Finding Peace in Your PCS

Finding Peace in Your PCS | Career | Military Spouse | Whole Spouse

It’s that time of year when masses of military families are on the move.  Are you one of them?  Even the best moves can be stressful, and are especially disruptive to military spouse careers.

If you’re in that boat, take some time to think about your goals for the next PCS before the moving trucks arrive.  How do you feel about the next assignment?  What do you hope to accomplish there?  Is this a good time to reach for a career milestone or focus on another priority?  Here are 3 things I recommend you do to help find peace in your PCS:

1.    Set personal goals for your next assignment.

Before you get caught up in the fast-paced blur of the moving process, take some time to reflect on what you want to get out of the next assignment.  I recommend keeping a journal and writing about your goals for the next duty station.  Visualize your best possible life and what it would look like.  Will this be a good time to seek employment, make a career change, go back to school, or take a break and focus on family?  What would give you the most happiness and satisfaction personally and professionally?  Then challenge yourself to set 2-3 personal goals for the next assignment that can guide you through the next chapter of your military life.  When I found out we were coming to Hawaii two years ago, I set 3 goals for myself:

  1. Maintain my coaching business.
  2. Write my book.
  3. Take up golf again (a much-loved hobby I had given up when I became a working mom).

I knew this assignment would be a good chance for me to slow down after having two kids, earning a PhD, and starting a business.  For me, this assignment wasn’t about hitting my next career milestone, but about enjoying one or our last duty stations before military retirement.  Having these goals clear in my mind has helped focus my energy and prioritize my time during this assignment.

2.    Make sure your goals fit with your 3M’s.

If you are going to succeed in meeting your personal goals, make sure they realistically fit those 3M roles in your life (marriage, motherhood/fatherhood, military life).  Will your spouse be supportive of your priorities?  If you have children, will you be able to accomplish your goals while still being the parent you need to be?  And are your goals realistic given the demands of your military life (e.g. expected deployments, length of time at this duty station, your service member’s work demands)?  I encourage you to dream big for yourself and craft the life you want to live.  But also do the work to make sure those dreams are achievable in the context of your real-world life.

3.    Expect to feel loss and look for unexpected gains.

Sometimes we underestimate the emotional toll of moving, especially when we think we’ve become experts at the process.  But the reality is that each move is a like a small death.  We experience some loss each time, no matter how small it may seem on the surface.  (Sue Jervis, a British military spouse and psychologist wrote a fascinating book about this if you want to learn more.  She says these losses accumulate over a life of repeated moves, and are often internalized in ways we don’t really acknowledge or learn to repair before the next move comes along.)

I’ve discovered for myself that 4 months is about how long I typically feel out of sorts.  I may be sad one minute and excited the next, or hopeful about one thing but really down about another.  So I’ve made a promise to myself not judge anything about a new assignment for the first 4 months.  I cut myself some slack about any ups and downs and try to withhold judgment if I find myself worrying too much.  I expect to feel some loss during those first few months and I try not to over-react when it comes.  At the same time, don’t wait to embrace new opportunities and look for gains that you might not have expected.  In other words, give yourself permission to accept the loss, sadness, frustration during the transition AND be open to the good stuff that will come your way if you let it.

If this is a summer on the move for you, I wish you peace in your PCS.

 

 

The Naked Truth: Olivia’s Story

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

Olivia’s husband is approaching retirement after a successful 30-year career in the Air Force.  With 11 assignments under her belt, and a new job with each one, Olivia wishes she had been able to have a career rather than a series of jobs.  She reflects on her working life and what it has meant to her. 

I don’t think that I’ve ever had a career.  I have a job and there’s a big difference. I have nothing invested anywhere, except in my family and my marriage.  When my husband gets out of the military he’ll have done 30 years.  He’ll have invested his entire life, his retirement, his everything.  He has a connection there.  I don’t have that.  I have a connection to the military by being (around the) military every single day of my life.  My father was a Marine, then I was Air Force, and then I married him.  But I’ve never had a career.

