too bad you have to leave, but we don’t care.  You give us whatever time you can give us and we’ll have you.  And then when you’re leaving then we’ll put out an advertisement to look for somebody else.”  So I loved it.  I was so happy.  I would be singing in the morning going to work.  It’s so hard for a person to find a job that you look forward to go to every morning.

When it was time to say goodbye I cried a lot.  When I arrived in San Antonio I was so depressed.  I stayed a whole week in bed.  I didn’t want to get out.  I said, “No, I don’t want to go anywhere.  I don’t want to see San Antonio.  I don’t want to be here.”  I felt bad for my husband, but it really hurt me so much leaving my job.  And I had to say goodbye and start all over again.

You know the thing is, every time you PCS your life is in pieces and you have to start all over again.

It is very hard to be a military wife.  People don’t understand that but it’s a lot of sacrifice.  That’s why when you see people criticizing benefits to military people I say, “They don’t understand.  This is a lot of sacrifice.  It’s not only the soldiers but also the families.”  Oh, my God.  I’m sorry… (Maria is crying)

I felt so miserable.  I wanted to be an attorney.  But I didn’t have the bar (in Texas) so I couldn’t work as an attorney.  So I decided to take the bar for the third time.  Then I found out I was pregnant.  It was a very tough pregnancy.  Two weeks before the bar I started getting very, very, very sick.  I started having contractions.  And I feared that I was going to lose my baby.  So something told me inside, “Maria, if you keep pushing yourself, and if you keep doing this you’re going to lose your baby.  You’re harming your baby with all this stress.”  So I told my husband, “I’m not going to do this.”  So I postponed it.  I said, “I’m not going to take the bar.  I’m dedicating myself to my baby.”

But it was hard.  I got depressed.  I felt like I failed.

I felt like I couldn’t do it.  It was important for me to have another bar like ooh, I will feel prestigious.  I got really depressed, to the point that I was in bed crying.  And my mom said, “Maria, you have to forgive yourself for not doing this or you’re going to harm your baby, you’re crying so much.”  But I felt defeated.  It took me a while to accept that I didn’t do it.  I couldn’t do it.  But it’s okay. I’m a human.

I felt like I was like a school drop-out.  I was ashamed of myself.  And you always have the fear that if you take a pause in your career then nobody will want to hire you.  I set myself a goal and I didn’t do it.  I had never dealt with failure before in my life, never.  I’ve always been so successful.  I was also worried about other people’s opinion.  I know it’s silly but they’re going to think less of me because I didn’t do the bar.

It took me a while to accept, because I never thought of myself as a stay-at-home mom.

I always looked at myself in the view as a professional.  Every time I saw a lady with children, staying at home, “No.  That’s not going to be me.  I’m going to be the professional.”  So it was hard to accept my fate that I’m going to be a stay at home mom.  It was hard.  It took almost two months to forgive myself and not feel guilty anymore.

All my memories are of my mom working and being dressed up to go to work, with her makeup and her high heels. I always looked at her and admired her so much.  That was the kind of example that I had.  So that’s my role model, my mother.  And that’s what I wanted to be.

Maybe it’s silly of me for thinking like this, but sometimes I’m afraid.

My husband has such a very nice prestigious job.  He does something really, extremely important, saving people’s lives every day.  And he can come home and talk about work and he feels so good about himself.  I can see it in his eyes.  That passion, he loves his job.  He loves it and I cannot share.  I don’t have any input.  And sometimes I’m afraid my husband is not going to find me interesting anymore.  What do I have?  What can I talk about, what I saw on TV or what I talk about with the girls out in coffee?

I never thought it was going to be this hard to the point that I tell girls, “Oh, are you dating a military guy?  End it now before you fall in love.”  I’m sorry, but as I said it’s hard.  If you really love your job and your career you have to think twice.  You have to sacrifice a lot for love, for the love of your husband.  You have to sacrifice practically who you are.

The Naked Truth: Phoebe’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Phoebe's Story

Phoebe is struggling with feelings of depression after transitioning out of the Air Force and becoming a stay-at-home mom and student.  Although she had no desire to leave the military, she decided that was her only option when she learned she was pregnant and the Air Force rejected her and her husband’s requests to be in the same location.

I was hoping to get the 20 years.  I didn’t want to get out.  I loved the camaraderie, the feeling that you get when you’re around other people.  I liked the service to your country that you do and how much people respect you for putting your life on the line.  I didn’t even feel like it was a job because I wanted to do it.  I melted into the military really well.  And I like it a lot.  I did.  I still do.  It was everything about me.

Even when it was the worst day ever, I still loved my job.

I feel very comfortable putting on the uniform.  I felt very comfortable with finances.  I was really good at that.  I felt even more comfortable being in the Air Force.  I felt more comfortable as a mom because I have more patience.  I had all the patience in the world and I had the power to stick up for myself.  I had the staff sergeant rank coming to me that I worked hard for.  It satisfied me so much as a person, I didn’t need anything else.  My work was enough.  And then when I came home I had all the patience left in the world for my child.  When I came home, even though I was exhausted from work sometimes, I would get a second, third, fourth, fifth wind after coming home.  However exhausting the day was it didn’t matter.

I started going to school here and I get paid $2,000 a month to go to school full-time, so that’s kind of nice.  But it’s just not the same.  It’s not the same satisfaction as being in the Air Force.  It was doing a service to my country and I always was proud.  I was so proud of my dad every time he came home.  And I loved the uniform.  People think I’m silly because when I was in basic training I put on the uniform and I just did a little dance.  Because I was like, “I have my own!”  I used to wear my dad’s and pretend that it was mine and now I had my own.  My dad and I developed this really strong bond too.  I’d be like, “Did you get your ABU’s?  I went and bought mine!  Did you go get your stripes?  I bought mine!”  And then he was going to come and tack on my staff sergeant stripes for me.  He was going to be in his blues.

