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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Working as a MilSpouse

I originally wrote the following as a first-draft article I'm thinking of submitting freelance. But since this is a topic I've been planning on blogging about anyway, I figure I'll just paste said draft here and kill two birds with one stone. (Disclaimer: the somewhat cheesy tips are there because the article query asked for some.)

I’ll be honest: at the (relatively) tender age of 25, I’m new to the military spouse lifestyle, but I’ve already learned several crucial lessons. Foremost among them has been “Revise your career expectations!” And no, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain.

I won’t hide the fact that, as far as military spouse jobs go, I’ve been fortunate. I’m a copywriter for a public relations firm that’s based in my North Carolina hometown, and my boss has generously allowed me to continue working from wherever the Army says home is going to be. In many ways it’s a dream come true: I can continue to work full-time doing something I enjoy. I don’t have to look for a new job every time Spike and I move to a new duty station. And (if I so choose) I don’t even have to change out of my pajamas during the day.

Because of this arrangement, when I married my husband Spike (who is an Army officer) last September, I promised myself that although the Army was his career, it would never be my life. 

After all, I reasoned, I’m my own person. I have a copywriting job at a PR firm. I enjoy it and I’m good at it. The absolute last thing I want is to “lose” my identity and my livelihood to the military.

 It was a nice thought…but then reality hit. I relocated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma after becoming a “Mrs.,” and by Month Two of our marriage Spike and I were already moving on to Fort Riley, Kansas. And sometime in the midst of turning on-base military housing into a home, getting used to the distant sounds of gunfire, and adjusting my daily rhythm to include morning PT and Spike’s anything-but-predictable schedule, I realized that, to a large extent, my husband’s job was my life, whether I liked it or not.

That established, it probably won’t surprise longtime military spouses to hear that my mental job plan didn’t play out so well in reality.

Essentially, the telecommuting honeymoon is over. While I still enjoy copywriting, I’ve found that being at home all day, every day, is just too much…even for a classic introvert like myself. I’ve felt increasingly isolated, listless, and disengaged, despite forming quick friendships with my neighbors. Finally, it occurred to me that I can’t live my entire life inside my home. I need to put down some roots. Make some connections. Get involved with my new community. And that’s where the revised career expectations come in.

Here’s my big revelation: I married a man in the military. And yes, his career has moved my life in a direction it (literally!) never would have taken otherwise. But my marriage is priceless, and Spike is worth it. So adjusting my own career expectations isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me a sellout or a quitter. It makes me someone who rolls with life’s punches and who has the courage to what’s best for myself and for my family. And that realization is empowering!

Even though I still do, and always will, value my talents, gifts, and contributions to my company, together Spike and I decided it would be best for me to gradually cut back to working from home part-time so that I could spend a portion of my days volunteering or working on post (I’m still figuring out the specifics), and keep my evenings free to spend with him.

I admit that in some ways my story is atypical, and I know that my opinions and priorities won’t (and shouldn’t!) line up with everyone else’s. That said, here are some pieces of advice from an Army wife who’s learning to adapt on a daily basis.

Clarify your needs and wants. First things first: where does a job or career fall on your list of priorities? Do you need to work full-time in order to feel productive and fulfilled? Do your family’s finances require that you do so? In which fields would you be happy working? What does your ideal work/family/recreation balance look like? How important is it to find a job that might possibly move with you? Until you know the answers to questions like these, you run the risk of unintentionally drifting into unhappiness.

Be open with your spouse. Make sure your spouse knows your thoughts, plans, and preferences regarding your career. In any family, but especially in a military family, it’s crucial that everyone be on the same page and willing to support one another. In my case, I tried to bury the unhappiness that being alone all the time was causing me, mainly because I didn’t want to burden my already-stressed husband and because I didn’t want to be a “wimp.” When I finally spilled my guts, I was incredibly relieved by Spike’s assurances that he had my back up to and including quitting my job entirely if that’s what would make me happy.

Don’t live in the past. It’s completely possible (and understandable) to mourn the dreams you gave up and the connections you had to sever due to the nature of military life. But don’t allow regrets to hold you back. Say your goodbyes to plans that no longer line up with reality, and make every effort to move forward with the hand you’ve been dealt. It might be difficult, but try to look at change as an opportunity to start afresh. And always keep in mind this important fact: you may have been forced to change your career plans because of military life, but that does not mean that you’re a failure or that your life is less meaningful. It just means that you’re not omnipotent.