It wasn’t until later on in our life together did it hit me when I would leave jobs that I really liked, because I’ve had a few.  I can honestly say I’ve been very lucky.  99% of the jobs that I’ve had I really regretted leaving.  There are a couple I was ready to go after a while, but I stayed for the money.  But I’ve been lucky.  I’ve been able to work everywhere I go because I’m so diverse in my skills.  I’ve had to be.  I’ve learned to be.  I don’t have the education though because I left college to go into the Air Force, and I’ve never gone back.

I’d always worked.  Even in high school and college, I’d always worked.  I’d always had that sense of freedom, having my own money, not feeling so dependent.

And I think that was a big thing.  I didn’t have that sense of guilt for being at home sitting there, feeling like I wasn’t doing anything while he’s out working so hard making all the money for the house.  I was able to contribute, knowing that if we go out and we spend money, it’s not putting a strain on our finances because I was contributing too.  And that’s important to me.

When we went to Izmir, I had an 18-month old and a 3-1/2 year old at that point.  I met a lady there and she was a GS employee.  Her husband was Army and they had a 3-1/2 year old who needed a babysitter.  So I said, “Oh, well until I get a job I’ll watch him.”  He was a terror, a holy terror.  He broke our sliding glass window with his head, and it didn’t faze him at all.  That’s when I told my husband, “I can’t do this.  I am so miserable here.  I’m literally stuck in the house with three kids all day long every day.  I can’t do this.”  He said, “First off, you need to quit babysitting him.”  So I did.  They found childcare for him.

And he said, “And then you need to get a job.  You’re happier when you work.”

I didn’t want the girls in daycare because it was way too expensive for two in daycare.  I got a job working at the NCO Club as one of the head cashiers from 5:00 to 9:00 in the evening.  (My husband would) get off at 4:00 and come home.  We’d switch places and he’d take care of the girls in the evening.  He would feed them, bathe them, and get them in bed while I went to work for four hours.  And it seemed to make a world of difference.

I had that sense of independence.  I didn’t feel trapped.

I didn’t feel completely dependent upon him.  I had adult interaction.  I had adult conversation.  I was my own person again.  I took care of the kids during the day and took care of the house, and then I was my own person for those four hours a day.  It made the year and a half we had left there fly by, and it turned out to be a great assignment.  But I was miserable for the first six months.

There is a difference between being a military spouse and a dependent wife.

You picture these women who go to the commissary and they’ll throw a fit about something stupid.  Or they go to the clinic and demand to be seen because of who their husband is or what their status is in the community.  It always seems their entire life was negative, and it all revolved around their husband, their status, their position, and their job.  And it was never about them.  They didn’t seem to have their own identity and I never wanted to be a dependent wife.  I wanted my own identity.  I wanted my own sense of self-worth.  And the first six months in Turkey, even though I was helping another military family take care of their child, I didn’t have a sense of self-worth.

Not that I’m thinking a stay-at-home mom is bad, because there are absolutely wonderful stay-at-home moms.  And their whole purpose in life, or their whole world revolves around their home, their spouse, their children, and that’s perfectly fine for them.  That’s just not fine for me.  And I realize that.  I recognize that and I’m happier when I’m working.

(Olivia later worked as a school secretary and nurse in England.)

In England, it was more something to do, something to keep me occupied so I’m not sitting at home not doing anything.  I can’t do that.  That bothers me.  I think if I didn’t have those jobs, I would’ve felt more useless.  Being at home, especially when the kids were older.  You get up, you clean the house, you make the bed, you do the laundry, and then what?  What’s left?  I don’t have a whole lot of hobbies so to spend all day knitting or spend all day writing a love story… I would literally be sitting there bored stiff.  And I’ve done that a couple times.  Then I went out and got a job.

I don’t think I know anybody who wants to sit there and feel useless.

I mean I’m certain that everybody wants to feel like they have a purpose, like there’s a reason for them to get up every morning.  I just needed something more outside of the house for me, to keep me occupied, to give me a sense of self-worth, and not financial worth.  Everybody wants to feel needed.  I mean once the house is clean and the kids are in school, they don’t need you anymore.

(After several more moves and jobs, Olivia found herself in New Jersey as an empty nester.)