When you got out, what did you think you were going to do?

Go to school.  I always had that in my head, not realizing that being a stay-at-home mom you don’t have time for anybody or anything else except for them.  It was hard to get all that school work done.  When am I going to get it all done?

And when you move to a new place you don’t develop a support network overnight.

I tried to get involved in the spouses’ club.  That’s a big gossip spider web of women.  I’ll tell you that much.  I’m sure some spouses’ organizations are great, but this one is not.  It doesn’t fit me.  The Air Force fit me.  Not the spouses “gab-gab” session.  That just doesn’t suit me very well.  And all these people would say, “Oh I’ll help you, but you live too far away.”  Okay, then don’t tell me you’re going to help me, especially when I call on you and I need it.  It’s just so hard dealing with this.

Stay-at-home moms always seem so happy and great, but when you get in their cliques, they’re mean.  They’re so mean and then they suck the life out of you.  At least that’s what it felt like for me.  The Air Force was awesome.  At least I knew what to expect from the Air Force and I was okay with that.  There were rules.  There were guidelines so you know exactly what’s going to happen if you mess up, because it’s written right out there.  But in this civilian life, there are no rules.  There are no expectations.  There are no guidelines.  People can hurt you and just walk away and it’s okay.

Little things started to affect me tenfold, more than they normally would have.

Then I started paying attention to things.  I realized that I had feelings of not wanting to live anymore.  Every morning I’d wake up and I didn’t want to be here.  I just didn’t want to do anything.  I didn’t want to run a marathon anymore.  I feel more exhausted now being a stay-at-home mom than when I ever did being a single mom, working and pregnant.  I mean, how is that possible?  I wonder if it has something to do with the way I’m thinking, more of a mind-over-matter type of thing.  I think my brain is just messing me up with my new life.

It’s not fitting like I thought I would.  (Staying home) is not as rewarding as I hoped it would be.  And it’s very selfish I think to say that.  I feel guilty saying it.  But it’s really not as rewarding.  I need a break and I don’t get a break anymore.  Or they’re very far and few between.  Little things get me down and depressed very easily.  I don’t feel the same satisfaction I did from being in the Air Force.

*At the time of this interview, Phoebe was seeking professional help for her depression, a problem she has grappled with at various points in her life.  Free and confidential counseling is available to all military spouses and their families at Military One Source.

The Naked Truth: Tanya’s Story

 

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Employment Stories - Tanya's StoryTanya is staying home with two toddlers and has mixed feelings about her experience. She wants to work and get out of the house, but doesn’t like the thought of childcare. She’s proud that she’s been there for her children, but says it’s been the worst three years of her life. The following is an excerpt from my interview with Tanya in Germany.

If I actually had a career, I would make sure it was in something that I’ve been studying for, which is essentially a glorified secretary. Every business in the world needs a secretary of some sort, so I know I won’t have a shortage of opportunities to find a job. It’s just the way my mind works. I can focus on weird menial tasks – stuffing envelopes, typing, stacking, collating, and organizing. That’s just the way I like to work. I don’t have any opportunity to do that right now. I mean I can organize my kid’s clothes into color-coded stacks but that’s about all I get right now.

This has been the worst three years of my life.

I mean, I love my kids, but I’ve basically been pregnant and/or nursing since we got here. And I love my girls, but I want to get away from them for a few hours every day at least. And if I get a job doing the Exchange or the commissary, my paycheck’s going to pay for their daycare. So I’m doing one thing to pay for another.

When I initially got here, I had about a month left in my classes, so I didn’t really look for anything at that point. I’d already been awarded a clearance, so I was thinking, “Ok, I’ll try to get a job, maybe at the hospital, or just any kind of secretary job.” It didn’t have to be anything fancy. But I was waiting until I finished my schooling so I could say, “I have an Associates’ degree.” At that point, I found out I was pregnant and thought, “Do I really want to do that to an employer? Do I want to get in, get trained and have all these appointments that I’m going to all the time?” So I said, “I’ll wait. I’ll have my kid, get through the maternity leave stage, and then I’ll look.” And by that time I was so tired from my daughter, and my husband was always at work. He’s a typical dad. He’ll change a diaper, he’ll feed them, but when they cried it’s, “Go see your mother.” My expectations of what I thought I would be doing over here definitely have fallen through.

It was a choice between staying home and taking care of my kid versus working.

It was an easy call, because I didn’t want to let somebody else raise my kid and throw them in the CDC or whatever. Then you get to see all those moments. I get to see the first steps or the first tooth, all that. I didn’t want to give up all that and give the moments to somebody else.

That first three months when you nurse and the child will get all the anti-bodies from the breast milk and everything. I wanted to get through that without having to worry about having to pump and everything. And once I got to that stage, I started filling out applications online and submitting resumes. I just never got any call backs.

I went on USA Jobs and the Services website and I just did anything clerical, office automation, administrative assistant, anything in that generalized category. Either they hired other people or I wasn’t clicking all the right boxes to get the spousal preference. I don’t know. I never got any notifications back on any of them, so I never got a reason why I wasn’t selected.

I was very discouraged.

I thought, “Hey, I already have this clearance. That’s $5,000 they’re not going to have to spend on me to get it covered. That should give me a little boost up, and I have this degree…” And nothing, so it was just, “Ok great. I feel worthless.”

About the time I just kind of gave up on it, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. And then we were also trying to move out of our off-base house because our landlady was not being pleasant. So I was searching online trying to find houses, trying to take care of my first child, and it just consumed my time. Plus I was trying to finish up a second Associates, and starting to work on my Bachelors. So everything just had me preoccupied, and I didn’t really have time to think about trying to find a job.

