Before we even get started let me say: I know working military spouses are not the only ones with struggles. All dual-income families likely struggle with balancing between both careers and other family commitments. Military families with a parent who stays home deal with plenty of struggles as well.
That said, I am a working military spouse and these frustrations are very real to me and to many of the other working military spouses I know. So I’ll stick with what I know! Let’s dig in:
Working Military Spouse Frustration #1: Random Periods of Leave
You know what I’m talking about: leave blocks during the holidays, XX days/weeks of family time after a deployment/TDY, XX days leave en route to a new duty station, 4-day weekends in honor of Christopher Columbus.
I know not every military member gets all of these all of the time, but if you’ve been married to a service member for a while I’m positive you’ve experienced the random leave day or block. What’s a working spouse to do during these times? I don’t know about you, but even if hubby is understanding, I FEEL like I should be on leave too! Either because he just got home or we just moved and there are a million things to do.
My Suggestion: Give yourself a break. The reality is, you have work requirements too. That may mean that you can only take 1 or 2 days off when he first gets home, or it may mean the boxes take longer to unpack when you PCS. If we’re talking about your service member returning from a deployment, I suggest trying to take at least one day off if possible, and regardless of time off, plan a special dinner and/or a special family day on your first day off after the return.
Communication is key (you’re going to see this as a recurring theme): make sure your service member knows how excited you are that they’re home whether that be through words, a great gift or having some of their favorite things stocked in the fridge/pantry before they arrive.
If you own a business or are able to take your job with you when you PCS, find a balance there too. Take leave if you can, but don’t expect the boxes to be unpacked right away. Attack the most used rooms first (kitchen and office are my priorities) and then attack the other rooms as your work schedule/weekends allow.
Working Military Spouse Frustration #2: Military Spouse “Requirements”
This one can be particularly sticky. There are about a million articles (including one by me) requiring encouraging military spouses to get involved at some level with their command. There are a million options: spouse clubs, family readiness groups, serving as ombudsman/key spouse, mom play groups, chapel groups, etc. On top of those, depending on your service member’s career path you may even have courses expected of you offered to you as a spouse (such as the Command Spouse Leadership Course). The one prevailing issue with these things: events tend to be during the day. You know, the time when you work.
My Suggestion: Explore options at your current duty station with an open mind and then speak up. Who you speak to will depend on which group you’re hoping to be involved with, but figure out who you think is best to approach and do so kindly. Let them know that you’d love to be more involved, but your work schedule simply cannot accommodate daytime events on a regular basis. Ask if there is an option to switch some things to evenings.
I know some folks would say that children’s activities and family time dominate the evening, but the reality is, no time will be convenient for everyone.
Why can’t the times alternate? Daytime meetings one month and evening times the next? This is another case where you may not get the answer you like, but it’s worth asking the question.
For the leadership course in particular, communication with your spouse is key. As they prepare to take Command, you need to make sure you’re both on the same page in terms of the role you will play in this next stage of your lives. If possible, you should also speak up elsewhere. The chain of command, as well as other spouses, need to know that this can’t be an expectation without discussion (and let’s be clear: they can’t MAKE you go). If the military truly wants the entire family to participate in leading the families under your service member’s command, than the military truly needs to explore the effects these expectations have on ALL the members of your family. If you don’t get the answer you’re looking for in either of these situations, I think you have to again give yourself a break.
Keep speaking up, but understand that you can’t please everyone and it is absolutely OK to pursue your own career and do so with gusto!
Working Military Spouse Frustration #3: Work Travel
Travel in a military job is not unusual, but neither is travel in many of the jobs a spouse may hold. I’ve had several friends (particularly those that are parents) tell me they can only travel if their service member takes leave.
In our last duty station (our first one with kids), this struck me as odd because my husband was in a fairly flexible position and we just made it work. We also lived on base, had our son in the CDC and my trips were generally short. We’ve since moved and although he still has some flexibility on a “normal” day, there are definitely times he will have little to no flexibility in his schedule, we no longer live on post, we’re not as close to the preschool and we have another kid on the way which means more logistics enter the equation. I now understand why him being able to take leave may seem like the only option.
My Suggestion: Again, communication is of the utmost importance (I told you: recurring theme). Talk in advance with your spouse about work travel. I don’t only mean talking about specific dates, I mean talking about theoretical work trips.