By that time both of my children were gone.  And it was hard for me at first.  I didn’t want to be at home when we went to New Jersey because the day after my youngest went to college, we packed up and moved to New Jersey.  I got a job so I wasn’t sitting at home all the time, so I had something to occupy my time.  And it wasn’t for the money.  It was for something to do.  And within three months I was promoted to one of the managers and got a huge raise.  That was the hardest thing I ever walked away from when we moved here, because I never thought as an uneducated woman I would ever make $50,000 a year.  It was so good!

(Now in Germany, Olivia has an administrative job and explains what work means to her now that her husband is approaching retirement.)

Before, I had something at home to keep me occupied but it wasn’t fulfilling enough.  Now, I don’t want to go back home and sit there and do nothing.  I want to be busy but it’s more important for me, even though I’m not happy in my job, to make the money knowing that in a year we’re going to be retiring.  So right now we live off of my income and we bank his.  And we put money away for a cruise this summer with our girls.  One last trip before my daughter gets married and we’re paying for the wedding. But we have been able to pay for their colleges, both of them, and we’ve paid their cars off, so they’re walking out of college with no debt.  That’s important to us.  So now I’m back to working for the money.  I’m not back to working for the satisfaction of working.

My husband and his career truly are the most important thing to me, because it’s had to be.

He has risen to the highest rank he can rise to an enlisted member.  He has a Master’s degree, and by him getting that I helped pick up the slack at home.  I took care of the kids a little bit more.  I did all the running around.  We sacrificed as a family to get him where he is, but it’s been tough too because I’ve had some really good jobs that I really, really loved.  But I feel that his career has been more important above and beyond anything else.  If he wanted to try a new job, we would go.  There have been times when I’m really happy in my job and I’m having to leave a home that I love, a job that I love, my friends, my church, my family, so he can fulfill his adventure.  That’s been tough.  I think that’s been the hardest.  And maybe that’s a reason why I do work, because I want there to be something else that is just me outside of the home.  Because he has his something else.  He has his career.

I always had my own self, sense of self-worth and my own sense of independence.

And I had my own little work world. I had my own life.  And that was important to me.  I was me.  I was my own person.  I wanted (my girls) to see the importance (of my working) because it taught them a sense of self-independence and a sense of self-worth, and I always taught them you are your own person.  What you do with your life is your choice.  And you can either choose to be with someone or you can choose to be by yourself, but you need to make sure you can take care of you.  Don’t rely on anyone else to take care of you because when you start relying on somebody else to take care of you financially, then you get stuck with somebody that you’re not meant to be with.  And you have no way out.  Always have a way out.

I think it’s hard for me justifying why I work because there are so many women that don’t.

And I don’t look down on them for working, but the higher my husband went in his rank and the more prestigious his position became, some women couldn’t understand why I worked.  Like when he became the command chief, and they introduced me to the president of the enlisted spouses club.  I had never been involved in the spouses club before then, and I was going to be their advisor.  What was I going to advise them on?  I had never, I didn’t even know where the spouses club was, because the military was not my focus.  It just wasn’t.  It was where he worked.  I had a whole other life outside of the military, and I was happy about that.  And she came up to me and she says, “Oh I’ve heard about you.  I hear you work full-time.”  And I’m thinking out of everything they could have told her about me, that was the one thing she focused on.

Just because I work outside the home doesn’t mean I’m not involved in my husband’s career.  When we moved to New Jersey, one of the ladies asked him, “Well, is Olivia going to work when she gets to New Jersey?”  And he said I probably would, because I’d always worked.  And she said, “Well that’s too bad.”  She says, “Maybe it would help your career a little bit more if she didn’t work.”  How much more could I help his career by staying at home waiting for him to come home?

Thank God I have a husband who doesn’t want me to be submissive.

He wants me to be my own person, have my own individuality, because I’m not happy when I don’t feel that.  I feel like there’s something missing in my life, because it’s my own little piece of life.  And if that’s missing I don’t feel whole.  I don’t feel complete.  I feel like I’m not doing what I’m meant to do on this earth.  I needed that and he recognizes that, and he’s tried really hard to make these moves as easy as possible on me.