Right now we’re looking to get my oldest signed up for German preschool in the fall, and then the following year my second daughter will be able to go into preschool. Hopefully at that point, I’m going to try and get my resume looking really nice so I can start submitting it for jobs.

For the most part, knowing that I’ve been there for (my kids) and that I’ve been there through everything makes me feel good.

But there are just those days where I want to say “Somebody come take them.” I’ve been getting a little stir crazy, sitting at home when they’re asleep. I don’t want to make any noise, because then they’re going to wake up and then I’m not going to get anything done. So I just sit there and quietly type on my homework right now. Stir crazy would probably be the best way to describe it.

What is that you feel like you’re missing?

Just the constant work flow, something that I could always be doing. Whether it’s typing up the minutes from a meeting, typing up a report, proof reading somebody else’s paper, or email. Just something that I could be focused on for five or six hours out of the day, where I’m helping people helping get tasks done that need to be done that nobody else wants to do. I know I’m crazy for it, but I like that kind of thing. I like the hard tasks that nobody else wants to do. The one that everybody goes, “Oh, I have to do that again.” Those kinds of tasks.

I think for me it’s the same as when people jump out of airplanes and go bungee jumping or ride roller coasters.

That’s their kind of thrill. For me, it’s taking on those jobs that nobody wants to do. It’s not exactly a thrill, but it’s the same kind of a feeling. I don’t know a better way to describe that.

I like it because then I know I accomplished something. I can see the physical results of the work, especially when it’s stacking, organizing, and everything. When you see the mess, and then you see the organization, everybody can find everything. That just makes me feel better, which is good. Everybody can say, “Oh, I need a…” And it’s there. They don’t have to dig through a drawer, look in a box. They can find exactly what they need, right in front of them.

When I organize or straighten things up at home, then my husband comes home and can’t find anything. And then he and I get into an argument about why I put this there when it should go here. So I don’t get the thanks at home that I would get from a job. I don’t know…For whatever reason, if I’m outside of the house the tedium and the repetition doesn’t bother me.

When I’m in the house, it wears on me more because I’ve been stuck in the house for the last three years.

It’s like, “Great, laundry. But I just did laundry yesterday, and I don’t want to do laundry today. Now I have to do dishes.” It wears on me, but if I had a job, I’d have that break from the house and the dishes and the laundry and the tedium. So I could switch back and forth between the two.

It’s kind of the way some grandparents feel about their grandkids. They love to have them but they’re so glad when they get to give them back. Same thing at a job. You love the work, but you can leave it there and take a break from it. I need the break from the house. That’s what I’m looking for.

The Naked Truth: Military Spouses Share Their Career Challenges – Nicole’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Career Challenges - Nicole's Story

Nicole has been a federal employee for 13 years, currently on leave without pay. She has steadily climbed the ladder, to the point where she began to turn down management jobs that were too stressful for her and her family. She’s enjoying a break in Germany, but is also at loose ends wondering if she can continue to advance while being a military spouse. The following are excerpts from our interview. In order to protect her identity Nicole is not her real name

I was an investigator with the federal government. So, I’d already been a federal employee for almost five years when we met. I loved it and enjoyed it. I was really thankful to have the job and my husband was very supportive. When we got our orders to go to Alaska I was a little apprehensive because right away I knew we didn’t have a field office in Alaska. So I started thinking, “Okay, am I going to have a job?”

Then of course when we got to Alaska, I thought, “Oh wow, just our luck, right?” But that turned out to be a really great career experience and professional growth for me, which is what facilitated my promotion down to Monterey. I went to our agency and said “Hey, look. We’re moving up there. I know you guys send TDY support.” I did a “points paper” explaining and justifying why we needed a field office up there. And with management support they allowed that. We moved up there and I opened up the field office.

I felt like okay great, I’m making a difference. I was really contributing to the overall mission DOD-wide because of the nature of what we do. And so, yes, it was great. I loved it. And sad to go, but then I got a promotion (with the move to Monterey).

I will say though that being a spouse, you make a lot of sacrifices.

I feel that you make a lot of sacrifices because my husband didn’t have a lot of flexibility with his job (in Alaska). Both our sons were born up there, and he was definitely able to help with dropping off and picking up at daycare. But I realized how much his career came first because he didn’t have the flexibility being active duty to say, “Here are my work hours.” The Air Force bottom line is you work when they need you to work, based on mission requirements. And I totally understand that. But thank goodness that I had the flexibility I did. So the thought went through my mind, “What if we were someplace else and I wasn’t able to take off?” That would be another challenge that we would have to address just because he didn’t have the flexibility. And he wasn’t in a position to say, “Well I’m just not going to go to work.” I mean as a squadron commander you just can’t do that.

For me, it’s a tough reality to swallow. It really is. Because that means his job is more important than mine.

And I know that he doesn’t feel that way, but the reality is he’s the one that’s in the Air Force. He’s the one that’s making a career out of it. And we even talked about did I want him to get out and then I would be the breadwinner and he would find a job elsewhere. But I said, “No.” No, I’m comfortable with the way things are. I don’t want to be the sole breadwinner. I’m independent, driven and ambitious, but at the same time I wasn’t ready to say, “Okay, yes. Let’s focus on my career first and then you can get a job that’s based around my career.” I’m also very old fashioned and like to let the man make the money.

(When my kids were born), I did not take a break with the exception of my three months’ maternity leave. And I’ll have to tell you, it was very, very emotional.

