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: 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.

What Does it Mean to be Your Whole Self as a Military Spouse?

What Does it Mean to be Your Whole Self as a Military Spouse? | Whole Spouse

My favorite definition of wholeness is sweet and simple – To be exactly who you are, and to be that well. As a coach, my deepest desire is to help my clients discover who they are truly meant to be and to find their own way of bringing that to life. As a military spouse, I’ve learned from my own experience and from my research that our career challenges can be a huge obstacle to becoming and being who we want to be in the world.

It all began for me when we went overseas for the first time 13 years ago. I left my consulting career behind and reluctantly joined my Air Force husband for an assignment in Eastern Turkey. I had never in my adult life been unemployed before, and was terrified that I had lost my identity as a successful professional. My worst fears were realized when we arrived and my residency permit had been stamped “Ev Hanimi” or “Housewife.” At that moment, every ounce of self-worth I had possessed seemed to melt away. Is this how I would be defined forever more in the eyes of the Air Force, my friends, my family?

What was the point of working so hard for so many years, if it could be taken away with a simple rubber stamp?

The answer is, of course, that nobody can take away who you are. But how do you respond when faced with such obstacles? The military speaks of “resiliency,” but to me it is really about maintaining wholeness. If you know who you are, and believe deep in your bones that you are valuable and worthy, then no job or lack thereof can take that away from you.

There is no doubt that the facts on military spouse employment are sobering. We know from recent surveys, sponsored by MOAA and Blue Star Families, that unemployment rates among us are as high as 25%, and that just accounts for spouses who are actively seeking employment. We also know that the majority of spouses who are not working say they would like to be. And 90% of us who do work are underemployed, either because we are overqualified for our jobs or under-compensated. It is outrageous and sad, to say the least.

I realize that changing this reality will take time, and change happens slowly. In the meantime, my purpose each day is to help other spouses know exactly who they are and to be that well, no matter what. Because when we know who we truly are and find a sense of wholeness, we are better equipped to weather the chaos of military life, to creatively navigate career challenges, and make peace with a way of life that sometimes asks us to sacrifice our very identity.

If you are a military spouse seeking wholeness, contact Michelle (michelle@stillmehta.com) for a complimentary coaching session by phone.