Nicole has been a federal employee for 13 years, currently on leave without pay. She has steadily climbed the ladder, to the point where she began to turn down management jobs that were too stressful for her and her family. She’s enjoying a break in Germany, but is also at loose ends wondering if she can continue to advance while being a military spouse. The following are excerpts from our interview. In order to protect her identity Nicole is not her real name
I was an investigator with the federal government. So, I’d already been a federal employee for almost five years when we met. I loved it and enjoyed it. I was really thankful to have the job and my husband was very supportive. When we got our orders to go to Alaska I was a little apprehensive because right away I knew we didn’t have a field office in Alaska. So I started thinking, “Okay, am I going to have a job?”
Then of course when we got to Alaska, I thought, “Oh wow, just our luck, right?” But that turned out to be a really great career experience and professional growth for me, which is what facilitated my promotion down to Monterey. I went to our agency and said “Hey, look. We’re moving up there. I know you guys send TDY support.” I did a “points paper” explaining and justifying why we needed a field office up there. And with management support they allowed that. We moved up there and I opened up the field office.
I felt like okay great, I’m making a difference. I was really contributing to the overall mission DOD-wide because of the nature of what we do. And so, yes, it was great. I loved it. And sad to go, but then I got a promotion (with the move to Monterey).
I will say though that being a spouse, you make a lot of sacrifices.
I feel that you make a lot of sacrifices because my husband didn’t have a lot of flexibility with his job (in Alaska). Both our sons were born up there, and he was definitely able to help with dropping off and picking up at daycare. But I realized how much his career came first because he didn’t have the flexibility being active duty to say, “Here are my work hours.” The Air Force bottom line is you work when they need you to work, based on mission requirements. And I totally understand that. But thank goodness that I had the flexibility I did. So the thought went through my mind, “What if we were someplace else and I wasn’t able to take off?” That would be another challenge that we would have to address just because he didn’t have the flexibility. And he wasn’t in a position to say, “Well I’m just not going to go to work.” I mean as a squadron commander you just can’t do that.
For me, it’s a tough reality to swallow. It really is. Because that means his job is more important than mine.
And I know that he doesn’t feel that way, but the reality is he’s the one that’s in the Air Force. He’s the one that’s making a career out of it. And we even talked about did I want him to get out and then I would be the breadwinner and he would find a job elsewhere. But I said, “No.” No, I’m comfortable with the way things are. I don’t want to be the sole breadwinner. I’m independent, driven and ambitious, but at the same time I wasn’t ready to say, “Okay, yes. Let’s focus on my career first and then you can get a job that’s based around my career.” I’m also very old fashioned and like to let the man make the money.
(When my kids were born), I did not take a break with the exception of my three months’ maternity leave. And I’ll have to tell you, it was very, very emotional.
With my oldest, I probably cried the first month. I had twelve weeks with him and I thought, “I don’t know if I want to go back to work.” I really surprised myself, because I thought for sure I’d want to go back to work. But I cried that first month dropping him off and picking him up thinking, “Man, I don’t know that this is the right decision.”
But then I realized that I wasn’t really ready to give up my job. And seeing him thrive in that daycare setting, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on any parts of his life. I didn’t work really long hours and I was nursing him, so every day for lunch I went and nursed him. Also, my job was really great with me because I told them I don’t want to travel this first year. They were very accommodating. So that made it hard too, that professional commitment and pride. And I thought, “Okay, they’re willing to work with me so I don’t want to just quit.” And that’s what I felt like I’d be doing is just quitting on my job and my career. And I felt like I had worked hard to get to where I was. I was really enjoying it. So weighing all of that I felt okay. I’m going to move forward and this is going to be fine and, and I did. And it was. But it was tough. I tried to go part-time actually but they said, “No.”
I felt almost guilty putting my work first. And then some of the spouses in the spouses’ group were openly against women working outside of the home. So there was, “Well I wouldn’t leave my son or daughter in daycare.” And that’s what I had to hear. I thought, “God, am I a bad mother for choosing work over my son or for putting him in a daycare?” But no, I wasn’t. It was the right decision. It was a good decision. And I’m happy about that. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it any differently at all. And I don’t feel any less close to him because of that time.
I feel like I’m a better mother because I have a professional outlet. I have something that’s mine.
Emotionally, professionally, I feel very fulfilled. And I think having that outlet helps me to be a better mother. Now I went from being career professional to being career professional and a wife, then being career professional, wife and mom. And really it’s, mom, wife career professional, in that order. So I’d like to say I put my husband first but I think he and I both put our children first. And emotionally it was at times very challenging to fill all of those roles. Because sometimes I was just drained from work or travel or the boys maybe had a tough day. And then my husband came home and wanted attention as well, and I’m thinking, “I’m just so tired. I really just have no energy left to talk. I just want to go to bed.”
I think the biggest thing is either way my husband supported me.