With my oldest, I probably cried the first month. I had twelve weeks with him and I thought, “I don’t know if I want to go back to work.” I really surprised myself, because I thought for sure I’d want to go back to work. But I cried that first month dropping him off and picking him up thinking, “Man, I don’t know that this is the right decision.”

But then I realized that I wasn’t really ready to give up my job. And seeing him thrive in that daycare setting, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on any parts of his life. I didn’t work really long hours and I was nursing him, so every day for lunch I went and nursed him. Also, my job was really great with me because I told them I don’t want to travel this first year. They were very accommodating. So that made it hard too, that professional commitment and pride. And I thought, “Okay, they’re willing to work with me so I don’t want to just quit.” And that’s what I felt like I’d be doing is just quitting on my job and my career. And I felt like I had worked hard to get to where I was. I was really enjoying it. So weighing all of that I felt okay. I’m going to move forward and this is going to be fine and, and I did. And it was. But it was tough. I tried to go part-time actually but they said, “No.”

I felt almost guilty putting my work first. And then some of the spouses in the spouses’ group were openly against women working outside of the home. So there was, “Well I wouldn’t leave my son or daughter in daycare.” And that’s what I had to hear. I thought, “God, am I a bad mother for choosing work over my son or for putting him in a daycare?” But no, I wasn’t. It was the right decision. It was a good decision. And I’m happy about that. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it any differently at all. And I don’t feel any less close to him because of that time.

I feel like I’m a better mother because I have a professional outlet. I have something that’s mine.

Emotionally, professionally, I feel very fulfilled. And I think having that outlet helps me to be a better mother.  Now I went from being career professional to being career professional and a wife, then being career professional, wife and mom. And really it’s, mom, wife career professional, in that order. So I’d like to say I put my husband first but I think he and I both put our children first. And emotionally it was at times very challenging to fill all of those roles. Because sometimes I was just drained from work or travel or the boys maybe had a tough day. And then my husband came home and wanted attention as well, and I’m thinking, “I’m just so tired. I really just have no energy left to talk. I just want to go to bed.”

I think the biggest thing is either way my husband supported me.

He’s like, “If you don’t want to go to work anymore and you want to be a stay-at-home mom, you go ahead.” But then at the same time he said “You really want to think about that because knowing the way I know you, you may regret not working.” So knowing I had the option to stay at home or not was wonderful. At the same time he made an effort to get away from work when he could to make dinner or help with the housework. He’s always been very good at that. So that’s been great. And then the times when I went TDY, he was there taking care of the kids and trying to arrange his schedule so that he could do the drop-off and the pick-up, and just doing everything for the couple of days that I was gone. I don’t take that for granted. So that was another example of how he was just supportive.

So then my agency asked, “Would you mind stepping up and being the Acting Field Office Chief just for a temporary period?” Not that I was afraid of the challenge, but there was an hour and a half drive (to the field office).  So I thought, “Okay, I’ll bite the bullet and do this, because who knows where we’re going to move to next.”  I thought this would be another great opportunity.

I felt very confident I could do the job. But logistically it didn’t work.

I didn’t want to have to do that commute every single day. I just didn’t want to do it. I was worn out. I was pretty exhausted physically and emotionally and not feeling good about myself. I had gained weight, sitting in the car, eating whatever. I wasn’t eating healthy. And then I had a lot of time away from my kids. Sometimes I didn’t get home until 7:30 at night. My kids were already going to bed if not already in bed. And I hadn’t seen them in the morning because I was leaving the house at 5:00 to miss traffic. So I said, “No, I can’t do it anymore.”

I knew it was the right decision, but I was very disappointed because I essentially missed out on a really good opportunity to be a Field Office Chief, to be a manager. And during that time, my husband did everything. I would not have been able to do the job for even the four months I did had it not been for his love and support. He was the one that picked up and dropped off the kids, cooked dinner, cleaned house. He did all of that. And that was because at the time, he really had an eight to five job. So, I would not have been able to do that without his support.

(Then we found out we were going to Germany), and I wanted to go overseas. I really did. And quite truthfully I was so burned out from my job it was an easy out for me. I don’t have to make the choice, because there’s no overseas’ office. I want a break. I need a break. Yay! Let’s go.

But, getting back to the emotional side, I think I miss that professional fulfillment now.

I really do. I really miss working with great people. I really miss contributing to a mission. I really miss the challenges and the rewards. And then I have nearly thirteen years vested with the government. So my professional goal at this stage would be to get twenty. I’m on leave without pay, and I do want to continue working for the federal government. Ideally I’d like to stay with my agency. But if that doesn’t come to fruition, I’d better start applying now because the process can take a little while. In July my leave without pay is up, my one year.

Overall it’s been great and it’s been a much-needed break, absolutely. I’m very thankful. I’m very thankful that I didn’t have to work, and that my agency didn’t call me and say “Can you work now?”

Now I’m missing work, now that I feel like we’ve settled into a routine, and I know the boys are going to be in school next year every day. So now I’m focusing more on my job again. And I’m starting to worry about what I am going to do. So that’s kind of where I am now. And some days I’m like, “Well, what’s meant to be will happen.” And other days I’m like, “Man, I can’t believe after all this time and I’m going to have to swallow my pride and apply for a GS 9 or a 7.”

My hope is that I can stay with the federal government and maintain my grade, even a GS 11 or 12 would be fine. My hope is that I can maintain that and work to get my twenty years in. And based on where we are at that point in our life, and how the boys are doing especially, then I’ll determine whether or not I want to keep working or not. So that’s what my hope is, to have a fulfilling job where I can maintain my pay grade, while also being a great mom and making sure that the boys are developmentally and academically where they need to be in their life and are having the opportunities I had when I was that age.

Every day is just kind of an emotional roller coaster because some days I thank God I’m not working.