Sometimes it’s hard.  I always give him the analogy that when you have an assignment change, you pick up your coffee cup on your desk and you set it on the next desk, and you’re there.  I have a house I have to pack up and unpack.  I have children I have to pull out of school and deal with them leaving their friends and the church and leaving everything behind and getting them settled in a new home.  I have to deal with all of that while you go off to your office.  I’m there dealing with all of that.

The Naked Truth: Emily’s Story

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

Emily immigrated from Russia at 18 and says that experience prepared her for the adventure of military life. Although moving around has delayed her career progression in the human resources field, she has just landed a GS job that she hopes will put her on a career path she can take with her to future assignments. She says it is like checking the last box, and she is happy that her life feels complete.

When I was working in Montana, I was working as a social worker and I became a good friend with one girl. Her husband and my (now) husband were best friends. So when my husband was stationed in Spokane, they introduced us. I just quit my job to move with my husband, and I wasn’t really planning to work until we moved to a different station because he only had one year left. And then I just became bored, so I applied to the CDC and got a job because it seemed to me this is the easiest job I could have gotten. So I just applied to CDC and worked there for about a year until we PCS’d (to Washington DC).

I started working in downtown DC. That was my first human resources job. I wanted to do something different and human resources was something I was interested in. I loved my job so much. Meeting new people, having this busy schedule, payroll, and the people I worked with. It was just a good environment. It was just perfect. If you describe your perfect job where you feel like you want to go, you want to get up and go, that would be it. That’s why I liked that place. And the boss was great, the president of the company. He was taking care of their employees and my pay was good.

(I felt) good, like I was going up the ladder, a ladder I wanted to start climbing. I felt like I accomplished things.

I was really happy with my job position, the people I was working with, the responsibilities I had to do. Honestly, my husband knows that if he was not in the military I really would like to be professional. I would really love to make a career in human resources. So I was real upset to leave because now I feel like every time I have to start from the bottom. So I didn’t want to go (to Misawa).

I just always wanted a career but, like I said, being married to a military man, you know you have to sacrifice something.

He keeps telling me maybe when he retires I will start my career, but I don’t think I will want to at this age. I mean, it’s not that important. I’m happy where I am, but for your own satisfaction that you did something in life you want to say, “I have a degree and I’m a professional.” That’s important to me. I don’t know why. I think everybody wants to be successful in life.

(Emily goes on to talk about her next assignments in Japan and Turkey, where she had two children and became a stay-at-home mom.)

It was just a different job, staying at home, and I figured I’m still going to try to apply for a GS position. So I was fine. Plus I didn’t trust anybody to take care of my kids when they were that age. Even if I had a job, I don’t think I would be going back to work so soon.

For some reason we have been so lucky with our assignments. Every assignment we’ve been happy about, and every time we were ready to go. We were ready to start from the beginning because we enjoy the change of scenery. Even with my job in DC, we were ready to go. We wanted adventure, especially when we found out we’re going to Japan. We can just travel and enjoy.

I still think I loved my job in D.C. It’s been six years? I still think that was the best employment I had. But I can’t think, “Oh I wish I stayed there.” That’s not what I chose. I chose to be married to a military guy so something better will come up.

Then another thing I was thinking if I get a GS position, I will be able to go up.

(Now in Germany, Emily explains that she has just accepted a job offer as a GS employee in a human resources function.)

I’m excited, but also I was doing good. I mean, I was enjoying it too because I like to exercise. So when I drop my kids I go to exercise. I do some groceries. I do whatever, clean the house. You know, just me time. But I can’t say no to a job in HR. (I can) get that experience, so I can start climbing the ladder in (the) GS (system). At least in the back of my mind I know that I will have preference when I go to a new place to get a job. It will be much easier for me to get a job if I want it. So it just gives that security feeling of, “Okay, that’s it. I’m in.”

What do you think you’ll get out of this job for yourself?

I guess just that fulfillment that I’m back being a career woman. It’s not like I have anything against staying home moms, but I always knew that I’m not going to stay home forever. I always knew that I’m going to start looking for a job and I just want to be busy. I just want to do something besides clean the house and take care of my kids. I love my kids. But it’s my time. I go and I do something. And I still want to go up the ladder.