He’s like, “If you don’t want to go to work anymore and you want to be a stay-at-home mom, you go ahead.” But then at the same time he said “You really want to think about that because knowing the way I know you, you may regret not working.” So knowing I had the option to stay at home or not was wonderful. At the same time he made an effort to get away from work when he could to make dinner or help with the housework. He’s always been very good at that. So that’s been great. And then the times when I went TDY, he was there taking care of the kids and trying to arrange his schedule so that he could do the drop-off and the pick-up, and just doing everything for the couple of days that I was gone. I don’t take that for granted. So that was another example of how he was just supportive.
So then my agency asked, “Would you mind stepping up and being the Acting Field Office Chief just for a temporary period?” Not that I was afraid of the challenge, but there was an hour and a half drive (to the field office). So I thought, “Okay, I’ll bite the bullet and do this, because who knows where we’re going to move to next.” I thought this would be another great opportunity.
I felt very confident I could do the job. But logistically it didn’t work.
I didn’t want to have to do that commute every single day. I just didn’t want to do it. I was worn out. I was pretty exhausted physically and emotionally and not feeling good about myself. I had gained weight, sitting in the car, eating whatever. I wasn’t eating healthy. And then I had a lot of time away from my kids. Sometimes I didn’t get home until 7:30 at night. My kids were already going to bed if not already in bed. And I hadn’t seen them in the morning because I was leaving the house at 5:00 to miss traffic. So I said, “No, I can’t do it anymore.”
I knew it was the right decision, but I was very disappointed because I essentially missed out on a really good opportunity to be a Field Office Chief, to be a manager. And during that time, my husband did everything. I would not have been able to do the job for even the four months I did had it not been for his love and support. He was the one that picked up and dropped off the kids, cooked dinner, cleaned house. He did all of that. And that was because at the time, he really had an eight to five job. So, I would not have been able to do that without his support.
(Then we found out we were going to Germany), and I wanted to go overseas. I really did. And quite truthfully I was so burned out from my job it was an easy out for me. I don’t have to make the choice, because there’s no overseas’ office. I want a break. I need a break. Yay! Let’s go.
But, getting back to the emotional side, I think I miss that professional fulfillment now.
I really do. I really miss working with great people. I really miss contributing to a mission. I really miss the challenges and the rewards. And then I have nearly thirteen years vested with the government. So my professional goal at this stage would be to get twenty. I’m on leave without pay, and I do want to continue working for the federal government. Ideally I’d like to stay with my agency. But if that doesn’t come to fruition, I’d better start applying now because the process can take a little while. In July my leave without pay is up, my one year.
Overall it’s been great and it’s been a much-needed break, absolutely. I’m very thankful. I’m very thankful that I didn’t have to work, and that my agency didn’t call me and say “Can you work now?”
Now I’m missing work, now that I feel like we’ve settled into a routine, and I know the boys are going to be in school next year every day. So now I’m focusing more on my job again. And I’m starting to worry about what I am going to do. So that’s kind of where I am now. And some days I’m like, “Well, what’s meant to be will happen.” And other days I’m like, “Man, I can’t believe after all this time and I’m going to have to swallow my pride and apply for a GS 9 or a 7.”
My hope is that I can stay with the federal government and maintain my grade, even a GS 11 or 12 would be fine. My hope is that I can maintain that and work to get my twenty years in. And based on where we are at that point in our life, and how the boys are doing especially, then I’ll determine whether or not I want to keep working or not. So that’s what my hope is, to have a fulfilling job where I can maintain my pay grade, while also being a great mom and making sure that the boys are developmentally and academically where they need to be in their life and are having the opportunities I had when I was that age.
Every day is just kind of an emotional roller coaster because some days I thank God I’m not working.
I really love this break. I really love all my time. I love being able to have lunch with my girlfriends and go to the gym and just be carefree. It’s like woo-hoo! I never had this before. But then other days I’m like, “I don’t want to go to lunch. I’m tired of the gym. I can work out on the weekends. I want to work.” So it’s been emotional that way, yes. And my husband continues to be supportive. He’s like, “Well, if you want to go back to work, great. But if you don’t that’s fine, too.” At the same he’s like, “You’re not going to apply for a GS 9 are you? You’re a GS 13. You don’t need to go back.”
To have a career, not just a job is something that’s very challenging as a military spouse.
There’s what you would like and then there’s here’s what the reality is and what you can get. And a lot of times those two things don’t jive. So, I feel like I’m stuck settling. I’m stuck settling for what’s available versus what I really want.
It’s a tough reality, but it’s certainly one that I expected, because when we met and when we married, I knew that was going to happen. I really did. But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things.
Knowing what I did back then, I would still do it all over again. It’s worth the sacrifice. It really is. It sucks some days, for lack of a better term, but overall I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel like my husband will finish at twenty and then at that point in time I would like to go to a place where my career can soar. And I know he would be supportive of that. So you know what? If I have to put my career on hold right now I will. Now that won’t stop me from trying to move forward. But if it doesn’t work out, then it just doesn’t work out. It’s not meant to be then that’s just the way it is.