I really love this break. I really love all my time. I love being able to have lunch with my girlfriends and go to the gym and just be carefree. It’s like woo-hoo! I never had this before. But then other days I’m like, “I don’t want to go to lunch. I’m tired of the gym. I can work out on the weekends. I want to work.” So it’s been emotional that way, yes. And my husband continues to be supportive. He’s like, “Well, if you want to go back to work, great. But if you don’t that’s fine, too.” At the same he’s like, “You’re not going to apply for a GS 9 are you? You’re a GS 13. You don’t need to go back.”

To have a career, not just a job is something that’s very challenging as a military spouse.

There’s what you would like and then there’s here’s what the reality is and what you can get. And a lot of times those two things don’t jive. So, I feel like I’m stuck settling. I’m stuck settling for what’s available versus what I really want.

It’s a tough reality, but it’s certainly one that I expected, because when we met and when we married, I knew that was going to happen. I really did. But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things.

Knowing what I did back then, I would still do it all over again. It’s worth the sacrifice. It really is. It sucks some days, for lack of a better term, but overall I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel like my husband will finish at twenty and then at that point in time I would like to go to a place where my career can soar. And I know he would be supportive of that. So you know what? If I have to put my career on hold right now I will. Now that won’t stop me from trying to move forward. But if it doesn’t work out, then it just doesn’t work out. It’s not meant to be then that’s just the way it is.

The Naked Truth: Dee’s Story

The Naked Truth: Real Military Spouses Share Their Career Challenges - Dee's Story

Dee is a recent high school graduate, newly married to her Air Force husband. She feels lucky to have the opportunity to be in Europe and enjoys working at the Exchange so she can keep busy and have people to talk to. Dee is also in school, and would like to be a teacher someday. The following are excerpts from our interview in Germany. I have not used her real name.

We were high school sweethearts and then he decided to enlist in the Air Force. It basically started from there. We graduated in May and he left in June. I went to see him graduate in August where he proposed to me.

Actually the reason why we got married was a personal family situation. In August, I got kicked out of my house by my father and my husband felt bad for me, but it was kind of like a win-win situation. I kind of wanted to get out of there. So when he came home for Christmas break in December we went to the courthouse and got married, but eventually we’re going to have a real wedding. I still have my dress. We got married and he left for Germany in December and then I had to stay back because we had to get the sponsorship paperwork done.

I went to college for two semesters right after high school, summer and fall semester. And then I had to stop to get ready to come here. I had a part-time job at Dollar General for about a month and a half.

When he left it was very stressful for me. I was living with his parents which would be my in-laws. I was living with them when he was in basic training, so it was a really stressful environment because his mom was there and she had all those mixed feelings of a mom.

I also had no idea about the Air Force, and it was just totally new to me.

My eyes were wide open for the whole entire time. It was an exciting time because of all the stuff that was happening and graduation too.

(Without the military) I wouldn’t be in Germany. I mean a lot of people don’t have those kinds of opportunities in life. That’s just what I think about all the time. So, I mean it’s exciting.

The first day he told me that I was going to be able to come here, I went to the post office and got my passport that day. I was really excited. I’d never been out of Ohio for my 19 years of living, so I was just really excited.

We had nothing, like absolutely nothing when we started out so I was making lists and trying to get everything together. Trying to go to garage sales to get everything we could. And I mean we had nothing, so it was just trying to work and trying to get all the money I could so we could try to start.

It was exciting (when I first got here) because I hadn’t seen him in six months. Same thing with graduating from tech school and from basic training, you get used to not being able to see him.

But I didn’t have my driver’s license at that time and I really had no idea what I was going to be doing. So I was sitting at home with nothing to do for probably a good three, four months because I really didn’t have anything to do. And I didn’t have any friends yet.

I felt alone and I was really getting angry.

Not really angry, but stressed out because I guess those were the couple months that I was aggravated with him. And I was still trying to understanding the Air Force. We had a couple fights and I wasn’t used to his schedule yet. Their shop is open 24/7, seven days a week so it’s one of those rotating things. Sometimes you’re on night shift. Sometimes you’re on day shift.

I really didn’t get to see him that much. Obviously in the Air Force you don’t. But I didn’t know that at the time. So I guess I was missing him.

Right now we’re fine because I have a job and he has a job.

So we’re getting along great. We pass each other sometimes, but it keeps you busy. You don’t have to think about it that much.

I really wanted a job so I could help out and pay for bills and. And he was like, “Go ahead and do what you want.” We have two cars now so we have to try to make that work with bills. So I tried and tried for three months and then finally I was like, “I just need a job.” So I went to the BX and I really didn’t care what kind of job I got. But I enjoy my job. We make it work. Our days off are not on the same days at all, but I like it because it keeps us both busy. I don’t have to sit at home anymore and think about all the things that are going on around me.

And then I started school in January. I’m feeling better about myself because I have a lot of things to do. I feel like I have a purpose because I’m pursuing a degree I’ve always wanted to pursue, and I’m able to contribute to our bills and everything, and I’m able to help out basically now.

I’m around people all the time. This is going to sound weird, but I was excited to get my job because I didn’t really have anybody else to talk to at home except for my husband. I was excited to get the job because I’d have people to talk to when you’re working. I could talk to somebody about what’s going on in my life instead of just keeping it all to myself, because I like to talk. I like to be around people.

This is going to sound weird too, but I like to be around kids and I see kids on a daily basis, working in the infant’s department. I mean it’s not exactly being around kids but I can get that feel for it I guess. I enjoy it.

I would like to teach in an elementary school environment, K through fourth grade or fifth grade, but no higher than that. Because little kids, they don’t know anything when they come to school. And you have the opportunity as a teacher to teach them something new, and they always have a smile on their face when they learn that piece of information. It’s just exciting, seeing them learn.

