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.