Take advantage of what the military offers. As long as you’re here, you might as well take advantage of the support the military provides to spouses and families! Research what your branch and specific installation offer. Chances are, you can get help revising your resume, take advantage of free or reduced classes, or even volunteer in a position that will enable you to develop valuable, marketable skills. And if you’re comfortable doing so, look for a civilian opening within the military community!

Remember that you’re not the “second fiddle” in your marriage. Never forget that you are an integral part of your family! It’s true; your spouse’s career might dictate many important aspects of your life. But that doesn’t mean that your desires, career, peace of mind, or fulfillment must come second to the military. Again, communication with your spouse is crucial in making sure that your ambitions aren’t swept under the rug. Yes, pursuing your career is often more difficult as a military spouse. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Ask other spouses how they’ve made it work. Hello—you’re not alone! Hearing the stories of other spouses is inspirational and can also give you ideas. (Plus, it helps to realize that you’re not alone in your fears and frustrations!) I’ve met spouses in the blogosphere and in person who have successfully balanced high-powered jobs, families, and the military. I’ve met some who let go of their dreams, only to discover and pursue new ones. I’ve met still others who realized that they were happiest being a volunteer, a homemaker, a mom, or all three. And I’ve even met a few who were inspired to join the military themselves and serve alongside their spouses. There are as many “right” ways to work as a military spouse as there are…well, military spouses!


  1. I have to say I kind of disagree with you. Reality for many people is a social construct, hence the phrase "perception is reality." There are many spouses who don't accept that the reality is that the military is first and foremost in their lives and there are spouses who do not modify their career expectations in order to put the military first. The noted poet Jehanne Dubrow comes to mind off the top of my head. She is a college lit professor.
    I think the important thing is always to pursue your passion, whatever that happens to be.

  2. "Don't live in the past."

    Talking to me much?? Ugh, yes, I love referencing Norfolk. While I worked long hours, had great coworkers, and hated the weather, it's just that: in the past.

    As much as I want to think the grass is always greener...I'm slowly accepting my grass. And thankfully that grass now has a dog involved (otherwise staying home would KILL me).

    Now I just embrace the fact I work part-time, and make sure the house is in order when I'm not working. I'd love to have a dinner plan in order - but that's future planning.

  3. Didn't end up submitting this as an article (perfectionist), but it was productive to think about this topic.

    FMS: That's a good point. I want to learn more about Prof. Dubrow now! That's exactly why it's important to know what your priorities and goals are. Speaking only for myself here, I'm finding myself submitting to the "military first" mindset in large part because I haven't identified a career I feel is "worth" basing most other decisions on. At this point in my life I'm more willing to sacrifice on the job front than I am on the family front. Again, though, that's just me, right now. It's good to be reminded that not everyone feels this way...and that such a black-and-white either/or choice doesn't always have to be necessary. It's also good to remember that even if a woman (or man) DOES sacrifice some things because of the military lifestyle, she can still be her own person and doesn't have to conform to the "my job is to support my husband's career" mold.

    @Mrs. Wookie: Amen to the dog! I'm getting to the point where I'm surprised when Ellie doesn't verbally respond to my crazy-lady mutterings. Whenever I'm feeling nostalgic I remind myself that any other "grass" wouldn't involve Spike...and since he comes first, that's okay. (Doesn't always make it easy, though.)

  4. I really think you should submit this, there are a ton of spouses out there like this including my self. It was good to actually read that there are other spouses out there like this because the ones that I have met have been married to their DH since high school or has/had never held their own career or life outside the military.

    Your blog is definitely worth reading thanks for putting it out there!

  5. I did the at home thing, too, after we left DC and moved to Utah. The consulting firm I worked for let me be totally 'virtual'. It would have worked out perfectly if I didn't go freaking crazy at home all day by myself in the middle of the desert. I couldn't cut the mustard as an executive in PJs. I had to quit, there was no way around it. Moving every 12 - 24 months and getting a new job wasn't helping my career and was turning my resume into swiss cheese. I've decided to put my 'real' career on hold and pursue a hobby for a career. Once my husband is done dragging my butt all over the world every couple of years then maybe I'll go back and try to resurrect my career, but right now it's too painful to limp along after working so hard. Thanks for putting this article out. I think you should totally submit it.

  6. I did enjoy reading this! I think what you have been and are doing is great! Love your blog!

    I'm new :)