We’ve talked about (what he wants to do). We’ve only got as far as extending a year in Germany, so we really don’t know where it’s going to take us. He’s talked about if he gets his school done in the time he’s in the Air Force, then he might not be in any more. But that’s up in the air right now.

I think it would be interesting if I could teach for DoD schools on base. I guess it’s a totally different environment because you have to be lenient on them because they’re moving a lot.

If he continues in the military, that would be great. We’d have more opportunities to travel. That’s one of the positive things in the Air Force. Meeting new people that are in the same environment, I guess you could say.

People say on the news that Air Force wives have a very big impact on the country. I guess they’re serving too because they’re living in a high stress environment too.

It feels for myself that I am making a contribution to my country in a small way.

 

The Naked Truth: Kendra’s Story

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

Kendra is an Air Force veteran trying to make sense of her troubling military experience as well as her current role as a “dependent” military spouse. Kendra begins her story by talking about her experience enlisting in the Air Force when she was 19. The following are excerpts from my interview with Kendra.
I really enjoyed (the Air Force) until the war started, and then I wanted out. Because, I guess when you’re 19 you don’t think about joining the military as there might be a war. I didn’t anyways. I just thought of it as a job. And then when the war started and we were loading bombs and loading food, and then downloading bodies. For me it was just too much, at the age of 19, to handle emotionally.

I had a really hard time with it actually, I went to therapy and struggled really bad and tried to get out. But it didn’t work because we were in war, and I had a 6-year enlistment. I think it made me need my husband more, because you don’t have family or anybody else do deal with the emotions. And I think at that age it was just too much to handle. And I was in a male-oriented job, which is not necessarily easy either, so it just made you feel kind of confused. Because why were we helping people and then hurting them? Just confusion I guess for that young of an age.

Even when it wasn’t fun, the thing that I liked the most about the military was the camaraderie, the friendship of it. I grew up a military brat, so I was used to that way of life. People moving, people from different areas, it just felt normal. But, long hours and too much grown up issues when you’re 19 was the hard part.

(Also), in our career field in the military, there are three types of women. There’s the lesbians, there’s the women who sleep with everybody and then there’s the bitches. And I was considered the bitch because I was married. I didn’t flirt with anybody and I worked hard and believed in the rules and tried to make everybody follow the rules, so it didn’t go over so good. Because there was the boys club and I wasn’t part of that. It made work difficult.

I was like the outcast girl.

They would tell the other airmen that they don’t have to listen to me, but yet they would put me in charge. How am I supposed to be in charge if you’re telling them they don’t have to listen to me? So that was a big push to get out. I don’t know…I really don’t think women belong in the military. That’s bad to say but…

It’s such a boys club, if you’re not one of those three types…. I mean that’s pretty much the only role you can be in. If you’re the hard worker, you’re not going to get anywhere. Either you have to be flirting to make the guys happy or be like one of the guys. There’s no room to be a secure strong woman and not be flirting with the guys. And this is a perspective from a male-oriented job. I don’t know what it’s like to work medical or MPF in the offices or something. Because we had a shop of 90 people and they were four girls. There either needs to be more women mixed in there or a men-only career field. Because we would be out on the flight line for 12 hours a day and you would call over the radio saying you have to go to the bathroom. And because the guys would just go in the woods they wouldn’t let you come back. Or if you did come back, you’d get yelled at, so it was a big mess.

What happened when you got out of the military and PCS’ed to New Jersey with your husband?

It was pretty stressful and lonely because my husband was on grave shift. So if I was home in the apartment during the day I had to be super quiet and I couldn’t really go too many places because I had the two dogs and it was summer time and I couldn’t leave them in the car. But I couldn’t leave them at home because they might wake him up. So, I would go for walks and stuff, but, just he kept saying, “Oh enjoy your time. You don’t have to work, and you’re free. You can do whatever you want,” And I’m like, I have no friends. I have no way to meet friends, because when you PCS if you’re active duty, you automatically know people when you go somewhere. Because you go to your shop and you get introduced to everybody. But when you’re the spouse, this is my first PCS as a spouse, you know your husband and you don’t know anybody else. I get jealous of people who have children because at least you have your kids to take with you to the store or something. So it was pretty lonely. It sucked.

It went to be being like you didn’t matter anymore.

Because after using your social security number for 6 years, then all of a sudden your social security number doesn’t count. It’s his social security number. And then not being able to do anything on your own without him. You go and try to do something and they’re like “Well you need your sponsor.” I’m like, “What do you mean I need my sponsor? I’m right here and he’s on grave shift. Why can’t I do it without him?” Like if you needed your ID card renewed or if you needed to get your car registered. It takes your identity away and puts it on him…I’d been the military spouse, but I’d never been the military dependent spouse.

(It was frustrating) because he didn’t understand. My husband was like, “Oh you have all this free time and you can do whatever you want.” And you’re like, “Well I want a job, that’s what I want to do.” And then they’re like “Oh, why do you have to go to work? You don’t have to go to work.” Like, I’m gonna sit in the apartment all day?

I’ve been on my own since I was 16 and I’ve had a job since I was 12, so I’ve always supported myself. To just sit at home and have him support me, that’s not what I want for myself. He doesn’t understand that because he’s more than happy to support me. But that’s not how I fulfill myself I guess. I need to have a job.

Kendra is crying now…

I’ve taken care of myself for so long that it’s scary to let someone else do it. And it’s my job to do it. It’s not his job to do it. If you don’t have a job and he decides you’re not important and leaves, then what? It’s easier to take care of yourself. Always take care of yourself. Good grief. I’m a big crybaby too.