It makes me happy. I don’t know how to explain it. Like inside of me, it’s like a “check box.”

And now that checks the box in me. The kids are taken care of, and every aspect of my life seems good. We are in Germany, we are enjoying it. So there are all these little check boxes, and then there’s this thing like, “What am I going to do with myself?” And then finally this is like the perfect ending to the story. Just check the box. You are in.

I hear these people talking about their bad days, but to me we are lucky.

We’re lucky on all our assignments. We were lucky that we got our degree before kids. We did that check box. I’m happy with our military career and myself. There’s nowhere to go for me. It’s taken care of.

My husband was my Prince Charming who came and rescued me. He took me out of that hole. No offense to anybody from Montana. He took out me out that hole and just pretty much said, “Here, do whatever you want.” And he has always been supportive of me. That’s important too. He’s always been supportive with me getting an education. He was supporting me not having a job if that’s what I wanted. And he’s happy that I’m happy.

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: 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.

The Naked Truth: Andrea’s Story

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

Andrea reflects on her transition from the workforce to being a stay-at-home mom. She says it was difficult at first, but once she started believing that she was doing something important and “not failing,” she felt good about it. The following is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Andrea, which is not her real name. She begins by talking about the job she held as an admissions counselor before becoming a mother.

(When we moved to DC), it was, “Yeah, I’m definitely gonna work.” We had a lot of bills left over from (my mother-in-law’s) funeral. So we had a lot of debt that we had to deal with from that. (I also cared about) making friends because we’re going to a new place and I don’t know anybody. So yeah, (I wanted to work) to make friends, to get out of the house. Finances was probably the number one. Otherwise I would have just gone to school.

I was an admissions counselor (for a university), so I was helping people get enrolled. And a lot of our enrollments were actually military members. So for me that was great, because I could actually talk to them and understand what their concerns were, probably the same concerns I had. And, you know, I was still doing school. So in the beginning it was awesome. Here I am doing school, and it was free. And again, it’s the social thing I was really enjoying. And I was really good at the job. I was really able to enroll people and get people going. So I thought.

(But then) I wasn’t really making friends, so I was sort of depressed a lot. Being able to talk to a lot of military members, over the phone, from all over the states, all over the world, was kind of fun. Because I’m talking to people who are sort of in the same situation. They’re in a place where they don’t know anybody, they’re not really liking the area, so they’re just sort of doing it because they have to. Which I found to be very good for me, at least. It helps me stay out of any funks, and keep going. But I wasn’t too happy really, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like (my husband’s) job and the hours he was working. (With) his commute, by the time he got home he would eat and go to bed. It was horrible. Weekends were just spent cleaning the house, because I was working full-time, and he was working full-time. We really weren’t doing anything. We weren’t traveling. California was great for all that stuff. We weren’t doing that now in Virginia. It was just sort of a day-to-day routine, at that point. So it was just “blah.” I wasn’t depressed or anything like that, it was just “blah.”

The job was stressful. At first, I thought it was a stellar company, and then it turned out it was not as good as I thought it was. I want to say 98% of the students I dealt with were military. And, while the college was viewed by the Department of Education as a real school, it didn’t have any of the national accreditations. So, I’m starting to hear back from students, “Hey, I tried to transfer this to another school, but it’s not transferring because it doesn’t have national accreditation.” At that point now I’m feeling bad, because I had gotten military people to sign up for classes that will get them a degree if they stay with us. But if you were looking to get a real education, or transfer it to another school, nine times out of ten they’re not going to transfer. But to be true to myself and have integrity, especially when it came to other military members, I’m going to be forward and straight up. So I struggled with that for a while.

Integrity comes first.

Integrity will always come first, and I will never, ever deliberately mess over a military person. Never. And, so I didn’t. I told them, “This is what we can do. This is the place that I know it’s going to transfer over to. But if you want to go to a nationally accredited school, you need to check with them first. Because I’m telling you, they may not take them.” I would tell them everything from the beginning, and then my sales numbers started to come back down. And so work got a lot more stressful.

I stayed with them until I gave birth to my daughter. I was working for them, and then I was going to start working from home. Except my daughter initially had a lot of health problems. And I just wasn’t able to keep up my job from home. So I resigned.