- What are your options when travel is required?
- What about occurrences when you both may need to travel?
- Do you have friends in the area that can help (I have many fond memories of spending the night with friends when my parents were traveling or otherwise occupied with work requirements)?
- Can family members come for a visit to help out?
- Is leave a possibility for your service member when you’re traveling?
- Is leave REALLY the only option?
I’m going to tell you something: I believe that many of us feel bad asking our service member to request schedule flexibility because we think we can’t. We think military jobs are set in stone and we believe we have no reason (dare I say no right) to question Uncle Sam’s requirements.
You guys: the question MUST be asked. We must not be afraid or feel bad asking our service members, and if they value your career as well (as they should), they shouldn’t be afraid of asking their chain of command. The answer may be a pleasant surprise or it may be one that is disappointing, but we will never know the possibilities (or what things need work) if we don’t ask. So, ASK. Seriously. ASK.
Working Military Spouse Frustration #4: The Shallow Bench
Again, this will be familiar to a lot of you. You’re new in town and you don’t know anyone. You have an AMAZING group of friends, but they now all live many miles away from your current location. Technology is great in that we can still reach out to those friends in a time of need, but there are still times when local friends will be required. Your dishwasher breaks or despite starting it a million times before—of course—the lawnmower will NOT start now, your meeting ran late and your kid needs to be picked up or your dog needs to be let out.
We all know Murphy’s Law of Deployments; something is bound to come up. Sure, you may be able to call a service for the dishwasher or hire a company to do the lawn while your other half is gone, but that’s not always feasible. Surely there’s another way.
My Suggestion: Network, network, network! I’m not kidding! Networking is usually brought up in reference to professional considerations, but it can also help in personal ones. Build your bench early in a new place! Attend family orientation if one is offered; find out the name and contact info of your ombudsman/key spouse/FRO/FRG lead. Introduce yourself to your neighbors.
Ask your service member to find at least one person at their office who wouldn’t mind you calling in an emergency.
I know some of these things may seem uncomfortable, and frankly, the thought of asking a virtual stranger to help me with the lawnmower gives me cold sweats (I HATE asking for help), but this is a reality of military life.
The silver lining: you won’t always be new. Sure, you may be new again somewhere else in the future, but you’re going to find your way around in this location. You’re going to make friends and you’re going to know who you’re comfortable reaching out to.
In the meantime, remember: if you’re talking to someone else affiliated with the military they’ve been there too. As long as we don’t expect them to come mow the lawn every week just because we hate the task, they’re likely to be more than happy helping out because they’ve needed it at one time or another in their past as well!
Working Military Spouse Frustration #5: New Orders = No Promotion for You
How many times have you been in a job you love and perhaps even right on the verge of promotion when your other half comes home with…the look? “Babe, um…so they told me today…” Sigh. Orders. Time to move again, of course. Sooooo…you just start packing, right? Maybe.
My Suggestion: Once again I’m going to recommend communication first and foremost. Let your service member know what this move is likely to do to your career at this moment. Not in a “how dare you” kind of way and not with the purpose of making them feel guilty. Then discuss ALL the options.
Can they extend an extra year? Did they ask? Did YOU ask? Again, this is a question we MUST ask and we need not feel bad about it. To be sure, you need to also ask what a possible extension might do to the service member’s career and you guys have to weigh both things as a family to make the decision, but again, none of that can be discovered without asking.
What about geobaching? Can you stay behind an extra year (or a defined amount of time)? I know geobaching by choice is a controversial topic, but for some, it may be the right decision, and I think it’s worth at least discussing. After all, your career progression is important too!
The Bottom Line: We have to speak up. We have to ask the questions to our spouses and we need to ask the questions of military leaders. We cannot let these expectations continue without a discussion.
Saying that working spouses are making a choice to not be involved is not good enough.
That’s just not true. I’m not deciding I don’t want to be involved, I’m being told that the only way I can be involved is to take time off work and that my potential involvement isn’t worth changing the way things have always been done.
Along the same lines, we cannot ignore the effects that PCS has on a military spouse’s career path and we should not have to just give up our own career requirements because our service members feel they cannot or should not ask for flexibility.
Maybe you have already brought up these topics and feel like the answers never change. Don’t give up! Keep asking the questions, explore all the options with your spouse (and beyond) and keep pressing on to meet your career goals!