I felt lost for a while, just trying to find which direction I wanted to go. It made things between me and my husband weird, because he expected a wife now. Because before, I worked more hours than he did. So he did the laundry and the dishes and the cooking. Now the roles were reversing and I’m not a stay at home wife. I don’t like doing that kind of stuff. And now he expected that because he did it when I was busy. Now it’s my turn, but that’s not what I want to do. I’d rather be out of the house and working and bringing home the money. Let someone else do that.

It wasn’t fun. There was a lot of fighting and the PCS was a lot more stressful than when we were both in. Because he would go to the in-processing briefings and doing the claims for the broken stuff. And he would come home and I’d ask, “What did they say? Well what about this? Did you ask this?” Because normally I would do that stuff because I’m much more detail-oriented and I ask a million questions. And he’s like, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” And it caused tension between us because he wasn’t doing it the way I would do it and I couldn’t do it anymore. That was definitely weird.

Kendra held a few jobs during the assignment in New Jersey, including dog training and retail. She was “really excited” when she found out her husband got order to Germany, returning to the base where they first met.

I wanted to get a job, but it wasn’t as important as when I was in the states because I don’t mind traveling around by myself, going places. So I didn’t need the friendship factor. This was familiar. Going to New Jersey was not familiar. For me, going to Germany was coming home. So, there were no nerves or anxiousness. I was just ready to come back. I figured I’d just travel around and wait till I got a job.

(I started teaching with) the Head Start program for the Army. You teach them the basics of Germany, like how to ask for something to drink, and where’s the bathroom. And then on Friday’s you do the field trip down to Kaiserslautern and give them a little tour around. I really liked it, and I’m pretty sure I was good at it.

I discovered I really like teaching.

I really like to see them progressing. I have a weird obsession, passion with Germany and I like to share the positive influence of that because a lot of people don’t want to come here. And I think that it’s really important that the first impression you get (is positive). For some people that can make or break their tour. If they know the best places to get coffee and where to buy groceries and cool places to take their kids, I think it makes it easier for a lot of people to transition. So, I basically got to teach German and talk about how cool Germany was. But unfortunately I stopped doing that.

It was just getting in the way of trying to travel and making plans with my husband. And then they needed an education counselor for the Army. And I had subbed for them a couple of times to try to make up more money. I had enjoyed it, going in there and helping people pick colleges and figuring out their life plan. I thought that I would be making a difference for the Army guys and helping them out. So then a full-time job came open, and I thought, “At least I’ll know my schedule and still be doing something that I enjoy.” Maybe not as much, but I’ll still be doing something I enjoy.

But then it just got… Okay, before I say anything bad…my Daddy’s Army but the Army is definitely a different breed than the Air Force. They’re very open with what they’re going to tell you and their language is not appropriate for speaking to strangers sometimes. We had to call a few first sergeants in and tell them, “We’re afraid this guy’s going to come back and hurt us.” This guy came back from Iraq after a year and his dad had passed away, and the way he was screaming at us, we’re like “We’re just education counselors.” But he was so angry and yelling and cussing over something. Between that and sitting in an office, there would be 8 hours a day I would just sit there and stare at a computer. And I’m not an office person. So no interaction with people. And if you did, it was someone coming in to yell at you because their stuff was messed up. You get a few of the nice guys that are maybe going for their bachelor’s or master’s and they are understanding and nice about it. But the bad out-numbered the good in that job. So that’s when I started looking for something else to do.

(I applied to go back and do) the same thing I was doing in the military. I liked the job that I did in the military. It was just the military aspect at that age was not ok for me. And come to find out, I have anxiety issues and all this stuff that I discovered now that I’m older. Maybe had I known that when I was younger, I could have handled the situations better. So I found that job, applied, got the interview, got the job. That was four months ago.

I’m just kind of in that limbo not knowing when I start, feeling frustrated because I quit my…I still could be making money and have more time on my resume for the other job. Now I’m just staying home again, waiting.

I’m nervous because I’m a job person. When I got the GS job people said, “Oh you’re set for life, a career and you’re good.” And I’m like “Oh God, I think I’m stuck.” Like I already felt stuck just from the saying “You’re going to have a career.”

But I think I’m over that now, because in three years we’ll PCS and if I don’t want to go back to a GS job I don’t have to. I can do something else.

I think because I’m such an indecisive person and I’ve moved around my whole life, I’m used to every two or three years it’s gotta change. So, we were in Jersey for four years but I had two different jobs. I changed my degree three times. It’s just that I don’t like it to stay the same. I’m so used to change that I don’t want (one career). I don’t know, it just feels stuck. Which most people are like, “Oh I’ve been friends with this person for 20 years.” I’ve been friends with my husband, but that’s the longest friendship (I’ve had).

When you move every 2 or 3 years I get to experience new people, new things and new jobs. I like that.

I’m also excited because now that I’m older…guys (at work) can’t intimidate me the way they used to, and the rank structure doesn’t matter because I’m a civilian. As long as I do a good job, they can’t do anything to me. They can’t talk to me the way they used because I’ll be like, “Oh no, I don’t think so.” And I don’t know if it’s because I’m not military anymore and the rank structure doesn’t matter, or if it’s just me being older. Like “Nope, not gonna let you do that.” I think it’ll be good. (Kendra begins to cry again.)

It seems like you’re still kind of emotional about it.

Yeah, because I’m scared that it will be the same. Because it’s still the military, it’s still the guys’ club and everything. But, it always seems like the civilians get to be different. You don’t have to be in that club because you don’t need their approval to progress in the ranks or get the good shift or not have to suck the poop out of the plane, you know. You just do your job, and as long as you do your job, you’re good. And someone might actually see that you do a good job and you might actually get promoted, as opposed to the military, you just get more work if you do a good job.