(I was) kind of sad, because I really did enjoy talking to people all day long. I had some guys in Korea and Afghanistan, who would use their minutes to call me just to chit- chat, because they knew that I would be bright and sunny and made their day better. They started with a stupid question about school, and we’d just talk for 20 minutes. I felt bad leaving them because I felt almost like I was abandoning people. But that was how it was.

I wanted to see if things settled down with my daughter, maybe I would be able to pick up again with that company, or maybe find another one where I could work from home. Just while she was little.

But then we moved to Germany.

But, (my daughter) just kept having all these little (problems). For the first six months, things just weren’t quite right. So we just kept going to the doctors, back and forth. At six months she had a really bad problem that she actually was hospitalized for. Three months later, she had a really bad episode where she went catatonic. And we went back to the hospital, but this time they found out that it was an obstruction of the small intestine that had to have surgery. So she had surgery, and all of that. And by that time, I just never did make it to a point where I felt good enough to get someone to help me watch her, or put her into daycare. I just didn’t trust anybody else to raise my kid at that point.

It was frustrating. It was lonely. I missed talking. And then when you do get around to your friends, the only thing you have to talk about is wet diapers. It was very frustrating for me. I’ve never not been able to talk to people before. Because I was the middle of five kids, I don’t know how not to interact with people. I didn’t really have a whole lot outside of my house or my daughter going on. So I started doing play groups, and things like that. But it’s just not the same. You don’t get breaks from the baby, you don’t get breaks from the family. And you’ve got nothing to talk about with a real person anymore. All you know how to do is sing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse song. So it was really frustrating for me. I hate to call work my time, but it is. I missed having my time.

And then of course, you go through “Am I a bad mom because I feel this way?”

The first six months I just thought I’m one of those over-paranoid moms. I need to just back off with her medical stuff. There’s nothing wrong with my kid. Stop being a hypochondriac for your daughter. But it was just sort of sad, because I’d lost all of those connections at work. I wasn’t social. I didn’t like it very much, being a stay-at-home mom.

But at six months, when I knew I was right (about my daughter), it changed everything. Now I’m like, “No, I’m a great mom. And you want to know why? Because I’ve known this for six months and you doctors didn’t.” Then I felt like a good stay-at-home mom, and this is a real job too. I just don’t get paid. So that sort of changed my attitude about it. That’s when we started doing play groups, and I was socializing more, and that made me feel better.

Tell me more about what you were thinking when you arrived in Germany.

Well, my daughter was getting older. She was about one and a half. (I thought I’d) put her in the CDC a few days a week, and maybe I can find a part-time job somewhere. I hadn’t necessarily thought of going back full-time, but definitely part-time. And then we got here and we found out I was pregnant. I was like, “So, that might not happen.” Because I definitely don’t want to be working the first six months of his life. Maybe I can still find something I can do from home, but those are more elusive than reality just yet, for me at least. Especially not having finished my Bachelor’s that makes it harder.

You look around, and your only options really are on base because I don’t speak German. And the options on base are very slim because of the fact that all military wives are here. So it’s a lot more competitive to get a job on base, at least one that you actually want to have, unless you want to work at the BX or the CDC. I’m not saying anything negative about those jobs, but those are different hours. You can’t really plan, you don’t know you’re working Monday through Friday. It could be any time and scheduling things is just a lot harder. Especially when you’ve got a family and you’re looking at deployments. And then I just forgot about working through the pregnancy. I’ll worry about that later when I can actually do it.

Once I realized I was a good mom, being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t the worst thing in the world anymore. I can still talk to people on the phone. I can still do play groups. And to be honest, that’s pretty much it. Now I’m an at-home mom. I’d love to have a real job at some point again. Right now it’s just not an option. I don’t feel negative about it. I’m actually happy with that decision for now, because I don’t feel like I’m a failure. I don’t anymore. I did the first six months with my daughter, but at this point, I don’t feel like that anymore. I don’t like to fail. And so as long as I’m not failing, I feel good about it.

