There was a time during my kids’ terrible toddlerhood where I might have given anything to be a working mom. Stay-at-home moms sometimes fantasize about a world where they drop off their crying offspring on the way to work, go have a terrific and productive day at the office, pick up their child on the way home and then have meaningful family time in the evening.
To my sleep-deprived mommy mind, parenting seemed like it would be easier if limited to just a few hours a day. Motherhood was something I had deeply craved, but it was not always intellectually stimulating.
Finding a viable job, though, was easier said than done. With our itinerant military lifestyle, even with my advanced degrees from fancy-pants schools, we did not usually live in places where I could find a job that would pay for childcare, let alone fill some sort of intellectual void.
Plus, with my husband deploying so much, I had to be both mom and dad to two young girls and working didn’t seem to make sense or be a priority. I became my husband’s unit’s Family Readiness Group leader, which was like a full-time job, keeping me busy with meetings, fundraisers, newsletters and events.
I stayed at home. The kids got older and less terrible.
We moved more.
I finished a third college degree and then changed career fields and got a certification in financial counseling.
I worked part time here and there while the kids were in elementary school.
I interned at a Family Readiness Center for a year to get the butt-load of practicum hours I needed for my new profession.
I volunteered with my girls’ elementary school’s PTSA. You know the deal: I helped run the teacher appreciation committee, clipped Box Tops for Education and cut out shapes for teachers’ bulletin boards.
We moved yet again, this time overseas. I thought half-heartedly about working. I also applied half-heartedly for a few federal jobs, right as the government was starting on a round of OCONUS cutbacks. I navigated the arcane USA Jobs site with difficulty from the on-post library, because we didn’t have internet yet. And when I got rejected I was upset, but not heartbroken, because our PCS was a tough one and it took me months to get life back to some semblance of normal.
In Europe, the Army gives soldiers four-day weekends every month, so we are able to travel a lot and have checked off many of our “bucket list” places. Since this was one of our main reasons for wanting to be stationed overseas, the whole job thing got pushed further back. If I got hired, I would have no leave accrued and we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. I still applied when a really good job opening popped up, but it was a going-through-the-motions type of thing. I volunteered a bit with the PTA at school and became my daughters’ teachers’ go-to mom for field trips and classroom help.
Then I had one of those life-changing moments.
Last February, with terrifying suddenness, my older sister got admitted to the hospital. She had fallen a couple of times and an MRI showed that she had not one but TWO brain tumors. She needed to go into surgery immediately and I had to drop everything to find a flight that could get me across the Atlantic with enough time to make it to her side beforehand.
That first time I was only gone for a few days. We had been in Germany just under 5 months and I did not have a support system set up that would allow my husband to work and still be able to take care of the girls. We live in a remote German village, we have to drive to the bus stop and the school the girls attend is about 45 minutes from my husband’s job.
The bad news was that the tumors were malignant. I had to go back to the States to help care for my sister and help my family navigate her health insurance company, which constantly tried to refuse her medical care. I put the girls in after-school care, but it was still an incredible strain for my husband to have a normal work day and still pick them up in time. We had no back-up plan for TDY situations.
When school let out for the summer, I flew back and brought the girls back to the States with me. I was able to stay at my sister’s side for the entire ordeal. The treatments were horrible and she did not respond to them. She eventually slipped into a coma and died.
Ironically enough, this is when my career prospects started to look up. I had worked for the Military Saves campaign, encouraging service members to save. I started volunteering in the local garrison’s Army Community Service’s Financial Readiness program. I found out recently that there are going to be openings there soon, and I would be a shoo-in if I applied because of my qualifications and spouse preference.
But I am not applying for these jobs.
Yes, I could put the kids in after-school care or I could let them “hang out” on the installation the way some parents do. But I would rather be present in their lives and let them have after-school activities and not worry about what happens if daddy has to go TDY or deploy. I would rather travel whenever my husband or the kids have time off.
Knowing how fleeting things can be, I would rather make the most of life right now than chase a career, especially since we will PCS yet again in less than a year.
Yes, we have to live on one salary, but it’s what we’ve been doing for years: I’m very used to scrimping and saving (I’m a financial counselor, after all). I can keep my professional skills and my sanity, and help out others, by volunteering at the family readiness center.
Volunteer work has always been a part of my life and probably always will be, even if I do eventually choose a full-time paid career.
If you are volunteering right now, here are 3 things to consider:
Keep your resume current and make sure that you are including and accurately describing your volunteer work. For example, if you have experience fund-raising, being a committee chairperson or organizing an event, be sure to include it on your resume. These are highly sought after skills in the “real” world.
Treat volunteer work the way you would a job. Be professional and courteous. You wouldn’t show up late or skip out on a paid job, so don’t do it when you volunteer.
It’s all about networking. Volunteer work can often be a path to a full-time job. It’s your foot in the door, your way to find out insider information and your way to make a good impression on potential future bosses and professional references.