I hope it brings back that feeling of doing something, making a difference, helping people get on to the next duty station. I love when people come back from TDY’s and you work in the PAX terminal. You get to see the families reunite. That’s my favorite part because you helped bring them back to their family and you get to see that. But it’s also hard to watch the goodbyes. It’s a reminder so you don’t forget the war and the people that are down there.

There’s still so many people that are deployed and fighting, and people don’t think about it. Even military people don’t think about it. Depending on what their job is, you know, if they’re working MPF or at the dental clinic, why would they be thinking about those guys that are still going down there? Especially Air Force, because we don’t go as often, or they don’t go as often. Working with the Army was a big eye opener that their way their life is completely different. I have a good friend, and her husband was gone for training for 6 months, came home for two weeks and was gone a year. That’s crazy. We complain about 6 months.

What’s important to you about having this job?

I think it gives me self-worth I guess, which I’m not sure if that’s okay or not. Without a job, because I don’t have kids and I don’t like playing the stay at home wife role. So it kind of defines me, gives me something to get up for. Because without the job, I can clean the house, but if you’re home every day and there’s no kids to mess it up, it’s clean every time you wake up, you’re like “Okay, clean the house and walk the dogs and did everything and it’s only 9am.” So it gives you something to get up for. You make friends at work and you have that camaraderie and I think that’s important, especially when you’re overseas because you don’t have the family or the life-long friends. But at work you have that. And since everybody’s so transient all the time, you get closer faster I think it’s good to have those relationships.

I try to fill my time, but it’s like I don’t fit in with the moms because I don’t have any children. I don’t have anything to input, like “Oh my kid did this or this” and I’m like “I went for a walk with my dogs.” So at least with the people at work, you have work to talk about. So you have that commonality, and I don’t know, it’s easier to fit in. Right now, I feel like I don’t fit anywhere.

I think that’s difficult for women because you’re supposed to have the kid part. And if you don’t have the kid part, what do you think you’re going to do? You know, one mom was like “Oh, I wish I had free time or whatever like you do,” and I’m like, “Everybody says that until they have the free time. If you didn’t have your kids and you were just sitting at home what would you do? You have to feed three people every day, you have to clean up after three people. To have one person, it gets really boring.”

How do you think being a military spouse has impacted you?

If I was working and my husband was working normal jobs I think I would get really bored, just because it would be the same. Same thing day after day and year after year, you maybe get your one vacation a year or whatever. But here, every weekend you get to travel, you get to go somewhere and see something new.

But I know it causes some strife between me and my husband and he perceives it too. My job isn’t as important as his job because I don’t have to work. He makes enough money that we could live comfortably with me not working. So, I think he does get probably jealous sometimes of the guys whose wives do stay at home and just cook and clean and be that wife and be content with that. I would love it if he stayed at home, and cooked and cleaned and did everything. But I wouldn’t expect that.

How Your Marriage Can Make or Break Your Career

How Your Marriage Can Make or Break Your Career | Tips for balancing marriage with the career you want.

In my coaching work, I’ve developed a framework called the “3M’s” – Marriage, Motherhood, and Military Life. The bottom line is that military spouses who want a sustainable career need to find a fit between career and these three potential pulls on their time and commitment. When any one of these factors is out of alignment, establishing or maintaining a career will feel like an uphill battle. Marriage is the first key to career success, because being on the same page with our spouse is a vital part of realizing the life we want for ourselves.

Two participants in my research study bring the relationship between marriage and career to life. Olivia is the wife of a senior NCO, who has worked regularly at each assignment during their 26-year marriage. She stayed home briefly while their children were young, but it was her husband who said to her, “You aren’t happy when you aren’t working. You need a job.” From that day forward she always held a job and her husband made the commitment to be home with the children when she worked evenings. Looking back on her achievements over the years, she says, “Thank God I have a husband who wants me to be my own person.”

On the other hand, Brenda is a spouse who is frustrated by her situation. She gladly left her accounting career to stay home with her children for a few years, but then was eager to work again when they were in elementary school. She found a job that met her needs for flexibility and allowed her to work from home, and still be available for her kids after school. To her it was an ideal scenario and she loved the work. However, her husband didn’t like the new routine or how chaotic the house seemed as a result. He asked her to resign, and she complied reluctantly. Now she believes she may never attempt to work again. She regrets falling into a pattern where she became the one that had to “pick up all the stuff” for the family, and her husband felt no responsibility at home because of his “excuse job” in the military. She wishes she had listened to the advice she received when she first got married: “If you don’t want to mow the lawn for the next 40 years, don’t start doing it now.”

So what can you do if you find yourself feeling like Brenda but would like to be more like Olivia?

The real answer is communicating with your spouse and not holding back what your needs and expectations are. And of course listen for his needs and expectations as well. Find common ground and question the assumptions you might be holding about each other. Forging and keeping agreements about how you will both contribute to housework and childcare is essential to your sanity and to your ability to have a career.

Of course the challenges of aligning marriage and career are not unique to military spouses. I was inspired to write about this after reading a recent article by a former professor of mine. (See Robin Ely et al., Harvard Business Review, December 2014). Ely’s study found that a high percentage of business school alumnae have suffered dissatisfaction with their careers because they expected egalitarian marriages, but instead found themselves in marriages where they have taken on the majority of the childcare. Ely notes that the prevailing wisdom these days is to tell women to “lean in” to achieve career success. In contrast, she focuses on the marriage part of the equation, and tells women not to let their husbands off the hook. Her advice is “make your partner a true partner.” I couldn’t agree more.

Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses. Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.