With my kids, I don’t feel like I’m failing, because they’re getting everything they need from me. I’m teaching them things, at least my daughter anyway. I’m teaching her ABC’s, colors, so it is a job in itself, because now I’m a teacher. Okay, that’s cool. I’m not failing, because I am staying social. I’ve got new friends here. We’ve got play groups on Thursdays. We get together and do lunch with our kids, so I’m still being social. So that’s the failure part. With my daughter, I thought I was failing because I’m always taking her to the doctor and not being listened to, which makes you question yourself. If I’m not questioning myself, I’m not failing, because there’s nothing to question. And so, the realization at least for now while they’re this little, I’m not going to work. It just puts the question to rest for now.

And then I can go back and do some classes here and there online, which is what I’m doing now. That will help me get a job later, especially when it’s this competitive.

I can’t wait to go back to work. I love my kids, I love being an at-home mom, but man, it’s time to myself! I know that’s sounds silly because it’s a job, but it’s time to myself that I don’t have right now. And then I’m contributing to my family too. I can’t wait until they’re old enough, or at least the baby’s old enough for the CDC, or they can go to the German kindergartens. Then I have those hours where I can go have a real job or something. That would be great.

I know a lot of companies, when they look at your resume, they look for the gaps. They look for how long you’ve been with a company. You know, making sure you aren’t going to leave after three months. And being an Air Force spouse can just throw a damper on it, because you do have gaps where you didn’t work because of a move or a deployment, or whatever. Or you’ve got these short-term jobs, because maybe when you got to an area all you could get were these short-term jobs. So it sort of throws a whole new spin on the working thing. For me, I kind of like it, because I get to try everything, because you never know what you’re going to get when you get to the next station. But it sucks because you can’t look long term with a company that’s past three years. Long term for you is getting a job immediately and working three years. So you never really do climb that ladder. You never really do get that permanence that you need when you’re trying to plan retirement and things like that. So once he retires, then maybe I look at a job where I can be more permanent and feel more meaningful for a company. But, because you know it’s three years, it’s a temporary job.

You never really try to go too high up in a company because you know you’re not going to be there.

I’ve never really had a permanent place to call my home. Having that permanence gives you roots a little bit. And then you know the same people for more than three years. You know the same people, day in and day out. You build these relationships. And, in the military, you build these relationships very quickly, but at the end of three years, you build new relationships. And sure, you still love your friends that you made at the last one, and you sort of keep in touch, but it’s not the same. Every time, you find new ones. It would be kind of nice to have just one permanent thing in my life.

The Elephant in the Room: Why Rethinking the PCS System is Critical to Military Spouse Employment and DoD’s Talent Strategy

The Elephant in the Room: Why Rethinking the PCS System is Critical to Military Spouse Employment and DoD’s Talent Strategy

 

I was excited when I heard about Secretary Carter’s Force of the Future initiative, focused on developing a new talent strategy for the military. (Yes, I am a bit of a wonk and I do get excited about things like policy proposals.) I was also hopeful that there would be something in this Force of the Future that would make the military lifestyle more viable for families with two breadwinners. That was my hope anyway…

But as I scrolled through the details of the announcement, my heart sank. Where was the focus on military spouse employment, or the acknowledgement that the current permanent change of station (PCS) system is a major barrier to spouses being able to maintain and build careers? I am not the first to point out that Carter’s new plan does little to improve life for military families, but I want to highlight this issue in particular. Ignoring a problematic PCS system is a huge missed opportunity in my book, and here’s why.

First, the facts all line up. Multiple studies have shown that frequent relocation is one of the most significant barriers to spouse employment and earnings. (And if you live this military life, you don’t need a research study to prove that to you!) We also know there’s a correlation between military spouse employment and retention of the military member. In other words, spouses who face employment challenges because of the military lifestyle are less likely to support a decision to stay in. Finally, although the average military assignment has gradually been getting longer in recent years, the average cost of each PCS continues to climb, making each move a more costly part of the budget in increasingly tight times. Adding this all up, the current PCS system impedes spouse employment, impacts retention, and costs the taxpayers a lot of money.

So why not address the elephant in the room and take a fresh look at the relocation policy?

My opinion is that frequent relocation has become so much a part of military culture that most people in the military community, including those in leadership, assume it cannot be significantly changed. It is treated as a given, a fact of military life that is central to our culture. But what if it were simply one variable, a feature of the way military work is designed, but malleable like a piece of clay that could be molded to fit the need?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on military operations by any means, and I know there are good operational reasons for the relocation policy. At the same time, the current way may not be the only option, or even the best way. If we want to have a serious conversation about talent, then we can’t ignore the lost potential of unemployed and underemployed spouses, or service members who cut their military careers short to make their family lives work.

Moving around the world may be a big part of military culture, and part of an adventurous lifestyle that many military families find attractive. But it is also problematic if we are going to move beyond the traditional single breadwinner model that is no longer the norm. If DoD is going to keep up with the times and attract the best talent, we need to be willing to name the elephant in the room.
Michelle is a consultant, coach, and researcher specializing in military spouse employment. Contact her at michelle@stillmehta.com.

Finding Your Whole Self: The Hidden Blessings of Military Moves

Finding Your Whole Self: The Hidden Blessings of Military Moves | Whole Spouse

Like many of my fellow military spouses, I’m getting ready for PCS season. I’ve got my checklists ready, farewells planned, kids signed up for new schools, and plans for moving my business to the new duty station. After 8 moves in 15 years of marriage, I have the process down (well sort of). As much experience as I have with managing the logistics of each move, the emotional upheaval that comes with each transition never goes away. Each move is like a small death, a letting go of the past assignment and preparing for the unknowns of the next one. We say goodbye to friends, schools, neighbors, and often secure jobs or thriving businesses with the knowledge that we have to put those puzzle pieces back together again on the other side. How many times can I take my life apart and put it back together and still be whole?

British psychologist and military spouse, Sue Jervis, writes about how military moves fragment our psyches and that the challenge for our own mental health is to repair that damage before we are hit with the next move. That requires looking at the losses, mourning them, talking about them, seeking support, and holding onto the best part of our past to teach us who we want to become during the next round.

Nobody has to tell us that moving around every 2-3 years is hard. That’s the average for military families and we know that the emotional, psychological, and financial impacts to spouses are real. But we don’t always talk about the silver lining that comes from experiencing this level of disruption in your life. Many of us literally give up our identities because of a PCS or because of the lifestyle of frequent relocation. Our original career plans don’t fit the demands of military life, or the toll of persevering on that path becomes too great.

Early in my marriage I found myself in just that boat. I was working for a large consulting firm, doing well and up for Partner soon. The only hitch was that I worked very long hours, and lived on airplanes and in hotels most of the time. I was always exhausted and found myself having heart problems in my early 30s. I was proud of my accomplishments, but couldn’t say I enjoyed my job. I was climbing a ladder that I thought was real success without really questioning what I was doing with my life.

Luckily for me, the Air Force literally saved my life. When my husband got orders to Turkey, I quit my consulting job, relieved that I was off the treadmill I had been on, but terrified that my career was over. Although it took a few years for me to sort out what I was really called to do, I’ve never regretted the changes I’ve made. As an independent consultant and coach I do work that is meaningful to me, and provides the flexibility for me to have a real life and a family I spend time with. If not for the forced move overseas, I’m not sure I would have found the courage to leave my corporate life and the façade of success I had been holding so tightly.

I was reflecting on all of this today as I read Sheryl Sandberg’s heartbreaking post about the loss of her husband and her experience with grief. In that post, she shares a simple prayer that says:

“Let me not die while I am still alive.”

That prayer struck a chord in me because it evokes the same kind of feeling I get during each PCS. All your belongings, your relationships, your very sense of identity can be yanked out from under you, yet the essence of YOU are still there. It is almost like a brush with death, where you are called to be reborn each time. For anyone who has experienced tragedy, you know with clarity in those moments what matters. You hold your loved ones tighter, make pledges to spend more time with people, and commit to letting go of the trivial things in life.

I am grateful for each and every one of those moves we’ve made and for the incredible journey that forces me to strip everything away and look at my life with new eyes each time. So the next time you are hijacked by your latest PCS, I challenge you to look for the silver lining and see it is a call to wholeness, to remember exactly who you are and to be that well.

 

When not PCSing, Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses. Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.